Culture

Tom Wolfe, Gentleman Heretic

Tom Wolfe on Firing Line in 1975 (Hoover Institute/YouTube)

‘All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, . . . with exactly the same tone I wrote about everything else,” Tom Wolfe told Rolling Stone magazine in 1980. “With exactly the same reverence,” he explained,

that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all, which is as it should be. And these days, if you mock the prevailing fashion in the world of the arts or journalism, you’re called a conservative. Which is just another term for a heretic. I would much rather be called a conservative in that case than its opposite, I assure you.

A conservative by temperament, Wolfe found his niche in American letters by building it himself. In 1957, his committee at Yale rejected his dissertation about the influence of Communism on American writers. He rewrote it to their taste and got the Ph.D. but, not one to be fenced in, had already taken a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Springfield, Mass. Next stop, the Washington Post, where he treated feature assignments with a bit more literary license than was the custom. He moved to the New York Herald Tribune in 1962 and was encouraged by Clay Felker, editor of the paper’s Sunday supplement, to exercise his creativity a little more.

In 1963 he came up dry, he thought, on an assignment for Esquire magazine. At the deadline, he sent the editor, Byron Dobell, what he had: some notes, a blend of automotive wonkery and keen sociological observation. His topic was the culture of customized-car enthusiasts in Southern California. Dobell took the notes as they were and ran them as an article, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Other writers, novelists and journalists alike, learned from his method and exuberant style. Whether Wolfe was the founder or merely a pioneer of the New Journalism is open to debate. What no one disputes is that he was its master.

As literature, ‘Radical Chic’ was a fireworks display; as sociology, a daredevil act. He delighted some readers, and scandalized others, by showing in the fullness of its absurdity the transformation of mere ‘limousine liberals’ into flag-wavers for the extremes of political correctness.

Literary sociology, you could call it, the New Journalism. Its overlap with the novel was obvious. Wolfe had a nose for snobbery, and particularly for snobbery where it met politics. In “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” (1970), a magazine article about the time the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, opened up their Park Avenue duplex to the Black Panthers and rich white liberals eager to celebrate (and help fund) the “revolutionaries,” Wolfe trained his clear eyes on the smallest as well as the largest status-signaling details of upper-class Manhattanites trying on the political fashions of the day. He described the scene with sparkle and set it against the background of a discussion of relevant history and social science. As literature, it was a fireworks display; as sociology, a daredevil act. He delighted some readers, and scandalized others, by showing in the fullness of its absurdity the transformation of mere “limousine liberals” into flag-wavers for the extremes of political correctness, as we now call it. He provided a vocabulary for describing what others had already seen and felt but had been unable to put into words.

After decades of practice at his distinct brand of journalism as literature, he crossed over to fiction and tried his hand from that side of the plate — with The Right Stuff (1979), his 100,000-word chronicle of America’s early space program, he had already proved he had the stamina to write a novel. His first, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a record of what status-seeking looked and sounded like when practiced by movers and shakers in New York City in the 1980s, was a hit, with critics and on the best-seller lists. For those curious about the tone as well as the outline of sex and relationships in college a generation or so after the launch of the 1960s sexual revolution, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) remains a valuable resource. Tom Wolfe’s bibliography is fuller than we can do justice to here, as are his contributions to American literature, to the very definition of American literature, and to the discipline in which he earned his doctorate: American studies.

His good manners in person — he was a soft-spoken southern gentleman, a native of Richmond, Va. — surprised those who had known him only as an acerbic voice on the page. Dead in New York, at age 88. Rest in peace.

NOW WATCH: ‘Remembering Tom Wolfe’

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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