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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Just discovered a bunch of material that I was assembling back in 1992, aimed at creating a kind of DIGEST OF NEW KNOWLEDGE AND THINKING. Thought this might be of interest. Click on the document to bring up full screen version.

Remembering Hunter S. Thompson

More than a little delighted that my old buddy Lee Torrey, who I hadn't spoken to for at least a decade, found me through this little blog. Needless to say he's had his adventures in the meantime. Torrey was, of course, for those in the know, the legendary creator of the library classification system based on Roget's Thesaurus, which he invented and pioneered whilst working on the now equally legendary book 'An Index of Possibilities'. More of that anon. Turns out he has his own blog here but he was kind enough to allow me to repro on this site his excellent memories of the late, great Hunter S., who we all miss greatly in these benighted times. Lee writes like a dream, methinks, when he puts his mind to it. This piece reads fresh and original

When people ask me what Hunter Thompson was like I tell them he was just like the character in his books, and they smile and nod and leave me alone. I’m allergic to small talk, and despite my years at the National Enquirer, I really hate sharing gossip about celebrities. Besides, they say it’s not right to speak ill of the dead.

But that bastard Thompson nearly got me fired because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about our nocturnal activities. And he broke his solemn promise not to drag my good name into any of his wretched works of fiction. That’s right, fiction that he sold as journalism. So, yeah, let’s kick some dirt at the maniac’s ghost.

Thompson in Aspen in 1981

Let’s start in Palm Beach in 1983. Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer were having a messy public divorce and the national press corps was having fun in Florida covering the trial. Thompson was reporting the event for Rolling Stone, Reggie Potterton for Playboy, and I was covering it for the Enquirer. We didn’t mix well with the straight press, and so it was natural for the three of us to pool our resources.

A few weeks into this circus, in the middle of one night, Thompson calls me up and says he has an emergency. He’s always having emergencies and I told him to call 911. But he’s says he’s having a problem with the Pulitzer story and needs my help.

That woke me up. The secretive, reclusive, sociopathic egomaniac wants my help? This was totally uncharacteristic. Hunter was a solo operator. He was a lone wolf. He would never ask for help.

Thompson loved playing with fire.

So I go over to his low rent bungalow in West Palm, and find both the front and back doors are wide open, and the lights are off. So I turn on the lights and no one is home. The living room was littered with bottles and overloaded ashtrays and dead junk food. Remember the cheap hotel rooms where Nicholas Cage drank himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas? Just like that.

Eventually, Hunter ambles inside wearing only a bathrobe and dark aviator glasses, and of course his cigarette holder is clutched between his teeth. He was gripping a long black flashlight in one hand and a Colt 45 Combat Commander in the other. And there was a cut on his balding head that was leaking a little blood. He was mumbling more loudly than usual, and there was a hillbilly lope to his gait which gets really pronounced when he’s drunk.

This is all completely normal behavior for Thompson, and I did’t see any emergency that justifies getting me out of bed.

Certainly, there was no sense asking him why he was running around in the dark with a flashlight and handgun. I would never get a straight answer. He often reminded me of an autistic child who was off in his own world. A world, I suspect, that was populated by some pretty fearsome demons. Not that Hunter would ever show fear or turmoil or doubt, but he had a head full of trouble.

One nice thing about Hunter is that he could pull the big master switch in his brain and turn off the psychopath and turn on a personality that could communicate with the real world. His uncanny ability to shape shift his personality was a talent that let him make a living. And it kept him out of the slammer on many occasions. In fact, on rare days, he could be actually charming.

So he switches on an agreeable personality and pours us drinks and stuffs some typewritten sheets of paper in my hands. He asks me to read his first draft of the Pulitzer story.

And it’s garbage. Pulitzer is hardly mentioned. It is the unprintable ramblings of an intoxicated lunatic.

I didn’t know what to say or do because Thompson still had the gun in his hand. And he was waving it around and making incoherent noises.

It is fitting that Thompson died from a gun shot wound to the head. He was a gun nut. The most fun he had in Florida was going to the Everglades on the weekends and shooting up the tropical flora and fauna with exotic automatic weapons. Guns were exciting and wonderful toys to Hunter and he seemed oblivious to the danger they posed to himself and others, which is probably why he shot so many people. Yeah, accidentally.

