Across seven decades as a working reporter and over 10,000 columns filed, journalist Murray Kempton’s approach, from the ‘50s to his death in 1997, was always the same: stick up for the people and do so with uncommon style and grace. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, he reported for the New York Post, the New Republic, Newsday, and the New York Review of Books – among other publications – and was credited, by David Halberstam, for pioneering the genre of New Journalism.
Kempton elevated the art of reporting as both a stylist and a moralist, matching his attentiveness to wit and irony with what one critic called “a compassion that is sometimes unruly.” The scion of an aristocratic Southern family who rejected his staid upbringing to become a radical socialist, he was an eloquent defender of American communists during the McCarthy era and one of the first white reporters to make the Civil Rights Movement into a beat. And he was an indelible New York character, traveling across Manhattan by bike, even as an old man, a Walkman around his neck.
The Little Piece of the World That We Know: Selected Writings of Murray Kempton is the first collection of Kempton’s writing to appear in over a quarter-century. In collecting these pieces, historian Andrew Holter, with the collaboration of Kempton’s estate and the family of Barbara Epstein, his longtime companion, blows the dust off an illustrious body of work. The book puts one of the most revered, if too long unsung, American nonfiction writers of the 20th century into conversation with controversies of the 21st that he anticipated. These include the ascendancy of Donald Trump, whom Kempton took seriously in the 1980s; the reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement; the disappearance of daily newspapers; and the crises of homelessness and mass incarceration.
Especially among reporters themselves, Kempton’s name is invoked with the kind of reverence reserved not merely for a master of the craft but for one of the profession’s virtuoso stylists and a paragon of journalistic integrity.