Jon Franklin, an apostle of short story-style narrative journalism whose work won the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded for feature writing and explanatory journalism, died Sunday in Annapolis, Maryland, at age 82.
His death, in a hospice, came less than two weeks after the fall in his home, said his wife, Lynn Franklin. For two years he had also been treated for esophageal cancer.
An author, teacher, reporter, and editor, Franklin championed the style of nonfiction that was celebrated as New Journalism but was actually vintage narrative storytelling, an approach that he said continued to adhere to old journalism’s standards of accuracy and objectivity.
He laid out his thoughts on the subject in “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction” (1986), which has become a practical guide for literary-minded journalists.
In 1979, Franklin won the first Pulitzer ever awarded for feature writing for her two-part series in the Baltimore Evening Sun titled “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.”
His vivid eyewitness account transported readers to an operating room where a surgeon’s agonizing struggle to save the life of a woman whose brain was crushed by a tangle of blood vessels illuminated the wonders and margins of modern medicine.
He won his second Pulitzer, this time in the new category of explanatory journalism, in 1985, for his seven-part series “The Mind Fixers,” also in The Evening Sun. Delving into the molecular chemistry of the brain and how they communicate neurons, profiled a scientist whose experiments with receptors in the brain could herald drug treatment and other alternatives to psychoanalysis.
Inspired by Franklin’s sessions with a psychologist, the series was adapted into a book, “Molecules of The Mind: The Brave New Science of Molecular Psychology” (1987), one of seven he wrote.
Barry L. Jacobs, professor of neuroscience at Princeton, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the author had addressed his theme – that using drugs to treat mental illness could make the world a healthier place – “in a snappy journalistic style, as well as with a touch of humor and an often entertaining pinch of cynicism. “Molecules” was among the most important books of the year according to the Times.
Mr. Franklin’s “Writing for Story” was not so much a sermonic bible for budding journalists who imagined future John Steinbecks, Tom Wolfes and even Jon Franklins, but rather a demanding lesson plan on storytelling that, he wrote, took him three decades. master.
“The reason we read stories is because we have developed a desire to understand the world around us,” he said in an interview for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard in 2004. “The best way to do that is through our experiences, but if we read a good story, it’s like living another person’s life without taking risks or time.”
Critics have expressed concern that emphasizing style might mean sacrificing substance. Mr. Franklin hesitated.
Literary journalism, he insisted, “represents no threat to the fundamental values of honesty, accuracy and objectivity.” He cautioned, however, that, if done correctly, literary journalism takes time and talent. “Not every story deserves it, nor can every journalist be trusted,” he wrote in the American Journalism Review in 1996.
“Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” was published in December 1978. That year the Pulitzer Board had established a new award category to recognize “a distinguished example of writing which gives the highest regard to high literary quality and originality.” The council created the prize for explanatory journalism in 1984. Mr Franklin was the first to win them.
Jon Daniel Franklin was born January 13, 1942, in Enid, Oklahoma, to Benjamin and Wilma (Winburn) Franklin. His father was an electrician whose work on construction sites in the southwest often uprooted the family.
John aspired to be a scientist, but because of the transience of his family he was educated mainly in what he called the “universal school for writers”: the novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the stories of the Saturday Evening Post.
Bullied in gang fights as a white minority boy in mostly Hispanic Sante Fe, his father gave him a battered Underwood typewriter, who urged him to vent his hostility with his fingers rather than his fists .
In 1959, John dropped out of high school to join the Navy. He served for eight years as a naval reporter aboard aircraft carriers and later served an apprenticeship at All Hands magazine, a Pentagon publication where, he said, a demanding editor honed his talents.
He attended the University of Maryland under the GI Bill, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1970. He worked as a reporter and editor for The Prince Georges Post in Maryland before The Baltimore Evening Sun hired him as a staff writer in 1970. He won the Pulitzer covering science.
“I’m a science writer, but I don’t write about science,” he said in the Nieman interview. “I write about people. Science is just the scenario.”
He left The Evening Sun in 1985 and returned to the University of Maryland, this time as a professor and chair of the journalism department. He went on to head the creative writing program at the University of Oregon for a time and take a writing job at The News & Observer in Raleigh.
Returning again to the University of Maryland, he was awarded the first Merrill Professorship in Journalism in 2001. Gene Roberts, a faculty colleague who had been executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of the New York Times, greeted Franklin. as “one of the greatest feature professionals and teachers in all of journalism.” He retired as a professor in 2010.
Mr. Franklin’s marriage to Nancy Creevan ended in divorce. He married Lynn Scheidhauer in 1988. In addition to his wife, his survivors include two daughters, Catherine Franklin Abzug and Teresa June Franklin, from his first marriage.
Among his other books is “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs” (2000), in which he describes how the Franklins’ poodle, Sam, woke the family when their house caught fire.
For a writer whose surgical experience only went so far as having his thumb reattached after it was severed in a fall on the sidewalk, Franklin’s story about the “monster” aneurysm pressing on Edna Kelly’s brain was rich in detail and accessible images. The increasing pressure on the arterial wall, he wrote, was like “a tire about to explode, a balloon ready to burst, a time bomb the size of a pea.”
Mrs. Kelly was willing to die rather than live with the monster. Her story wasn’t about a miracle. But she begins and ends by invoking nourishment, without which life and miracles cannot exist:
Breakfast waffles prepared by the wife of Dr. Thomas Barbee Ducker, chief brain surgeon at the University of Maryland Hospital. No coffee. They make his hands shake, Mr. Franklin wrote. Once the surgery is over, what awaits Dr. Ducker are more medical challenges and a peanut butter sandwich that his wife had packaged in a brown bag with Fig Newtons and a banana.
“Mrs. Kelly is dying,” Mr. Franklin wrote.
“The clock on the wall, near where Dr. Ducker sits, reads 1:43, and it’s over.
“’It’s hard to say what to do. We’ve been thinking about it for six weeks. But, you know, there are certain things… that’s just as far as you can go. I really don’t know.”
«Put the sandwich, the banana and the Fig Newtons on the table in front of him, neatly, the same way the nurse arranged the instruments.
“’It was triple jeopardy,’ he says finally, staring at his peanut butter sandwich the same way he stared at his X-rays. “It was triple jeopardy.”
“It’s 1:43 and it’s over.
“Dr. Ducker morosely bites into the sandwich. He must move forward. The monster won.”