So, while I sat on his bed, waiting to be shot, I re-read the Pulitzer piece, and it seemed better after I reordered some of the pages. And after a third reading, key lines were jumping out at me and I suddenly got it. The master craftsman had shifted the focus of the story away from the Pulitzer divorce trial and he had launched a howling indictment of Palm Beach society.

Brilliant. The Pulitzer story was small potatoes. Who cared that Roxanne Pulitzer had sex with a trumpet and drank too many daiquiris. Certainly not the readers of Rolling Stone. But the Palm Beach society angle was good. F. Scott Fitzgerald good. He had stumbled upon a diamond as big as the Ritz. This was class warfare. He had discovered why they called the denizens of Palm Beach filthy rich.

And we started talking about this angle and he got excited and he put down the gun.

Soon it was sunrise. Hunter was not fond of early morning light and I managed to escape, exhausted and drunk, but not shot.

And so it went when Thompson got into your life. It was an unending series of close scrapes with disaster, but it was also like hanging out with an alien life form that did not understand, or care about, the customs and laws of pathetic Earthlings. While Hunter could mix with bikers, madmen and drunks, he also had a subtle aloofness. He enjoyed being different. He enjoyed being smarter than the rest of us.

He also liked being unpredictably aggressive. When David Letterman made the mistake of inviting Thompson on Late Night to promote the film Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray, Thompson attempted to take over the show. I mean he physically tried to get Letterman out of his desk and take over the show. And there was a nasty rumor that he had brought an explosive device on the set. The good doctor of gonzo journalism was escorted off the set and his antics were edited from the segment.

After the broadcast I asked him what had happened and he denied bringing a bomb to the show, and he said he was just trying to give Letterman the same rough treatment that the TV comedian gave all his guests. Or whatever.

In a picture I have, at the film premier of Fear & Loathing, you can see Thompson holding a ripped bag of popcorn which he had been throwing at Johnny Depp. Yeah, Hunter could act like a two year old.

He had to be the center of attention. If there was another celebrity in the room on whom all the cameras were focused, he would do something like set the room on fire. Unless, of course, he wanted to be left alone. He’d rip your head off if you stumbled uninvited into his space. And forget about waking him up if he was late for an appointment.

Despite his violent mood swings and prickly personality, people everywhere adored him. On countless occasions on the street I saw all kinds of people approach him and ask for autographs. I was always amazed at the warmth the public had for a man with such an unwelcome reputation.

In fact, Thompson had groupies who would follow him from story to story. This puzzled him. He never could figure out how they knew what he was working on because not only was he obsessively secretive, but because he seldom knew himself what he was working on or where he might be tomorrow. Most of these groupies were young women who would do anything for some face time with the doctor.

Of course these deluded hormone-soaked creatures got the shock of their lives when they got up close and personal with Hunter, who was as liable to lash out and humiliate them as he was to bend them over. Which is not to say that he was a misogynist; he was more of a misanthrope. He really didn’t care for anyone getting too close or too personal.

I was happy to learn that he got married a few years ago, hoping that he had mellowed, and praying that Anita would live through the experience with her sanity intact. And I was not shocked to learn that he blew his brains out last week and left instructions to have his cremated remains shot out of the end of a canon. A perfect ending to a crazy life.

News reports say Anita was talking to him on the phone when he pulled the trigger. She later told reporters that he wanted to get out “while he was still on top of his game.”

He was pushing seventy and you can say he got out before his brains turned to mush. You can argue that the whole fear and loathing thing was getting old in the 21st Century, but in some ways, here in the brave new era of political correctness, we probably need Hunter Thompson more now than we did in the counterculture years.

We will always need blasphemous iconoclasts who are willing to tell anyone who’ll listen that your President is a liar and the government is not working in your best interest. The legend of Hunter Thompson is so shrouded in the trappings of his eccentric lifestyle that we tend to overlook his contributions. And there were many.

"America is just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
- Hunter S. Thompson

Long before anyone had heard of Woodward and Bernstein, Thompson was telling us that Nixon was a crook. Long before most Americans knew where Iran was on the map, Thompson was warning us that Jimmy Carter was weak. He told us Reagan was senile before Alzheimer’s was a household word. And he’d been telling us Bush was not an honest man long before we invaded Iraq.

