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date: 15 June 2024

The New Journalismfree

The New Journalismfree

  • Danielle Hinrichs


  • North American Literatures

Amidst war protests, hippies, civil rights demonstrations, rock-and-roll festivals, assassinations, feminism, youth power, experimentation with drugs, and sexual revolution, many reporters and writers found that traditional literary categories could not capture the tumultuous changes of the 1960s. Concerned that fiction neglected the people and events of America at that time and that journalism ignored the complexity of the era, reporters and writers forged a new genre by applying the writing techniques and characteristics of the novel and short story to nonfiction, journalistic prose. Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Michael Herr joined fiction writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion to create a nonfiction form characterized by its use of dialogue, scenic construction, point of view, and personal voice, all traditionally the terrain of fiction. The genre's many critics denied the originality of the form and worried about its threats to the objectivity and accuracy of traditional reportage. For New Journalists, the emerging genre was more responsive to cultural changes and more accurately, more thoroughly, and more interestingly conveyed the issues, events, and people of the 1960s and early 1970s. The New Journalism drew greater attention to nonfiction as a creative literary form and encouraged experimentation with genre and style.

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, the greatest advocate and one of the most prolific practitioners of the New Journalism, has been called the Big Bad Wolfe and Rebel-Doodle Dandy and is known for his fresh white suit and flawless style. His collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), though not the first example of New Journalistic writing, was perhaps the most recognized and influential early example of the movement. The title essay emerged not from a calculated desire to try new techniques but out of frustration with the limitations of traditional practices for conveying the changing society and popular culture of the 1960s. Wolfe began writing an article for Esquire magazine about a hot rod and custom car show in California run by teenagers with money and a dedication to style. Faced with a deadline, he resisted constructing the story in the usual way and finally resigned himself to leaving it unfinished. The editor asked Wolfe to send his notes so that someone else could write up the article. Wolfe sat down at his typewriter and began a letter to his editor, “Dear Byron.” Rock-and-roll music blaring in the background, Wolfe wrote all night long, freely discussing his experiences in California of viewing cars as works of art and meeting people dedicated to a culture based on the freedom and sex appeal of the automobile. In the morning, he presented a forty-nine-page document to Esquire. The magazine struck the salutation and printed Wolfe's letter in its entirety.

This anecdote elucidates several important developments in the history and significance of New Journalism. The form grew out of attempts to write more freely about changes in the postmodern social world, and it often incorporated personal experience and an informal style. Like this early source, New Journalistic writing often reads as if it were a letter that includes the reporter's experiences and thoughts, conveying an intimacy with characters and revealing the context in which the story evolved. And, as Wolfe's groundbreaking letter did, the New Journalism developed amidst the noise of rock-and-roll and the sights, sounds, and turbulent emotions of the 1960s.

Journalism's movement toward a more fluid form and personal voice expanded the rules of journalistic writing to include more creative methods, wedding techniques of journalism and the novel and blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. In Wolfe's story about writing Kandy-Kolored, he self-consciously reflects on the changes taking place in his own writing and in journalism as a whole. The New Journalism called attention to the creative potential of nonfiction writing, but the form was not entirely new. Many critics have shown that the New Journalism is just one development in a lengthy and diverse tradition of literary reportage that includes such important figures as William Hazlitt, Charles Dickens, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, James Agee, Lillian Ross, A. J. Liebling, and John Hersey. To varying degrees, all of these authors used narrative techniques in nonfiction writing. The New Journalism was new in the sense that it attracted a plethora of practitioners and critics in the 1960s and 1970s and declared itself a movement, explicitly challenging traditional practices and calling attention to its potential as an exciting and influential genre. Tom Wolfe not only wrote some of the most influential New Journalistic works, but he also offered critical commentary and examples as the coeditor of an anthology called The New Journalism (1973). His interpretation greatly influenced the development and perception of the form. Wolfe described the fiction of the 1960s as “neo-fabulism” and listed its conventions as “No Background, No Place Name, No Dialogue, and the Inexplicable.” In the midst of a literary revolution in which postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth began writing mythical and allegorical texts more tangentially related to historical reality, Wolfe and other New Journalists sought to recuperate the techniques of social realism as practiced by such writers as Honoré de Balzac and John Steinbeck in order to convey the rich and diverse social world of the late twentieth century. Wolfe defined the New Journalism according to realist writing strategies adapted by nonfiction writers: scene construction, dialogue, third person point of view, and the inclusion of status details like clothing and mannerisms.

