When Pyle wrote about himself it was almost begrudgingly, as if he couldn’t quite figure why anyone would be interested in the life of a no-account bumbler like him. He was a “funny little hothouse man—no chest, no tan, no muscle” in one column, “scared to death at meeting strange people” in another, and in still another he imagined what a historical marker might say in his birthplace of Dana, Indiana: “In his later years Mr. Pyle rose to a state of national mediocrity as a letter-writer, a stayer in hotels, a talker to obscure people, and a driver from town to town.”
But that, of course, was why he was such a good reporter, and why the people he met found him so easy to talk to: he knew it was the story that mattered, not him.
Pyle’s star dims a bit each year, as his original readers—those who eagerly turned to his column during the war to learn what life was like for the soldiers overseas—gradually die off. So sparsely visited was the museum in his childhood home that, in 2009, the state of Indiana cut its funding and demoted it from the ranks of state historic sites. His typewriter is now in the state museum in Indianapolis, and his home is open by appointment only, tended by volunteers.
What also seems to have faded over the years is the journalistic genre Pyle was a master of: the “human-interest” story, as it was once so widely and quaintly known. Tethered only loosely—if at all—to the news, human-interest stories were based on the premise that humans were inherently interesting, and that other humans were interested in reading about them. Such stories remain a staple for metro columnists at daily newspapers, but theirs is a dwindling band. (A notable and enduring holdout is David Johnson at Idaho’s Lewiston Tribune, who for a quarter-century now has been opening the local phone book at random to find the subjects for his “Everyone Has a Story” column.) And CBS News recently resurrected the On the Road franchise once held by the late, and avowedly Pyle-esque, Charles Kuralt.
But when the lives of non-newsmakers make it into the news these days, it tends to be for reasons other than simple human interest. They are usually characters in a larger drama, illustrations of a bigger story—the family fighting foreclosure, the unemployed breadwinner looking for a job. The Internet is dense with the minutiae of ordinary lives, from diary musings to elaborate video productions, but much of it is impenetrably private, and spread randomly across an unmapped wilderness. Fewer reporters with Pyle’s kind of curiosity and empathy, or his regular forum, are artfully crafting all that minutiae into stories that, like his, speak to a wider audience. America has more than twice as many people now as it did during his Home Country wanderings. Are their lives not worth the attention of professional storytellers?
The traditional apprenticeship system of journalism tends to move reporters steadily up a ladder from small stories to bigger ones. Young reporters cover cops and courts, maybe try some features and sports, at a small paper or station, learning how to get inside the lives of people unlikely to ever draw the attention of a glossy magazine or national network. But as they rise, they tend to leave those smaller stories behind; it’s the big stories, after all, where the prizes wait. What Pyle never forgot as he rose is that all stories are, at heart, small stories. All the best stories, no matter how big, are built around human beings faced with something tragic or joyous, epic or transcendent. And he remembered that when he parked his Ford and crossed the Atlantic into the biggest story of all.
The index of brave men, like the index of Home Country, is nothing but names and places: the servicemen Pyle interviewed, and the hometowns they left when they marched off to war. Enlisted men outnumber officers. General George Patton is not in the index. Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, is.
“I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down,” Pyle wrote in what might be my favorite sentence in all of journalism—an entire philosophy and methodology in sixteen words.