The newspaper column is a surprisingly difficult genre: strict word count limits, inflexible deadlines, and the necessity to be both original and familiar to a broad spectrum of readers. Jim Hamilton is a master practitioner of the form. For more than forty years, he wrote columns for the Buffalo Reflex, and a collection of his early columns, River of Used to Be, holds a valued place on my bookshelf. Now comes a new collection, Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays 2010-2015, taken from the most recent decade and published by a new press.
Readers of a certain age will remember when writing a newspaper column was a prestigious perch reserved for those who had proved themselves to be exemplary reporters and writers. On the national scene, Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, and others swayed political debates. In the Ozarks, Jean Bell Mosley and Thomza Zimmerman, Leonard Hall, and Sue Hubbell reported from their homes and farmsteads on the rhythms of life in nature and community. Hamilton’s columns are in that vein – observant, nostalgic, rarely offering comment on current events.
That doesn’t mean they are shallow, though. The columns regularly steer through emotional shoals. Hamilton writes with painful honesty about losing a wife to cancer and a daughter to a car crash, and about the more general disasters that befall a nation and a community. Faithful dogs and treasured fishing holes inhabit these pages, but so do wars and calamities.
I suspect, though, that the columns most readers will respond to are his reminiscences of childhood in the Ozarks. Hamilton has a gift for memory that reveals itself through precision; the word pictures in these columns are detailed, vivid, and evocative. Perhaps one of the signs of love is noticing, and if that’s the case these columns are just about as loving as one can get these days. Jim Hamilton seems to have noticed, and remembered, everything that ever happened to him.
Is there repetition among them? Sure. One of the pitfalls of a newspaper column is the obligation to produce material on deadline, again and again, week after week, and no columnist escapes the repetition trap forever. But even when he’s returning to a familiar subject or theme, Hamilton finds a way to approach it in a different way, shedding light from a different angle. Still, as with all collections of columns, these are best read in modest amounts. A newspaper column is literature in bite-sized form; as with all bite-sized things, they are better enjoyed when consumed at a moderate pace.
Hamilton’s columns capture a moment, dig deep into a memory, analyze an emotion. Each column is a finely crafted exploration of an experience or recollection, and although you can see their origins in the deadline-driven world of newspaper production, they transcend those origins and offer us lasting insights. There’s both sweetness and precision in these columns, a combination that is hard to pull off and even harder to sustain. This collection of work is a real joy.