Wolfe credited longtime journalist Gay Talese with introducing him to the possibilities of such techniques. Although Talese thoroughly researches his essays and interviews, they read as if they were short stories, including dialogue instead of direct quotations, exploring the interior thoughts of characters, and showing subjects interacting with their surroundings. For example, in an interview with Floyd Patterson, the boxer reveals intimate details of his life, telling Talese how it feels to be knocked out and why he avoids looking other fighters in the eye (otherwise he might not want to fight them). Rather than narrating the boxer's life, Talese shows him interacting with the places and people around him. The story depicts Patterson moving from one scene of action to another: running and throwing punches as he emerges from his training camp; speaking with a fan on the street; and relaxing in his apartment, with boxing trunks drying in front of the fireplace. We begin to understand the complexity of character through the revelations of dialogue, scene, and point of view.


Tom Wolfe's famously experimental vocabulary, alliteration, phrases from pop culture, long sentences, and unusual punctuation contribute to the feeling that we are in the mind of his characters and convey an immediacy and spontaneity of expression. Wolfe has remarked that he “found that things like exclamation points; italics; abrupt shifts (dashes) and syncopations (dots) helped give the illusion not only of a person talking but a person thinking.” In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Wolfe describes a crowd awaiting the Beatles from the point of view of various members of the audience. His unusual punctuation and use of onomatopoeia draw the readers into the crowd and convey the tremendous energy of participants. The following quotation is all one sentence, one gasp of pent-up anticipation and frantic release:

Each group of musicians that goes off the stage—the horde thinks now the Beatles, but the Beatles don't come, some other group appears, and the sea of girls gets more and more intense and impatient and the screaming gets higher, and the thought slips into Norman's flailing flash-frayed brain stem ::: the human lung cannot go beyond this :::: and yet when the voice says And nowthe Beatles—what else could he say?—and out they come on stage—them—John and George and Ringo and uh the other one—it might as well have been four imported vinyl dolls for all it was going to matter—that sound he thinks cannot get higher, it doubles, his eardrums ring like stamped metal with it and suddenly Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww, it is like the whole thing has snapped, and the whole front section of the arena becomes a writhing, seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air, this mass of pink arms, it is all you can see, it is like a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles—it is a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles,—vibrating poison madness and filling the universe with the teeny agony torn out of them.

The punctuation marks demonstrate pauses in Norman's thinking and intensify the action throughout the passage, moving from three sequential colons to four, long dashes like holding one's breath while the Beatles emerge, and then the Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww of release as the crowd goes wild. We move further and further into the observer's consciousness, hearing the ringing of his eardrums and seeing what he sees: the “seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air.” Through such undefined punctuation and visually audible words, Wolfe places the reader within a sensory world, one where we hear and see and feel as if we are in the audience.

The Media and Traditional Journalism

Although Wolfe defines the New Journalism by the techniques it uses and the forms it follows, it might be helpful to understand this new form in terms of what it does not do. To some extent, the New Journalism is less a creation of new methods and boundaries than a rejection of limiting, prescribed writing techniques. As Nicolaus Mills has suggested in The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology (1974), “A who, what, where, when, why style of reporting could not begin to capture the anger of a black power movement or the euphoria of a Woodstock.” Many journalists felt that the detached, objective, and formulaic approach of traditional journalistic practices could not express the rebelliousness, confusion, and cultural questioning of Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the growing drug culture in the United States. While still claiming adherence to factual accuracy, New Journalists embraced subjectivity and resisted the inverted pyramid taught in journalism classes throughout the country. When Michael Herr published his personal account of time spent with soldiers at the war front in Vietnam, he remarked, “The press got all the facts (more or less); it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about.” In Dispatches (1977), Herr does “report meaningfully,” not by presenting statistics in decreasing order of importance but by recording his personal relationships with men in combat.

