The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution

by Marc Weingarten

The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

Hardcover, 325 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

Traces the evolution of a literary form of journalism within the context of the history of America since the end of the Second World War, offering incisive profiles of such gifted writers as John Hershey, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion in terms of their lasting influence on American journalism and cultural life.

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Excerpt: The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

Chapter One

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 others—particularly 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 Marquez—too 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 fiction—Joseph 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 Britain—the Privy Council's assumption of a censorship role, the suppression of the press by Oliver Cromwell in 1655—forced 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 misdirection—subversion 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 women—bank clerks, shopkeepers, bakers, market men, laundresses—who 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 India—even though the country's contrasts of gilt-edged Raj opulence and squalor were plainly visible.

Continues...


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