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Jeff Sharlet: Another Faculty Star

Sharlet and Sweet Heaven.jpgA wine is said to be transparent — a high compliment in France — when neither heavy fruit nor oak hide the complexities within it. The concept applies well to Jeff Sharlet’s writing: you won’t easily find a purer, more unobtrusive style. The character sketches in Sweet Heaven When I Die put you in the room with Jeff and his subject, where you can all wander around together. Graceful prose is coupled with a humanistic tenderness, an honest sympathy for the people that he portrays. The end result is affecting.

This sentiment must be less hard to express in the case of a soulful Holocaust survivor who writes in Yiddish or a Princeton professor endowed with a pyrotechnic intellect, but it would seem difficult to pull off with teenage evangelicals who parrot the religious party line, a programming director for monopolistic Clear Channel radio, or a young anarchist searching for himself. Nonetheless, that is Jeff’s emotion, and he achieves it with a lovely subtlety. However, the feeling does not have to be yours; Jeff’s warmth does not obscure the detail that readers need to draw their own conclusions. Examine the following paragraph regarding a New York City litigator-turned-spiritual-healer:

Before I could interview Sondra further, I needed to be healed. “It will clear you,” Sondra told me. Later both she and Derek [Sondra’s own spiritual guide] would declare that God had sent me to be their gospel writer, but at the beginning, Sondra was wary. “I don’t want to come off sounding crazy,” she said. So she decided to let me experience the energy for myself. And I did, after a fashion.

The words “after a fashion” sing to me. Jeff likes his subject, and depicts her generously, but this gentle, three-word phrase allows him to maintain just enough distance that you don’t lose trust in his intelligence and objectivity. His work is filled with fine writing like this.

Jeff is the English department’s professor of creative non-fiction, a label that becomes intelligible when reading the articles in Sweet Heaven When I Die. In addition to several books, he has written magazine pieces for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Mother Jones, The New Statesman, The Nation, and New York, among others. Have a look.

Addendum: Given this space’s oft-repeated concerns about the quality of student journalism at The Dartmouth, I wrote to Jeff to ask how frequently undergraduate journalists sign up for his courses. This past term he had only two writers from The D (and one contributor to Dartbeat) and two from the Dartmouth Radical in his journalism class, a fact that he lamented:

When I came to Dartmouth, I was surprised by how little overlap there seems to be between The Dartmouth, and students interested in journalism in general, and the creative writing program. American literature has been so defined by writers crossing back and forth between creative writing and journalistic writing — Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston, Hemingway, James Agee, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, just to name a few. And when you think of the great journalists of American history, people like Martha Gellhorn, John Hersey, or, more recently, Katherine Boo, you end up talking about deeply creative writers. I’m not sure what accounts for the disconnect at Dartmouth. I think both sides of the equation suffer for it — creative writing would benefit from more students who want to go out and find their material in the world, and The Dartmouth would certainly benefit from a more powerful sense of storytelling — including the kind of storytelling that involves asking tough questions about motive and meaning.

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