Exactly 51 years ago today, at roughly the hour this was mailed out, Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during an anti-war protest at Kent State University. I go out of my way to call attention to this anniversary every year, because no one was ever held accountable for such a crime against humanity. Neil Young sang, “How can you run if you know?” Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because journalism is my way of not running.
Rape claim against Philip Roth biographer Blake Bailey should be the death knell for literary machismo
They called their movement “the New Journalism” — writers like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joe McGinniss, among others — and the electric-kool-aid shock of their iconoclastic writing has in many ways inspired and motivated me since I started reading and in some cases worshiping their work, as a teen in the 1970s.
These brash, young writers (or at least young-minded) showed up in an America where there were still a lot of rules and announced to the world they were breaking all of them. They questioned actual authority — the liars who brought you Vietnam, Southern segregation and Watergate, most famously — but they also questioned the tyranny of journalism’s inverted pyramids of tradition. Consider, for example, the new neon frontier of Las Vegas, where Wolfe defined the 3 a.m., craps-table sound of “hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia” that an acid-soaked Thompson would electrocute a decade later, throwing his radio into his bathtub.
In many ways, the “New Journalists” were the inevitable non-fiction brigade of the revolution that Ernest Hemingway launched earlier in the 20th Century, the machismo of a big-game hunt, bathed in gin. In fact, the testosterone was so baked into their writing that it was rarely mentioned (at the time) that most of “the New Journalists” were white men.
I went back and looked at the seminal, Wolfe-edited anthology from 1973 simply titled, The New Journalism. Of the 20 collected authors, 17 were white men (several of them gay), joined by just two white women and one Black man. If “The New Journalism” had been a company, the EEOC would have successfully sued it. Their U.S. contemporaries in the world of fiction — in an era dominated by the likes of John Updike and Philip Roth — chronicled a so-called “sexual revolution” that meant guys having more sex, not taking on the rot of patriarchy.
I’d already been pondering whether I’d been too blind for too long to the misogyny and white privilege of the literary firmament I’d so long looked up to, when a seemingly inevitable scandal rocked the American book world. It involves a much-anticipated biography of Roth, who died in 2018 and whose literary genius didn’t dim the debate about his books’ treatment of women, who at times seemed to exist largely as objects to inspire the lust, or ire, or both, from his more deeply drawn male protagonists.
Roth was controlling — or at least tried to be — of both his women and his public image. Tellingly, he rejected an acclaimed female literary biographer because, a friend told the New York Times Magazine, “He did not want to be remembered throughout posterity as a person who didn’t like women.” Instead, he chose a writer, Blake Bailey, known for his work about boozy men like Richard Yates and John Cheever. According to a talk Bailey later gave, his bond with Roth was cemented in a conversation about women that devolved into whether Roth should have hit on the actress Ali MacGraw, which ended with the literary legend saying, “OK, you’re hired.”
Not surprisingly, when Philip Roth: A Biography was published this year, some critics thought casual misogyny was baked into its pages. And that was before the shocking plot twist: At least four women have now made serious sexual misconduct charges, including an alleged rape, against Bailey. Roth’s biographer has denied the allegations, but publisher W.W. Norton stopped printing the tome even as it appeared on the best-seller list.
The Slate article by accuser Eve Crawford Peyton with the plaintive title, “I Was 12 When We Met” (yes, Bailey was her middle-school teacher) is the most detailed and harrowing account of predatory grooming I’ve ever read. This appalling scandal seems like the perfect moment to say farewell to a self-congratulatory, self-perpetuating macho style in American writing that probably should have died in Hemingway’s Idaho cabin in 1961, if not sooner.
Today, I think a lot about how to weigh the brilliant wordcraft of the New Journalists, my favorite male novelists, and my newsroom heroes like Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko against their episodes of either casual prejudice or loutish behavior. It’s impossible. All you can do is be mindful of what was great and rotten about our past, and resolve to do better today.
The best way to do that, of course, is to elevate the kinds of voices — female, and also Black, brown, Indigenous, Asian, Latino — who still too often get left out by the kind of ingrained bias on sad display with Wolfe’s 1973 editing choices. Men will always find ways to invent new hierarchies that place them at the top, whether it’s the New Journalism of the ‘70s or today’s world of Substack, where a lot of pushy white male journalists seem to have migrated with new claims of rugged individualism — right when there’s a movement for racial equity and diversity in many newsrooms. That can’t be a coincidence.
Older white dudes (like, ahem, me) don’t all need to quit. We do need to do better to elevate the work of colleagues who don’t look like us, and tell more diverse stories. There’s no reason why a white man can’t go after the cruel foolishness of sexism or racism with the same zeal that, say, HST’s “gonzo journalism” demolished the legacy of Richard Nixon. When it comes to unctuous testosterone in American writing, it’s best to remember the words of one of those two women in The New Journalism, the great Joan Didion, who famously said, goodbye to all that.
Yo, do this
Even with Marvin Gaye’s one-of-a-kind voice (listen to this ... listen!) and his undeniable sex appeal, nothing prepared the world for the musical supernova on May 21, 1971 when he released What’s Going On. Now, a growing number of critics argue it may be the greatest album of all-time. Gaye channeled his grief over the early death of singing partner (and Philly native) Tammi Terrell and his despair over the Vietnam War, pollution, and urban decay in America to create an enduring plea for social justice. CNN marks the 50th anniversary this Sunday night with a documentary — and I can’t wait to see it.
U.S. foreign policy is changing rapidly with the arrival of President Biden, and no one in Philadelphia — no, actually anywhere — understands this stuff better than my Inquirer colleague, Trudy Rubin. She recently had a fascinating panel discussion with Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and acclaimed writer Elliot Ackerman about their new book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, and our superpower rivalry with China, and you can watch it here. Don’t miss her next Inquirer LIVE on May 21 with Biden’s close friend, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons.
Ask me anything
Question: Does GOP break apart before or after Trump leaves this life? — Via @paplanner13 on Twitter
Answer: I think it depends less on Trump’s cholesterol-clogged ticker and more on how the Republican Party performs in 2022′s midterm election. The craziness of the various state GOP orgs — like the Utah confab that booed Sen. Mitt Romney over the weekend — makes clear that the party will run next year on full-bore Trumpism, including the Big Lie about the 2020 election and attacking “woke culture.” Actual policy? No way. If that strategy fails, and the Democrats buck the historical trend and gain seats, then it’s time to grab the popcorn as things fall apart.
Monday was World Press Freedom Day, but here in the United States the event would have been better billed as U.S. Press Disappearing Freedom Day. On its face, the numbers reported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for 2020 were shocking. American journalists trying to inform the public were physically attacked 438 times last year, primarily while covering the protests that erupted in the weeks after last May’s police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But more disturbing was who was behind 80% of these assaults: The police, who deployed tear gas, batons, pepper balls and rubber bullets toward journalists exercising their 1st Amendment rights. What’s more, cops arrested reporters and photojournalists 139 times in 2020 — a 15-fold increase!
Although obviously not as troubling as the police killings of more than 1,000 U.S. citizens every year, the fact that Black Lives Matter protests sparked such an unprecedented assault on press freedom shows how systemic racism is deeply embedded in American policing. This wasn’t even the only disturbing report about our rank-and-file cops on Monday. The Washington Post says disappointingly high numbers of police are shunning COVID-19 vaccines — and thus risking public safety. U.S. cop culture, and its growing bond with right-wing misinformation, is sick and getting sicker. It’s why America needs radical policing reform — with a greater role for civilians, and downsizing traditional departments — and not tinkering on the margins.
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In my Sunday column, I looked at whether the fan revolt in England and elsewhere over a U.S. billionaire-hatched plot to blow up traditional European soccer in a hunt for profits was a sign of broader discontent over the ravages of late-stage capitalism. Will public anger over rising CEO pay amid a deadly pandemic offer political cover for President Biden’s plans to tax the wealthy to fund his agenda?
Over the weekend, I wrote about Biden’s unexpected push for such a progressive domestic program — and how in many ways it resembles the 2016 platform laid out by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders that even Democrats had attacked at the time as way too far left. I tried to explain how the perfect storm of COVID-19, Trumpism and Biden’s personal experiences took the 46th president in a new and not-predicted direction.
No writer has done more to amplify the voices of Philadelphia’s marginalized and too-often forgotten communities than my fellow Inquirer columnist, Helen Ubiñas. Especially on the never-ending toll that gun violence has exacted on some of the city’s neighborhoods, and the failures of City Hall and other leaders to forcefully respond. With homicide rates spiking to near-record levels in Philadelphia, she appealed to readers for new ideas on how to take her crusade to the next level. I hope you’ll join her.
Who even pays attention to local judicial races in these hectic times? The Philadelphia Inquirer, that’s who! Few city voters in this month’s Democratic primary would have had any inkling that Municipal Court judgeship candidate George Twardy is a former Republican and an ex-Haverford Township commissioner who was voted out in a scandal — if The Inquirer’s Sean Collins Walsh hadn’t reported it. There’s no democracy without an informed electorate. Please consider subscribing to The Inquirer.