New Journalism ended decades ago but now, with the passing of Tom Wolfe at 88, its death certificate can be safely issued. It was a brief but influential movement which began in US and UK magazines in the Sixties and Seventies, in which reporters, traditionally trained to focus on facts elicited from sources, began to trust their own experience and instincts more. This was literary reporting and Tom Wolfe, who was regarded as its originator on the strength of his anthology titled New Journalism (1973), expected it to enrich American literature. But contributors to that anthology, like Hunter S Thompson and Michael Herr, believed that it was the only credible journalistic response to the changes sweeping the US and the world.
Opinion will always be divided on Tom Wolfe himself, between readers who admired his perception and those who were put off by his enthusiasm for stirring things up. But they will agree that, while his journalism insisted on the erasure of the distance between the subject and the observer, he was personally determined to stand apart. He adopted the uniform of a white suit and tie to create distance, to appear to be “the man from Mars”. His individualism stirred things up, too. While his writing bears the stamp of a liberal mind, he sent up the left and voted for George W Bush. He got into needless spats with literary peers and had the audacity to opinionate, without scientific or philosophical basis, about language and the work of Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin.
With the benefit of hindsight, Wolfe will probably be remembered best for helping to formalise and propagate New Journalism. The school is long-defunct and its alumni dead, barring a few like Joan Didion, but its influence lives on vibrantly in the feature pages of the world’s press.