Tom Wolfe on newspapers

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was born on March 2, 1931, and what a gadfly he has been! One of  the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 70s, he blew me away when I first read him.

I couldn’t recall anyone writing like him. I must admit I liked his essays more than his novels.

He had a thing about newspapers, which comes through powerfully, vividly, here. Here’s Tom Wolfe writing about his early days as a reporter:

God knows I didn’t have anything new in mind, much less anything literary, when I took my first newspaper job. I had a fierce and unnatural craving for something else entirely. Chicago, 1928, that was the general idea . . . Drunken reporters out on the ledge of the News peeing into the Chicago River at dawn . . . Nights down at the saloon listening to “Back of the Stockyards” being sung by a baritone who was only a lonely blind bulldyke with lumps of milk glass for eyes . . . Nights down at the detective bureau—it was always nighttime in my daydreams of the newspaper life. Reporters didn’t work during the day. I wanted the whole movie, nothing left out . . .

In any case, by the time I received my doctorate in American studies in 1957 I was in the twisted grip of a disease of our times in which the sufferer experiences an overwhelming urge to join the “real world.” So I started working for newspapers. In 1962, after a cup of coffee here and there, I arrived at the New York Herald Tribune . . This must be the place! . . . I looked out across the city room of the Herald Tribune, 100 moldering yards south of Times Square, with a feeling of amazed bohemian bliss . . . Either this is the real world, Tom, or there is no real world . . . The place looked like the receiving bin at the Good Will . . . a promiscuous heap of junk . . . Wreckage and exhaustion everywhere . . . If somebody such as the city editor had a swivel chair, the universal joint would be broken, so that every time he got up, the seat would keel over as if stricken by a lateral stroke. All the intestines of the building were left showing in diverticulitic loops and lines—electrical conduits, water pipes, steam pipes, effluvium ducts, sprinkler systems, all of it dangling and grunting from the ceiling, the walls, the columns. The whole mess, from top to bottom, was painted over in an industrial sludge, Lead Gray, Subway Green, or that unbelievable dead red, that grim distemper of pigment and filth, that they paint the floor with in the tool and die works. On the ceiling were scalding banks of fluorescent lights, turning the atmosphere radium blue and burning bald spots in the crowns of the copy readers, who never moved. It was one big pie factory . . . A Landlord’s Dream . . . There were no interior walls. The corporate hierarchy was not marked off into office spaces. The managing editor worked in a space that was as miserable and scabid as the lowest reporter’s. Most newspapers were like that. This setup was instituted decades ago for practical reasons. But it was kept alive by a curious fact. On newspapers very few editorial employees at the bottom—namely, the reporters—had any ambition whatsoever to move up, to become city editors, managing editors, editors-in-chief, or any of the rest of it. Editors felt no threat from below. They needed no walls. Reporters didn’t want much . . . merely to be stars! and of such minute wattage at that!

It’s taken from here.

Published by Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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