This Day In Writing History
On November 12th, 1945, the famous American nonfiction writer and journalist Tracy Kidder was born in New York City. After graduating from Phillips Academy prep school in 1963, Kidder enrolled at Harvard, where he initially majored in political science.
He switched his major to English after taking a creative writing course taught by poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald. After graduating from Harvard in 1967, Tracy Kidder served for two years in Vietnam as a first lieutenant for Military Intelligence.
When his tour of duty was up, he returned to the U.S. and began a writing career, eventually enrolling in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master's degree.
While studying at the University of Iowa, Kidder wrote his first nonfiction book. Commissioned by Atlantic Monthly magazine, The Road To Yuba City (1974) was a straightforward, non-judgmental chronicle of the sensational Juan Corona serial murder trial in Yuba City, California.
Corona, a farm labor contractor, was accused of preying on poor migrant farm workers, savagely murdering twenty-five of them by various methods including shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning. Corona was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 25 consecutive life sentences.
In researching his book, Tracy Kidder rode along on trains packed with migrant farm workers, experiencing their living and working conditions firsthand. During the trial, he interviewed the victims' families and examined all facets of the case.
In doing so, he exposed a surprising level of incompetence in both the prosecution and the defense, leaving the impression that the whole trial was horribly botched. To this day, some believe that Juan Corona was wrongfully convicted.
Unfortunately, The Road To Yuba City proved to be a critical and commercial failure. Kidder disowned it, explaining in a 1995 interview:
"I can't say anything intelligent about that book, except that I learned never to write about a murder case. The whole experience was disgusting, so disgusting, in fact, that in 1981 I went to Doubleday and bought back the rights to the book."
"I don't want The Road to Yuba City to see the light of day again," Kidder vowed, and it hasn't. Today, copies are extremely hard to find and go for around $100 on eBay.
Tracy Kidder's next nonfiction book, however, proved to be a huge success in many ways. The Soul Of A New Machine (1981) chronicled a turf war between teams of computer designers within Data General Corporation, which was a top minicomputer vendor in the 1970s.
The engineers are presented with a daunting challenge: in order to compete with the new VAX minicomputer of rival company Digital Equipment Corporation, they must design a new 32-bit minicomputer in one year.
Kidder's book takes a seemingly dry subject and turns it into a riveting suspense thriller, following the engineers as they face hectic schedules (including marathon 24-hour work sessions) and tremendous pressure to complete their task.
The Soul Of A New Machine became a big hit with both critics and readers, and is considered a classic work of journalism. It won Kidder a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1982.
Tracy Kidder continued to write great nonfiction books. House (1985) follows a team of home builders as they struggle to build a family's home on time, within their budget, and to their clients' satisfaction. The book follows the construction of the house from the drawing of the blueprints to the day that the family moves in.
Among Schoolchildren (1989) follows dedicated, compassionate inner-city elementary school teacher Chris Zajac through an entire school year as she struggles to provide a decent education to her poor, neglected, mostly Hispanic students in a riveting and brutally honest look at what it really means to be a teacher.
Old Friends (1994) follows Lou and Joe, roommates at a nursing home in Northampton, Massachusetts. In Home Town, (2000), Kidder's subject is the town of Northampton itself, as he tells the stories of several of its colorful residents.
Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003) is a biography of the noted physician and anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer and a narrative about the struggles he faces as he tries to provide health care to the poor in third world countries.
In 2005, Kidder wrote My Detachment: A Memoir - an account of his experiences in the Vietnam War, from eager enlistee (and former ROTC cadet) to disillusioned veteran, as he comes to understand the absurdity and immorality of the war he volunteered to fight in. The book is reminiscent of classic antiwar satires such as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H.
Kidder's 2009 book, Strength In What Remains, follows the journey of Deogratias, a young African man from Burundi who in 1994 fled his country's bloody, genocidal civil war and settled in New York City. He was nearly broke and barely able to speak English.
Deogratias delivered groceries for slave wages by day and slept in Central Park at night. Driven by ambition and determination, he worked his way through medical school and became a doctor, then an American citizen. Kidder follows him as he returns to Burundi to build a medical clinic for his poor countrymen.
Tracy Kidder has proven himself to be one of the best contemporary writers of nonfiction. His most recent book, co-written with his friend, Atlantic Monthly editor Richard Todd, is a book for writers called Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.
Quote Of The Day
"I think that the non-fiction writer's fundamental job is to make what is true believable." - Tracy Kidder
Today's video features Tracy Kidder on the CSPAN program Q&A, discussing his 2009 book, Strength In What Remains. Enjoy!