The Writer as Reporter: Portraiture in Literary Reportage and Documentary Writing


  • Jerome Boyd Maunsell University of Roehampton, London



reportage, documentary writing, literary journalism, portraiture


This article explores how several novelists in the first half of the twentieth century, including James Agee, Jack London, George Orwell, and John Steinbeck, portrayed other, often marginal, real lives in works of reportage and documentary writing—terms variously defined and utilised by critics and practitioners, but seen here as hybrid, intersecting forms of life writing. It argues that such work has an extremely artful element of verbal portraiture of real-life people, often in dialogue with photography. The process of writing and witnessing reportage work differs substantially from that of fiction. Focusing on certain factors key to the portraiture in reportage—including unfamiliarity, representativeness, standpoint, and objectivity—the article analyses these writers’ treatment of them. The extent to which these writers revealed their documentary or reportorial role to their subjects, or disguised it, is also considered. Moving between international, cultural, political and social contexts, and deeply informed by chance and accident, early twentieth century reportage emerges as a highly interactive, volatile, and intersubjective space in its portraiture of others, nonetheless defined finally by the writer’s point of view.

Author Biography

Jerome Boyd Maunsell, University of Roehampton, London

Jerome Boyd Maunsell is the author of the biography Susan Sontag (Reaktion, 2014) and the group biography Portraits from Life: Modernist Novelists and Autobiography (Oxford, 2018). His essays and reviews have appeared in Frieze and the Times Literary Supplement. He is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, London. Email: