Tom Wolfe, RIP

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


The Rape of Journalism

Celebrity sex scandals rarely interest us, and we follow political scandals more from a sense of civic obligation than any voyeuristic fascination, but we do love a good journalism scandal. The recent flap over Rolling Stone magazine’s latest discredited story is also an academic scandal, another of our favorite pastimes, so we have been enrapt.

The story that was featured on the cover of the Rolling Stone, once such a counter-cultural honor that Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show had a hit song about it, was incendiary stuff. It told of a brutal gang-rape that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite at the University of Virginia, complete with such shocking details as the broken glass that littered the floor where she was attacked. Such a sordid story not only corroborated the academic left’s recent claims of a “culture of rape” on the nation’s campuses, it also confirmed its longstanding prejudices against fraternities, the south, and the brutally sexist nature of American society generally. All in all the story was too good to be true, so it should have come as no surprise that it turned out be false.
Some readers were skeptical from the start, noting the abundance of unnamed sources and a striking failure to even ask for a response from the accused, and of course those who expressed their skepticism were widely denounced for their insensitivity. Even so the points they raised about the numerous deviations from standard journalistic practice were sound enough to instigate an investigation by The Washington Post, a publication ordinarily inclined to believe the academic left’s claims and think the worst of fraternities and the south and the American society generally, and its reporters quickly found several problems with Rolling Stone’s reporting. Among other things, the very specific description of the appearance and occupation of the man who allegedly lured the victim to the party did not remotely match any of the fraternity’s members, and the victim’s friends’ recollections of the aftermath of the incident did not include the visible injuries that would have inevitably occurred if her story were true. A short time after the Post’s story ran Rolling Stone issued a statement acknowledging discrepancies in the subject’s claims and admitting that “We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Rolling Stone’s liberal readership was of course angered that the magazine was blaming the putative victim, even though at that point there was no evidence she was a victim of anything, and more reason to believe that she had victimized the fraternity with a false claim of rape, so the magazine has since altered its statement to say that the mistakes were entirely its own fault. Some of the accuser’s friends remain plausibly convinced that something bad happened to her at the fraternity even as they say that it could have not been precisely what she described, so at this point it is probably for the best that Rolling Stone simply admits its own responsibility for the story and leave it at that, but the fraternity members deserve a presumption of innocence that the phrasing seems to deny them.
Presumption of innocence is an unfashionable concept on the modern left, however. The University of Virginia’s president had no use for it when she suspended all fraternity activities in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Rolling Stone story, the Department of Justice is using the government’s funding of higher education to coerce other schools to to expel students accused of all manner of sexual misbehavior without due process, and claims that no woman has ever made a false of claim of rape is being chanted on campus around the country. An exception seem to be made for Juanita Broderick’s very believable claim that she was raped by former President Bill Clinton when he was the Attorney General of Arkansas, and the radical left’s defense of Scottsboro Boys and other black men accused of raping white women in the Jim Crow era of the south is still to be regarded as a heroic chapter in the history of liberalism, but otherwise any woman’s claim of rape is to be believed no matter how little evidence supports the charge or how much evidence refutes it.
To believe otherwise opens one to a charge of denying that rape is a continuing problem, but those who insist on believing every charge without reason are not helping the many women who truly are victims of this heinous crime. Every false charge that is ultimately disproved makes it harder for the public to believe the true claims, and those who fall for those false charges similarly discredit themselves. Rolling Stone has done great harm to a fraternity at the University of Virginia, and will probably wind up paying for it in a libel suit, but one can only hope that it will pay for the great harm it has done to rape victims with declining sales and ad revenue and public scorn.

— Bud Norman

Barnyard Rhetoric

Perhaps it’s a sign of advancing fogeyism, but we lately find ourselves yearning for a bygone era when political campaigns were conducted with proper decorum. There was always mud-slinging, dissembling, thuggery, and all manner of other unpleasantness, but at least the candidates could be counted on to refrain from cursing in the presence of children and mothers.

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has thus far been as fastidiously proper as the man himself, but Barack Obama’s re-election bid has too often descended into vulgarity. Thursday’s news exposed yet another example. The offending party was Obama himself, who gave an interview with Rolling Stone in which he characterized his opponent with what its politely called a “barnyard epithet.” We’ll not re-state the word here, so let it suffice to say it’s a familiar term generally used to describe someone malodorously dishonest.

Lest we be accused of fuddy-duddiness we still stipulate that the term is relatively mild by today’s degraded standards, and confess that we have also employed it on a few occasions when in the company of rough men or the more worldly sorts of women, but it’s not the sort of language that one uses in the more respectable circles Rolling Stone’s high-brow readers presumably frequent. There have undoubtedly been previous presidents who used the term — Lyndon Johnson was famously foul-mouthed, Richard Nixon introduced the term “expletive deleted” to the lexicon, and one can only imagine what Andrew Jackson let loose with after a jug or two — but all were careful not to do so within earshot of the public.

Most of the president’s critics have focused on the rich irony of his using term to describe anyone else, and it certainly is audacious for the man who won office promising universal health care and middle-class tax cuts and endless entitlements while halving the deficit in four years to make such an accusation. More energetic scribes than ourselves are required to catalog all of the malodorous dishonesty that Obama has shoveled during his brief political career, from the phony-baloney cost figures he used to sell Obamacare to his false Libyan tale to the entirety of his self-written persona, but the critics’ point is well taken.

Still, let us also save a share of opprobrium for the language that he used. Such words are polluting the culture, and it cannot help this dire situation to give them a presidential imprimatur. The next grandfather who asks the loud young men at the next table to watch their language in the presence of children will have to contend with the argument that the president and vice-president have used the same words, and that is a shame that should not go unremarked.

The phrase was probably chosen by Obama with great care, and calculated to confer an aura of proletarian authenticity that will contrast with his opponent’s more patrician bearing. This should have a special appeal to more youthful voters, who seem unable to formulate a sentence without at least one obscene amplifier, but also to a leftist base that has reveled in foul language since at least the days of Lenny Bruce. For some reason the same people who find it appropriate for the government to dictate everything from one’s choice of light bulbs to an opinion regarding affirmative action or same-sex marriage bristle at mere social conventions regarding cursing.

Modernists scoff at the notion that degrading a culture’s language will wear away at the culture itself, but we suspect that the left counts on it doing so and that is the very reason they are so prone to such language. Old-fashioned notions such as politeness and propriety are bulwarks of an established order that must be destroyed in order to bring a new utopia, and that seems to be happening one word at time.

— Bud Norman