Thursday, June 12, 2008

Grand Old Man of the New Journalism

At 78, Tom Wolfe is being immortalized with the reissue of ten of his books in covers "designed to appeal to a new generation."

But before he is embalmed as a writer of satirical novels like "Bonfire of the Vanities," someone should remind readers how he helped change the face of American journalism and, in no small degree, politics.

In August 1966, a Tiffany-engraved invitation arrived in my mail to have cocktails and canap├ęs in the Park Avenue duplex of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein to meet the Black Panthers. A sense of the ridiculous prompted me to decline.

But Tom Wolfe went, notebook in hand, and wrote "Radical Chic" for New York Magazine, a classic of the New Journalism that skewered the pretensions of upscale liberals parading their sympathy for the downtrodden in a setting of ostentatious luxury. ("The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny's duplex like a rogue hormone...These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three times too big...)

Along with Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer and others, Wolfe invented the New Journalism in the 1960s to open space for human expression in the growing thicket of corporate journalism.

Reporters became novelists, novelists morphed into reporters to break through the limits of who, what, when, where, why and how. Mailer's story of the march on the Pentagon to protest Vietnam filled an entire issue of Harper's and made newspaper and TV accounts look like tracts on whaling compared to "Moby Dick."

But it was Tom Wolfe who epitomized the best of I-witness journalism. Unlike imitators, he adhered to the traditional rules of reporting while using a fictional style to show what people did and why with an eye for the telling details. For better or worse, his influence is visible in magazine and newspaper reporting to this day.

Recently he sat down with editors of the New York Times Book Review and gave them an oral history of his part in inventing the New Journalism. Even if you disagree, as I do, with many of his social and political views, the Man in the White Suit is an historic and fascinating figure in 20th and 21st century American life.

1 comment:

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Robert,

Two books convinced me that I had to be a writer:

Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.