The term “New Journalism” is most often associated with the work of certain American literary journalists who came to prominence in the 1960s. The phrase, however, also recalls a style of 1960s cultural politics which challenged not merely traditional journalism, but also fiction and the essay genre.
Tom Wolfe, the most outspoken advocate of the form, credits New York writer Pete Hamil with the first use of the term. In 1965, Hamil approached a New York editor with the idea of doing an article called “The New Journalism” about writers such as Gay Talese, who was writing exquisitely crafted feature articles for the New York Times and Esquire, and Jimmy Breslin, a colorful feature writer/columnist for the dying New York Herald Tribune. These writers were employing many devices of literature (scenes, dialogue, interior monologue, symbolic detail) in the service of nonfictional subjects. By the end of the decade a throng of both new and established writers had published popularly and critically acclaimed volumes in this form, including Wolfe (The Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1965; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968; The Pump House Gang, 1968); Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1965); Hunter S.Thompson (The Hell’s Angels, 1966); George Plimpton (Paper Lion, 1966); Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968); Norman Mailer (the Pulitzer Prizewinning The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968; Miami and the Siege of Chicago, 1968); Talese (New York—A Serendipiter’s Journey, 1961; The Overreachers, 1963; The Bridge, 1965; The Kingdom and the Power, 1969); and Breslin (Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, 1963).
In his 1973 manifesto and anthology The New Journalism, Wolfe described the literary hierarchy in the 1960s. The lowest rungs, he claimed, were the domain of the “lumpenprole” journalists. Essayists or “men-of-letters” held middle status, and the novelist reigned as the most esteemed of all writers. The New Journalism challenged this hierarchy by collapsing it, by, in effect, bringing the techniques of all three forms together into one ambitious hybrid genre. “What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate nonfiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories,” stated Wolfe. “It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space…to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.”
The New Journalism challenged the image of the essayist as “a literary gentleman with a seat in the grandstand” (Wolfe, 1973). Wolfe believed most nonfiction writers adopted this “century-old British” mindset without even recognizing it. New journalists dared essayists to come down from the grandstand and mingle with their subjects. They also called for more than “vivid description plus sentiment,” the forte of the familiar essayist.
Instead they favored the kind of thorough reporting that made possible the re-creation of “scenes.” Implicit, too, was a call for expansion of the subject matter deemed worthy of the essayist’s attention. The unnoticed and ignored gained the spotlight along with the celebrated, as did a range of emerging cultural lifestyles—including the drug and rockandroll cultures.
Most stultifying of all to Wolfe and his colleagues, however, was the genteel voice of the polite essayist—a hushed voice “like a radio announcer at a tennis match.” The essay had room, they insisted, for the “hectoring narrator,” the narrator speaking in the voice and accents of his subjects, the narrator inhabiting many points of view—narrators, in short, engaged in “apostrophes, epithets, moans, cackles, anything” (Wolfe, 1973). Such stress on technical virtuosity represented a shift in emphasis from the traditional essay which often featured a didactic tone. “One of the greatest changes,” Wolfe noted, “has been a reversal of this attitude—so that the proof of one’s technical mastery as writer becomes paramount and the demonstration of moral points becomes secondary.”
The legacy of the New Journalism, therefore, is not insubstantial. The major New Journalists of the 1960s have continued publishing in the genre, making what began as a youth movement now the domain of venerated literary lions. David Eason (1990) has offered a helpful distinction between “realist” New Journalists such as Talese, Wolfe, and Capote, who believe “reality” can be discovered and revealed, and “Modernist” New Journalists like Mailer, Didion, and Thompson, who describe “what it feels like to live in a world where there is no consensus about a frame of reference to explain ‘what it all means’.” A second generation of such writers is also established, headed by “Modernists” Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm, 1977; Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982.) and William Least Heat-Moon (The Blue Highways, 1982.; PrairyErth, 1991), and “realists” Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a New Machine, 1981; House, 1985; Among School Children, 1989; Old Friends, 1993) and Melissa Fay Greene (Praying for Sheetrock, 1991; The Temple Bombing, 1996). Their works today, however, are more likely to be categorized as literary or artful nonfiction than as New Journalism.
Wolfe’s efforts to define an identifiable school of writing have only partially succeeded. He has acknowledged that few of the writers he lauded in his manifesto wanted to be part of his “raggedy band”: Hunter Thompson insisted he was not a New Journalist but a “gonzo journalist,” a tongue-in-cheek term for his own patented mix of paranoia, black humor, and hyperbole; Talese said he was simply writing “stories with real names”; Capote called his In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel”; and Mailer used the term “true life novel” for his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song. By calling his hybrid form “New,” however, Wolfe spurred scholars to document what is now seen as a long tradition of literary journalism extending from Defoe through to the present.
This research now locates the New Journalism of the 1960s as one of the peaks of this long tradition. As a style of 1960s cultural politics, it forced journalists, essayists, and fiction writers to reexamine established views of subject matter, form, and authorial role.
In collapsing the boundaries between journalism, fiction, and the essay it enlarged each of these forms and raised important questions regarding the ways in which experience is organized and recorded.
The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W.Johnson, New York: Harper and Row, 1973
New Journalism, edited by Marshall Fishwick, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975
The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology, edited by Nicolaus Mills, New York: McGraw Hill, 1974
Anderson, Chris, Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
Connery, Thomas B., “Discovering a Literary Form,” in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre, edited by Connery, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992,
Eason, David, “The New Journalism and the Image-World,” in Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, edited by Norman Sims, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Hellmann, John, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981
Hersey, John, “The Legend on the License,” Yale Review 70 (Fall 1980): 1–15
Hollowell, John, Fact & Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977
Johnson, Michael L., The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Mode, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1971
Lounsberry, Barbara, The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990
Macdonald, Dwight, “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine,” New York Review of Books, 26 August 1965: 3–5
Murphy, James E., The New Journalism: A Critical Perspective, Lexington, Kentucky: Association for Education in Journalism, 1974
Pauly, John J., “The Politics of the New Journalism,” in Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, edited by Norman Sims, New York and Oxford: Oxford Univrsity Press, 1990
Sims, Norman, editor, The Literary Journalists, New York: Ballantine, 1984
Talese, Gay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” in The Literature of Reality, edited by Talese and Barbara Lounsberry, New York: HarperCollins, 1996
Weber, Ronald, The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy, New York: Hastings House, 1974
Weber, Ronald, The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980
Wolfe, Tom, The New Journalism, New York: Harper and Row, 1973 (includes an anthology, edited by Wolfe and E.W. Johnson)
Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud, The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976
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