The genesis of gonzo

 

Journalism: When Hunter S Thompson shot himself to death earlier this year, most commentators, predictably, focused on the drugs, the guns, the "gonzo journalism" of the Fear and Loathing books. 

But what went largely ignored was that Thompson had been a talented, innovative writer. Yes, he was an ambitious reporter, but what made his accounts of his times with the Hell's Angels or Richard Nixon on the campaign trail so compelling was his vivid prose.

Thompson, of course, wasn't the first to "elevate reportage into literature": arguably, Dickens was at it, Orwell did it in Down and Out, Hemingway dabbled with it.

But in the US of the 1950s and 1960s, and particularly in the magazine publishing empire of New York, a quiet revolution engulfed a generation of young reporters/writers and, abetted by some like-minded, visionary and sometimes brave editors, they forged a creature that would come to be known as New Journalism.

Weingarten, in his attempt to pin down just what New Journalism means, defines it as "journalism that reads like fiction and rings with the truth of reported fact. It is . . . the art of fact".

It was, of course, a very different time: television was not yet the main source of news and information. Instead, magazines such as Esquire, the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and New York had enormous readerships and influence.

Weingarten presents a graphic survey of this milieu, with behind-the-scenes tales from the boardrooms of Esquire and the New Yorker and the running battles between writers and editors who were trying to push reportage beyond its traditionally narrow limits.

Weingarten provides in-depth background to the creation of classics such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Michael Herr's Dispatches and Thompson's three main works.

Included are telling excerpts from interviews in which the protagonists attempt to explain what they were doing.

At the start of Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960, Esquire ran a "profile" of the young candidate by Norman Mailer, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket". "It was a new hybrid," writes Weingarten, "think-piece, personality profile and polemic."

What Mailer believed he had contributed was, in his words, an "enormously personalised journalism in which the character of the narrator was one of the elements in the way the reader would finally assess the experience. I had felt that I had some dim intuitive feeling that what was wrong with all journalism is that the reporter tended to be objective and that that was one of the great lies of all time."

And in a letter to Wolfe, Thompson outlined his objectives in Fear and Loathing: "What I was trying to get at in this was mind-warp/photo technique of instant journalism: one draft, written on the spot at top speed and basically unrevised, edited, chopped, larded, etc, for publication . . . Raoul Duke is pushing the frontiers of new journalism a lot further than anything you'll find in Hell's Angels.

One quibble: the copyediting. Among several errors, the word diary twice appears as "dairy", which, appropriately enough, brought to mind a wonderful, one-page satire in the New Yorker in the early 1980s entitled The Hitler Dairies. "Bessie lowed lowly as Eva entered the milking parlour . . ."

For those of us old enough to have known the time and read the originals, Weingarten's survey offers some fascinating insights. And it should be required reading in journalism schools, where it might help to convince the brighter students that words matter.

Who's Afraid of Tom Wolfe? How New Journalism Rewrote the World, By Marc Weingarten, Aurum, 324pp. £14.99

Joe Culley is an Irish Times journalist