Tom Wolfe, American Iconoclast
by Marsha Familaro Enright
Originally published in The New Individualist, Fall, 2006
Tom Wolfe is one of the most original, honest and unfettered contemporary observers of American culture alive today. Originator of the New Journalism in the ‘60’s, Wolfe’s fiction-like forays in reporting have kept him at the leading edge of insight for decades. And he’s hilarious! He skewers pomp, pretension and preening evenhandedly–and his fellow members of the press are often well-roasted. His originality with language is phenomenal, his psychological insight and depth remarkable. Best of all, his entirely first-hand view of the world always shines through.
Just as Ayn Rand closely observed and essentialized American culture during the first half of the twentieth century, Wolfe studied our culture “in the field” during the second half and beyond. He ranged all over the country: geographically, culturally, artistically, and intellectually. His books offer the reader vivid accounts about the full range of the “American carnival,” from the outrageous car culture of Southern California (“The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby “) to demolition derbies (“Clean Fun At Riverhead”), to the inner workings of the ultimate in ‘high’ culture snobbery–the New Yorker editorial offices (“Tiny Mummies!”).
From the ‘60’s onward, he seems to be on a mission to discover what makes American culture such a vast array of paradoxes–and in his later works, he eyes philosophy for answers.
Who is this wild man of journalism and fiction? A hugely popular and prolific author, Wolfe is probably best known for his novelesque account of the NASA space program, The Right Stuff (1975), made into a movie of the same name. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and educated at Washington and Lee (B.A., 1951) and Yale (Ph.D. American Studies, 1957) universities, Wolfe spent more than ten years as a reporter for such institutions as the Springfield Union, The New York Herald-Tribune, Esquire and The Washington Post. In 1960 as Latin Correspondent at the Post, he won the Washington Newspaper Guild foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba.
Along with Jimmy Breslin, Wolfe became one of the original staff writers of New York magazine, which had started as the Herald’s Sunday supplement. While on staff there, he began writing articles for Esquire magazine, many of which later formed his first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Kool-Aid Streamline Baby, published in 1965. These essays birthed the new, colorful, dramatic, story-telling style of writing which was later dubbed “The New Journalism.” The methods of this new style changed the face of reporting forever.
If you want a sample of an hilarious piece of journalism about journalism-and insight into Wolfe-read the essay “The New Journalism” in The New Journalism (1975). To begin with, he aptly summarizes his experience in graduate school, which motivated him to become a journalist in order to have exciting real-life experiences:
“I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has…Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it…No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know…the subject always defeated them…Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic overboil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.” (The New Journalism, 1975, 16)
He then analyzes what made “The New Journalism” new: harnessing methods of the novel to infuse stories about real people and events with drama, local color and psychological depth. This included describing whole scenes of a person’s life-witnessed directly by the journalist-extended dialogue, and shifting points of view. It required the writer to spend considerable time with subjects, questioning them about their thoughts, feelings and motives. “They had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after-and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” (35)
This required that the reporters have “the moxie to talk their way inside of any milieu, even closed societies, and hang on for dear life.” Writers like George Plimpton trained as an amateur with the Detroit Lions football team and turned it into Paper Lion; Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang before almost being stomped to death by them; Gay Talese chronicled boxing great Joe Louis’ life. This new style was in contradistinction to the “century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration…a ‘neutral background’ against which bits of color would stand out. Understatement was the thing.” (32)
And distinguish himself from understatement he did. Wolfe’s works became populated with wholly original turns of phrase that are so on-the-mark, many have migrated into our vocabulary. Tom Wolfe invented terms like “the Me Decade;” “the Right stuff,” and “social x-ray,” but according to the biography on his publisher’s website, his personal favorite is a Southern turn of phrase he introduced to the written word–and the national scene-in 1964-“good ‘ol boy.” He also “found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along-and I must say I had a good time using them. I figured it was time someone violated what Orwell had called ‘the Geneva conventions of the mind’…a protocol that had kept journalism and non-fiction generally (and novels) in such a tedious bind for so long.”
Using these new writing inventions, Wolfe has spent decades describing wildly-changing, status-seeking American fashions in delicious detail, whether it’s taking a limo four blocks to a party or owning a plantation. From his sharp observations he has crafted pithy characterizations like that of renowned symphony conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his “radical chic” buddies (another phrase he coined) or fictional Charlie Croker of A Man In Full (1998). He’s wondered at the chasm between the people (the “proles”) and the intellectuals and literati, between the glorious productivity, abundance and creativity of American culture and the Intellectuals’ gloomy, apocalyptic evaluation of that self-same culture-all expressed with his usual, interwoven sarcasm.
The reader can find it in an early essay from a book about ‘60’s culture, The Pump House Gang (1968):
“What struck me throughout America and England was that so many people have found such novel ways of …enjoying, extending their egos way out on the best terms available, namely, their own. It is curious how many serious thinkers–and politicians–resist this rather obvious fact. Sheer ego extension–especially if attempted by all those rancid proles and suburban petty burghers–is a perplexing prospect. Even scary one might say…I was impressed by the profound relief with which intellectuals and politicians discovered poverty in America in 1963, courtesy of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And, as I say, it was discovered. Eureka! We have found it again!…When the race riots erupted–and when the war in Vietnam grew into a good-sized hell–intellectuals welcomed all that with a ghastly embrace, too. War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.”
And he is still wondering about it in his most recent book of essays, Hooking Up, published in 2000. This book ranges from art to neuroscience, and even a Cato Institute seminar is examined. The title essay “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World” opens with:
“By the year 2000, the term ‘working class’ had fallen into disuse in the United States, and ‘proletariat’ was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts…Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential…Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.
“Our typical burglar-alarm repairman didn’t display one erg of chauvinistic swagger, however. He had been numbed by the aforementioned ‘intellectuals,’ who had spent the preceding eighty years being indignant over what a ‘puritanical,’ ‘repressive,’ ‘bigoted,’ ‘capitalistic,’ and ‘fascist’ nation America was beneath its democratic façade. It made his head hurt. Besides, he was too busy coping with what was known as the ‘sexual revolution.’ If anything, ‘sexual revolution’ was rather a prim term for the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000…Sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty,” which Wolfe then goes on to describe.
As the reader can see in the foregoing, typical passage, Wolfe does not merely notice blatant contradiction and hypocrisy–he finds them like a homing device finds its target hidden in a dark cultural and intellectual labyrinth and reveals it to the world. Likely this skill, on top of his material success, accounts for the screaming fury of the literati. In “My Three Stooges” Wolfe recounts how his surging fame and success with the novel A Man in Full–which pre-sold 1.2 million copies–motivated the likes of ‘modern’ novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving to denounce him in public as beneath literature. Wolfe chuckled about it on national TV and thanked them for increasing his publicity.
A Man in Full is set in contemporary, dynamically growing Atlanta, teeming with vivid characters and detail about the New South. The bulk of the story revolves around real estate magnate Charles Croker and his attempts to hold onto his empire tooth and nail. The story reveals many strata of Atlantan society, both white and black. However, the reader can see Wolfe’s concern for our contemporary culture in his sympathetic portrait of Conrad Hensley, a young man whose upbringing by déclassé middle class hippies leaves him lacking in most of the technical and social skills that make survival and success possible. In this story, Wolfe’s recognition of philosophy’s power is most apparent, through the aid a book of the ancient Greek philosopher Epitectus gives to the self-development of the young man. After an excruciating run of events leads Conrad to one of life’s nadirs, he turns it around by incorporating Epitectus’ principles of integrity and courage into his life. Later, the dramatic plot explicitly turns on issues of philosophy as the young man’s life intersects with Charlie Croker’s.
Wolfe’s fictional characters are not heroes on the grand scale of Victor Hugo, but they can be larger than life, and some, like Conrad, do achieve real values over multiple obstacles through honesty and fortitude. Wolfe admires and honors ingenuity, courage, honesty, hard work, self-responsibility, and science–and competence and achievement over status. In his 1975 The Right Stuff, his admiration shows for the many engineers and scientists who made the Space Program possible. At the same time, he marvels at the status and honor accorded the Astronauts before they had gone on any missions!
His own personal values are most clearly apparent in the subdued tone of his celebratory essay, “Two Young Men Who Went West” in Hooking Up. In it he recounts the history and achievements of Robert Noyce, founder of Intel. Noyce is little-known outside of Tech circles but lionized there, a legend in the semi-conductor industry, “a national treasure” as one writer testified in all sincerity. Noyce forged a new corporate culture, the culture of achievement and single-minded work, the entrepreneurial, independent and self-responsible culture of Silicon Valley, through the principles and practices he instituted as head of his young company. Wolfe traces his ideas and values back to Grinnell, Iowa and its 19th century, Dissenting Protestant individualist roots. Wolfe respectfully reports that at his death, the unreligious Noyce was celebrated by “swarms of people [who] left [a memorial service] with the mournful feeling that some sort of profound–dared they utter the word ‘spiritual’?–force had gone out of the life of the Silicon Valley.”
Apparently, Wolfe deeply resonates with 19th century Dissident Protestant values. In a Brown University interview some years ago, Wolfe revealed this about himself: “Some years ago at a conference a student in the audience asked me why I write. I never asked myself that question in my life. I started free associating. I thought of the Presbyterian catechism for some reason. The first question is who created heaven and earth? The answer is God. The second question is why did he do it? It’s interesting, the answer is “for his own glory.” So I used that as my answer. It was probably a more honest answer than most.
“To me the great joy of writing is discovering. I started out as a journalist. I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.” (Mahdesian interview)
Wolfe comes by his appreciation of modern intellectuals honestly. He drew the ire of the art world with his essays-cum-books on art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). In the first, he argues…so to speak…that the fame of modern artists is wholly dependent on the trumpeting of art critics–not on any value or skill of substance might actually possess. When it came out, the art world howled at this characterization and Wolfe–ever the incendiary–fed the fire by appearing on TV in his trademark white Southern Gentleman’s suit, homburg and gloves.
