Notes on the New Journalism

The New Journalist is in the end less a journalist than an impresario. Tom Wolfe presents ... Phil Spector! Norman Mailer presents ... the Moon Shot!  

Hunter S. Thompson checks his notes. (Ray Fairall / AP)

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 extolling—the pop sociology, the easy cultural generalities—with few of the compensating attractions—the 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 existence—when and where, according to Wolfe, the birth of New Journalism mostly occurred—he 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 yesterday—namely, 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 life—full 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 Texas—stale 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, dramatic—a light of revelation—happened 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 thing—some 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 people—Who? What? Where? When? Just give us the facts, ma’am—the 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 event—a hotel fire, for example—newspapers 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 twenties—the 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. Dialogue—in 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 speak—not 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 shifts—everybody 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 novel—only 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 changing—changing, 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.

From the archives: 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 people—sometimes they all seem to be the same person—who 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 journalism—of looking at the world we’re living in—is 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.

“The Class of ’43 Is Puzzled” (October 1968)
While the rebels in the present college generation raised their voices and their barricades, men and women of earlier generations traveled back to campuses to raise their glasses in that long-standing late spring rite, the class reunion. By Nicholas Von Hoffman

Consider the mythic hotel fire we were talking about. Today, when a New Journalist tells it, there is likely to be no deference to an official version—if anything, perhaps a semiautomatic disdain of one. There is virtually no interest in the traditional touchstone facts, the numbers—the number of people dead, or saved, or staying at the hotel, the worth of the jewelry, or the cost of damage to the building. Instead, there are attempts to catch the heat of the flames, the feel of the fire. We get snatches of dialogue—dialogue overheard. A stranger passes by, says something to another stranger, both disappear. Rapid motion. Attempts to translate the paraphernalia of photography—the zoom lens, film-cutting. Disconnection. And nearly always the presence of the journalist, the writer— his voice. Our event, in fact—the fire—has seemingly changed in the course of time from (once) existing solely as an official rectilinear fact, to (later) a more skeptically official, looser, more written, human account, to (now) its present incarnation in New Journalism as a virtually antiofficial, impressionist, nonfactual, totally personal account of a happening—which often now is only permitted to exist for us within the journalist’s personality.

The chief merits and demerits of New Journalism seem then as basic as these: the merit is—who really wants to read about this fire as it is likely to be presented in the New York Times or in a standard newspaper report? For those who do want to, the standard newspaper will give you the traditional facts: the number of people in the hotel, the number of people killed, who owns the hotel, etc. The standard newspaper considers these facts important, because (apparently) the standard newspaper for the last seventy-five years or more has considered these facts important. Here is the beginning of a front-page story in the New York Times on the controversial and emotional subject of housing in Forest Hills: “A compromise plan to end the fight over the Forest Hills low-income housing project has been worked out by top aides of Mayor Lindsay, including former Deputy Mayor Richard R. Aurelio, and has been discussed privately with leaders of blacks and Jews and with high-ranking officials. The plan would call for a scaling-down of the Forest Hills project by about a third and the revival of the project for the Lindenwood section of Queens that was recently killed by the Board of Estimate. The Lindenwood project, however, would be smaller than the earlier one … ” If this is the voice of conventional journalism speaking to us about our world, it is likely to find an increasingly restless, disconnected audience. The voice speaks too thin a language. The world it tells us about so assiduously seems but a small part of the world that is actually outside the window—seems a dead world, peopled largely by official figures, and by procedural facts, and written about in a fashion which is doubtless intended to be clear, and clean, and easy to understand, but which instead is usually flat, and inhuman, and nearly impossible to connect to.

If then the merit of New Journalism is that it affords us the possibility of a wider view of the world, a glimpse of the variousness and disorder of life, its demerits, I think, are that these possibilities are so seldom realized, or at such cost to the reality-mechanism of the reader. For instance, in the matter of our hotel fire; there is no need, it seems to me, for a journalist today to relate all the traditional facts (especially since most of them, in this sort of story, are basically concerned with Property); but if he is to tell it as a real story, an account of an event that actually happened, I think there is a very deep requirement on the part of the reader (usually not expressed, or not expressed at the time) that the objects in the account be real objects. If the fire took place at the Hotel Edgewater, probably one ought to know that much, and certainly not be told that it was the Hotel Bridgewater. “But what does it matter?“ says the New Journalist. “That’s not the important thing, is it?” In many ways it isn’t, but in serious ways it is. It’s a commonplace by now that contemporary life doesn’t provide us with many stable navigational fixes on reality; and that we need them, and have trouble, privately and publicly, when we are too long without. Families. Schools. The Government. Movies. Television. None of these contribute much anymore to informing us of the actual objects in the actual room we move about in. Journalism should materially help us with this, but all too rarely does—is either too conventionally timid, or, with the New Journalist, too often (I think) gives up the task of telling us of the actual arrangement of the objects, or at any rate of trying to find out, get close to it, in favor of the journalist’s own imposed ordering of these objects.

By no means all New Journalism is careless. Talese, for example, seems to be remarkably meticulous to detail. Mailer’s account of the march on the Pentagon seems to have been extremely faithful to what happened. There are other examples, although not, I suspect, all that many. A careful writer. That was Joe Liebling’s way of praising a fellow journalist, his highest praise. There are probably few careful writers around anymore. And few careful editors. Few careful generals. Few careful stockbrokers. Few careful readers. This doesn’t seem to be a very careful period we are living in. Relationships seem to break apart … carelessly. Wars are waged … carelessly. Harmful drugs are put on the market … carelessly. A soldier kills (“wastes”) two hundred unarmed civilians … carelessly; and his countrymen, when told of this, first don’t want to hear, then turn away … carelessly. The point is not that it is a better or worse era than Liebling’s, nor that there is any sure way of measuring it—but it is different.

