It's probably easier than it should be to dismiss the articles which appeared recently in New York magazine on the subject of "The New Journalism." In the first place, the articles, which were by Tom Wolfe (himself a founding member of New York and author of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), had most of the defects of the form he was extollingthe pop sociology, the easy cultural generalitieswith few of the compensating attractionsthe dramatic scene-setting, the impressionistic color (such as had made, for instance, his own piece on the stock-car racer Junior Johnson so vivid and fascinating to read). "The voice of the narrator, in fact, was one of the great problems in non-fiction writing," Dr. Wolfe now intoned. Also: "The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one ... " etc. Also: "Queen Victoria's childhood diaries are, in fact, quite readable." Also: "Literary people were oblivious to this side of the New Journalism, because it is one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism that the raw material is simply 'there.'" And so forth. In the second place, although it must have been fun to work at the Herald Tribune in its last few years of existencewhen and where, according to Wolfe, the birth of New Journalism mostly occurredhe manages to describe this great moment in Western cultural life with a school-boy reverence which somehow doesn't leave anyone else much breathing room, a combination of Stalky & Co. and The Day That Curie Discovered Radium. In Tom Wolfe's world, in fact (as he might say), there is perpetual struggle between a large and snooty army of crumbs, known as the Literary People, who are the bad guys, and Tom's own band of good guys: rough-and-tumble fellows like Jimmy Breslin, dashing reporters such as Dick Schaap, the savvy nonintellectuals, the aces, the journalistic guerrilla fighters, the good old boys who "never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next ten years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature's main event."
It's easy enough to fault this sort of treatment of a complicated subject. A bit too simpleminded. Too in-groupish. Me and My Pals Forge History Together. All the same, it seems to me that beneath, or despite, the blather, Tom Wolfe is right about a lot of it. And very wrong too. And journalism is perhaps in the kind of muddle it's in today not, lord knows, because Tom Wolfe sat down at his bench one day and invented a new art form, but because people in general, editors as well as writers as well as readers, have had trouble figuring out how to deal with this terrain that he and many, many other journalists have steadily been pushing their way into over a period of a good many years.
To begin with, of course, one can say that the New Journalism isn't new. That's a favorite put-down: the New Journalist prances down the street, grabbing innocent bystanders by the lapels, and breathlessly (or worse, earnestly) declaiming about his "new fictional techniques," or his "neo-Jamesian point of view," or his "'seeing the world in novelistic terms" and all the rest of it, while the Old Literary Person gazes out his window and mutters: "New Journalism, indeed! What about Addison and Steele, eh? What about Defoe? What about Mencken? Joe Mitchell? Hemingway? Mark Twain?" That's right in a sense, but not, I think, in the most meaningful sense. It's right, at any rate, that there's been a vein of personal journalism in English and American writing for a very long time. For example, Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year developed for his subject the same sort of new techniques that the New Journalists discovered yesterdaynamely, he wrote it in the manner of a personal autobiographical narrative, and made up the narrative although not the details, which he got from records and interviews) since he was about five years old when the incident took place. For example, Joseph Mitchell published a remarkable series of pieces in The New Yorker in the early 1940s on New York fish-market lifefull of impressionistic detail, and centering on a man whom he had also invented: Mr. Flood. In a prefatory note to the first piece, Mitchell wrote: "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past. I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts."
Here, by the way, is the opening passage from "Old Mr. Flood":
"A tough Scotch-Irishman I know, Mr. Hugh G. Flood, a retired house-wrecking contractor, aged ninety-three, often tells people that he is dead set and determined to live until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will be a hundred and fifteen years old. 'I don't ask much here below,' he says. 'I just want to hit a hundred and fifteen. That'll hold me.' Mr. Flood is small and wizened. His eyes are watchful and icy blue, and his face is ... "
Here is the opening to The Earl of Louisiana, by A. J. Liebling:
"Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texasstale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that the corn tastes different where it grows. That, I suppose, is why for twenty-five years I underrated Huey Pierce Long ... "
Here is the opening to Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, published in 1938:
"In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table. He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had opened on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend ... "
And here is the opening of Tom Wolfe's piece on Phil Spector, the rock music figure:
"All these raindrops are high or something. They don't roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America's first teen-age tycoon, watches ... this watery pathology ... it is sick, fatal ... "
According to Tom Wolfe and the various unofficial histories of New Journalism, something marvelous, exciting, dramatica light of revelationhappened to Old Journalism in the hands of the young hotshots at Esquire and the Herald Tribune. Since then the novel has never been the same. A new art form was created. And so forth.
I wonder if what happened wasn't more like this: that, despite the periodic appearance of an Addison, or Defoe, or Twain, standard newspaper journalism remained a considerably constricted branch of writing, both in England and America, well into the nineteen twenties. It's true that the English had this agreeable, essayist, public-school-prose tradition of personal observation, which filtered down into their newspapers. "As I chanced to take leave of my café on Tuesday, or Wednesday, of last week, and finding myself sauntering toward the interesting square in Sarajevo," the English correspondent would write, "I happened to observe an unusual, if not a striking, occurrence ... " Even so, in spite of the "I," and the saunterings, and the meanderings, and the Chancellor-Schmidlap-informed-me-in-private business, English journalism was for the most part as inhibited, and official, and focused as was the society, which paid for it and read it.
