The Ransom of Russian Art
by John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 181 pp., $20.00
The big year for the New Journalism was 1965. (A Journal of the Plague Year, Homage to Catalonia, and even Joseph Mitchell’s foretaste of the postmodern, Joe Gould’s Secret, had been published before this momentous date, but that wasn’t the point. “New” was the point.) In the spring, Tom Wolfe hurled a two-part pie in the face of The New Yorker with his sendup, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of The Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” It was Wolfe’s thesis that the magazine had devolved into a humorless, genteel museum piece of middlebrow culture living off the literary capital accumulated in the days of Harold Ross. Years later, Wolfe would claim that his savaging of the magazine and the eccentricities of its famously shy editor, William Shawn, was no more wicked or out-of-bounds than Wolcott Gibbs’s 1936 parody of Henry Luce and the syntax of Time. (“Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”) After having taken his whacks in other pieces at slumming debs, Murray the K, Junior Johnson, and other totems of the Zeitgeist, Wolfe figured that The New Yorker would be just one more overripe target. And why the hell not? Who would take offense if Wolfe administered Eustace Tilley a good zetz? Hadn’t Lillian Ross, in her New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway, made Papa out to look like an infantile ass? Fun’s fun, no?
Apparently not. The uproar after Wolfe’s piece appeared in The New York Herald Tribune was across the board, coming from everyone from J.D. Salinger to Walter Lippmann. In the windiest of the attacks, Dwight Macdonald, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, ventilated in The New York Review against Wolfe and what he called “parajournalism.” “It is a bastard form, having it both ways,” Macdonald declared, “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”
A few months later, Shawn made mush of Wolfe and Macdonald both, publishing virtually every word of what remains a classic of nonfiction writing, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote’s work was built on the sheer exertion of painstaking reporting; at the same time it possessed all the texture and narrative energy of the best novels. No ladies’ magazine stuff here, Mr. Wolfe. Nothing “para” or quasi or faux about it, Mr. Macdonald. Both sides of the argument, Wolfe and Macdonald, eventually betrayed some regret at their initial salvos. Wolfe never put “Tiny Mummies!” in his collections. Macdonald, who had been touching in his defense of Shawn but hopelessly muddled in his arguments, seemed to recognize his own errors as he added a series of footnotes to the original essay, admitting that, yes, “parajournalism” was, in fact, “a legitimate art form”: witness, he said, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and, yes, Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic.
In that same noisy year, 1965, The New Yorker published “A …