The best choice progenitors on the Brand-new Journalism action
The New Journalism By Tom Wolfe
The excerpt from In Cold Blood, is the fifth text in the anthology. The excerpt is taken from the third chapter titled Answers. In Cold Blood was initially, published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, beginning with the September 25, 1965 issue. Answers, which was the third part, was published in the October 25 issue. The book details the brutal 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer from Holcomb, Kansas, and his wife and two of their children.
And since the way writers construct the story of who we are is as important for our culture as it is for the study of journalism, Wolfe’s distortions pose a genuine dilemma. The late sixties and the early seventies were wonderful times for a functionally literate reader. So many great writers were pushing the boundaries on style and subject matter. Having just read The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe, I’m compelled to say something about it, but not inspired. Nonetheless, you’ve gotta love an anthology and that’s what this is; a slice out of time with Tom Wolfe as an excellent curator.
Likewise among people in television, public relations, the movies, on the English faculties of colleges and high schools, among framing shop clerks, convicts, unmarried sons living with Mom … a whole swarm of fantasizers out there steaming and proliferating in the ego mulches of America . 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 versionif anything, perhaps a semiautomatic disdain of one. There is virtually no interest in the traditional touchstone facts, the numbersthe 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 dialoguedialogue overheard.
All of a sudden, here comes a bunch of these lumpenproles, ignoring literary class lines that have been almost a century in the making. The results were often fascinating–both for my class and for myself . Ren Weschler described playing with children’s blocks to organize his thoughts.
We don’t understand the human animal any better now than we did four thousand years ago. Technically, we understand a lot more, but we don’t understand people any better. I think it will happen, but it’s not happening now. The only place that happens is in New York City, which is a more conservative place by far than, say, Los Angeles, where men are spending a lot more money on their clothes and trying to get better clothes. But once they leave the city limits, they go to great lengths to look pathetic.
The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration … a “neutral background” against which bits of color would stand out. You can’t imagine what a positive word “understatement” was among both journalists and literati ten years ago. There is something to be said for the notion, of course, but the trouble was that by the early 1960s understatement had become an absolute pall. Readers were bored to tears without understanding why. When they came upon that pale beige tone, it began to signal to them, unconsciously, that a well-known bore was here again, “the journalist,” a pedestrian mind, a phlegmatic spirit, a faded personality, and there was no way to get rid of the pallid little troll, short of ceasing to read. This had nothing to do with objectivity and subjectivity or taking a stand or “commitment”—it was a matter of personality, energy, drive, bravura … style, in a word … The standard non-fiction writer’s voice was like the standard announcer’s voice … a drag, a droning .
It may make watching the news more enjoyable. And you can credit the artistic ways of New Journalism. The skeptics, for the most part, focused on the question of whether the New Journalism was, in fact, new. Wasn’t 18th- and 19th-century English literature — Addison and Steele’s coffeehouse reports, Dickens’s Sketches by Boz, Hazlitt’s “The Fight” — bursting with precedents? In that respect, Wolfe’s reply was convincing. On close inspection, those writers had entirely different aims and methods, he argued.
We were all engaged in a form of newspaper competition that I have never known anybody to even talk about in public. Yet Schaap had quit as city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, which was one of the legendary jobs in journalism—moved down the organizational chart, in other words—just to get in this secret game. The New Journalists expanded the definition of journalism and of legitimate journalistic reporting and writing techniques.
Much of the critical literature concerns itself with a strain of subjectivism which may be called activism in news reporting. In 1970, Gerald Grant wrote disparagingly in Columbia Journalism Review of a “New Journalism of passion and advocacy” and in the Saturday Review Hohenberg discussed “The Journalist As Missionary” For Masterson in 1971, “The New Journalism” provided a forum for discussion of journalistic and social activism. In another 1971 article under the same title, Ridgeway called the counterculture magazines such as The New Republic and Ramparts and the American underground press New Journalism. Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, whose introduction and title story, according to James E. Murphy, “emerged as a manifesto of sorts for the nonfiction genre,” was published the same year. In his introduction, Wolfe wrote that he encountered trouble fashioning an Esquire article out of material on a custom car extravaganza in Los Angeles, in 1963.
Several other details in Daly’s story proved inaccurate, including the boy’s name and age, and the story gave the false impression that Daly had witnessed the shooting. It was also in 1965 that Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, offered an obscure, San Francisco-based freelancer $100 to do a piece on outlaw motorcycle gangs in California. Hunter Thompson, whose previous writing consisted largely of two unpublished novels and some South American correspondence for the National Observer, accepted the assignment, which led to his book Hell’s Angels.