Monday Philips Ekpe pays tribute to Tom Wolfe, author and chief priest of new journalism

Thanks to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour who paid an elaborate tribute to Tom Wolfe last weekend, I had not heard that the man who put the concept of new or literary Journalism in perspective had passed on a week earlier. With that, it became my historic responsibility to salute the author of the definitive book, The New Journalism, upon which my MA thesis (The Role of New Journalism in Monitoring the Current Democratic Process in Nigeria…) was anchored years ago. I still recall with fondness the assistance of my lecturer, Mr. Pius Omole of the University of Ibadan, in that regard. Because of its centrality to my work, I was about to order the book from abroad when he heard about it. He rode his bicycle to his house with a speed I considered unsafe for his age to fetch me his own copy. It was a Deux ex machina.

Born in 1930 in the United States of America as Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr, he devoted his time especially in the 1960s and 1970s to the revitalisation of journalism. He did that by criticising the American novel, something he insisted had come to a dead end, that the news media were much more relevant to personal intellectual enjoyment and social engineering. His campaign was ambitious: Use techniques that had been exclusive to fiction, particularly subjective point of view and lengthy dialogue, in news reporting and analysis. Wolfe was equipped for his assignment as he was inspired by established novelists some of whom had lived centuries earlier. It was Daniel Defoe in the 18th Century and then Charles Dickens and Mark Twain in the 19th. Dickens, the foremost proponent of the English social novel of that era started his own writing career as a reporter for The Morning Chronicle, The True Sun and The Mirror of Parliament, Miscellany and Household Words.

Dickens’ reportorial skill reflected in his more notable works, namely Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. Also, Twain, arguably the best known American novelist of that era, was first a journalist before publishing his bestsellers – The Adventure of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Stephen Crane was there at the dawn of the 20th Century to receive the baton from his forebears who had inadvertently charted a path for the revolution that Wolfe was to champion decades later. Some other members of the literary journalism gang were Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion but Wolfe it was who institutionalised the Movement as he exploited social realism which formed the overriding doctrine of the writings of his mentors.

An enigma and non-conformist, Tom Wolfe took journalism, a fairly conservative and predictable practice at the time in terms of writing, by the throat and tried to influence its practitioners to take the seat that had been occupied by writers of fictional works. His manifesto for the battle had four strands: One, instead of the moment-by-moment accounts and also background information that journalists were taught to employ in reporting, he was convinced that readers’ interests were best served by recreating for them events witnessed first-hand by reporters. Two, even though interviewing people and describing events were crucial, focusing on the surrounding or environment was to be greatly valued and pursued. He called it, “status details.” By that, Wolfe was enthroning aesthetics. Three, rather than simply chronicling facts about people and their statements, they should be treated like fictive characters, in which case their thought-processes, motivation and other metaphysical elements should be laid bare to the reading, listening or viewing public. And four, didactic, prolonged dialogue with relevant people, according to him, held the key to satisfying the curiosity and communication needs of mass media audiences.

What arsenal! The New Journalism published in 1973 announced to those who doubted his resolve that he really meant to change mainstream journalism substantially. The legendary American author and journalist successfully challenged the status quo and left the scene a global hero. Salil Tripathi, a veteran Indian journalist, dramatised Wolfe’s linguistic and journalistic rebellion in his parting eulogy: “Who’s afraid of Tom Wolfe? Not us. Ignore strictures on length. Experiment with the structure. Forget rules. Capitalise Random Words if you Like. See the page as a canvas. Paint words. With vivid imagery so that they become windows, no longer bricks, and, beyond the window, let your imagination soar. Get. The. Facts. Right. Be accurate. But don’t kill the story by piling factsuponfactsuponfacts, making the text dead. Use the facts to authenticate the story. But imagine, imagine what your character feels like. Have a plot. Massage the language, g-e-n-t-l-y. And make the character credible…. Wolfe taught us to look for the detail that tells. Use the skills of fiction to make your non-fiction more real.”

What sort of reality could this chief priest of unorthodox journalism be faced with now at the moment? He once revealed this about one of his characters: “There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny turf of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of his engulfing night.”

For Wolfe, it has to be amazing light, at least in the hearts and minds of his disciples and fans around the world for whom he has made journalism new.