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The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote, and the New Journalism Revolution

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The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote, and the New Journalism Revolution Cover

 

 

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RADICAL LIT: SOME ROOTS OF A REVOLUTION

"New Journalism" is a slippery phrase. When Tom Wolfe made it the title of a 1973 anthology featuring pieces from such writers as Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and others, he meant it to be a declaration of independence from any journalism that had preceded it. But there were othersparticularly the New Yorker crowd that had been stung by "Tiny Mummies"who criticized Wolfe for trying to trademark a technique that had existed for over two hundred years. They contended that there was nothing new about New Journalism.

They were both right. New Journalism had been flitting around the edges of American and British journalism since the earliest newspaper days. It was also true that writers such as Wolfe, Thompson, and Mailer didn't emerge fully formed from the empyrean. But had anyone ever really written like Wolfe, Thompson, or Mailer? No literary movement emerges from a vacuum, however, and here are some of the writers and movements that paved the way.

In his introduction to the 1973 anthology, Tom Wolfe makes a strong, self-serving argument for the literary supremacy of creative nonfiction over the novel, which he felt had suffered a precipitous status slippage.

He has little use for fiction writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marqueztoo enamored of myth, too "neo-fabulist." Modish experimental writers Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, and John Barth, with their abstruse word games and dense allusiveness, were too busy with literary trickery to bother looking out of their own windows.

"In New York in the early 1960s," he writes, "what with all the talk of 'the death of the novel,' the man of letters seemed to be on the rise again. There was considerable talk of creating a 'cultural elite,' based on what the local literati believed existed in London. Such hopes were dashed, of course, by the sudden emergence of yet another horde of Visigoths, the New Journalists."

Wolfe compares his journalism contemporaries to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century giants Dickens, Balzac, and Fielding, writers who accurately portrayed their times in social realist fiction. The new fiction of the late sixties and seventies, with its inward turn away from the "hulking carnival" of contemporary American culture, left a huge void for New Journalists to fill.

Suffice it to say, Wolfe's theory had a few logical holes. There were novelists who were laying claim to the cultural landscape of America in some of the best postwar fictionJoseph Heller's Catch-22 and James Baldwin's Another Country, for example. But Wolfe's contention that contemporary journalists were for the first time working up the literary hierarchy was true. They had come from a very long way down to do so.

Wolfe's notion of New Journalists as the new "Visigoths," a threat to the established order, stretches back to the earliest days of print media. Beginning with the Tudor era in fifteenth-century England, the British monarchy maintained an iron grip on the dissemination of public information. The history of journalism is in many ways a history of oppression and censorship. Countless government decrees in Great Britainthe Privy Council's assumption of a censorship role, the suppression of the press by Oliver Cromwell in 1655forced newspapers underground. A black market emerged in the middle of the seventeenth century, as broadsheets that reported on specific news events were distributed clandestinely.

All of this iron-fisted regulation on the free exchange of ideas in the press created a thriving market for satire. Satirists could get away with more pointed protest than straight journalists, because they were moving targets who attacked with playful misdirectionsubversion as comic entertainment. Jonathan Swift, a Dubliner born to English parents, witnessed the corruption of English politics while apprenticing under Sir William Temple, an English diplomat and a retired member of the Irish parliament. In 1710, Swift became editor of the Examiner, which became the press organ of the Tory party. A fierce critic of the English government's dominion over Ireland, Swift wrote a series of impassioned broadsides condemning Great Britain's foreign policy. His 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal," which advocated eating Irish children as the best palliative for the country's overpopulation and food shortage, laid Ireland's abject poverty at the feet of the Brits, but disguised it as a mordantly funny satire:

There is likewise . . . great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us! sacrificing the poor innocent babes I doubt more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

Two hundred and forty years prior to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, Swift was practicing a particularly virulent kind of savagery in print, despite his close ties to the Catholic Church.

In 1836, twenty-one-year-old Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter for the British newspaper the Morning Chronicle when his editor, John Black, suggested that he focus less on matters of state and more on the streets of London. So Dickens ventured out, recording the mores of daily life among the working and middle classes. The result was a series of five articles called "Street Sketches," which became so popular that Dickens wrote forty-eight more sketches for the Chronicle and a rival paper, the Evening Chronicle.

Writing under the pseudonym Boz, Dickens created a series of modest portraits that captured ordinary working men and womenbank clerks, shopkeepers, bakers, market men, laundresseswho went about their business with little ceremony or ambition, the silent majority of a society that adhered closely to a rigid class code and had little use for the human flywheels of the industrial economy. Dickens's writing existed in a shadow region between speculative fiction and reportage, which gave Dickens the license to speculate on the inner lives of his characters with great specificity. Here, Dickens trains his focus on one such man, one of the "passive creatures of habit and endurance:"

We thought we almost saw the dingy little back office into which he walks every morning, hanging his hat on the same peg, and placing his legs beneath the same desk: first, taking off that black coat which lasts the year through, and putting on the one which did duty last year, and which he keeps in his desk to save the other. There he sits till five o'clock, working on, all day, as regularly as the dial over the mantel-piece, whose loud ticking is as monotonous as his whole existence: only raising his head when some one enters the counting-house, or when, in the midst of some difficult calculation, he looks up to the ceiling as if there were inspiration in the dusty skylight with a green knot in the centre of every pane of glass.

Here is a journalist filling in the blanks of his subject's life as he saw fit. The success of the Boz series would give creative license for other writers to do the same.

It's a stone fact that New Journalism emerged from the gutter, not only via reformist-minded writers with real concerns but also via exploiters who milked the class-based prejudices of the working class for every last drop of profit. The literary art of the scandal sheet can't be overlooked. Tom Wolfe has always regarded the best tabloid reporting as the apotheosis of New Journalism. It's where the high-beam writing style, the racy description and zippy dialogue, really ratcheted up to full throttle.

In the nineteenth century, the most clever and enterprising scandal monger was Joseph Pulitzer. A Hungarian immigrant who found work as a reporter for Carl Schurz's German-language weekly Westliche Post shortly after arriving in St Louis in 1868, Pulitzer quickly insinuated himself into the civic fabric of St. Louis despite his foreign heritage, becoming a member of the Missouri State Assembly in 1872. The next few years found Pulitzer reporting for Charles Dana's New York Sun (he covered the disputed presidential election between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden in 1876), traveling across Europe, and buying and selling shares in various newspapers. In 1878 Pulitzer brought the St. Louis Evening Dispatch out of receivership for $2,500 and merged it with the Post, which he had bought previously.

Pulitzer cast himself as a champion of the disenfranchised, offering his readers long investigative pieces that exposed the chicanery of St. Louis's venal robber barons, corrupt politicians, and other such villains of the industrial age. The Post-Dispatch ran stories that dug deeper, with more factual accuracy, than any other newspaper in the country. But the Post-Dispatch also trafficked freely in sensationalism, the better to keep its working-class readership entertained. Under the stewardship of managing editor John A. Cockerill, the Post-Dispatch ran scurrilous gossip items on the city's prominent social families as well as breathless accounts of grisly murder, adulterous sex, and public hangings. Within four years, the Post-Dispatch was the leading paper in St. Louis.

Pulitzer brought his serious reporting and tawdry gossip to New York in 1883, when he bought the New York World from financier Jay Gould for $346,000. The competition was much stiffer in New York, where the Sun, the Herald, the Tribune, and the Times jostled for market share. But Pulitzer would be not deterred by the hothouse atmosphere of New York's Park Row press culture. Instead, he took the high road and the low road at the same time, espousing causes that benefited the workingman: a front page story in the May 24, 1883, issue passionately argued for the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge to be toll-free for all who used it.

