Letter From Birmingham Jail: Creative Nonfiction?

The genre of creative nonfiction is no longer new, but it is still a baby in the literary world. It might be highly contestable to call Lee Gutkind the baby’s father, but without a DNA test for literary terms and with Gutkind’s claim that he fathered the child in 1983, I am indulging his parenthood. Seriously, you have trust a guy whose organization describes their facebook profile and any friends there acquired as a formality.

Maybe sculptor Lei Yixin got the pose right after all...sorry Maya

In regards to creative nonfiction, I am wondering how one of the oldest forms of communication might be one of the newest forms. While Martin Luther’s King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became an open letter just a few months after he first wrote it in 1963, it started as a response to criticisms of eight clergymen in Alabama, an appeal letter to air hopes and grievances. At 6, 864 words and almost 19 pages double-spaced in 12-point font, I think most would agree that the letter is more of an essay for its formal arguments and insightful conclusions. But is it creative?

Gutkind says: Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.

In my teaching of King’s letter, college students have thought of it as anything but accessible due to its length, historical references, length, biblical allusions, length and its length. Still, Gutkind considers, and this is the general consensus of the form’s origin, the presence of literary craft and drama (he actually says “interesting,” but what is interest but the presence of drama?) as paramount. Indeed, what disgruntled and indifferent students alike appreciate despite the lengthy prose is King’s use of: repetition (“unjust”/”injustice”), anaphora (“I have heard,” “I have heard”), diction (“I hope you are able to ace the distinction”), and parallelism (“who paternalistically believes”, “who lives,” “who constantly advises”).

There is no clear answer to my question, and if there were, why would it matter unless the publishers of King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait”, which included the letter wanted a controversial angle for a new edition?

Here is an interesting excerpt about the (passé?) controversy of creative nonfiction from Gutkind:

Ultimately, this controversy over the form or the word is not only rather silly but moot; the genre itself, the practice of writing nonfiction in a dramatic and imaginative way, has been an anchoring element of the literary world for many years. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff are classic creative nonfiction efforts—books that communicate information (reportage) in a scenic, dramatic fashion.

These four books represent the full spectrum of creative nonfiction: Baldwin’s work is memoir and therefore more personal or inward, dealing with the dynamics of his relationship with his father and the burden of race in America; Wolfe’s work is more journalistic or outward, capturing the lives of the early astronauts. Death in the Afternoon and Down and Out in Paris and London fall somewhere in between—personal, like memoir, but filled with information about bullfighting and poverty, respectively. I often refer to this combination as the parallel narratives of creative nonfiction: There is almost always a “public” and a “private” story.

Read more about Lee Gutkind and creative nonfiction at creativenonfiction.org.

Happy MLK Jr. Day 2012