Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

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

" 'I thought Conn got up in time,' he said, 'but that referee wouldn't let him go on.'

"Rose Morgan said nothing—just swallowed the rest of her drink."

What the hell is going on? With a little reworking the whole article could have read like a short story. The passages in between the scenes, the expository passages, were conventional 1950s-style magazine journalism, but they could have been easily recast. The piece could have been turned into a non-fiction short story with very little effort. The really unique thing about it, however, was the reporting. This I frankly couldn't comprehend at first. I really didn't understand how anyone could manage to do reporting on things like the personal by-play between a man and his fourth wife at an airport and then follow it up with that amazing cakewalk down Memory Lane in his second wife's living room. My instinctive, defensive reaction was that the man had piped it, as the saying went . . . winged it, made up the dialogue . . . Christ, maybe he made up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geek . . . The funny thing was, that was precisely the reaction that countless journalists and literary intellectuals would have over the next nine years as the New Journalism picked up momentum. The bastards are making it up! (I'm telling you, Ump, that's a spitball he's throwing . . .) Really stylish reporting was something no one knew how to deal with, since no one was used to thinking of reporting as having an esthetic dimension.

At the time I hardly ever read magazines like Esquire. I wouldn't have read the Joe Louis piece except that it was by Gay Talese. After all, Talese was a reporter for the Times. He was a player in my own feature game. What he had written for Esquire was so much better than what he was doing (or was allowed to do) for the Times, I had to check out what was going on.

". . . What the hell is going on? With a little reworking Talese's whole article on Joe Louis could have read like a short story . . ."

Not long after that Jimmy Breslin started writing an extraordinary local column for my own paper, the Herald Tribune. Breslin came to the Herald Tribune in 1963 from out of nowhere, which is to say he had written a hundred or so articles for magazines like True, Life, and Sports Illustrated. Naturally he was virtually unknown. At that time knocking your brains out as a free-lance writer for popular magazines was a guaranteed way to stay anonymous.* (See footnote.) Breslin caught the attention of the Herald Tribune's publisher, Jock Whitney, through his book about the New York Mets called Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? The Herald Tribune hired Breslin to do a "bright" local column to help offset some of the heavy lumber on the editorial page, paralyzing snoremongers like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop. Newspaper columns had become a classic illustration of the theory that organizations tend to promote people up to their levels of incompetence. The usual practice was to give a man a column as a reward for outstanding service as a reporter. That way they could lose a good reporter and gain a bad writer. The archetypical newspaper columnist was Lippmann. For 35 years Lippmann seemed to do nothing more than ingest the Times every morning, turn it over in his ponderous cud for a few days, and then methodically egest it in the form of a drop of mush on the foreheads of several hundred thousand readers of other newspapers in the days thereafter. The only form of reporting that I remember Lippmann going for was the occasional red-carpet visit to a head of state, during which he had the opportunity of sitting on braided chairs in wainscotted offices and swallowing the exalted one's official lies in person instead of reading them in the Times. I don't mean to single out Lippmann, however. He was only doing what was expected of him . . .

In any case, Breslin made a revolutionary discovery. He made the discovery that it was feasible for a columnist to leave the building, go outside and do reporting on his own, actual legwork. Breslin would go up to the city editor and ask what stories and assignments were coming up, choose one, go out, leave the building, cover the story as a reporter, and write about it in his column. If the story were big enough, his column would start on page one instead of inside. As obvious as this system may sound, it was unheard of among newspaper columnists, whether local or national. If possible, local columnists are even more pathetic. They usually start out full of juice, sounding like terrific boulevardiers and raconteurs, retailing in print all the marvelous mots and anecdotes they have been dribbling away over lunch for the past few years. After eight or ten weeks, however, they start to dry up. You can see the poor bastards floundering and gasping. They're dying of thirst. They're out of material. They start writing about funny things that happened around the house the other day, homey one-liners that the Better Half or the Avon lady got off, or some fascinating book or article that started them thinking, or else something they saw on the TV. Thank God for the TV! Without television shows to cannibalize, half of these people would be lost, utterly catatonic. Pretty soon you can almost see it, the tubercular blue of the 23-inch screen, radiating from their prose. Anytime you see a columnist trying to squeeze material out of his house, articles, books, or the television set, you've got a starving soul on your hands . . . You should send him a basket . . .


*Richard Gehman once told me about running into Abe Rosenthal (now managing editor of the "New York Times") shortly after Rosenthal had won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Polish rebellion of 1960. Gehman congratulated him profusely, whereupon Rosenthal, by way of being polite, asked Gehman if he were still writing for magazines. Gehman stared at him. He was dumbfounded. "Still writing?" At that moment he had sixteen articles on newsstands, in magazines ranging from men's adventures to the "Atlantic Monthly."


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising