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Best known as the author of The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger is a writer and journalist who shaped and popularized modern adventure nonfiction at the end of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Education in the Extreme
Sebastian Junger was born on January 17, 1962, in Belmont, Massachusetts. His father ran a consulting firm that specialized in applied physics, and his mother was an artist. Both parents encouraged Junger to explore his passions as a young adult. Junger received a Bachelor of Arts degree in cultural anthropology from Wesleyan University in 1984. The techniques and methods of cultural anthropology, which is the study of human society and culture, has been influential and useful throughout Junger’s diverse writing and journalism career.
Despite his interest in the field, Junger was unclear about his career plans after graduation. Attracted to the idea of a writing career and drawn to exploring extreme situations, Junger spent many years after graduation traveling and attempting to begin a career in freelance writing. After a number of years of unsuccessful attempts to support himself through writing, Junger took a job as a high-climber for tree removal companies, an extremely dangerous occupation. His experience inspired him to begin investigating and writing about dangerous occupations. He was recovering from a leg injury suffered from his climbing job in 1991 when he heard the news about the tragedy of a swordfishing boat that was lost at sea during one of the worst storms of the last century. This event inspired him to begin his groundbreaking nonfiction work The Perfect Storm.
Writing the Perfect Best Seller
The Perfect Storm is the story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was sailing for her home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, after a taking in a swordfishing haul on October 28, 1991. The trip coincided with what one meteorologist called a ”perfect storm”: the collision of two massive storm fronts with Hurricane Grace. The Andrea Gail encountered the storm near the coast of Nova Scotia when she was nearly halfway home, and tragedy struck: the ship and crew were lost at sea. In The Perfect Storm, Junger re-creates the final hours of the Andrea Gail’s journey based on interviews he conducted with survivors from other ships who encountered the storm, news footage, and meteorological data. In the book, Junger imagines the experience from the point of view of the Andrea Gail crew, and documents the experiences of their families and friends in Gloucester. A non-fiction book, The Perfect Storm is nevertheless creatively imagined, and the combination of fact and rich storytelling made the book a critical and commercial success.
The Perfect Storm was also an exploration of the history and fishing industry of Gloucester and the lives of the Andrea Gail crew. Junger was particularly concerned with accurately portraying the lives of the crew and dramatizing their reasons for choosing such an extremely dangerous occupation. In doing so, Junger exposed to readers the many issues of the struggling fishing industry and towns that are dependent on fishing economies. In order to present an even-handed and compelling story, Junger conducted a tremendous amount of research and spent time in the Gloucester community.
Making a Name in Nonfiction
The Perfect Storm was immensely successful and was adapted into a feature film in 2000. Junger capitalized on the book’s success by becoming a prolific writer of nonfiction essays for prestigious magazines and publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, Outside, and Men’s Journal, as well as contributing to ABC News. The vast majority of his assignments and topics have involved extreme or dangerous situations: human rights injustices in Sierra Leone; war crimes in Kosovo; the war in Bosnia; and reporting from the front-lines of wildfires in the United States. In 2000 Junger won a prestigious National Magazine Award for his essay ”The Forensics of War,” published in Esquire magazine. In 2001 Junger republished many of his best essays in the collection Fire, which was a commercial success despite mixed reviews from critics. In 2006 Junger focused his journalism on a murder in his home town, unsolved for forty years, in the nonfiction crime drama A Death in Belmont. Junger has continued to write and publish non-fiction for magazines and other publications.
Works in Literary Context
Regardless of subject matter, Junger’s works are all based on his in-depth, investigative reporting. This type of reporting is characterized by a detailed and lengthy study of a particular topic of interest, and contrasts sharply with daily or weekly news reporting. For both of his book-length works, The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, Junger utilized investigative reporting techniques. For the essays in Fire, Junger turned his investigative reporting to extreme topics: a profile and interview with the Afghan North Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud; the hazards of fighting wildfires in North America; the Sierra Leone diamond trade; and genocidal conditions in Kosovo.
Junger’s works are also influenced by the American tradition of adventure writing, a literary genre that crosses over both fiction and nonfiction. The Perfect Storm, while a nonfiction re-creation of real events, was stylistically influenced by adventure writing, which is characterized by richly drawn characters who embark on challenging journeys and are often pitted against nature. While Jack London remains the most well-known American adventure writer, Junger is among a new wave of adventure writers that also includes noted nonfiction writer Jon Krakauer.
Works in Critical Context
Junger is widely regarded as both an accomplished researcher and journalist and a dynamic storyteller.
The Perfect Storm
A tremendous commercial success, The Perfect Storm was also widely praised by critics. Calling Junger’s depiction of the events ”terrifyingly, awesomely real,” Richard Ellis concludes that the book is a ”wild ride that brilliantly captures the awesome power of the raging sea and the often futile attempts of humans to withstand it.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praises Junger for his outstanding research and evocative use of detail, writing, ”Perhaps most compelling of all, he explains in concrete detail why hurricanes blow, how waves rise, what happens to boats in a storm and the way human beings drown.” Critic Anthony Bailey further comments on how Junger’s investigative journalism contributed to an authentic, dynamic reading experience:
Sebastian Junger declares that his own confrontation with the storm was limited to standing on the backshore of Gloucester, watching 30-foot swells approach Cape Ann. But he clearly went on to experience it through the words of the storm’s survivors and those connected with the Andrea Gail. Interviewing them must have been a difficult, even intrusive job, but the result is thrilling—a boat ride into and (for us) out of a watery hell.
- Bailey, Anthony. ”The Tempest.” New York Times Book Review (June 22, 1997): 8.
- Ellis, Richard. ”Sturm and Drang.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (May 25, 1997): 8-9.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. ”The Shipwreck Story No One Survived to Tell.” New York Times (June 5, 1997): C20.
- Fabrikant, Geraldine. ”Talking Money with Sebastian Junger; From The Perfect Storm, A Passage to Financial Freedom.” New York Times (December 3, 2000). Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http:// query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C03E2D 6113DF930A35751C1A9669C8B63&sec=&spon= &pagewanted=1.
- Kakutani, Michio. ”Books of the Times; From Fighting the Taliban to Battling Blazes in Idaho.” New York Times (October 17, 2001). Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage. html?res=9B03EEDF163EF934A25753C 1A9679C8B63.
- Shnayerson, Michael. After the Storm: Sebastian Junger Interview. Accessed November 28, 2008, from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/afterthestorm.
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