In America there was much of the same thingsome of it better, a lot of it worse. The American daily press didn't go in as strongly for the sauntering I, except for the snobbier Eastern papers, which presumably were keen to imitate the English style. The American press rested its weight upon the simple declarative sentence. The no-nonsense approach. Who-What-Where-When. Clean English, it was later called when people started teaching it at college. Lean prose. Actually, it was two things at once. It was the prose of a Europe-oriented nation trying put aside somebody else's fancy ways and speak in its own voice. But it was also the prose of the first true technological peopleWho? What? Where? When? Just give us the facts, ma'amthe prose of an enormously diverse nation that was caught up with the task (as with the building of the railroads) of bridging, of diminishing this diversity.
In those days, when something happened, an eventa hotel fire, for examplenewspapers generally gave you certain facts, embedded in an official view. No matter that the reporter himself, personally was a hotshot, a drinker, a roarer, an admirer of Yeats, a swashbuckler of the city room; in most instances he gave you the official view of the fire. Where it was. How many people got burned. How much property got damaged. What Fire Commisioner Snooks said of the performance of his men. And so forth.
Then, after the First World War, especially the literary resurgence in the nineteen twentiesthe writers' world of Paris, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. into the relatively straitlaced, rectilinear, dutiful world of conventional journalism appeared an assortment of young men who wanted to do it differently. Alva Johnson. John McNulty. St. Clair McKelway. Vincent Sheean. Mitchell. Liebling. And god knows who else. A lot of them worked for the Herald Tribune. Later, many of them connected in one way or another with The New Yorker. What they did to journalism I think was this: first, they made it somehow respectable to write journalism. A reporter was no longer a crude fellow in a fedora. He was a widely informed traveler (like Sheean), or had an elegant prose style (like McKelway), or a gusto for listening and finding out things (like Mitchell or Liebling). Second, when they looked at this same hotel fire, and how it had been covered by their predecessors and colleagues, they noted that, at the Fire Commissioner's briefing, for the most part no one started his camera, or pencil, until the Fire Commissioner came into the room, and walked to the lectern, and opened his Bible, and began to speak. One imagines that these young men saw things otherwise. Movies were already by then a part of the culture, although admittedly a lowly part of the culture. Motion was a part of the new vocabulary. And total deference to the Fire Commissioner, or to the General, or to the Admiral, had already begun its twentieth-century erosion. The new thing, it seems to me, that the writer-journalists of the 1930s and 40s brought to the craft was a sense, an interest, in what went on before (and after) the Fire Commissioner came into the room. What did he do when he got on the elevator downstairs? Did he drop a quarter on floor? What were his movements? For the first time in conventional reporting people began to move. They had a journalistic existence on either side of the event. Not only that, but the focus itself shifted away from the Fire Commissioner or the man who owned the hotel, and perhaps in the direction of the man who pumped the water, or the night clerk at the hotel across the way. Thus: reduced deference to official figures. (For example: James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Personal touches. Dialoguein fact, real speech faithfully recorded. When you read a McKelway piece on Walter Winchell, for example, you found a public hero taken to task, you found out what Winchell did when he wasn't in the public view, and you heard him speaknot quotes for the press, but what he said when he was ordering a ham on rye. "I'll have a ham on rye." Few reporters had done that before. Newspapers hadn't had the space. And besides (editors said), who wants to know what Bismarck had for breakfast, or what his ordinary comments sound like.
Then time passes. The scene shiftseverybody shifts. The nineteen fifties. The nineteen sixties. Tom Wolfe writes that he came out of college, or graduate school, burdened like the rest of his generation with the obligation to write a novelonly to discover suddenly that the time of the novel was past. I don't know whom Tom Wolfe was talking to in graduate school, or what he was reading, but back in the early nineteen fifties you didn't have to read every magazine on the newsstand to realize that a fairly profound change was already taking place in the nation's reading habits. Whether it was Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, or The New Yorker, most magazines, which had been preponderantly devoted to fiction, were now increasingly devoted to nonfiction. It was also true, even then, that the novel itself was changingchanging, to be sure, as it had been since Henry James first gazed upward and noticed that the roof was off the cathedral. It was becoming easier, possibly, and more profitable, to become a novelist-disguised-as-screenwriter; but harder, perhaps, to become, and stay, a novelist of imagination and interior truth, which is what people increasingly seemed to be wanting of them. Mostly, in fact, one hears about the Death of the Novel from journalists, or from novelists-turned-journalists. And although there is only one Painted Bird, or Separate Peace, or Play It As It Lays produced in every twenty thousand books, people, the audience, still seem to be looking for that one; and the impress of each of those few books, I suspect, is still stronger and more lasting than nearly all the rest.
This brings us to the present state of the craft: the New Journalism. There is no getting around the point, I think, that a number of writers in the last dozen years have been exerting a steady (and often a self-dramatizing) push at the already-pushed boundaries of conventional journalism. I think of Gay Talese in many of his Esquire pieces, and especially in his last book, Honor Thy Father. I think of Terry Southern's magazine pieces, also for the most part in Esquire. Norman Mailer writing in Harper's about the peace march to the Pentagon, and the presidential campaign of 1968, and then in Life on the moon shot. Tom Wolfe and Breslin and Gail Sheehy and a whole lot of people who write for New York. Dan Wakefield in The Atlantic. John McPhee and Truman Capote in The New Yorker. A whole lot of peoplesometimes they all seem to be the same personwho write in The Village Voice. Also: Nicholas von Hoffman, David Halberstam, Marshall Frady, Barry Farrell; and obviously a great many others. My guess is that anyone who denies that the best work of these writers has considerably expanded the possibilities of journalismof looking at the world we're living inis hanging on to something a bit too tightly in his own past. And on the other hand, that anyone who feels a need to assert that the work, especially the whole work, of these men composes a new art form, and a total blessing, is by and large talking through his hat.