Rambunctious Heyday of Gonzo, When Journalism Aspired to Art

I was a high-school and then a college student when the startling literary boom dubbed “The New Journalism” happened in the late 60’s and early 70’s. To me, it might as well have been happening on a distant, colorful planet. I was a teenager stalking the paltry magazine racks of the small drugstores of my Maryland suburb—this was long before the advent of big bookstore chains—waiting to pounce on each new issue of Esquire, Harper’s and Rolling Stone. No one I knew shared my addiction.

It would be hard today to explain the anticipation and excitement I felt over each new issue. New York magazine was not sold where I lived, so I had to wait until its best writers started producing books to discover them. The magazines were artfully designed temples of the written word, filled with language, people, places, events and ideas that were intoxicating and new. They helped shape my experience of those tumultuous years every bit as much as pop music and marijuana. My first taste of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was so thrilling that for weeks I wanted to read it out loud to everyone I met. I restrained myself, but Tom Wolfe’s book gave me an inestimable gift: I knew after the first 10 pages what I wanted to do with my life.

There have been many attempts to describe the kind of journalism popularized during this period—work that tells a true story using novelistic techniques; journalism where the writer is present in the narrative, whether as a character or as a voice; reporting that rejects “objectivity” and is infused with point of view—and all of them contain a piece of an overall definition. To me, what distinguishes the writing of Mr. Wolfe, John Hersey, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and the others is their ambition to create not just journalism, but art.

As has often been pointed out, the “New Journalism” was neither new nor, in many cases, journalism, in the usual sense of the term—that is, the practice of gathering and reporting the news. It was a particularly vivid flowering of a movement that had actually been growing for more than a century, and which thrives today—indeed, it rivals fiction and “self-help” as one of the most popular literary forms. There are reasons why this genre arose and flourishes that go well beyond the borders of Marc Weingarten’s excellent history, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, but his account well captures how the social upheavals of the 60’s and a few dozen superb editors, reporters and writers joined to lay siege to the conventions of the profession.

The term “New Journalism” (the title of an anthology that Tom Wolfe co-edited in 1973) is typically brilliant Wolfean hyperbole and self-promotion. In a devilishly provocative essay of the same title, he argued that journalists of a certain stripe (the most notable of them favored white suits and spats) were toppling the sacred traditions not just of journalism, but of literature. Mr. Weingarten’s scope is narrower. He’s concerned with the explosion of colorful personalities and powerful work that sprung primarily from the old New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine, which spun off after the newspaper’s demise to become New York magazine, but which spilled over into the better national magazines and eventually into Jann Wenner’s San Francisco countercultural upstart, Rolling Stone.

Mr. Weingarten captures the swirl of youthful energy and excitement that produced profiles, yarns, essays and, as with Mr. Wolfe’s notorious “Tiny Mummies,” the prose equivalent of hand grenades. He reaches back to give homage to the great George Orwell and rightly commends The New Yorker, William Shawn, Hersey, Capote and Lillian Ross for generating the first modern nonfiction masterpieces, but he gives primary credit to Clay Felker, who for more than a decade found ways to sustain the rambunctious herd of writers who so stretched and electrified the form.

I’m embarrassed to confess that I learned from Mr. Weingarten of two early books in the genre that I’d never heard of before: Picture (1952), by Ms. Ross, and M (1967), by John Sack—the latter a particularly inexcusable personal oversight because, prior to writing my book Black Hawk Down, I actually went looking for examples of narrative nonfiction about war.

The best thing about The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight is the way it captures the sense of complete license that writers felt during this period, a willingness to try anything, including extremely self-destructive behavior, in the pursuit of a good piece. Mr. Weingarten is particularly good at rendering Mr. Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Mr. Mailer and Thompson, whose writing eventually became a parody of the form. We’re usefully reminded of how much this school—actually a subgenre of literary journalism—was a product of a particular historical moment. It was one of the various gaudy postwar “revolutions” that divided American society into an entrenched, strictly hierarchical, excessively rational and wrong-headed adult establishment and a romantic, hip, wildly unstructured, intuitive, often irrational youth subculture. The finest writers produced work that stands on its own 40 years later, but much of it—I’m thinking of Thompson in particular—can only be understood in the context of the era.

Mr. Weingarten pays a lot of attention to Thompson, and who can blame him, the material is so rich. But once the King of Gonzo hit his stride, he was always more of a humorist than a journalist. He was a spoof of a reporter, one whose defiant outlaw stance and dedication to creative substance abuse caught the spirit of the day. Perhaps in this age of blogs, it’s easy to imagine a time when the rantings of a stoned madman—no matter how irrational and imaginary—seemed more credible than White House statements and the careful analytical journalism of The New York Times. But Thompson needs Nixon, Vietnam and the rebellious mood of his heyday to be fully understood.

If you think of Mark Twain as a gonzo journalist—no drug abuse but plenty of travel reporting artfully mixed with fantasy—you recognize at once that Twain played more to the universal foibles of human nature than on any dark political currents of his time. Both Twain and Thompson got rich poking fun at the society that rewarded them, but there’s a sweetness to Twain’s bile that escaped Thompson, who ultimately seemed to lose himself completely in the dark corners of his nightmare.