Similarly, works like Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) sought to convey America's counterculture on its own terms, intimately exploring the drug culture from within. Thompson's work, in particular, shows how a more traditional journalistic approach makes 1960s America less comprehensible. Thompson and his drug-filled escapades become the central subject of Fear and Loathing. Trying to decide how to leave town quickly after accumulating thousands of dollars in room service charges at a Las Vegas hotel, the reporter struggles to peruse the newspaper calmly. He reads:

Trio Re-Arrested in Beauty's Death An overdose of heroin was listed as the official cause of death for pretty Diane Hamby, 19, whose body was found stuffed in a refrigerator last week, according to the Clark County Coroner's office. Investigators of the sheriff's homicide team who went to arrest the suspects said that one, a 24-year-old woman, attempted to fling herself through the glass doors of her trailer before being stopped by deputies. Officers said she was apparently hysterical and shouted, “You'll never take me alive.” But officers handcuffed the woman and she apparently was not injured.

This traditional news story, telling the who, what, when, and where in the first paragraph, leaves us with a resounding “Why?” There is no answer to this question and the attempt to fit this incredible story into the rigid form of traditional journalistic patterns remains unsatisfying and jarring. The objective phrases of formal newspaper language, such as “apparently hysterical” and “official cause of death,” convey none of the shocking absurdity of the event. In contrast, Thompson's writing speaks to the confusion and tumultuousness of the political and social world with informal language, fluid form, and characters who continually travel across the country, looking for meaningful answers to life's questions.

The resounding rejection of traditional forms does not lead to a clearly categorized and easily defined set of New Journalistic practices. Rather, it brings journalists into an inventive period of fascinating experimentation and transgression of stylistic boundaries.

The Nonfiction Novel

Well-known novelists joined reporters in creating and defining the New Journalism in its early stages. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences appeared in serial form in The New Yorker in 1965, and then in book form in 1966. This immensely popular work revived Capote's career and elevated nonfiction writing in the view of the book-buying public. Capote remarked that he turned to nonfiction because he “wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Nevertheless, he distanced himself from the New Journalism and declared In Cold Blood an entirely new form, the “nonfiction novel.”

In order to re-create an accurate account of murder in novel form, Capote conducted extensive interviews and studied public documents to expose the minds of the criminals and the fears of the townspeople. He recreated the scene of the murder, conversations between participants, and the thoughts of the killers. Capote's obvious absence when the murder took place and his inclusion of dialogue and characters' thoughts initiated a far-reaching critical debate about the possibilities and problems of the New Journalism. How could his witnesses remember exactly what they thought or said? How could Capote trust his sources and record them accurately? Capote, however, both defended the accuracy of his account and questioned the possibility of complete objectivity. He spent six years becoming intimately involved with the lives of the criminals, reading about crime, interviewing murderers, training himself to memorize conversations, and relentlessly interviewing witnesses and participants.

Although Norman Mailer initially called Capote's work a “failure of imagination,” demonstrating the literary world's preference for fiction, Mailer soon broke new ground with his own nonfiction writing when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Armies of the Night (1968). Like Capote, he distanced himself from the New Journalism, subtitling his work, History As a Novel/The Novel As History, raising further questions about the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer describes an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon. Unlike Capote, who maintains an objective distance from the events of his novel, Mailer includes himself as a primary character. He refers to himself in third-person, making Norman Mailer both a participant in and an explicit observer of a clash between protesters and police.

The Critics

The New Journalism, its presence and its aspirations as a new literary genre, developed amidst tremendous controversy. Wolfe himself admitted doubts about the term “new” and outlined many important forerunners in his introduction to The New Journalism. Critics and naysayers like Dwight MacDonald asserted, “What is new is the pretension of our current parajournalists to be writing not hoaxes or publicity chit-chat but the real thing; and the willingness of the public to accept this pretense.” The battle between New Journalists and their critics revolves around the question of newsworthiness and the power to define what is a significant part of history and worthy of public attention. Critics questioned both the importance and the accuracy of New Journalistic pieces, charging that reporters claimed the authority of factual journalism without complying with the rigor of traditional methods. According to MacDonald, “The parajournalist cozies up, merges into the subject so completely that the view point is wholly from inside, like family gossip.…There is no space between writer and topic, no ‘distancing’ to allow even the most rudimentary objective judgment, such as for factual accuracy.” In response, New Journalists argued that the form does not distort the facts but, on the contrary, presents them in a more complete manner. Talese writes, “The New Journalism, though often reading like fiction, is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through the mere compilation of verifiable facts.” Traditionalists, however, continued to equate fact and truth in opposition to the unreliability of fiction. In the end, this very criticism reveals the significance and power of the form. By transgressing boundaries between fact and fiction, New Journalists drew attention to literary techniques and claimed a revered space for nonfiction writing within American literature.

