Ward Just, Journalist and Novelist: He Always Wanted to be the New Hemingway

Ward Just: Martha’s Vineyard in 1988.

As a complement to yesterday’s post about Ward Just’s new novel, The Eastern Shore, and a November story, by Bill Eville, about him in the Vineyard Gazette, here are excerpts from a 1988 Washingtonian profile, by Howard Means. Just recently had moved to Paris.

Ward Just as a Washington Post reporter covering the Vietnam war in 1965-66:

“Ward’s style was so personal,” photographer Wally McNamee said. “There was wonderful reporting because you could practically smell the fear and feel the fatigue and the tension of the places he went to. A lot of reporters reported the war by going to the briefings in Saigon. Ward was a reporter in the grand style of eyewitness reporting. He was not only covering the war; he was there giving the close-up look. But at the same time he was imparting some wisdom about what was going on.”

In June 1966 Just went out with a reconnaissance patrol. He said, “On the second day, we stumbled into a North Vietnamese base camp, and all hell broke loose. It was really an ambush. There was no plan. We stumbled into their goddamn base camp.” Of the 42 men in the Tiger Force of the 101st Airborne Brigade, 10 were killed and another 19 injured. Just was hit with a grenade that landed about a yard away. He came back to Washington to recover. “I was not so bold when I went back,” he said.

A former Newsweek colleague says, “Ward always modeled himself after and wanted to be the new Hemingway. It was perfect to start in journalism, to go overseas and become Hemingway. The Vietnam war was his Caporetto”—an allusion to the 1917 German-Austrian offensive against Italy in which Hemingway served as an ambulance driver and later used in A Farewell to Arms.

Leaving  journalism to write his first novel:

How Just got from journalism to fiction is a story that begins, he implies, in Vietnam. In Vietnam, he says, he lost his faith in facts.

“You could find a fact to support anything you wanted to. You began to realize that it wasn’t the fact, it was the uses to which you’re going to put the fact. It becomes a matter of selection. You’ve got so much, and the selection in a sense is so arbitrary. It was a leap of the imagination.”

Just wrote To What End, a nonfiction book springing from his Vietnam experience. “Then,” he said, “in the summer of 1969. I went up to Vermont and wrote my first novel, Soldier of the Revolution. It’s a first novel—it doesn’t hold together intellectually. But I loved doing it. I just didn’t want to report anymore. Knopf bought the novel. It wasn’t a success, except to me on my terms, but my fate in a sense was sealed.”

Leaving Washington in 1973:

“I found the environment of Washington wasn’t conducive to a fiction writer. You were out of the game. When you’re writing fiction, fabricating your own world, it’s of absolutely no interest to anyone in Washington. I found myself increasingly at odds with the place.”

Living in Paris in 1988:

If Paris is peopled with expatriated American novelists as it was in the 1920s, Just has yet to find them. His friends there tend to be foreign correspondents. Like Just—both the reporter and the novelist—they are aficionados of failure.

“What an odd turn it gives to one’s psyche, particularly if you spend any time covering wars, particularly if you’re good at reporting failure,” he says. “That’s what I was good at as a reporter. There’s no question in takes a certain quality of mind, maybe a greater case of irony than is good for a human being. It’s why as a breed the long-time foreign correspondents are such interesting people. They’ve seen so many cultural and political experiments fail. That’s all they do—the famines, the civil wars, the corruption beyond belief, that notebook full of names, divided by country, so many of them scratched out because they’re dead.”

On writing fiction set in Washington:

“I’m still working off a lot of capital accumulated in the 1960s,” he says. “I use Washington because it’s convenient to me to use Washington. I use the bureaucracy, the upper echelons, because I’m familiar with that lingo. Looked at one way, there is no such thing as a purely imaginative act. It’s based on something you did or said, someone you knew, or some inversion of that.”

On writing The City of Fear, a novel set in Washington:

“I was trying to work out the theory that Washington demands a certain amount of compromise, and after a while you almost disappear,” he says. “You have no edges. You’re all rounded off. We are all a bundle of compromises, but I think Washington demands a certain level of compromise because it’s all so public. You bargain away your soul bit by bit. The primitive people of Africa think every time you’re photographed, it takes a bit of your soul. You do that [appearing on television] often enough and doesn’t it make you, inside your own mind, a hall of mirrors?”


  1. Excellent selection of quotes. Thanks for posting this.

  2. “How Just got from journalism to fiction is a story that begins, he implies, in Vietnam. In Vietnam, he says, he lost his faith in facts.” Wow.

  3. Bart Hansen says

    I often quote from “American Romantic” – The MV captain in the jungle (paraphrased): Go ahead throw everything you have at us. Eventually you will leave and we will remain.

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