Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Archaeology of New Journalism

Who’s Afraid of Tom Wolfe: How New Journalism Rewrote the World by Marc Weingarten [Aurum Press 2005]

The New Journalism
– Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson
[Picador 1975]

The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft – Robert S. Boynton [Vintage Books. 2005]

Jack London: A Life – Alex Kershaw [Flamingo. 1988]

Can anything be 'new' I guess is the first question. When Tom Wolfe ‘invented’ New Journalism and launched it on the world in the early 1970s, his aim was to supplant the novelists and literature practitioners in the Cultural hierarchy with journalists producing what he considered ‘the most important literature being written in America today.’

New Journalism, writes Boynton – ‘uses complete dialogue, rather than the snippets quoted in daily journalism, proceeds scene by scene, much as in a movie, incorporates varying points of view…’

‘The New Journalism,' he writes, ' was a truly avant-garde movement that expanded journalism’s rhetorical and literary scope by placing the author at the centre of the story, channelling a character’s thoughts, using non-standard punctuation, and exploding traditional narrative forms.’

Wolfe claimed that the true progenitors of New Journalism were the ‘literary realists’ of the 19th century – Fielding, Sterne, Dickens, Zola. Boyd and Weingarten both hold the view that, in a sense, ‘new journalism’ was always there in the ‘old journalism’. Campaigning journalism by Stephen Crane and Jack London, Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis represents its first 19th century flowering, says Boyle.

Its second came with a generation of writers centred around The New Yorker in the 50s and 60s – John Hershey, Lillian Roth and others – who Wolfe writes off as ‘Not Half-Bad Candidates’. He was also to memorably dismissed the magazine itself, in a stunning NJ performance for Esquire entitled ‘Tiny Mummies.’

Wolfe’s New Journalists included Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Terry Southern. The famous anthology also contains material from Garry Willis, Robert Christgau, ‘Adam Smith’, John Gregory Dunne, James Mills, George Plimpton, Barbara L. Goldsmith, Nicholas Tomalin, Joe Eszterhaus, rex Reed and Richard Goldstein. Interestingly there is no Jimmy Breslin, who Wolfe admired enormously.

Weingarten probes the mags, editors and antics behind classic works like ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hell’s Angels, Dispatches. Boynton’s book profiles the ‘New New Journalists’, through brief summaries of their careers and extended interviews about their craft and technique.

‘Contrary to the New Journalists’ this new generation experiments more with the way one gets the story,' he writes. 'To that end they’ve developed innovative immersion strategies ' typified by Ted Conover, who lived as a hobo to write his book Rolling Nowhere and worked as a prison guard for Newjack.

He calls it ‘the literature of the everyday’ and says it is often focused on impoverished subcultures, ‘drilling down into the bedrock of ordinary experience, exploring what Gay Talese calls ‘the fictional current that flows beneath the streams of reality.’

Other writers featured in the book are: Richard Ben Cramer, Leon Dash, William Finnegan, Jonathan Harr, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, Jane Kramer, William Langewiesche, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, Richard Preston, Ron Rosenbaum, Eric Schlosser, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, Lawrence Weschler, Lawrence Wright.

Both Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. both read Jack London when they were kids. London himself read Kipling and Stevenson.

Jack became the most successful writer in America in 1903 with The Call of the Wild, based on his own extraordinary real-life adventures. Less well-known is the fact that he wrote two non-fiction prototype new journalism books: one of the first books about drifting across America called simply The Road, and his impassioned study of poverty in London’s East End – The People of the Abyss – which deeply influenced George Orwell in his writing of Down and Out in Paris and London.’

He was possibly the first journalist to write about surfing and, says Kershaw, 'to turn the natural drama of sport into stirring fiction.’ He was also a passionate pioneer organic farmer.

Kershaw’s masterful biography of Jack London (1826-1924), is approachable and sweeps you along expertly, revealing an extraordinary man who, for once, fits that old overworn phrase ‘larger than life.’

Jack came from the streets, ran away from home, became an oyster pirate, shipped out on a sealer with a vicious captain and lots of blood on deck, travelled to the Yukon, on a memorable, miserable, extreme journey that would have killed a lesser man and almost did for Jack.

Resolving to write stories and get them published if it killed him, Jack did almost expire once more before luck and fortune smiled and he rapidly became the biggest writer in America through his adventure stories such as the memorable ‘White Fang’ and ‘The Sea Wolf.’ From poverty he found riches, living in a huge house on the hills above San Francisco, from where he was to witness the destructive earthquake and fire that razed his birthplace to the ground.

In other mad adventures, he became a war correspondent in the Russian/Japanese war and sailed across and around the Pacific with an untrained crew.

London was, of course, a troubled man of gargantuan appetites, a huge physical presence, out of whom poured stories that still resonate, a man of enormous industry who suffered genuine tragedies and weathered personal loss and great pain and suffering. He was a socialist who genuinely believed that Anglo Saxon races were superior to other men. Yet he knew what it was like to be poor.

There are many interesting parallels and connection between London and Guthrie, whose autobiography ‘Bound for Glory’ contains, in Chapter One, a powerful ‘new journalistic’ account of a long and frightening ride inside a boxcar full of cement dust with a lot of desperate men with no heating and little water. Both had a driven ability to write copiously, both escaped from grinding poverty that left its scars.

New journalism or old, these books make you want to rush out to write right now, to see the world with new eyes, to ravish it, consume it and regurgitate every single last detail in torrents of vivid prose that inspire and entertain the reader. Why else would we all do it? As for what’s new. We’ll let the historians argue over that one.

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