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Awards & Honors: 2006 Jefferson Lecturer

Tom Wolfe Appreciation

A "Mad Hulking Carnival" of American Life

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2006 cover

May/June 2006

By Marc Weingarten

Most newspaper journalists are content to glide along to the rhythms of professional life, churning out prose within the acceptable boundaries of style and structure. Tom Wolfe tried his level best to be a workaday deadline grunt early into his writing career, but he was constitutionally incapable of doing so.

As a young reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, Wolfe chafed at the straightforward nature of the job. Newspapers in general, he thought, "teach a kind of preciseness that really makes for a terrible writer."

When he wrote about the 1962 capture of small-time bank robber Albert Nussbaum, Wolfe stressed that the poor sap was "thin, hungry, seedy-haired and down to his last $2.25" when the Feds nabbed him. A throwaway story about a new state driver's test became a study in frustration: "One of them turns the question sheet over as if there has to be a brighter side to it somewhere. Another is twisting her forelocks into a sheepshank knot."

From the start of his writing career, Wolfe had figured out an important tenet of his work: Facts don't reveal everything. Behavior is just as important. That rule of thumb has served him well across his forty-eight-year career as a journalist, social critic, provocateur, and novelist. Looking back on his enormous and richly varied body of work, we can piece together the cultural history of postwar America through the mores of its creative and jittery youth, its captains of capitalism and down-and-out underclassmen, its artists and artist-manqués, its political cause-mongers and haute (and low) fashion arbiters. In short, the "mad, hulking carnival" of American life in the age of television and rock and roll. No one brought all of that sprawling chaos into sharper focus than Wolfe, and there was a good reason for it: By side-stepping conventional reporting and embracing prose that zinged and zoomed with the same gale force of the movements he was covering, Wolfe's work embodied the dynamism of the culture itself. He has been our most eloquent tour guide to the most fascinating era of the past half-century, and always ahead of the curve.

There's a Jeffersonian sense of optimism at work in Wolfe's writing. All of the great American virtues--for self-invention and self-reliance, for maximizing human potential to its fullest, for creating sustainable communities from whole cloth--find expression in Wolfe's protagonists. He, more than any other writer of his generation, is attuned to the ways in which Americans can constantly change the angle of their vision and enrich the world in the process.

But Wolfe has never just been a pom-pom Pollyanna. He's always possessed a Mencken-like penchant for sniffing out pomposity, pretension, and hypocrisy in American culture. Witness his frontal attacks on modern art and architecture in The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), or his exquisitely cutting evisceration of slumming liberal activism in his seminal 1970 New York magazine article, "Radical Chic."

Sherman McCoy, the protagonist of his debut novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), stands in for the benighted class of nouveau riche Wall Street vipers that came of age in the eighties. Insulated by newly acquired wealth and its accoutrements, "Master of The Universe" McCoy loses his sure footing when he collides head-on (literally and metaphorically) with the mad clash of civilizations that painfully coexists in his beloved city. Here, Wolfe laid bare the class striations that never reconcile themselves in a polyglot society that pays lip service to racial equality, especially in the provincial and self-regarding precincts of Manhattan. Twenty years before the movie Crash won the Academy Award for supposedly cracking the issue of race and class wide open, Tom Wolfe said it all better in Bonfire, but with a far lighter touch.

He was born into a cultivated family of readers in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1931. His mother Helen was a landscape designer; Tom Wolfe Sr. directed a farmer's cooperative and taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Wolfe's father also edited and wrote articles for The Southern Planter, a farming magazine. Wolfe loved to watch his father draft his pieces in longhand on yellow legal pads. "A couple of weeks later, there would be this nice, sparkling print in the magazine," he recalled. "I just thought that was great."

There was no question in Wolfe's mind that writing was his destiny, and that The Great American Novel was well within his grasp. Spying Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel on his parents' bookshelf, he was convinced that his family was kin to the great novelist of the 1930s. At Washington and Lee University in Lexington, under the literary spell of John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell, he pounded out short stories and pitched for the baseball team.

At Yale, Wolfe received his Ph.D. in American Studies, a discipline that folded elements of artistic, cultural, and sociological history into a kind of unified theory of American history. That interdisciplinary approach would serve Wolfe well when he embarked on his writing career. It expanded his purview and gave him tools to approach stories from unconventional angles. But the big novel would have to wait; after a short apprenticeship hauling furniture in order to gather material for his social realist fiction, Wolfe realized he was better off looking for salaried writing work.

It only seems fitting that Wolfe should come of age as a writer during an era that was perfectly suited to his sensibilities, in a city that gave him a wealth of fascinating stories to explore and make his own. When Wolfe arrived in New York in 1961 to start his Herald Tribune job after a short stint at the Washington Post, the energy of Manhattan turned him on like a tungsten coil. "I couldn't believe the scene I saw spread out before me," Wolfe wrote in 1973. "New York was pandemonium with a big grin on."

What turned Wolfe on were the different ways in which people with money were carving out new ways of living--novel approaches to leisure time, new choices in music, fashion and film, and most important, new approaches to flaunting status. For Wolfe, New York was one big collection of "statuspheres," each with its own rules of engagement and hierarchies based on fame, style and imagination, rather than archaic notions of an established social order. "When great fame--the certification of status--is available without great property," Wolfe wrote in the introduction to The Pump House Gang, his 1965 anthology, "it is very bad news for the old idea of a class structure. In New York . . . it is done for, but no one has bothered to announce its death."

This new social order was self-evident to Wolfe--it was the most exciting and important story out there--and the young reporter was amazed that every other writer in the city hadn't picked up on it. Fortunately Clay Felker and Jim Bellows, Wolfe's two main editors at the Herald Tribune, gave him his head, and allowed him to dig deep into this new stratum, far deeper than the eight-hundred-word general assignment stories he had been writing for the paper.

Wolfe turned out a series of dazzling set-pieces that have become modern-day classics of cultural reportage, stories that probed the social rituals of the art-gallery crawlers along Madison Avenue ("The Saturday Route"), the eccentric genius of pop record producer Phil Spector ("The First Tycoon of Teen"), the faddish fabulousness of downtown ingenue Baby Jane Holzer ("The Girl of The Year"), among other things, all of which were featured in his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965).

It was the baby boomer generation that most intrigued Wolfe, because it seemed so blithely removed from the encrusted rituals of New York's ruling classes. Instead of conforming to the fusty noblesse oblige of the older generation, the boomers simply made up their own art, lifestyle choices, language--just about everything was new. And it wasn't only happening in New York. When Wolfe was assigned by the Herald Tribune to cover the New York Automobile Show in 1965, he had an epiphany about the car as the apotheosis of youth culture's dynamism and artistic self-expression. The cars, many of which were tricked out with exposed engines and loud paint jobs by West Coast customizers like Big Daddy Roth and George Barris, were the perfect metaphor for youth culture's exuberant "outsider-ness." Writing about the cars in his seminal Esquire story "There Goes That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Around the Bend," Wolfe wrote that the cars were "freedom, sex, power, motion, color--everything is right there." He even had the nerve to call the cars capital-A art. "My definition of art is anything that you can take out of its natural environment and regard as something that's beautiful and significant unto itself," said Wolfe. "Customized cars were art, with those exposed motors and shiny chrome parts."

A New York writer championing the vanguard of West Coast pop culture was a direct challenge to East Coast provincialism, but Wolfe, in typically prescient fashion, knew that New Yorkers and the rest of the world had better come to terms with it or else risk being plowed under and rendered irrelevant.

Wolfe's uncanny ability to zoom in on insurgent cultural currents continued in his next collection, The Pump House Gang. In the title piece, Wolfe rescued L.A. surfers from the countless clichés of bad Frankie Avalon movies. This, Wolfe surmised, was an almost mystical brotherhood of amateur athletes who existed in a closed society with their own fashion, movies, and music. Cut off from the roiling strife of a racially fractious city, they rode a knife-edge of physical danger like it was an amusement park ride. "They are not exactly off in a world of their own, they are and they aren't," he wrote. "What it is, they float right through the real world, but it can't touch them."