In the second, he perforates the pretensions of Modern Architecture, the sort Ayn Rand describes as the new fashion near the end of The Fountainhead.
“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?
“I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse…Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.” (From Bauhaus To Our House, 1981, 1).
The books maps out how plain white walls and glass and steel boxes became the cynosure of architectural style in the wealthiest country that ever existed. He traces this fashion back to economical worker housing designed by Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe after World War I, and fawning American intellectuals me-too-ing European fashion.
Amid the acerbic observations and witty descriptions, I have seen him searching for an answer to the following questions: why does the U.S.-the greatest civilization in history-self-flagellate, and why has it descended into hypocrisy and perversion rivaling the Roman Empire? This paradox peoples much of Wolfe’s work. He sees U.S. culture and events through classic American eyes of common sense, respect for productivity and hard-work, and no-nonsense skewering of hypocrisy. As a self-made man, he appreciates the good fortune of our freedom and individual expression. And he struggles to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values–in other words, a philosophy that supports and realistically grounds the basic American values of common sense, productive creativity, self-respect and the individual pursuit of happiness.
Some feel Wolfe’s approach to events and characters is cynical. I think he strives to present an unvarnished view of American culture, with its warts as well as its gold nuggets. He is a reporter, after all. In his fiction, his characters are not idealized portraits, but neither are they journalistic: his characters are highly stylized examples of human possibilities, extracted from Wolfe’s perspicacious observations. He knows that status is a driving motive among men–he doesn’t like it, because he believes in merit. That’s why he seems to have some admiration for even mixed characters like real estate tycoon Charlie Croker. Charlie has created, he’s produced real wealth. Wolfe lauds him for this and spears him for his craven status seeking. He does not romanticize real people beyond their actual achievements–we see this in The Right Stuff-but he does present real heroes in all their glory, like Bob Noyce and Chuck Yeager (whom Wolfe made famous).
Wolfe shares with Ayn Rand the ability to deeply parody social-climbing antics. He could be describing Kiki Holcombe of The Fountainhead when he scrutinizes the “social x-ray” women of ambitious New York society in his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1975). This book, as his other novels, is replete with detailed accounts of self-aggrandizement and blatant status seeking. In an interview, he declares “My real interest is in the subject of status, which has to do with how people group themselves, rank themselves.” However, unlike Rand, he is not morally affronted by it. As a philosopher, Rand rails against the energy spent social-climbing and presents an alternative-a new, secular ethics and approach to self and others based on achievement and merit, qualities Wolfe clearly admires.
No, Wolfe doesn’t like the status-seeking, but he accurately and incisively reports it–and prods it with his razor wit and clever neologisms. Ever the journalist, Wolfe accepts the constant competition for status as basic to human life, even in such apparently rational groups as scientists and philosophers. I think he can sharpen readers’ eyes to this competition, enabling them to recognize it more often in their own social circles, and in themselves-however rational they may seem. He revels in the creativity and exuberance of American culture, with its open expression of personal values–of ego. He also worries about the descent into decadence and depravity in the past 40 years, and the lack of self-respect characterized by such phenomena as MTV and contemporary fraternity practices. He understands the siren call the current culture has on youth, with the concomitant drowning of personal self as illustrated through the main character in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is not a hard and fast traditionalist–how could he be, with his independent views? He seems to be struggling to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values.
Over the years, I have felt like a detective–finding the clues for Wolfe’s deep love of country in work after work, but never hearing an open admission from him. The clues are there in The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, and other books. Finally, in an interview this year in the Wall Street Journal, he voices his opinion:
“I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people-different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock-take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”
“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” (the precise reporter!)
“I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”
Ever the jokester…its one of the things to which some people point, I’m sure, to prove his cynicism. I find it more in the vein of Mark Twain: caustic and always ready to puncture pretensions, even his own. His tone is not deeply serious or ironic in a weighty, European way. He’s led a rebellion against European intellectual domination-at least in journalism. His tone is distinctively American–light-hearted, irreverent and with an intellectual innocence nonetheless–like Mark Twain rather than Dostoevsky. Some might take exception to his style–as many have to Mark Twain-but his trenchant observations communicated through fresh eyes always delight me. I envy all the literary gold a new Wolfe reader will find.
Mahdesian, Linda. “Tom Wolfe, Zeitgeist Czar.” http://www.brown.edu/Administration/George_Street_Journal/v20/v20n24/wolfe.html
Picador Publishers’ Official Tom Wolfe Website. 2006. www.tomwolfe.com/bio.html#.
The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby 1965
The Pump House Gang 1968
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 1968
Radical-Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers 1970
The Painted Word 1975
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine 1976
The Right Stuff 1979
In Our Time 1980
From Bauhaus to Our House 1981
The Purple Decades 1982
Bonfire of the Vanities 1987
A Man In Full 1998
Hooking Up 2000
I Am Charlotte Simmons 2004