But Thompson was more than a political prophet. He tore down the fa├žade of objective journalism by showing that a reporter is always part of the story, and that an observer always disturbs what he is observing. Thompson was always telling us that there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” He knew that his drug-addled perspective on our society was just as skewed as – and just as valid as – the family value howlings of Bill O’Reilly.

Even loaded to the gills with alcohol, it takes actual courage to put your name on a story in a national publication and call the President of the United States a liar. Years before anyone else had a clue.

So an era has passed. A great American is gone. A warrior has fallen.

Which one of you will pick up his sword?

Howl For Now

Illustration: Michael Anderson

Some of the best things you ever come across, someone tips you off over. Yeah, the internet, blah blah, digital stuff. So’s anyway, it was Flo that tipped me the wink and Route books up north who came through with a review copy of this here compact green-covered volume that I, in turn, am about to hip you to. Thus passing on the favour, if you follow my drift or, at least, my general direction.

HOWL FOR NOW is the book of the event staged in Leeds to celebrate recently the 50th anniversary of the first reading of Howl by Allen Ginsberg on oct 7th 1955 at the Six Gallery in downtown San Francisco in front of an audience of poets, hipsters and other such, including Jack the Kerouac and others. The audience was transformed.

We have seen the best minds of our and subsequent generations being destroyed by various means since that time and the Poem and the Poet have since been righteously, realistically recognised by all and sundry and judged to be one of The Biggest of Big Deals as in 20th century masterpiece kind of stakes.

Howl is read a lot still by young people all over the world and that seems to be the most important thing, it being a great shout of exuberance, insanity and protest against the VERY BIG THINGS that are fucking up our world, So that’s why Howl will always be a contemporary book in the way those old ancient Greeks are and why it was a good idea to celebrate this recent anniversaire with some kind of Beat Bonanza.

I wasn’t there but I’m pleased to learn that the film maker who made the multi-media-movie of Andy Warhol’s 1966 ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ event is currently editing footage of the Howl for Now performance, held at the School of Music at the University of Leeds, for release next year so that we can all see what went on.

In the meantime it is my pleasure to heartily recommend this Route book which contains essays by some of the key players, organisers and hipcat heads involved. I more or less read the whole thing in one big gulp (accompanied by three pints of the new Irish Guinness that is in town, and listening also through both ears to the conversation of the Czech barmaid and the jukebox which was on random shuffle.

Let’s be straight about this, as in I found this a crackerjack book in the sense that each essay gave me something, triggered a thought-stream, made me sit and ponder, intrigued me in some way or other.

So without further ado, here is the line-up: begins with old-time beat David Meltzer, still operating in the Bay area, who sets the vibe in two pages in a jazz riff called Howling Wolves.

Next up Steven Taylor’s ‘the poem and I are fifty’ which recounts the times when he played guitar with Ginsberg and, more importantly, gives us real sense of the real stuff that made up Allen Ginsberg, brings him to life for the reader in a cool and touching manner.

Simon Warner, editor of the book as a whole and a kinda mastermind-type character in the whole howl-for-now scenario, broadens out the focus in ‘Sifting the shifting sands: Howl and the American landscape in the 1950.’ This is totally fascinating wake-up, showing how the Beats and Be-bop intertwined, how Howl and Rock around the Clock coincided, pulls it all together.

You’ve just recovered from that, had a pause, a half-pint, a bit of a think when George Rodesthenos bats you right on the button with a powerful piece on Rimbaud and Ginsberg, about bodies and nakedness and much else. Through this, discover new poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) who I already love and am no longer immune to.

Then come the interviews – with Ronald Nameth, formerly mentioned filmmaker, godfather of modern multimedia, about the Howl for Now event and film and then also Bill Nelson talking about the soundtrack front.

Sandwiched between (appropriately), another cross-dressing cultural exercise by Michael Anderson – ‘The visual arts and Howl: painters and poets in the American 1950s.’

Get the general drift – I loved it all. The publishers Route are based in Pontefract and seem to be up to lots of other good things also. Check them out on and buy this book. And have a howl for now, for God’s sake or anybody else’s.

Howl for Now, Edited by Simon Warner [Route. 2005. £9.99]

PS: For those who find the style of this review irritating, you haven’t met my barroom buddy Hip Flipster, Beat Poet.