The New Journalist Behind the Scenes

The New Journalism encompasses a wide variety of forms and modes, including sports writing, accounts of crimes, interviews, entertainment reports, analyses of social trends, and war correspondence. The writers of these very diverse New Journalistic works share the belief that the reporter must go beyond the surface, to become intimate with the subject of the piece, even participating if possible in events. Readers of the New Journalism often feel like they are being taken behind the scenes, observing the otherwise hidden motives and thoughts of public figures. Works by Joe McGinnis, George Plimpton, and John Sack demonstrate the diversity of New Journalistic topics—political candidates, sports teams, and combat—and the similarity of approaching these subjects with behind-the-scenes involvement. Rather than sitting down with Richard Nixon in a traditional interview or reporting on comments crafted for the press, McGinnis watched as the Nixon campaign taped several television commercials. This informal and time-consuming approach, what Gay Talese has called the “fine art of hanging out,” revealed the process and development of Nixon's thoughts as well as the extent to which advisors shaped and censored his ideas. George Plimpton took this participatory involvement to a physical level, training for and playing in an exhibition game with the Detroit Lions for his book Paper Lion (1964). Plimpton becomes a central character in the book, and his inability to complete a single play in the exhibition game demonstrates the unique abilities and attitudes of professional football players. In M (1966), John Sack goes even further, risking his own life by joining (as a reporter) an infantry company in Vietnam. He gets to know the soldiers, intimately including their thoughts alongside accounts of their battles. After being harshly criticized for reporting people's thoughts, Sack sent the story to each soldier, gaining the entire troop's approval.

Gay Talese's Flying to Dublin with Peter O'Toole (1961) demonstrates that the expectations of intimacy require reporters to go beyond the techniques of traditional reporting. Sitting next to O'Toole on a flight to Ireland, Talese strikingly juxtaposes New Journalistic methods and traditional ones. On the airplane, the actor reveals “anger that can be sudden (‘Why should I tell you the truth? Who are you, Bertrand Russell?’) and…anger that quickly subsides (‘Look, I'd tell you if I knew why, but I don't know, just don't know’).” The exchange shows O'Toole's insecurity and doubts and allows readers to develop an understanding of the actor's evolving thoughts. But when O'Toole emerges from the plane to face “a crowd of photographers and reporters…flash bulbs fixed,” we see an entirely different O'Toole: “He posed for pictures, gave a radio interview, bought everybody a drink; he laughed and backslapped, he was charming and suave, he was his public self, his airport self.” The moral of Talese's story could be a motto for New Journalists: don't wait at the airport; get on the plane!

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of New Journalistic writing is the considerable flexibility of its styles and approaches. Certain magazines and newspapers allowed journalists the resources they needed for the form to flourish. Periodicals like Esquire, the New York Herald Tribune, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone gave their reporters a great deal of freedom, encouraging them to dig deeply into each assignment. In 1972, Joe Eszterhas from Rolling Stone traveled to a small Missouri town where a hippie named Charlie Simpson had shot three people, two of them cops, and then himself. Long before the murder, the community had become divided; young “longhairs,” speaking slang and listening to Jimi Hendrix, began meeting in the town square, encountering resistance from town officials who wanted to maintain the status quo. Eszterhas revealed the hostility of town traditionalists and the frustrations of young discontents by becoming a part of both subcultures. Complete with tie, blazer, and cigar, he frequented bars and coffee shops, conversing with townspeople. When he felt that he understood their reaction to the crime, he donned blue jeans and a leather jacket and talked to Simpson's friends. Eszterhas's adaptability and awareness of his own role in the story contributes to a powerful portrayal of various points of view in Harrisonville, Missouri. He ends the story not with a simplistic statement about violence in the United States, but with a complex and confused questioning of the issues of the time, exposing a painful clash of values and ideals:

It had been a long few days and I had scrutinized too many vivid details of four vicious killings and something in my mind flailed out now—Jesus Simpson, murderer, cold-blooded killer, compassionate, sensitive, sentimental. It could have been the fatigue or the Missouri weed or the beer mixed with wine, but I saw too many grotesqueries leaping about in that blazing bonfire.

The reporter's confusion is followed by the broken dialogue and unfinished thoughts of Simpson's friends. Like Eszterhas, many New Journalists leave their stories with questioning and uncertain endings, refusing to contain the confusion of wars, protests, drugs, and transformation in a neat and conclusive package. Instead, they urge the reader to confront the messiness, the disorder, and the pain of current events.

The Journalist As Character

Although Wolfe saw New Journalism as a rejection of the practices of postmodern fiction, both respond to questions about objective experience through self-conscious allusions to the act of writing and the role of the author. Despite Capote's belief that “for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work,” the journalist's subjectivity enters the New Journalism in many ways, most significantly in works by Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson.

Joan Didion begins John Wayne: A Love Song, published in Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968), with a story about going to the movies as a child. She then writes, “I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” Didion calls attention to her own role in shaping the story and connects with the reader through references to her own thoughts, but she refuses to make herself too central in the story. Throughout the essay, she strives to illuminate the character and significance of John Wayne, and she feels the need to explain her own presence in the narrative.

Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, feels no need to explain himself. He takes the inclusion of the reporter to its furthest extreme, making himself the subject of his writings. Many critics have objected to Thompson's self-centered narratives, echoing Wayne Booth's comment that the thesis of Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that “Hunter Thompson is interesting.” Others, though, would happily agree, finding Thompson very interesting indeed. Nevertheless, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not only about Thompson's travels but also about his attempts to research a story; his narratives become expositions on the process of writing a story, researching an event, and getting sidetracked time after time. In Thompson's own style of personal and participatory journalism, sometimes called “gonzo journalism,” the rebel writer of the New Journalism rides with the Hell's Angels and takes psychedelic drugs, and the reader feels that writing is happening spontaneously as we watch.

Lasting Influence

Throughout the mid-1960s, Tom Wolfe offered grandiose claims for the New Journalism as a newly powerful genre that “would wipe out the novel as literature's main event.” Although Wolfe's most dramatic expectations remain unfulfilled, the New Journalism has become an important and influential force in American literature. Decades after Wolfe's proclamation, writers and critics rarely use the term New Journalism to refer to contemporary writing, but its legacy continues in studies of literary journalism and creative nonfiction. Whereas Joan Didion is the only woman writer consistently included in studies of the New Journalism, broader consideration of the history of nonfiction writing has brought a greater diversity to literary discussions of the form. Most recently, the term “Way New Journalism,” referring to journalism's encounter with the Internet, demonstrates the lasting influence and significance of the New Journalism in American literature and life.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Chris. Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction. Carbondale, Ill., 1987. An in-depth analysis of works by Wolfe, Capote, Mailer, and Didion.
  • Hartsock, John C. A History of American Literary Journalism. Amherst, Mass., 2000. One of the best late-twentieth-century works that places the New Journalism in a historical tradition of literary journalism.
  • Hellmann, John. Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction. Urbana, Ill., 1981. Helpful for comparing the New Journalism with fiction of the era. Hellmann offers insightful analyses of work by Mailer, Thompson, Wolfe, and Herr.
  • Johnson, Michael L. The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Media. Lawrence, Kans., 1971.
  • Mills, Nicolaus. The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology. New York, 1974. This collection contains works by many lesser-known authors, including several women writers. The anthology is organized thematically with useful introductions.
  • Talese, Gay, and Barbara Lounsberry, eds. Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality. New York, 1996. This collection includes classic New Journalism as well as more recent nonfiction writing. Talese's introduction is particularly engaging.
  • Weber, Ronald. The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy. New York, 1974. An essential collection of writings about the New Journalism by New Journalists, critics, and literary analysts.
  • Wolfe, Tom, and E. W. Johnson, eds. The New Journalism. New York, 1973. An important anthology of New Journalistic works with an introduction and commentary by Wolfe.