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The Birth of 'The New Journalism'; Eyewitness Report by Tom Wolfe

It is not very often that one comes across a new style, period. And if a new style were created not via the novel, or the short story, or poetry, but via journalism—I suppose that would seem extraordinary. It was probably that idea—more than any specific devices, such as using scenes and dialogue in a "novelistic" fashion—that began to give me very grand ideas about a new journalism. As I saw it, if a new literary style could originate in journalism, then it stood to reason that journalism could aspire to more than mere emulation of those aging giants, the novelists.

In any case, a . . . New Journalism . . . was in the air. "In the air," as I say it; it was not something that anyone took note of in print at the time, so far as I can remember. I have no idea who coined the term the New Journalism or when it was coined. I have never even liked the term. Any movement, group, party, program, philosophy or theory that goes under a name with "new" in it is just begging for trouble, of course. But it is the term that eventually caught on. At the time, the mid-1960s, one was aware only that there was some sort of new artistic excitement in journalism.

I knew nothing about what history, if any, lay behind it. I was only aware of what certain writers were doing at Esquire, Thomas B. Morgan, Brock Brower, Terry Southern and, above all, Gay Talese . . . Even a couple of established novelists were in on it, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, writing non-fiction for Esquire . . . and, of course, the writers on my own Sunday supplement, New York, chiefly Jimmy Breslin, but also Robert Christgau, Doon Arbus, Gail Sheehy, Tom Gallagher, Robert Benton and David Newman. Magazine writers were also beginning to provide the only portraits of the bizarre new styles of life that were cropping up in the 1960s (novelists were strangely shy about dealing with them, as it developed). I was turning out articles as fast as I could write and checking out all these people to see what new spins they had come up with. I was completely wrapped up in . . . this new thing that was in the air. It was a regular little league we had going.

But one thing never crossed my mind. I never had the slightest idea that what we were doing might have an impact on the literary world, or, in fact, on any sphere outside the small world of feature journalism. The first direct knowledge I had of the stir the New Journalism was creating in literary circles was when I read an article in the June, 1966, Atlantic by Dan Wakefield, entitled "The Personal Voice and the Impersonal Eye." The gist of this piece was that for the first time in anybody's memory, for the first time since the turn of the century when the occasional Nobel Prize was thrown to writers like Theodor Mommsen, people in the literary world were beginning to talk about non-fiction as a serious artistic form. Wakefield attributed this remarkable change to two books: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

But June, 1966, was actually pretty far down the line. The new form had already been paid a higher tribute, although I didn't comprehend that at the time. Namely, literary tribute in its cash forms: bitterness, envy, and resentment. This had all occurred during a curious interlude known as the New Yorker affair.

This is the first in a series of articles. Part II will appear in a subsequent issue.


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