:: Old New Traditions—The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe

  • Title: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • By: Tom Wolfe
  • Date: 10.5.1968
  • Page #: 416

I.

Its virtue was precisely in showing me the possibility of there being something “new” in journalism. What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories. It was that—plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space . . . to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.

This is Tom Wolfe, in 1972, writing for New York magazine, hollering to his coterie of American writers that there is, after all, a seemingly new path that would save American journalism, and the American fiction as well, from sterility and irrelevance. His essay, “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism,’” isn’t just an invitation brimmed with moxie and hopeful rebellion against the bureaucracy of the newsroom, which encourages unhealthy competition between reporters and between the reporters and their establishments. It’s not, as one may prematurely conclude from the essay’s title, a new interpretation of journalism, but rather a celebration of its powers against the old artifice called the novel. Or, to put it more categorically, the kind of novel that revels in modern self-referentialism and dirty minimalism, that seems to reduce the pressure at the level of form and sentence and detail. What Wolfe essentially argues is that journalism needs to allocate the qualities of social realist writing (Balzac, Zola, Dickens, James, Sinclair Lewis; you name it) while making the characters in the piece come alive, and have their dialogue come through the text without the labor of “telling”—a labor that fundamentally saps the vitality of both the reporter and her reportage.

To Wolfe, what makes a reporter better than the novelist, is that former hasn’t yet realized the extent of her journalistic repertoire, save for Jimmy Breslin of The New York Herald Tribune, who “made it a practice to arrive on the scene long before the main event in order to gather the off-camera material, the by-play in the make-up room, that would enable him to create character . . . to gather ‘novelistic’ details, the rings, the perspiration, the jabs on the shoulder.” It is the historical argument that reality is always more significant than anything the novelist can invent, that the finality of the real is always above the debatability of the real. Of course, Wolfe is not naive enough to dismiss the fact that many novelists research their subjects or simply sneak chunks of witnessed or remembered reality into their books, but he essentially sees that many of them—or all of them, if they insist of calling themselves novelist—veers away from their research, from the dull fidelities of real life, toward the grandiose, the parabolic finish, the moral enticement; products that that only a creative mind can fashion.

To combat such a tempting swerve, Wolfe, in a surprising gesture, doesn’t direct his writers to get out onto the street and starts copying the little details or champion the travails of the Everyday Man, as Joseph Mitchell did in the 1930s during his stint at The New Yorker, but rather to seek out subjects whose reality is symptomatically antipodal to the Everyday Man’s: untraditional, wild, dangerously egotistical, and intellectually rebellious. Indeed, Wolfe’s portfolio—from his essays to his nonfiction to his fiction—seldom invests in observing Middle Class America; it rather exults in enlightening it on what is going on “out there.”

We see this in the 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe’s seminal model of what his “New Journalism” can offer, which follows the exploits of larger-than-life Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, as they trip their way round the US in the 1960s, turning on the masses and experimenting in group consciousness; all under the influence of LSD and a multimedia of sensual bombardment. It is, indeed, a classic work of psychedelic literature, whose brilliant exploration into the social upshots of stimulants offers an unsentimental tableau of the counterculture movement, where the reporter, while unafraid to declare his presence and even recognize the ironies around him, dissolves in the mise-en-scène of events, allowing the minds of those people with whom he travels and interviews speak and speak back, often by inhibiting their mindsets without losing his sobriety. Wolfe’s modus operandi is virtually the antithesis of what Hunter S. Thompson does in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he who posited himself as the framework for his texts, through a drug-induced haze, all the while cogitating on the failure of the 1960s counterculture.

II.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, coincidentally enough, ends with a recognition of failure—the movement, once it grows beyond the confines of group idealism, loses its grip on reality through a great error of underestimation, that great outcomes are but randomly connected to its endeavors, that LSD has become impotent in facilitating the group’s intellectual revolt. In short, Kesey, after a fake suicide note and a heady flight to Mexico, gets busted for several marijuana related offences; the Pranksters dissipate; and The Acid Test Graduation consequently fails from the lack of leadership and from the ongoing social divide.

But before the book reaches its bathos, the bulk of its narrative reads like a spectacle, which also happens to be the Pranksters’ state of mind and primary concern. Indeed, not only did Kesey and his confederacy of agitated souls film their travel to the east—a constant recourse to Hermann Hesse’s pilgrimage novella, Journey to the East—but they turned everywhere they went into living, organic models of their vision:

A few times Sandy and Kesey and Walker would walk up into the forest with axes and cut some wood for the house-but that wasn’t really the name of it at Kesey’s. Sandy could see Kesey wasn’t primarily an outdoorsman. He wasn’t that crazy about unspoilt Nature. It was more like he had a vision of the forest as a fantastic stage setting…in which everyday would be a happening, an art form…

Never mind that there’s an obvious plot hole in this kind of transcendental filmmaking, which is the lack of an original point of transcendence—an underlying philosophy, an essence of tangible concern, a strict religious doctrine—because the Pranksters are seemingly more interested in a game of shared experiences; that it is the journey, not the destination, which endows them with purpose.

Indeed, the reality of the spectacle, as an outward manifestation of the LSD trip, has certainly aided the Prankster’s passage into a world resplendent with cheerful spontaneity and infantilism, which subsequently transformed the very physical spaces through which they travelled; their famous psychedelic bus—codenamed “Further”—was the very vehicle of their geographical, and metaphorical, exploration. However, once Wolfe enters the scene and begins to unravels the mindset of the Pranksters, one by one, the spectacle, slowly but surely, begins to turn inward, to a reality that has warped into something very different:

On those long stretches of American superhighways between performances the bus was like a pressure cooker, a crucible like one of those chambers in which the early atomic scientists used to compress heavy water, drive the molecules closer and closer together until the very atoms exploded. On the bus all traces of freakiness or competition or bitterness or whatever was intensified.

One thought on “:: Old New Traditions—The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe

  1. there’s a difference between art and artifice:
    –artifice called the novel.

    good. He is interested in the fringe, but also what the fringe says about the rest of us. He like subculture, and views the macro as a brach’s candy bag of delicious bits for him to suck on and mull over:
    –To combat such a tempting swerve, Wolfe, in a surprising gesture, doesn’t direct his writers to get out onto the street and starts copying the little details or champion the travails of the Everyday Man, as Joseph Mitchell did in the 1930s during his stint at The New Yorker, but rather to seek out subjects whose reality is symptomatically antipodal to the Everyday Man’s: untraditional, wild, dangerously egotistical, and intellectually rebellious. Indeed, Wolfe’s portfolio—from his essays to his nonfiction to his fiction—seldom invests in observing Middle Class America; it rather exults in enlightening it on what is going on “out there.”

    Yes, Wolfe turns the spectacle back upon itself. Its reflection is more garish, more disappointing than the conception.
    –Indeed, The reality of the spectacle, as an outward manifestation of the LSD trip, has certainly aided the Prankster’s passage into a world resplendent with cheerful spontaneity and infantilism, which subsequently transformed the very physical spaces through which they travelled; their famous psychedelic bus—codenamed “Further”—was the very vehicle of their geographical, and metaphorical, exploration. However, once Wolfe enters the scene and begins to unravels the mindset of the Pranksters, one by one, the spectacle, slowly but surely, begins to turn inward, to a reality that has warped into something very different:

    thanks for the good thoughts.

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