"I think every living moment of a human being's life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status," Tom Wolfe has said. As the man in the iconic white suit with a swaggering pen, Wolfe has spent the past fifty years chronicling America's status battles and capturing our cultural zeitgeist.
After earning a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1957, Wolfe plunged into a decade-long career as a newspaperman, beginning with a stint at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union. A tour as The Washington Post's Latin American correspondent followed in 1960, earning him an award from the Washington Newspaper Guild for his coverage of the Cuban revolution.
Like other writers before him, Wolfe yearned to test his talents in New York. In 1962, he became a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and a staff writer for New York magazine, pounding out stories alongside Jimmy Breslin. Wolfe also produced a series of articles for Esquire and New York that laid the foundation for the New Journalism, a style of writing that combined journalistic accuracy with a novelist's eye for description, theme, and point of view. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) assembled these articles into book form and gave Wolfe his first best seller. Others followed: The Pump House Gang (1968) featured more observations about Sixties culture and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) captured the LSD-infused antics of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, a hefty account of the launching of the American space program after World War II. The book, which focused on the competition between the pilots and astronauts for glory and girls, not only became a best seller, but also earned Wolfe the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.
Although Wolfe's talent for observation and thick description had served him well as a nonfiction writer, he had yet to make the jump to fiction. Taking a page from Charles Dickens, one of his favorite writers, Wolfe pounded out The Bonfire of the Vanities as a serial for Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985. The tale, which appeared as a book in 1987, portrayed New York as a money-obsessed, sex-seeking, power-hungry, appearance-driven urban cocktail of a city. Sherman McCoy, investment banker and "Master of the Universe," learns just how mercurial and bitter-tasting the city can be after a wrong turn sends his high-flying life into a nosedive.
Along with Tom Wolfe the Journalist and Tom Wolfe the Novelist, one cannot overlook Tom Wolfe the Provocateur. Wolfe has never hesitated to challenge prevailing notions. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) delved into race relations, offering both a raucous account of the Leonard Bernstein's party for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue duplex, and a searing look at the mechanics of government's war on poverty. In The Painted Word (1975), Wolfe focused his status-calibrated eye on the contemporary art world, portraying it as an insular village of tastemakers. From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) tackled twentieth century architecture, with Wolfe charging that architects were more interested in theory than in buildings. In the wake of Bonfire's success, Wolfe stirred up the literary community, via an article in Harper's, when he suggested that the future of the American novel lay in the novelist functioning as reporter, not psychoanalyst.
Wolfe practiced what he preached with his next two novels, conducting extensive research on everything from quail farms to prisons to college keggers. A Man in Full (1998), set in Atlanta, the jewel of the rising New South, wades into racial politics and explores the consequences of 1980s greed. Wolfe's latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), offers a critique of campus life, in which sex, not educational goals, defines social status.
The key to Wolfe's enduring success lies in his ability to convey the nuances of his subjects or characters--the way they walk, what they drive, how they hold their fork--while providing a modern exhortation on the seven deadly sins. Given his ability to capture a cultural moment, it is no coincidence that contemporary language is sprinkled with Wolfian phrases: "statusphere," "the right stuff," "radical chic," "the Me Decade," and "good ol' boy."
Wolfe was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. He lives in New York City with his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Alexandra, and his son, Tommy.
A "Mad Hulking Carnival" Of American Life
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.
The Nanny Mafia
Champagne for your little boy's birthday party?
"You're damned right," she says. "For all the nannies. I'm not kidding! If we ever tried to give a party for Bobby and his little friends without champagne for the nannies, we might was well, you know, forget about it.
"Bobby's nanny is mad enough as it is. All she can do is drop what are supposed to be very subtle hints about the V------'s party for little Sarah. Do you know what Van gave each kid as a party favor? An electric truck. I'm talking about a real electric truck. Of course, they're nothing much really. They're smaller than a Jaguar. By a little bit. The kid can get inside of it and drive it! They cost five hundred dollars, five hundred dollars! Can you imagine that? We had to carry the damn thing home. You should have seen us trying to get it in the cab. Of course, Van is absolutely petrified of the nannies.
"Well, I was damned if we were going to do anything like that. Robert had to take the whole afternoon off Tuesday to go to Schwarz. This was precisely the afternoon the Swedes came in with some bond thing, of course. The Swedes wear the worst clothes. They all look like striped cardboard. They think they're very European. Anyway, Robert got some kind of bird with a tape recorder in it, I don't know. The kids can talk into it and it records it and says it back. Something like that. You know. Well, I don't care, I think it's going to be a perfectly cute party favor, but our Mrs. G--- is not going to be happy with it, I'm sure of that.
"She wanted us to have the party in Robert's father's house on 70th Street in the first place. I'm serious! She doesn't like this apartment! It embarrasses her! Do you know what it is? Do you know who runs the East Side of New York? The nanny mafia. There's a nanny mafia!"
The nanny mafia! At this moment, the nannies, the leading nannies, are all gathered down in Central Park, in the playground just over the stone wall next to Fifth Avenue, at the foot of East 77th Street. Down there, through the pin oak, birch, beech and sweetgum leaves, in the sun and dappled shadows, on this green-and-gold, bluebottle-fly afternoon, you can see the nannies sitting on the benches around the oval that the playground fence forms. In the middle of the oval are their charges. All these little boys and girls are either in English Brabingham baby carriages or else they are playing about the swings and the seesaws in Ceruti shorts and jumpers with only the most delightful verandah-in-Newport, Sundays-in-North Egremont sort of gaiety. The oval fence has high and rather graceful spikes and stands as a kind of genteel stockade against the customary terrors of New York life. In fact, the playground at the foot of 77th Street is the kind of place all the New Yorkers who feel like hopeless DPs from the genteel style of life can walk by and look at and recharge their gentility cells and walk on. Down there in the sun and dappled shadows, after all, are the nannies, fillers of these little vessels of the Protestant ethic, angels in starched white, gleaming in God's daylight.
Excerpt from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. ©1965, renewed 1993 by Tom Wolfe. All excerpts reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
The things he would somehow suddenly remember about the old home town--over here, for example, is the old white clapboard house they used to live in, and behind it, back a ways, is the radio tower of station KORE with a red light blinking on top--and at night he used to get down on his knees to say his prayers and there would be the sky and the light blinking--and he always kind of thought he was praying to that red light. And the old highway used to take a bend right about here, and it seemed like there was always somebody driving through about three or four in the morning, half asleep, and they would see the lights over there in town where it was getting built up and they'd think the road headed straight for the lights and they'd run off the bend and Kesey and his dad would go out to see if they could help the guy draggle himself out of the muck--chasing street lights!--praying to the red beacon light of KORE!--and a little run-in at Gregg's Drive-In, as it used to be called, it is now Speck's, at Franklin Boulevard at the bridge over the river. That was the big high-school drive-in, with the huge streamlined sculpted pastel display sign with streaming streamlined super-slick A-22 italic script, floodlights, clamp-on trays, car-hop girls in floppy blue slacks, hamburgers in some kind of tissuey wax paper steaming with onions pressed down and fried on the grill and mustard and catsup to squirt all over it from out plastic squirt cylinders. Saturday nights when everybody is out cruising--some guy was in his car in the lot at Gregg's going the wrong way, so nobody could move. The more everybody blew the horns, the more determined the guy got. Like this was the test. He rolls up the windows and locks the doors so they can't get at him and keeps boring in. This guy vs. Kesey. So Kesey goes inside and gets a potato they make the french fries with and comes out and jams it over the guy's exhaust pipe, which causes the motor to conk out and you ain't going any which way now, bub. The guy brings charges against Kesey for ruining his engine and Kesey ends up in juvenile court before a judge and tries to tell him how it is at Gregg's Drive-In on a Saturday night: The Life--that feeling--The Life--the late 1940s early 1950s American Teenage Drive-In Life was precisely what it was all about--but how could you tell anyone about it?