The New York World's funhouse brand of journalism made Pulitzer a wealthy mogul, but other papers were leaning toward a more responsible, less subjective approach by the turn of the century. Not everyone was enamored of Pulitzer's trickery; an expanding educated class was demanding a more substantive approach to news gathering. The New York Times under the stewardship of managing editor Carr Van Anda was creating the template for the modern newspaper, with its scrupulous and thorough reporting and its use of the "inverted pyramid" technique. The inverted pyramid, which was widely adapted by American newspapers at the turn of the century, organized a story with the lead stating the salient theme in the opening paragraph, the body of the story in the middle paragraphs and the sharp, clever kicker at the end. The inverted pyramid, which organized the who, what, where, when, and why of a story into a compact format, legitimized a story's claims to factual accuracy. It was an airtight system, and newspapers regarded it as unassailable.

Reporting techniques became more refined. Writers were now placing stories in their proper historical context, instead of writing about events in a vacuum. The newspaper business was, in short, becoming downright respectable and honorable. If an audience existed for well-ordered news stories written in a measured style, there was no need for a reporter to get his or her hands dirty in the muck of idle gossip and circulation-boosting stunts. By 1921, the New York Times, with a circulation of three hundred thousand (five hundred thousand for the Sunday edition), had proven that serious journalism could engage readers as effectively as yellow journalism.

But the lure of the gutter is eternal. In the late nineteenth century, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal had supplanted Pulitzer's World as the foremost purveyor of populist reporting, with a staff that had been poached largely from the World itself. Although the Journal's overheated tone presaged the shrillness of supermarket tabloids, Hearst was not averse to hiring good writers who could leaven the junk with substance.

This impulse to mingle with the disenfranchised was strong among the more ambitious American journalists of the era. The rapid rise of modern capitalism at the turn of the century created a new class of protest writers, determined to record with documentary accuracy the indignities of those who dwelled on the margins. It also simply made for very good copy. Jack London put himself squarely at the center of his 1902 chronicle of lower-class London life, The People of the Abyss. Going undercover as a denizen of the East End of London, which at the time was the most depraved slum in the world, the San Francisco native experienced the stinging lash of social neglect. London's underworld is otherworldly; the notion of the abyss is used as a running metaphor throughout the book, the slum as an infernal black hole where no one escapes.

"I went down into the under-world of London with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer," London writes in the preface to The People of the Abyss. "Further, I took with me certain simple criteria with which to measure the life of the under-world. That which made for more life, for physical and spiritual health, was good; that which made for less life, which hurt, and dwarfed, and distorted life, was bad."

He found little that was good, and by the end of the book had no reason to think that conditions would improve, barring the complete abdication of the country's ruling class that had cruelly tamped down the East Enders. The People of the Abyss is advocacy journalism in the guise of a minutely observed chronicle of institutionalized despair.

Eric Blair developed his social consciousness from a relatively privileged perch. As the son of an agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, Blair and his family (which he once described as being "lower-middle-upper class") were inextricably linked to the British Empire and comfortably insulated from the deprivations of imperial Indiaeven though the country's contrasts of gilt-edged Raj opulence and squalor were plainly visible. Blair was inscripted into the usual educational career trackprep school at Sussex, then the prestigious Wellington and Eton secondary schoolsand it stoked his desire to be a writer.

At Eton, he read the great social satirists Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne as well as Jack London's The People of the Abyss, which swung his political views against the very system that had nurtured him. Rather than follow the prescribed path of Britain's learned class (Oxford, Cambridge, etc.), Blair, who began using the pen name George Orwell in 1933 while writing criticism and essays for the New Adelphi journal, enrolled in the Imperial Police Force to gather experiences for his writing, serving in Burma for five years. The Empire's benign neglect of Burma and its exclusionary elitism repulsed him. Disgusted with being a functionary in the Empire's vast machine, he resigned in 1927. Orwell could not be a party to "every form of man's dominion over man," he wrote in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier. "I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had to expiate. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants."

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9781400049837
Publisher:
Three Rivers Press
Subject:
American - General
Author:
Weingarten, Marc
Subject:
Journalism
Subject:
Reportage literature, American.
Subject:
Mailer, Norman - Criticism and interpretation
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
Wolfe, Thompson, Did
Publication Date:
20061212
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.04x5.26x.80 in. .56 lbs.

Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Journalism » General

The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote, and the New Journalism Revolution
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Product details 336 pages Three Rivers Press (CA) - English 9781400049837 Reviews:
"Review" by , "It's always complicated to write about writing (and about writers), but Marc Weingarten does it effortlessly. Every character in The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight is compelling and necessary. If this book doesn't make you want to be a journalist, nothing will."
"Review" by , "Well-researched, beautifully wrought — this is an addictively readable history of the revolution in American journalism."
"Review" by , "Weingarten is a strong, fresh voice in contemporary cultural criticism."
"Review" by , "Weingarten has composed a well-researched, well-written contemporary history. As a bonus, the pages can serve as a reporting and writing text of great value, because Weingarten delves into the techniques of the greats."
"Review" by , "[I]ntelligent hagiography with a moderate interest in the roots, progress and eventual decline of New Journalism's methods."
"Review" by , "[A] fascinating read...on the history of literary journalism and some of its passionate practitioners."
"Review" by , "Weingarten conducts new interviews and tells more behind-the-scenes stories, including the tale of the all-out war between the New Yorker and Wolfe that broke out when he wrote a story about the semicloistered nature of the magazine's editor, William Shawn. Even J.D. Salinger came out of hiding to heap insults on Wolfe."
"Synopsis" by , Based on comprehensive research and interviews, this book profiles such astonishingly gifted writers as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, who became the romantic heroes of their own tales, changing journalism and American cultural life forever.
"Synopsis" by , . . . In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Armies of the Night . . .

Starting in 1965 and spanning a ten-year period, a group of writers including Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, John Sack, and Michael Herr emerged and joined a few of their pioneering elders, including Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, to remake American letters. The perfect chroniclers of an age of frenzied cultural change, they were blessed with the insight that traditional tools of reporting would prove inadequate to tell the story of a nation manically hopscotching from hope to doom and back againfrom war to rock, assassination to drugs, hippies to Yippies, Kennedy to the dark lord Nixon. Traditional just-the-facts reporting simply couldnt provide a neat and symmetrical order to this chaos.

Marc Weingarten has interviewed many of the major players to provide a startling behind-the-scenes account of the rise and fall of the most revolutionary literary outpouring of the postwar era, set against the backdrop of some of the most turbulentand significantyears in contemporary American life. These are the stories behind those stories, from Tom Wolfes white-suited adventures in the counterculture to Hunter S. Thompsons drug-addled invention of gonzo to Michael Herrs redefinition of war reporting in the hell of Vietnam. Weingarten also tells the deeper backstory, recounting the rich and surprising history of the editors and the magazines who made the movement possible, notably the three greatest editors of the eraHarold Hayes at Esquire, Clay Felker at New York, and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. And finally Weingarten takes us through the demise of the New Journalists, a tragedy of hubris, miscalculation, and corporate menacing.

This is the story of perhaps the last great good time in American journalism, a time when writers didnt just cover stories but immersed themselves in them, and when journalism didnt just report America but reshaped it.

“Within a seven-year period, a group of writers emerged, seemingly out of nowhereTom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, John Sack, Michael Herrto impose some order on all of this American mayhem, each in his or her own distinctive manner (a few old hands, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, chipped in, as well). They came to tell us stories about ourselves in ways that we couldnt, stories about the way life was being lived in the sixties and seventies and what it all meant to us. The stakes were high; deep fissures were rending the social fabric, the world was out of order. So they became our master explainers, our town criers, even our moral consciencethe New Journalists.” from the Introduction

From the Hardcover edition.

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