categories: Cocktail Hour
There will be a lot of LSD in my class next term. Sorry, parents, this can’t be helped. Even Glenn Beck would be hard pressed to teach a course on the 60s and New Journalism without a healthy dose of acid. It kind of stares you in the face (with those beady little eyes that alternately spin out of control or bore into your skull) if you are teaching Hunter Thompson and TomWolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. As a sign of how old I’m getting, I’m actually kind of worried about the whole “bad influence” thing. At the risk of sounding like I’m doing penance for my own misspent youth, I actually know of a few cases where the conservative vision of LSD proved out: friends whose brains got burned and never came back. My hope is that the students in the class can regard it historically, since this is after all stuff that happened over forty years ago, and that they won’t respond as I did in college, which was to look to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a kind of How-To book.
Drugs aren’t the point of the class, of course. Excitement is. Long ago I wrote an essay about seeing a Kandinsky exhibit in Munich. The paintings were lined up chronologically and while I liked the early realistic paintings and the later, purely abstract ones, I loved the middle period where the houses first started to squiggle and the hills started to throb, where the real began to turn abstract but could still be recognized as real. It’s the moment when the horse first breaks out of the barn and that’s what New Journalism really is, too. You can really see it in Wolfe, who has said to have written early drafts of Kool-Aid that, while they had his usual flair, were fairly external, reporting on the experience from the outside. Of course it’s when he goes inside his characters heads and recreates their subjective states that it all gets so exciting. In going back to read their works, I found Thompson a bit more dated, in part because he hits the same note again and again (though that one note is very funny). But Wolfe, in Acid Test at least, is taking wild risks with language that are still kind of dizzying.
It’s natural to ask “Where the hell did this writing come from?” There are some pretty obvious precursors, including Orwell, John Hersey in Hiroshima, Lillian Ross, Capote, and others who took objective reporting and turned it inside out. This lineage, if it interests you, is explored nicely in Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight. One name that doesn’t get much mention in that book, however, is Kerouac’s. It seems to me that what Wolfe was trying to do with language—playing with sounds, breaking down punctuation, making the run-one excitement of the line reflect the excitement of the characters—had its obvious and immediate predecessor in On the Road, and, perhaps even more in Big Sur, where language begins to spin out of control, sentences colliding and spilling over each other.
In this age of memoir, it is amazing to think of the energy required to do all the reporting that Wolfe, and Thompson in Hell’s Angles, did. For many literary writers that energy has turned inward (though not all—see Rob Boynton’s The New, New Journalism) but for me, and for many of us right now I think, there is a huge opportunity in melding the energy, discipline and fun of journalism with the insight of the personal. This, I believe, is where it’s at right now—see, for instance, the work of Charles Bowden—and this is where the current horse is breaking our of the barn.
P.S. One of the fun things for me is that the same thing was going on simultaneously in the world of cartooning and caricature. Most people know Ralph Steadman’s work, which is as linked to Hunter Thompson’s work as John Tenniel’s drawings are to Lewis Carol’s. But most people don’t know the tradition, primarily English, that Steadman grew out. The towering figure here is Ronald Searle, with his wild, thick-to-thin brush strokes, a man who deserves credit, not just for influencing Steadman, Scarfe (of Pink Floyd’s The wall fame), and , but for being the single largest influence on American political cartooning, most notably as an influence on Patrick Oliphant.
A couple of drawings by Searle:
P.P.S. Here is the reading list for this term:
Forms of the New Journalism
1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
2. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Thomas Wolfe
3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson
4. Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
5. Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes by Terry Southern
III: Issues: Race and Viet Nam
6. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
7. Dispatches by Michael Herr
IV. The Nonfiction Novel
8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
9. The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer