Dale Maharidge: Pulitzer Prize Winning Author & Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University

My Native AdVantage:


Dale Maharidge, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, is the author of ten books, one of which was awarded the 1990 non-fiction Pulitzer Prize.

He was a visiting professor at Stanford University for ten years and before that he spent 15 years as a newspaperman, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Sacramento Bee. He’s written for Rolling Stone, George Magazine, The Nation, Mother Jones, The New York Times, among others. Maharidge was a 1988 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He has had artistic residencies at both Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.  

Many of his books are illustrated with the work of Michael S. Williamson. The first book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass (1985), inspired Bruce Springsteen to write two songs; it was reissued in 1996 with an introduction by Springsteen. His second book, And Their Children After Them (1989), won the Pulitzer Prize. Other books include Yosemite: A Landscape of Life (1990); The Last Great American Hobo (1993); The Coming White Minority: California, Multiculturalism & the Nation's Future (1996, 1999); Homeland (2004); Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town (2005); Someplace Like America: Tales From the New Great Depression (2011), with an introduction by Springsteen. In 2012, he published Leapers, a novella. Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War was released in 2013. It's about the secrets of his father's U.S. Marine unit that fought in the bloody Pacific battles of World War II.

What do you do best?

Listening. That's been my job description in the nearly 40 years that I've been a journalist. It's the only way to get at any kind of truth and understanding about anyone or anything. Besides being how best to do my job, I really like listening because I like people. I enjoy learning about people different than myself--I'm most drawn to those not like me. I believe the power of listening transcends any profession--if one is in business, politics, or whatever, you can never go wrong really listening to people.

1984 - El Salvador - photo by Michael S. Williamson

What makes you the best?

I grew up in a blue-collar family in Cleveland. A lot of years have passed since those days when I worked in a factory, but that upbringing still informs how I approach my work. The well-off and connected have plenty of ways to be heard. My job is to tell the stories of the people who don't have a platform in the media or culture. I consider my "beat" as a writer to be the people in the middle of the country.  I like hearing their stories and telling them to readers.   

What are your aspirations?

Personal: To change the world--even a little bit through my work. I feel very strongly that we are put here to do more than eat and occupy a figurative chair on the planet.  This motive covers both my personal and business goals.

What fascinates you?

Everything. I am an omnivore intellectually. My books have mostly been on the working class but I have also explored race and culture, war, small town life, and am expanding into other areas these days, including how humanity can hope to survive in the coming centuries.

Favorite Motto:

"It's not that journalists are cynics. They are hopeless idealists." --Frank McCulloch, the great editor whom the writer David Halberstam described as "civilized macho" in The Powers that Be. Frank was once my editor and I will never forget this quote he told me one afternoon.

(Near Fresno, 1982--photo by Michael S. Williamso)

Favorite People:

Most are people you have never heard of, the people who populate my books. I'll mention just one: Emma, the sharecropper James Agee wrote about in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his 1941 book. I found her 50 years later and she entrusted me with the diary of her life's story, which I included in my Pulitzer book, And Their Children After Them. Emma's words are poetry, and powerful. I learned a lot about life from Emma. On the "famous" end of the spectrum, the writer Studs Terkel. Studs helped me in my early career and he was so giving to me as a young journalist. He was a motivation for my becoming a professor--I think of him when I teach.  

Favorite Places:

Anywhere in the American West, but especially where I live half of the year, off the grid on the northern California coast.

Favorite Products: NONE

Current Passions:

I have long dabbled at the edge of film--I've had my work optioned by filmmakers and one major studio, but so far nothing has appeared on screen. I'd like to change that. Also fiction. I've just finished a novel called Offgridders, about the 1960s counterculture and the marijuana industry of today; the two intersect. My fiction is rooted in reality but I love the freedom it allows to get at truth.

Most challenging moment?

There have been many challenging moments--I've covered a lot of crazy and dangerous stuff in my career--but I think back to the night I hopped on a freight train in 1982, with Michael S. Williamson, to document the new jobless who were riding the rails in search of work. We spent some three years on that story and it became our first book, Journey to Nowhere/The Saga of the New Underclass. We rode trains all over the country. This picture was taken by Michael on that first trip--he leaped across the moving train car and strapped his camera on a ladder to use the timer. (This is why I look so angry--I was afraid he was going to die to get the image.) We had many hairy moments out there. The hobo who taught me how to ride was murdered. Guns were pulled on us. There were days without sleep. Mostly: The emotional weight of seeing now-jobless men (in those days we saw no women out there) breaking down as they slipped into despair. 


Biggest success?

I'm not sure it's my biggest success, but it was one of the cooler moments in my life. Bruce Springsteen was inspired to write two songs on his album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, based on Journey to Nowhere. One of those songs was "Youngstown," which in a bit under 300 words he captured the first half of our book set in that city where the steel mills has been shut down. Bruce contacted us in 1995, ten years after the book came out. A year later he played a concert in Youngstown. He wanted to see the "Jenny" blast furnace that he'd sung about. Michael and I told him that the corporation that owned the ruins was arresting everyone, and that they would probably arrest him, too, to make a point. We'd have to sneak in the back way, through deep snow. "Let's go," Bruce said. We spent an hour at the base of the Jenny talking about life and politics. Michael took this picture when we walked away that afternoon. We're smiling because we didn't get busted.

(Bruce Springsteen and me, Youngstown, Ohio, 1996--Photo by Michael S. Williamson)