Nieman News

Journalist and author Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield, a 1964 Nieman Fellow and multitalented writer who worked as a journalist, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, died March 13, 2024, in Miami, Florida. He was 91.

During his long and successful career, he worked as a writer and editor for national publications in the U.S., authored novels and nonfiction books and taught and lectured widely.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1932, he began his writing career as a columnist for his high school newspaper and as a sports correspondent for The Indianapolis Star. After graduating from Columbia College in 1955 he began writing for national magazines and went on to hold positions as a staff writer for The Nation, a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly and GQ and a senior writer for The Yoga Journal.

When he was just 23, Wakefield traveled to Mississippi for The Nation to cover the trial of the two men accused of killing of Emmett Till. A 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, Till had been brutally murdered in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Just weeks after his murder, his assailants were acquitted by an all-white jury. Wakefield’s insightful reporting revealed the racism that underlined that decision.

Wakefield published his first book, “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem” in 1959. Other nonfiction books followed, including the anthology “The Addict,” “Revolt in the South,” “All Her Children: The Making of a Soap Opera,” and “Supernation at Peace and War,” which first appeared as the entire March 1968 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

His best-selling novels “Going All The Way” and “Starting Over” were adapted as feature films in the 1970s. He also created the NBC prime-time TV series “James at 15,” about the life of a teenage boy. A documentary film based on his memoir “New York in the Fifties” was produced in 2001.

Baptized a Presbyterian raised in the Baptist church, Wakefield later became an atheist before returning to Christianity. He chronicled his religious path in a series of books that include “Returning: A Spiritual Journey;” “Creating from The Spirit;” “The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography,” “Between the Lines,” “Expect a Miracle,” and “How Do We Know When It’s God? A Spiritual Memoir.”

In addition to being a Nieman Fellow in the class of 1967, Wakefield received a Bernard DeVoto Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Rockefeller Grant for Creative Writing, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He taught in the writing programs at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts/Boston, Emerson College and The Iowa Writers Workshop, and was a writer in residence at Florida International University in Miami.

In a 2013 Nieman Reports article, Wakefield recalled first meeting writer Kurt Vonnegut during his Nieman year. Wakefield and Kurt Vonnegut had attended the same high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, and both wrote for the school newspaper. Vonnegut later reviewed Wakefield’s first novel “Going All the Way” for Life magazine. After first reading the book, Vonnegut sent a telegram to the publisher saying “You must publish this important novel. Get this boy in our stable.” Wakefield in turn went on to edit and annotate “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” which was published in 2012.