Madeleine Blais
Nieman Class of 1986

220px-Madeleine_BlaisBlais won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Zepp’s Last Stand,” a Miami Herald story about a dishonorably discharged World War I veteran. She also worked at the Boston Globe and the Trenton Times, and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she teaches courses such as The Art of the Profile; Literature and Film in the Documentary Tradition; and Diaries, Memoirs and Journals. (Her own memoir, Uphill Walkers: Portraits of a Family, opens with, “My father died when I was five, and all my life, I have wondered if he ever thought about how it would all turn out.”) Her Nieman classmates included another narrative standout, Buzz Bissinger, author of books that include the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights. (Blais includes his writing in her reading assignments.) Even in her newspaper days, Blais married fine reporting with storytelling that leans on the tools of fiction: well-observed characters, tension, the revelatory detail, and a voice — elegant in its restraint — that resists gimmickry. In a piece 13 years ago for Nieman Reports, she wrote about the teaching of craft: “Literary nonfiction has a deep American backbone, fixed in the democratic notion that real stories about real people are worth telling. Literary nonfiction not only honors all the shibboleths of classical storytelling, but it also welcomes the best of other disciplines into the mix, giving it melting pot inclusiveness. Consider the great workhorses of the genre, books such as ‘Common Ground’ and ‘Hiroshima,’ ‘In Cold Blood,’ ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ ‘Dispatches,’ ‘A Rumor of War,’ and ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’ Then, contemplate how these authors broke apart the boundaries between history and biography and sociology to create a whole new coinage.”


>“Zepp’s Last Stand,” from the Miami Herald, about a dishonorably discharged World War I veteran. Excerpt:

All his life Edward Zepp has wanted nothing so much as to go to the next world with a clear conscience. So on September 11 the old man, carrying a borrowed briefcase filled with papers, boarded an Amtrak train in Deerfield Beach, Florida, and headed north on the Silver Meteor to our nation’s capital. As the porter showed him to his roomette, Ed Zepp kept saying, “I’m 83 years old. Eighty-three.”

At 9 a.m. the next day, Zepp was to appear at the Pentagon for a hearing before the Board for Correction of Military Records. This was, he said, “the supreme effort, the final fight” in the private battle of Private Zepp, Company D, 323rd Machine Gun Battalion, veteran of World War I, discharged on November 9, 1919—with dishonor.

Something happens to people after a certain age, and the distinctions of youth disappear. The wrinkles conquer, like an army. In his old age, Zepp is bald. He wears fragile glasses. The shoulders are rounded. His pace is stooped and slow. It is hard, in a way, to remove 60 years, and picture him tall, lanky, a rebel.

>The Heart Is an Instrument: Portraits in Journalism, 15 feature stories reprinted by the University of Massachusetts, as a collection. From “The Disturbance:”

The light was about to change, and Meg wondered what to do. As she peered through her windshield she saw one of those bag ladies who meander through the streets, a twentieth-century leper, a dirty disheveled insult to the image of the place where she roamed, Coral Gables, the perfect city, planned and placid.

Meg Livergood was out on company errands. A production coordinator at Porter Creative Services, she was driving her boss’s Firebird. It was a hot August day two summers ago. As she cruised the Gables, heading back to her office, her mind was focused less on the steamy streets than on the trip she would be taking later that day to New York City with three friends, her first time ever in Manhattan. She was rushing back to the office so she could rush to the airport. She was feeling cheerful, she was feeling free. Meg is one of those women who had children at a young age — she was nineteen when she got pregnant with the first of two sons — and so, at thirty-four, she brings to the world of work the jazzed-up, uncaged enthusiasm of a Former Housewife. She smokes, a habit that she knows she has to give up. She drinks beer, but she stays thin. She works early hours; she works late ones.

It was just ill fortune that she happened down this side street, got waylaid by that red light and sat in traffic, long fingers impatiently tapping the steering wheel, eyes sweeping a basically benevolent world until they stopped short at the repulsive vision of a tall hunched-over woman with a snarled nest of hair, dressed in ragtag aching disarray down to the brown men’s shoes, eyes veiled, head down, proceeding at a slow pace as if in great pain, legs blotched and swollen, carrying a bundle wrapped in a piece of cloth, hobo style. …

Trish: her sister.

>In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle, her narrative nonfiction book about a season with the girls’ basketball team at Amherst High. From the opening:

Everything went wrong.

Early in the second half, the girls on the bench began to weep.

It was a game that made everyone connected to the Hurricanes wince to relive.

On the court of Cathedral High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, on the night of March 3, 1992, the Amherst Hurricanes had disintegrated into four players standing around as if waiting in line in the cold for tickets, stomping their feet to no avail. They appeared distracted and out of it while their point guard, Jamila Wideman, lunged about, contorting her body in any number of ways. She was everywhere and she was nowhere. Although she was dazzling, she was also doomed. For every effort she made as an individual, the Blue Devils from Northampton replied with a chorus of five passes, ending, with frustrating inevitability, in an open shot and an easy deuce. When Amherst wasn’t frantic, it was comatose. The message the Hurricanes had heard from their coach all season, those rousing talks studded with terms like team and unity and DYB (for do your best), seemed to have fled, scattered leaves lost to a gargantuan gust.

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment