Tom Wolfe was our favorite living writer in the world until he died Monday at the age of 88. From now on, we’ll have to regard him as merely one of the four or five greatest writers in the history of American literature.
Although we’re far too old and wised up for hero worship, that’s a fair description of how greatly we have always esteemed Wolfe’s inventive and elegant prose style, observant eye for the details of daily and keen insights about what they mean, and his bold willingness to defy the ridiculous fashions of his ridiculous times. He rescued American literature from the quicksand of solipsistic post-modernism, as far as we’re concerned, and he exerted an even more profound influence on our lives of letters.
Way back in our junior high school days we checked out from the Wichita Public Library a collection of the best of “new journalism” that Wolfe had edited, and after reading and then re-reading it we had made our mind up about what we wanted to do for a living. The book featured pieces by such notable writers as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, and with characteristic immodesty Wolfe also included a few pieces of his own, which were by far the best of an impressive lot. The book demonstrated how true stories can most truthfully be told with the narrative brilliance of the best fiction, and it made an indelible impression on our literary sensibilities.
After that we eagerly consumed every book and magazine article that Wolfe ever wrote, and we loved every word of it.
Wolfe was born into an educated and well-to-do and very old-fashioned southern family in Richmond, Virginia, and was a star student at Washington and Lee University and earned a doctoral degree in American studies from Yale University, but he preferred the rough-and-tumble worlds of baseball and newspapers to academia. At a hard-earned tryout with the New York Giants he realized that his fastball would never be good enough to take him far beyond the semi-pro leagues he’d played in, so he took a job at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts, soon rose to a reporting gig at The Washington Post, then moved to The New York Herald Tribune for the chance to write feature stories, which every newspaperman knows offers the chance to add a little literary flair to the copy. During one of the intermittent New York City newspaper strikes of the era, Wolfe convinced the editors at Esquire Magazine to commission an article about the custom car craze that currently sweeping California, and after that was published he was a literary sensation.
The article celebrated the supposedly low-brow car customizers as modern artists of the highest rank, and did so with a prose style just as revved-up and ostentatious outrageously brilliant as his subject. He used alliteration and onomatopoeia and hyperactive punctuations and obscure words and complex sentence structures that still drive your typical dullard newspaper editor crazy — trust us — but to the average reader he compellingly explained the quintessentially American beauty of those crazy customized cars. It was included in a hard-cover collection of Wolfe’s other “new journalism” magazine pieces called “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and after that he was not only a literary sensation but also a best-selling author.
He followed that up with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first hand account of justly famed novelist and hard-core hippie Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic drug-fueled bus trips through California with his band of “merry pranksters,” and that was another still-in-print best-seller. Another collection of “new journalism” called “The Pump House Gang” was released in the same crazed year of 1968 to less enthusiastic reviews and a slightly lower position on the best-seller charts, but is still in print and is still well worth reading. Two years later “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was published, and Wolfe could have quit there and still made our top four or five list of America’s greatest writers.
The first half of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was a previously published magazine piece called “Radical Chic,” an exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first-hand account of famed maestro and notorious bleeding-heart liberal Leonard Bernstein’s fund-raising soiree with New York City’s cultural elite for murderous Black Panther Party. With the observant eye of a ink-stained newspaper wretch and son of the well-to-do south Wolfe noticed all the servants-of-color who were handing out the drinks and hors d’oeurve, and how very strained were the conversations between the well-attired elite northeastern white folk and the leather clad and black-beret-wearing ghetto black folks who were seeking their contributions to their openly proclaimed cause of overthrowing white supremacy and killing whitey.
The second half was “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a previously published first-hand magazine account of the middle class white bureaucrats running the government’s anti-poverty programs who had to deal face-to-face in less genteel circumstances with black clients who had lately realized, after years of being cowed by white supremacy, that most white people had a deep-seated fear of black people. Wolfe’s written-down-in-his-notebook observations about the ridiculousness of it all rang true then, as it still does now, and at this point in time we’re all the more impressed by Wolfe’s daring in writing it down and having it published.
Wolfe’s collection of “The New Journalism” came next, which led to us reading all that had come before, and in ’75 he published “The Painted Word,” a brief but sufficiently long critique of modern art that confirmed our faith in the heartfelt realism of the Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins Mary Cassatt paintings at the Wichita Art Museum. After that was “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine,” another collection of magazines pieces that included a tribute to the great Russian anti-communist novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, and although it was also a best-seller Wolfe was suddenly controversial as a conservative. Rolling Stone Magazine had published most of his best known work, and there was something deceptively hip about his prose, and his enthusiasm for car customizers and moonshine-running stock car racers and the time he spent with drug-addled hippies had given him a certain counter-cultural cachet, but at that point he was outed as a cultural conservative.
He followed that up with “The Right Stuff,” a lengthy and meticulously detailed account of America’s space program that became his best-selling book and was eventually made into a star-studded hit Hollywood movie. In addition to its insightful historical accuracy, it’s also celebration of the quintessentially cutting-edge engineering feats and old-fashioned machismo that landed America on the moon and beyond. That masterpiece was followed by the still-in-print and still-worth-reading collection of magazine pieces called “In Our Time,” and a delightful screed against modern architecture called “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and another fine collection of magazine pieces titled “The Purple Decades.”
Wolfe had long championed the “new journalism” as superior to all those self-indulgent novels about academic sexual affairs that all the creative writing program graduates were churning out, and he was right to do so, but in another magazine piece he conceded your can’t really “sit at the grown-up’s table” of literature without writing a novel, so he took a few years off from freelance work and penned a bona fide classic American novel titled “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Just as Wolfe’s journalism had long been enhanced by novelistic techniques, his first novel was enhanced by his journalistic understanding of the peculiar New York City scene he depicted. It included all of the racial and class conflicts that defined the the time and place, the same derring-do to confront them honestly no matter what races or classes might be offended, and an even more refined crazy-ass prose style, and it was his biggest selling book to date and was made into a lousy movie.
He followed that with “A Man In Full,” another epic novel about an egomaniacal and deep-in-debt real estate mogul embroiled in racial controversies, and although it’s set in Atlanta rather than New York City or Washington, D.C., it’s still a masterpiece and as relevant as ever. There was another excellent compilation of magazine pieces called “Hooking Up” in 2000, with some excellent essays on the high-tech revolution that was taking place in California during the car-customizing craze and the concurrent sexual revolution’s effect on modern day college life, and after that another essential novel called “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The book was about a poor but brilliant daughter of the south who wound in modern academia, and the depression she suffered when confronted with longstanding class differences and the newfangled rules of sexual morality, and it might be our favorite Wolfe book of them all.
The high-brow critics of the time hated it, of course, and accused Wolfe of being a prurient old southern cultural conservative, but since then the cutting-edge left has taken to decrying the “culture of rape” in higher education and setting up kangaroo courts to expel the sort of drunken frat boys Wolfe so effectively lampooned. Wolfe always seemed to win these arguments in the long run.
By that point Wolfe was getting old, and although the books came slower his final works are likely to be in print for a long while and are still worth reading. His final novel “Back to Blood” is an honest account of race and class in the Latino-dominated town of Miami, with the prose as revved-up as ever. His last work was “The Kingdom of Speech,” an extended essay about the sciences of the brain and linguistics that seems to argue against free will and for pre-determinism, and although it’s our least favorite of his works we highly recommend it.
Wolfe was more of a cultural conservative than a political one, and we weren’t much surprised to learn from the many obituaries in the big newspapers that he often voted for Democrats in presidential elections, but we’ll always appreciate how he so eloquently celebrated the car customizers and stock car racers and semi-pro ball players and the crazy-ass fighter pilots who sat atop the dubious rockets that America launched into space, and that crazy-ass American spirit in general. We’ll also always appreciate the way he so perfectly skewered all those elite white folks who made cocktail party contributions to the ghetto thugs who openly wanted to kill them, and with such exquisite objectivity and notebook accuracy that it was downright hilarious.
Like Emile Zola and Charles Dickens and the rest of the best of western literature’s greatest writers, the notoriously ostentatious and self-promoting Wolfe realized that all the great novels and non-fiction aren’t about the author but rather about his life and times. Like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Sinclair Lewis and the other greatest American writers who also started in the newspaper racket, he captured the best and the worst of the great and awful time and place he lived such a rich life in. His own quintessentially American yet entire unique personality was part of every tale, of course, and we’ll hold out faint hopes the country will see the likes of it again.
— Bud Norman