As Wolfe continued to burrow into youth culture, his writing style--already unloosed from the moorings of conventional journalism--became sui generis. The idea was to make the words scan like real speech, the way it was heard on the street. He broke up sentences with ellipses to replicate the halting nature of thought and speech. Other sentences were distended and packed full of descriptive detail. Using these tools, Wolfe could channel the patios of whomever he was writing about--the "like, ya know" slang of the Pump House Gang, or the metaphysical cosmic rants of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in his first book-length narrative, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). His prose, like his ice-cream suit, is an instantly recognizable trademark.

It's important to note that Wolfe is one of the great reporters. It is his empathic skill as a researcher and interviewer that enables him to write the last word about whatever he chooses to write about. When I interviewed some of the Merry Pranksters a few years ago for a book I was researching about Wolfe and other journalists of the sixties, they were all still amazed some forty years later by the fact that Wolfe managed to capture the essence of their story without resorting to the immersive tactics of an interactive writer like Hunter Thompson. Without participating in a single acid test or changing out of his suit, Wolfe wrote the definitive account of sixties counterculture.

Wolfe's goal for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to capture the druggy metaphysical reality of Kesey and The Pranksters, and he succeeded brilliantly. "The ceiling is moving," he wrote as he recounted one of Kesey's earliest acid trips,

"Not in a crazed swirl but along its own planes its own planes of light and shadow and surface not nearly so nice and smoother as plasterer Super Plaster Man intended with infallible carpenter level bubble sliding in dim honey Karo syrup tube not so foolproof as you thought, bub, little limps and ridges up there, bub, and lines, lines like spines on crests of waves of white desert movie sand each one with MGM shadow longshot of the ominous A-rab coming up over the next crest for only the sister Saracen can see the road and you didn't know how many subplots you left up there, Plaster Man, trying to smooth it all out, all of it, with your bubble in a honey tube carpenters level."

Wolfe has always been intent on bridging the cognitive gap between the public's perception of a phenomenon and the reality of the situation. That guiding principle was present in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Wolfe broke down the mainstream press's hippie stereotypes to fashion a story about a diverse community of free-thinkers led by a brilliant charismatic shaman. It also served him well in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about NASA and the early years of the space program.

It took the writer six years to research his story of the Mercury space program, which had been "settled myth" for so long that the story had begun to take on the facile parameters of a children's fable. The true identities of the Mercury Seven Astronauts--symbols of Cold War triumphalism, superheroes for Generation Kennedy kids--had been obfuscated by years of media spin and a willful distancing from any coverage that might plant their personas on terra firma.

Wolfe would have none of it. The Right Stuff, which was expanded from four articles Wolfe wrote for Rolling Stone, depicted the Mercury astronauts as pawns in NASA's space race with the Russians, ready-made media stars for the "ever-seemly Victorian Gent" that was the American press, who saw the astronauts as "seven slices of the same pie." But Wolfe, in his book, reclaimed them as real men. They were working stiffs, after all, earning paltry salaries and married to fretful wives who worried whether the next test flight might be the last. Working stiffs, granted, with a rare and unusual skill set that gave them the goods to become astronauts.

But there was something more, some ineffable quality that these pilots possessed. "It obviously involved bravery," Wolfe wrote,

"But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life . . . any fool could do that . . . No, the idea . . . seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moments - and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day . . ."

Wolfe spotted in the Mercury astronauts that unquenchable optimism, the recurrent strain of courage and ambition that seemed to be encoded in the collective consciousness of the country. It was the same impulse that had driven the car customizers and the Pump House surfers, but this time on the grandest scale, out on the new frontier of space. After years of searching, Wolfe had found the Americans who existed at the very top of the statusphere pyramid.

Marc Weingarten is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight about Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and the other practitioners of what would become the New Journalism.