When I began teaching a course on American literary journalism, I was puzzled by the 30-year gap between the end of what was considered the New Journalism and the contemporary writers who were my focus. Was everything written since Tom Wolfe's influential 1973 introduction to The New Journalism -- in which he argued that nonfiction, not the novel, had become "the most important literature being written in America today" -- merely a footnote to that movement?
The more I looked into it, the more I came to understand that not only was Wolfe's account inaccurate, but it was also an impediment to appreciating both the distinctively American quality of modern literary journalism and its continuity with its 19th-century predecessors. And since the way writers construct the story of who we are is as important for our culture as it is for the study of journalism, Wolfe's distortions pose a genuine dilemma.
For even as Wolfe was celebrating the triumph of the New Journalism, the seeds of an ev...