Tom Wolfe and the Age of Self-Involvement

Tom

There’s writers in there like Pynchon. But if he were a realist. There’s thorough knowledge of American history and the people who wrote it down and made it up. There’s glee in repetition and reinvention, and smart set-ups that read like omissions at first, and omissions that you then make do the work of a smart setup. Tom Wolfe’s signature essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” is a joyful trip into the American maudlin, dateline 1976. It’s narrated like a novel, the art form Wolfe denied its primus inter pares place in the literary quiver; that is, until he succumbed to it.

Wolfe, who wrote like he dressed – impeccably and with sprezzatura, but in an initially off-putting way – died on Monday, May 14, 2018. His iconoclasm did not end in death. The New York Times obituary managed to get his age and birth date wrong in its first go-around, and required a second correction to fix the title of one of his novels. Much hyperbole, as with any literary death, has accompanied Wolfe’s passing, as has much reflection on his place in the media world, and the media that he placed in the world.

If Wolfe was an icon, he also behaved like one. The white suit he trademark wore, Wolfe said, made him look like a Martian, and that helped people relate to him, tell him their stories, see him as an impartial third, an observer from a disinterested place reporting back to the mothership. Only the mothership sat pat in New York City, sharing the life of the elites he castigated in his most successful novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Before Wolfe was a novelist, however, lauded and applauded first, panned and criticized for his later works, he was non-fiction writer. A journalist; a New Journalist. In essence, a fiction writer of non-fiction.

“Me”

Reading the “Me Decade” essay, you’ll be struck by what passes for reporting here, even by the standards of the scene-setting New Journalism that Wolfe co-created with, among others, Hunter S. Thompson. In one of the most-cited passages (presumably because it starts the thing off), Wolfe reports from the plush, solvent-cleaned floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His heroine is the woman who screams “hemorrhoids!” when asked to name the one thing in her life she most wants to get rid off. Wolfe smilingly berates her on the self-centeredness of her choice, then goes on to imagine a deep dive into her mind, constructing the story that lies behind that moment of clarity and catharsis:

She begins to feel her hemorrhoids in all their morbid presence. […] Well–for God’s sake!–in her daily life, even at work, especially at work, and she works for a movie distributor, her whole picture of herself was of her… seductive physical presence. […] When she walked into the office each morning, everyone, women as well as men, checked her out. She knew that.

But, alas, the hemorrhoidal “peanut” intervenes (the same essay features a description of Jimmy Carter, so who knows, peanuts may have been on the national mind in America two centuries post Declaration of Independence), messes up that picture, creates a cleavage between how she looks (“The Sexual Princess!”) and what she wants vs. what she thinks about: “As she smiled sublimely at her conquest, she also had to sit on her chair lopsided, with one cheek of her buttocks higher than the other…”

The age of the piece shows. Not just in its inherent unquestioned sexism or casual inclusion of homosexuality as among the host of things people at self-help or self-actualization seminars want to get rid of, or the mentions of lifestyles involving either “Sevilles and 450SL’s” or “Superstar Qiana sport shirts,” things a present-day reader likely will have to punch into a search box. That is, if they don’t just stare at the brand names in confusion for a microsecond and then decide they don’t care enough to even do that.

The age of the piece also presents itself, and somewhat sadly, in the fact that there was a gushing inventiveness to Wolfe’s 70s and 80s pieces of reporting, pieces which he was actually able to get published and paid for, and that’s not something we’re used to anymore. New Journalism, to be sure, was influential. But its excesses have been cut down to size. Journalism, even the highly readable kind, seems tame in comparison today. Not in content, but in language; edited or self-edited into tonal conformity. Even if a writer as gifted as Wolfe produced something in a style as eccentric as Wolfe’s today, it obviously cannot have the same effect. You can only break new ground once. The frivolousness would be muted.

That is not to say that journalism is rulebound now. In an increasingly fragmented media ecosphere, the fraying and frothing fringes, the extremists and rightwing million-dollar pundits hired to be performance artists against the other side, have long lost any semblance of decorum. But inventive, happy about the language they use, knowledgeable and excited to try out and on words for size, to break the molds of the newspaper article headline/standfirst/body text triad or the scripted TV narrative, they are not. And in terms of value: on cable, certainly, money follows the performance. But are writer-journalists highly paid? To the tune of being able to afford 12 rooms in Manhattan?

