"The New Journalism in the 1960s"


by David Abrahamson

Northwestern University


Encyclopedia of American Journalism (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006)




Unlike other art forms, it is a curious aspect of journalism that many of its most important historical trends -- for example, the emergence of the event-driven narrative in the midst of dominant partisan and mercantile reportage of the early 1800s, or the rise of the objective form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- evolved over time, spreading slowly in an almost-unnoticed, unreported and notably un-self-conscious way. The same, however, can by no means be said for the New Journalism of the 1960s. Bursting onto the journalistic scene in the middle of that tumultuous decade with an explicit self-awareness and a self-proclaimed uniqueness, it challenged long-standing professional practices and roiled newsrooms across America.

      Though some cite Norman Mailer's "Superman Comes to the Supermart" in the November 1960 issue of Esquire on John F. Kennedy's nomination at the Democratic convention that summer as the first example of the New Journalism, a more commonly accepted starting point is the middle years of the decade. Often appearing as long-form journalism in magazines rather than newspapers, seminal works of the genre include Tom Wolfe's "Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" (Esquire, 1965); "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote (The New Yorker, 1965); Gay Talese's profile of an aging sports hero, inventively titled "'Joe,' said Marilyn Monroe, just back from Korea, 'you never heard such cheering.' 'Yes I have,' Joe DiMaggio answered" (Esquire, 1966); Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" (Harper's, 1967); "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" by Hunter S. Thompson (Rolling Stone, 1968), and a 1968 anthology, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion.

      In every case, the authors quite deliberately adapted literary techniques and devices commonly found in fiction to the nonfiction purposes of journalism. Seeking the aspects of the writer's craft which seemed to endow the realistic novel with its unique power, immediacy and emotional engagement, the New Journalists derived, largely by trial and error, a number of "writerly" techniques which seemed to define their journalistic approach. These included new models of structure, usually based on a narrative scene-by-scene construction; the full recording of dialogue, employing quotes not merely to provide an attributable albeit disembodied authority, but rather as the richly revealing window on character; unique narrative perspectives, often involving the presenting of scenes through the eyes of a particular character and therefore allowing the reader to experience the character's emotional reality; and a devotion to extraordinarily detailed descriptive reporting that captured not only the full physical reality of a scene but also the nuances of its possible symbolic details.

      Very quickly, this new approach to journalism claimed -- and received --- widespread attention. By 1972, a pair of New York Magazine articles, "The Birth of the New Journalism: an Eyewitness Report" and "The New Journalism: A la Recherche des Whichy Thickets," by Tom Wolfe, a founding father and leading evangelical, had, quite self-consciously, raised it to the full status of "genre." Indeed, the name "New Journalism" had, in fact, been coined in 1965 by one of its practitioners, Pete Hamill, as a possible title for a proposed article about two other practitioners, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin. (It is interesting to note, however, that the phrase had actually first been employed almost 80 years before; Matthew Arnold, the 19th century critic famous for calling journalism "literature in a hurry," had used "New Journalism" in 1887 to describe the vivid, highly personal writing style of the reform-minded Victorian social reporters.)

      At its best, the New Journalism sought "a larger truth than is possible through...adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form," wrote one practitioner, because it "allows, demands in fact, a more imaginative approach to reporting." Inspired by some of their predecessors from the 1940s and 1950s such as The New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell, John Hersey and Lillian Ross, as well as earlier masters of narrative nonfiction such as Charles Dickens and George Orwell, the New Journalists of the 1960s and early 1970s were a fitting match for the social upheavals of the time. As Tom Wolfe, in retrospect and in character, wrote later about the 1960s: "That was marvelous for journalists -- I can tell you that. The Sixties was one of the most extraordinary decades in American history...when manner and morals, styles of living, attitudes toward the world changed the country more crucially than any political events....This whole side of American life that gushed forth when postwar American affluence finally blew the lid off...left a gap big enough to drive an ungainly Reo rig like New Journalism through."

      There were, however, critics of the genre. Some traditional journalists questioned the absolute veracity of some of the reporting. Particularly troublesome to many was the occasional use of "composite" characters, especially if the reader is led to believe that they are actual persons. Even less convincing were some of the excessive claims made for the New Journalism; for example, Wolfe, always the proselytizer, wrote in 1972 that it was "causing panic, dethroning the novel as the Number One literary genre, starting the first new direction in American literature in half a century."

      Common hyperbole and uncommon outright fabrications aside, it can be argued that the New Journalism did have two inherent and inter-related weaknesses. As one scholar of the form noted: "It misses literary quality because it remains bound to fact, hence inhibiting the full play of artistry which the imaginative writer can bring to bear....But it likewise...lacks real journalistic quality because the very imaginative artistry it does employ leaves itself suspect as solid reporting."

      Nevertheless, it is clear that the New Journalism left its mark both on the practice of journalism and on the larger world of nonfiction letters. By the early 1980s, many of the passions that had provided the genre its subject matter had receded. But in the longer view, an admirable legacy can be claimed. The wider acceptance of long-form journalism, both in magazines and on the feature pages of newspapers, can trace its roots back to the adventuresome achievements of the New Journalism. And though the name itself is now a historical term, similar forms -- under appellations such as literary journalism, the literature of fact and creative nonfiction -- continue to illuminate the journalistic firmament. Though strictly adherent to the facts, the newer forms are still allowing journalists to tell stories in ways that enrich their readers' experience. And like that of the New Journalism of years past, the result is, in the words of Ron Rosenbaum, one of the most gifted current practitioners, "a kind of journalism that asks the kind of questions that literature asks."





Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America, New York: Greenwood, 1990.

       Hartsock, John C., A History of American Literary Journalism, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

       Hellmann, John, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

       Hollowell, John, Fact & Fiction, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

       Polsgrove, Carol, It WasnÕt Pretty, Folks, But DidnÕt We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.

       Sims, Norman, editor, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

       Talese, Gay and Lounsberry, Barbara, editors, The Literature of Reality, Writing Creative Nonfiction, New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

       Weber, Ronald, The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy, New York: Hastings House, Publishers, 1974.

       Wolfe, Tom, The New Journalism, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.