My only quarrel with Mr. Weingarten’s book is his apparent acquiescence to the practice of making things up. He duly notes it when Michael Herr invents a colorful character to dress up his dispatches from Vietnam, or when Gail Sheehy does the same when writing about prostitutes in New York, but he registers no strong sense that something essential was thereby lost. When the legal department of Esquire raised concerns about potentially libelous descriptions of an unnamed general in Mr. Herr’s story “Hell Sucks”—he’s seen “leaving the house of a famous courtesan in Dalat, driving off in a jeep with a Swedish K across his lap”—the writer cabled back to his editor, Harold Hayes:

“He’s fiction—I hoped that would be obvious—made up out of a dozen odd types I’ve run into around Vietnam, most especially a Special Forces colonel I knew in the Delta who was a Persian scholar and a fanatic about things like the late Beethoven quartets (‘The purest thing in all of music!’).”

Why on earth the fictional nature of the general would be “obvious,” especially after having been described in such a specific moment, is beyond me. I am even suspicious of Mr. Herr’s explanation: a “dozen” odd types? The “late” Beethoven quartets? The whole thing has the smell of a too richly embellished lie. And why on earth would a writer who finds a Persian-studying, Beethoven-listening colonel not write him into his story?

“Hayes signed off on it,” notes Mr. Weingarten, and the clear sense to me in the passage is that we’re supposed to applaud him for doing so. I think he should have killed the piece immediately, or demand that Mr. Herr redo it with real characters, scenes and dialogue. The editor did not do the writer a favor: Instead of pushing to keep a talented reporter honest, he published fiction masquerading as fact, and today everything that Mr. Herr wrote about Vietnam with such passion and skill cannot be regarded as anything but reasonably well-informed fiction.

Here’s an important rule about journalism: Reporters do not make things up because they have done too much work (as Mr. Herr implies), but because they have done too little.

Truth is never less interesting than fiction, and is usually more so. All of us go through life with a general idea about people, places and events that we’ve never seen. That general idea is based on guesswork and is tainted by presupposition, bias, received wisdom, etc., etc. Real reporting replaces such guesswork with a solid, firsthand account, and in my experience nearly always demonstrates that what we thought was true was wrong, in ways large and small. Our world and the people who populate it are infinitely various and complex and are always changing, so a truthful account of anything ought to be, by definition, surprising. That’s why reporting has inherent value: There are things fiction can do that journalism cannot, but truthfulness is the thing journalism has over fiction. A made-up general or prostitute can offer me many things in the hands of a great writer, but it cannot replace the intrinsic value of a well-drawn portrait of the real thing. When a writer embellishes reporting with his imagination, whether by creating composites, rearranging the sequence of events or inventing dialogue, he creates something that is not just a fraud, but which is less than either fiction or fact.

Mr. Weingarten doesn’t dwell very much on why journalism morphed into something new in the last half of the 20th century, other than to place the phenomenon alongside the wider upheavals of the decade. The stories we tell reflect the world we live in. The era of epic poetry and popular drama predated the printing press, which freed lovers of stories and myths from the need to memorize stanzas or see literature performed. The printed word enabled longer and more complex work, and right from the beginning the appetite for true stories was strong. The earliest novels often pretended to be true, and much of the greatest fiction is thinly disguised fact. Literary journalism taps into the craving to know what really happened, how people really are. Today, we are all bombarded with facts from a variety of media; we learn very little about a lot. Every day we catch fragments of intriguing stories, often just enough to whet our appetite—to make us wonder, for instance, how a group of relatively inexperienced climbers found themselves fatally stranded on the top of Mount Everest. What happens to a man inside the bubble of a campaign for President of the United States? Why would two drifters with no apparent motive coldly execute a small family in Kansas? What decisions weigh on the mind of the manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning of a critical game? Why was a mob of angry Somalis dragging the bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu? It’s a peculiarity of modern times that we even have such questions in our head. Journalism becomes art when it attempts to give a full answer, when it tries to plumb the nuances of character and motivation in the way that novelists have always done. Now and then, the answer is so subtle and well knit that it entirely transcends the circumstances of its birth to become a thing of lasting beauty.

Mr. Weingarten closes his book and the epoch with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of New York magazine in 1977: Money devouring Art. The episodes he describes of dedicated journalists first thrashing around fruitlessly and then gathering to mourn are all too reminiscent of the scenes being enacted today at newspapers all over America, which are being gutted by ambitious corporate executives trying to please profit-hungry investors. The immediate legacy of Clay Felker and those terrific magazines of the 60’s were dozens of regional and city magazines, and the creative newspapers and their Sunday magazines that nurtured the next generation of literary journalists. Their work, alongside the mature talents of the originals, dot the best-seller lists and are regularly turned into feature films.

Great nonfiction storytelling will survive all these changes. It will endure in books and smart magazines and on the Internet in forms that combine print, images and sound in ways the medium has only begun to explore. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight captures the moment this kind of work caught fire, and helped me better understand a phenomenon that changed my life.

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down (Penguin), is a national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly.

Rambunctious Heyday of Gonzo, When Journalism Aspired to Art