The 'New Journalism' at 30: Tom Wolfe prevailed Kandy-kolored reporting: Wolfe's ideas broke non-fiction's chains

The Argument

November 12, 1995|By GARY DORSEY | GARY DORSEY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The New Journalism, the argument goes, is not new. To read H.L. Mencken's reports from the Scopes Monkey Trial filed from Dayton, Tenn., in July 1925, is to hear the same satiric inflection that Tom Wolfe intoned over the Sixties' Drug Culture ("The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," 1968), Radical Chic ("Radical Chic & Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers," 1970), the Me Decade ("Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine," 1976), and modern architecture ("Bauhaus to Our House," 1981).

The terms wit, prejudices and hatred of hypocrisy of Menken could just as easily apply to Mr. Wolfe's collected works, the first of which, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was published 30 years ago.

The difference, however, between the old and new is significant. Tom Wolfe, and practitioners who followed him, deployed New Journalism with an educated self-awareness hitherto unknown within the writing trade. There is cause for celebration, therefore, that 30 years ago the once-controversial standards that Mr. Wolfe circumscribed for non-fiction have soaked into the inky fabric of our lives.

Importantly, Mr. Wolfe made his statement not as a literary figure, but as a reporter. In 1965, not long out of Yale University with a newly minted Ph.D., Mr. Wolfe brought far more than fictional devices and a stylistic flair to staid feature writing. True, his Pop aesthetic mimicked Marshall McLuhan's Medium/Message equation with typographical excesses, and his form followed the kind of narrow plotting reserved for short fiction. But foremost, he brought an understated intelligence that reflected rigorous intellectual training in American Studies.

American Studies was an academic field, begun in the '30s, that promised an understanding of American culture by revealing the interaction between myth and archetypes. By the time a Ph.D. was conferred, the whole dizzying universe of anthropology, literature, history, philosophy, economics, art, architecture and sociology left the degreed person with an exquisite codification of behavior and patterns of everyday life that would be ludicrous, if they were also not so damned much fun to employ.

Mr. Wolfe left Yale with the mind of a cultural physicist carrying an intellectual technology the equivalent of an atom-smasher. (His favorite tool? Veblen, of course.) Best of all, he knew how to use it.

In 1965 the journalistic recipe - an objective stance, highly attributed sources, news presented in descending order of importance - not only prescribed rigid limits to a reporter's own observations, but also censored the highly nuanced narrative style that is a story-teller's most subtle and incisive tool.

Mr. Wolfe's pieces seemed to be a swift rejection of the journalistic canon. Traditional techniques created a problem that first occurred to him after writing a feature in 1964 about a Hot Rod & Custom Car show.

Looking at the piece, once published, he began to wonder why the writing did not translate the frenzied stylishness of what he had observed. For that matter, he wondered, why had no one ever bothered to write about 'the proles, the peasants, and petty burghers' of American culture. In fact, why did no one write about 'the incredible postwar American electro-pastel surge into the suburbs?' Furthermore, why did no one write, as did Veblen, about fashion, style and status as significant elements of our news?

Journalists hadn't a clue. They wrote by gathering exposition like dry hay, interpreting events with a voice that signaled 'a well-known bore was here again ...

The world called not for more pundits, for neither Edward R. Murrow's tutelage nor Arthur Schlesinger's prattle, but for the voice of the vernacular - of hipsters, ghetto phreaks, East Coast high society claques, West Coast Merry Pranksters, rednecks at car races ... all of whom had somehow splintered off from the rest of society to create their own cults, heroes and legends without informing The Rest of Us they had decided they either could not or did not wish to commune.

The Rest of Us - as clueless as most journalists - were left wondering why Watts was burning, why 'The Great Society' never flowered, why the culture seemed so divided.

Stereophonic sounds

Mr. Wolfe's discoveries created bandwidth. It was like going from MHz to GHz within 10 years. He took readers from a wheezy AM dial to a slot on the edge of the literary spectrum that played stereophonic sound. A form that once asked for just the facts, soon included Point of View, Voice, Limited Exposition, Plot, Protagonists, Characterization, Climax and Denouement.

An entire generation of journalists was finally free to write everything they observed, smelled, tasted, touched, overheard, laughed at, or suspected in full fidelity.

Affliction and apoplexy! Journalists circled the Canons. Traditionalists spat barbs. Novelists crowed with spite.

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