Tom Wolfe at the White House, 2004
Tom Wolfe at the White House, 2004

Me, Tom

Admittedly, there is a “look here” flashiness in a Wolfe essay. There’s that stringing-too-many-words-together-with-hyphens tendency (on Jimmy Carter: “he was of the Missionary lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piny-woods Baptist faith”). And some of the things that in 1976 were fresh forty plus years on no longer are.

But these are not just the rantings of a word-heavy Cassandra who doesn’t like the way that America, filled to its cultural gills with baby boomers cusping into adulthood, is suddenly behaving. They are that, but they also are the observation of an astute critic, of someone trained in American Studies by his Yale PhD program, someone whose referential drive-bys include swift freethrows to Perry Miller and Max Weber and snide digs at Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe – a prefigurement here of Wolfe’s more ornate taste in architecture and his longer takedown of the Bauhaus in his 1981 From Bauhaus to Our House. Even if you find, as I do, the criticism of the German-inspired clean, functional architecture and design misguided and overwrought, you cannot deny that, it has in the reverence that acolytes award it, departed from the ideal of a democratic, down-to-earth way of equipping people with living spaces and material goods. As Wolfe writes in a footnote included with “Me Decade”:

Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege […]. [T]he Barcelona chair [.] now sells for $1.680 […]. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather.

Some of this is just Wolfe being a grouch, a Christopher Lasch-type social critic with more of a flourish and less academic rigor – in his 2006 NEH Jefferson Lecture, for example, Wolfe casually omits both Johann Gottfried Herder and Henri Bergson’s coinages when he talks about “homo loquax,” misidentifying that creature, too, as “talking man” instead of the “chattering man” Bergson had in mind.1

Tom, “Me,” and You

But Wolfe’s writings contain truly original insight and a rare talent for telling stories of approachable verisimilitude. Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and subject’s of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, attested Wolfe that his book was highly accurate. It was a driving narrative about an almost Christlike guru and his “Merry Pranksters” traveling the United States in a VW bus, taking LSD-laced Kool-Aid. Wolfe’s imaginative language made that book as much as its story did. Writing upon the publication of Electric Kool-Aid in 1969, the Guardian2 summed up Wolfe’s use of language and cadence:

The style uses the repetition and the compressed adjectival forms of a poem, and the reader is pleasantly caught up in the internal rhythms. For all its seeming superabundance of punctuation and participles, every word seems placed with a care and a skill of contrivance which should command respect.

Gay Talese, fellow New Journalist and impeccable dresser, called Wolfe a magician for his use of words. But it was not only words that Wolfe’s writing consisted of. It was ellipses, too, dots, dashes, exclamation marks and transcribed primal screams:

“Eeeeeeeeeooooooohhhhhhhhheeeeeooooooooh!”

“Aiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaieeeeeeeeeeeeeeohhhhhhhhhheeeeeeaiaiai!”

Wolfe’s greatest talent though, perhaps, was the effortless translation from eye to analysis and judgment to page. And judgement there was in spades. Wolfe may have been avantgarde in style, but he was conservative in substance. He supported Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, citing the latter’s “decisiveness” in starting the Iraq War as something that impressed him. Wolfe never held back with opinions, whether clearly stated or heavily implied in his writings. The criticism leveled at these opinions is valid. But there remains, through it all, the fact that Wolfe was influential. In style, and in substance.

The most important thing a writer can do is to observe, to study and then write. Wolfe did that, iconically attired, days piling on the next, 1500 words sunrise to sundown, the equivalent of ten triple-spaced pages at a time. For decades. Ten triple-spaced pages at a time.


  1. The lecture also begins with a wry humblebrag that is Wolfian to the core: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.” National Endowment for the Humanities. Awards & Honors: 2006 Jefferson Lecturer. Tom Wolfe Lecture, “The Human Beast”.
      
  2. “From the Archive, 2 May 1969: Acid Adventures” in: The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/may/02/tom-wolfe-electric-kool-aid-acid-test 
Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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