A Look Back at the New Journalism—What Was That All About?

A young Tom Wolfe at the typewriter.

Tom Wolfe, one of the leaders of the New Journalism movement that started in the 1960s, explained it this way:

1. Scene-by-scene construction resorting as little as possible to historical narrative.

2. Realistic dialogue which defines character quicker and more effectively.

3. Third-person point of view, presenting scenes through the eyes of a character, giving the feeling of being inside the character’s mind.

4. Recording gestures, habits, manners, decorations, looks, poses—what amount to symbolic details.

The garden spot of the New Journalism was the New York Herald Tribune, which was having a hard time trying to survive and to lure readers.

The new journalists were feature writers trying to bring a new look to the old news story.

Their techniques were varied. Truman Capote believed that taking notes or the use of a tape recorder distorted any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, between “the nervous hummingbird and his would-be captor.” Rex Reed took notes because he often was “dealing with actors or actresses who have fragile egos and who are unsure of who they are in the first place.”

A lot of legwork was required. Taking more risks that most journalists would, Hunter Thompson lived with the Hell’s Angels. Truman Capote spent five years tracking the trail of two murderers for In Cold Blood. George Plimpton climbed into the ring with Archie Moore and played quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Joe McGinness rode the campaign trail with Richard Nixon for The Selling of the President 1968. Tim Crouse, author of The Boys on the Bus, said, “You really have to bother people.” David Halberstam said he has interviewed a subject as many as 10 or 15 times and may have only begun to mine “gold” during the last few sessions.

Wolfe’s four characteristics add up to a strong sense of the present—a kind of nowness and a sense of presence—a you-are-there feeling. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, said the writer puts together “an impressionistic portrait of what happened or, at least, what he saw happen.”

Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker said what bothered him about the New Journalism was “the temptation to go beyond an honest effort to get the truth is sometimes very great.”

Philip Nobile of Esquire said, “It can be a very lazy approach to writing. Sometimes you write out of your own head rather than your legwork. It’s an easy way for young writers to gain attention.”

Critic and writer Dwight MacDonald calls it “parajournalism—a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”

Michael Todd, an editor at The Atlantic, said, “The New Journalism takes on a considerable burden, which is to win his audience by creating himself in print. When this is done successfully, it can approach the novelist’s work: dramatizing full and subtle sensibility. But more often we settle for caricature.”

Hunter Thompson defined it as taking the information from your notes and from the photograph that your brain took and using fantasy to strengthen certain points. The question is whether the reader knows which is facts and which is fantasy. For instance, readers felt taken in when they learned that Gail Sheehy’s lively report on a Manhattan prostitute in New York magazine was not written about a real person but a life-like composite.

The question, said Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, “is whether this is an adequate form of journalism for dealing with the issues that most of us are interesting in.”

Lewis Lapham of Harper’s thinks “it works with marginal people. It doesn’t work if you’re trying to write about American institutions. If you’re trying to write about how the government works or how a bank works, you can’t do it because they won’t let you hang around that way. It’ll work if you’re dealing with rock bands and so forth.”

John Peter, the author of a 1973 Folio article from which all this is drawn, concluded, “There is no question New Journalism has challenged the anonymity, impersonality, and frequent dullness of conventional reportage. At it’s best, New Journalism reaffirms the importance of originality, personality, and style in writing.”

Peter concluded by quoting George Hirsch, publisher of New Times: “You can’t use a lot of razzle-dazzle to cover up a deficiency in solid reporting. It’s not new or old journalism. It’s either good or bad journalism.”



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