May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
The New Journalism, 1960s-1970s. The New Journalism’s jazzily personal writings are still discussed as a breakthrough as radical as the introduction of movie swearwords or nudity. But the best of it wasn’t even all that “new,” and reading the many pieces that missed the mark (much of the Gonzo school of writing, for instance) can now make you feel as if you’re in an elevator with a counterculture salesman whose floor never arrives. Gay Talese’s portraits of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, Marshall Frady on George Wallace, even the quick-take art of Tom Wolfe (who later wrote the movement’s manifesto) still read like examples of American literary journalism admirably descended from Mark Twain. And, while Truman Capote’s “true-life novel” In Cold Bood was at the time thought inflammatory for its writing methods, the book was rather matter-offactly excerpted in a recent anthology of journalism. As with most revolutions, New Journalism’s excesses weren’t pretty, and the magazines of the 1970s are littered with the wreckage of self-absorbed young writers aping Norman Mailer on their own flights of ego-driven narrative.
By the mid-1970s the New Journalism had created its own clichés: For all its rebel posing, Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo method energized and camouflaged the faded art of celebrity journalism with the faux naughtiness of the hard-partying narrator now firmly at the story’s center, toking with the subject rock stars or lusting after that month’s starlet. (A mid-seventies Esquire profile of the actor Robert Blake began sneakily with the writer ruminating about the size of the Bionic Woman’s breasts on his motel TV. It wasn’t a far drop from there to a recent cover story on Kevin Spacey that opened with the writer’s mother saying the actor was gay.)
What still seems so enviable about the New Journalism era is its magazines’ editorial nerve, the confounding amount of print space they granted the writers, and the inspired combinations of writer and subject.
The New Journalism, 1940s-1963. The New Journalism’s techniques were supposedly borrowed from fiction, but Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling had made real literature out of facts decades earlier at The New Yorker . (In fact, when asked about the freeing possibilities of writing fiction, Liebling snapped, “What? And make things up?”) As his biographer Raymond Sokolov has written, “By the 1960s the New Journalists were claiming Liebling as their godfather. He was certainly a personal journalist. … but the personal flavor never overwhelms the observation, the careful witnessing.”
Like the New Journalists who honored his name, Liebling was unflaggingly vivid, a brilliantly digressive entertainer as French correspondent and war reporter; press critic, memoirist; racing and boxing reporter; travel writer; chronicler of his own appalling appetites at table. He could quickly establish his likable authority in any setting, whether covering Nevada mustang poachers or a cockfight in Connecticut or Earl Long’s last Louisiana campaign. Arriving in North Africa during the Second World War, he wrote: “I had had an attack of the gout in my foot two days before pulling out, and I went limping off to the war instead of coming limping back from it.” His many enthusiasms often converged in a single leaping paragraph, in which he was always crushing highbrow culture into low (or vice versa) and enlarging both, as only a streetwise New York Jewish Dartmouth almost-grad could. (“Since the rise of Marciano, [Archie] Moore, a cerebral and hyper-experienced light-colored pugilist … has suffered the pangs of a supreme exponent of Bel Canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.”) Liebling died in 1963, a double tragedy since he missed not only following the social carnivals the New Journalists chased in his name but also the initial reign of an entertainer whose poetry he’d just begun to admire, Cassius Clay. Liebling scattered his gift, writing too well on too many things for the good of his lasting reputation. His works-those still available—are always in different sections of the bookstore. Liebling might have been pleased he inspired the younger writers who came just after him; it delighted him when his infamous book Chicago, the Second City (long out of print) not only became such an identifying phrase for the town but inspired a Chicago comedy troupe too. (Without Liebling, no New Journalism or Bill Murray?)