And swirling all about us—still swirling, although the motion has somewhat abated—has been the great sexual lather of the 1960s. It was in the sixties, wasn’t it, that we first had the miniskirt. Wife-swapping. Sex clubs. Swinging. The Pill. The sexuality of Kennedy politics. The new dark Grove Press best sellers. I Am Curious, Yellow—and showing at a chic theater. The sexual emancipation of women. Kaffeeklatsches about the clitoral orgasm. All those strident sexy costumes—the cutout clothes, the glaring colors, the threads that lawyers started to wear on weekends, the big wide ties, the sideburns. Esalen. Touch therapy. Everybody (it seemed) committed to being sexy, or at any rate aware of it, or at any rate trying to deal with it. Since then, some of the stridency has quieted down a bit. Sex in writing, for instance, seems to be less insistent and obligatory. We’ve just had Love Story, haven’t we? Fashion magazines have started muttering about a Return to Elegance, whatever that may mean. But it was back in the sixties that New Journalism made its big push—a debut which Tom Wolfe seems to think derived from some magic confluence of the stars, or at least from some solemn discovery of the Death of the Novel. I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t at all the way he says it was—but my guess is that a lot of what’s happened in New Journalism has as much to do with the New Carelessness of the times, and the sexual stridency of writers (and of nearly everyone else), as it has to do with attempts to evolve freer journalistic techniques.

At any rate, the new journalistic techniques have produced a mightily uneven body of work. Some of it as good as, for instance, Wolfe’s own Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—but much of it—for example a recent piece in Rolling Stone by Hunter Thompson on the New Hampshire primaries—is slipshod and self-serving. Partly this is because of the times we live in, and both writers and readers respond to the times. Partly, too, it’s because—with one, or two, or two-and-a-half exceptions there are virtually no prose editors anymore. Already in reporting, one notes that what used to be called a reporter is now called an “investigative reporter”; the reporter is presumably the fellow who informs us that the President is now standing in the doorway of the plane. And in editing, the person who deals with the bloody manuscript is somebody called the “copy” or “text” editor, and works in a small office behind the broom closet; while the Editor, of course, is the man having lunch with Clifford Irving. Editors today lunch, and make deals, and assign subjects—“concepts”—and discourse airily on the “new freedom” which they now provide writers; which in fact means that the Editor can remain at lunch, and not be much bothered on his return by a responsibility to his writer’s story, or to his writer’s subject, because he usually has none, claims none. And writers, for their part, just as keen to escape the strictures of traditional editing—as indeed are so many others in our society to escape the traditional strictures of their lives, marriages, families, jobs; and possibly for the same sort of reasons.

Writers. Writer-journalists. It is clearly a splendid thing, a sexy thing, to be a writer-journalist these days. Admirals, aviators, bishops—everyone has his day. Today it is the journalist (and some others). He declaims about the end-of-the-novel while he hitch-hikes on the novel. He has small patience for the dreary conventions of the Old Journalism, although he rides upon its credibility, on the fact that most people will buy and read his work on the assumption (built up by his predecessors) that when he writes: “Startled, the Pope, awoke to find the Hotel Bridgewater in flames,” it was indeed the Bridgewater, not the Edgewater, and that it was, in fact, the Pope. Even so, this is not the worst of crimes. When people complain too much about inaccuracy, or inattention to detail, it seems to me they are usually talking about something else, perhaps a larger, muddled conflict of life-views.

Where I find the real failure in New Journalism, or in much of it anyway, is in the New Journalist’s determination and insistence that we shall see life largely on his terms. Granted one knows, by now, the pitfalls of conventional “objectivity.” One is aware of the inaccuracies and timidities which so often have resulted from on-the-one-hand … on-the-other-hand reporting. Still, there is something troubling and askew in the arrogance—and perhaps especially in the personal unease—that so often seems to compel the New Journalist to present us our reality embedded in his own ego. A classic example of this, I thought, was Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, with its generalities about engineers and scientists—generalities which seemed less concerned with what scientists or engineers might be, even if one could generalize about them, than in the ego-ability of the writer to generalize about them. Lesser talents and egos than Mailer are less noticeable, although it seems to me that much, if not most, routine New Journalism—I am thinking of the dozens of pieces about movie stars and politicians that appear in magazines each year—consists in exercises by writers (admittedly often charming, or funny, or dramatically written exercises) in gripping and controlling and confining a subject within the journalist’s own temperament. Presumably, this is the “novelistic technique.” But in fact Madame Bovary is a creature of Flaubert’s—regardless of whether Flaubert once spent a summer in Innsbruck with a lady who looked vaguely like her, and who expressed dissatisfaction with her husband. Whereas Phil Spector, for example, in the Tom Wolfe piece, or Bill Bonanno in Honor Thy Father, or George Meany in a Harper’s piece by John Corry all are real people, nobody’s creatures, certainly not a journalist’s creatures—real people whose real lives exist on either side of the journalist’s column of print. The New Journalist is in the end, I think, less a journalist than an impresario. Tom Wolfe presents … Phil Spector! Jack Newfield presents … Nelson Rockefeller! Norman Mailer presents … the Moon Shot! And the complaint is not that the New Journalist doesn’t present the totality of someone’s life, because nobody can do that—but that, with his ego, he rules such thick lines down the edges of his own column of print. Nothing appears to exist outside the lines—except that, of course, it does. As readers, as audience, despite our modem bravado, I don’t think we show much more willingness, let alone eagerness, than we ever did to come to terms with this disorder—the actuality, the nonstorybook element in life. And it seems to me that, on the whole, the New Journalist (despite his bravado) hasn’t risked much in this direction either; and if you think none of it matters, my guess is you’re wrong.