BEDTIME FOR GONZO
Warren Hinckle’s grand tribute to Hunter S. Thompson [March 21] defines “gonzo journalism” (where the reporter becomes “the active part of the story”) as growing “out of a 1970 assignment I gave Thompson,” for his Ramparts-esque Scanlan’s Monthly. Thank God (and Mr. Hinckle) for having the chutzpah and foresight to let Hunter loose on the Kentucky Derby, where he met up with Ralph Steadman. But such editorial prescience–fostering a modern author’s exorcising of American hypocrisies–dates back further. Tom Wolfe, in The New Journalism, writes about an assignment that the late David Newman of Esquire gave my father, Terry Southern, in 1962:
“It was the first example I noticed of a form of journalism in which the writer starts out to do a feature assignment (‘Go to Mississippi and see what happens when five hundred pubescent baton twirlers meet in earnest competition’) and ends up writing a curious form of autobiography…. The supposed subject…becomes incidental.”
Professor William McKeen, chair of the University of Florida journalism department and editor of Literary Journalism, writes, “In many ways this story [Terry’s “Twirling at Ole Miss”] provides a model for Hunter Thompson to follow later in the decade.”
Perhaps the term “gonzo journalism” must indeed be reserved for the drugs, guns, politics and iron-in-the-soul agit-prop of HST, and the “new journalism,” kicked off by Terry and carried on by writers like George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, John Updike, Truman Capote, Molly Ivins, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael Herr, Mark Singer, Barbara Ehrenreich and Tom Wolfe, will be reinvented by today’s outraged writers and (more important) tomorrow’s media makers.
While my father set out to “blast smugness and complacency,” I think Thompson became that impulse. As the neocon(job) bandwagon rolls along, the two of them must be shaking their heads with increasing incredulity.
YOUNG & GHOULISH
Eric Alterman, in “Anti-Semite? Self-Hating Jew? Moi?” shouldn’t worry when people like Cathy Young attack him as a “self-hating” Jew [“The Liberal Media,” March 28]. Take it as a compliment. When people like Cathy Young start praising him, then he should worry.