But of course!--the feeling-out here at night, free, with the motor running and the adrenaline flowing, cruising in the neon glories of the new American night--it was very Heaven to be the first wave of the most extraordinary kids in the history of the world--only 15, 16, 17 years old, dressed in the haute couture of pink Oxford shirts, sharp pants, snaky half-inch belts, fast shoes--with all this Straight-8 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead, which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs, ultrasonics--Postwar American suburbs--glorious world! and the hell with the intellectual bad-mouthers of America's tailfin civilization . . .
Excerpt from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. ©1968, renewed 1996 by Tom Wolfe.
Felicia is remarkable. She is beautiful, with that rare burnished beauty that lasts through the years. Her hair is pale blond and set just so. She has a voice that is "theatrical," to use a term from her youth. She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, John and D.D., Adolph, Betty, Gian-Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for. What evenings! She lights the candles over the dining-room table, and in the Gotham gloaming the little tremulous tips of flame are reflected in the mirrored surface of the table, a bottomless blackness with a thousand stars, and it is that moment that Lenny loves. There seem to be a thousand stars above and a thousand stars below, a room full of stars, a penthouse duplex full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars, with marvelous people drifting through the heavens, Jason Robards, John and D.D. Ryan, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson, Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland, Richard Avedon, Milton and Amy Greene, Lukas Foss, Jennie Tourel, Samuel Barber, Jerome Robbins, Steve Sondheim, Adolph and Phyllis Green, Betty Comden, and the Patrick O'Neals . . .
. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just forty-one hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called "criminal facilitation." And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein's thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail--they're real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny's duplex like a rogue hormone. Everyone casts a glance, or stares, or tries a smile, and then sizes up the house for the somehow delicious counterpoint . . . Deny it if you want to! But one does end up making such sweet furtive comparisons in this season of Radical Chic . . . There's Otto Preminger in the library and Jean vanden Heuvel in the hall, and Peter and Cheray Duchin in the living room, and Frank and Domna Stanton, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, Cynthia Phipps, Burton Lane, Mrs. August Heckscher, Roger Wilkins, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Julie Belafonte, Harold Taylor, and scores more, including Charlotte Curtis, women's news editor of The New York Times, America's foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin.
Cheray tells her: "I've never met a Panther--this is a first for me!" . . . never dreaming that within forty-eight hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States . . .
This is a first for me. But she is not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny's house, Robert Bay, Don Cox the Panthers' Field Marshal from Oakland, Henry Miller the Harlem Panther defense captain, the Panther women--Christ, if the Panthers don't know how to get it all together, as they say, the tight pants, the tight black turtlenecks, the leather coats, Cuban shades, Afros. But real Afros, not the ones that have been shaped and trimmed like a topiary hedge and sprayed until they have a sheen like acrylic wall-to-wall--but like funky, natural, scraggly . . . wild . . .
These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big--no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads--these are real men!
Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong--somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women--there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they'd stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because "the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes." God knows the Panther women don't spend thirty minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners . . . And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins' Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks. . .
Excerpt from Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. ©1970 by Tom Wolfe.
The Painted Word
All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism. All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer--waiting, waiting, forever waiting for . . . it . . . for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there--waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma. All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well--how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not "seeing is believing," you ninny, but "believing is seeing," for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.
Like most sudden revelations, this one left me dizzy. How could such a thing be? How could Modern Art be literary? As every art-history student is told, the Modern movement began about 1900 with a complete rejection of the literary nature of academic art, meaning the sort of realistic art which originated in the Renaissance and which the various national academies still held up as the last word.
Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art. It probably referred originally to the way nineteenth-century painters liked to paint scenes straight from literature, such as Sir John Everett Millais's rendition of Hamlet's intended, Ophelia, floating dead (on her back) with a bouquet of wildflowers in her death grip. In time, literary came to refer to realistic painting in general. The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage. According to this theory, the museum-going public's love of, say, Jean François Millet's The Sower has little to do with Millet's talent and everything to do with people's sentimental notions about The Sturdy Yeoman. They make up a little story about him.
What was the opposite of literary painting? Why, l'art pour l'art, form for the sake of form, color for the sake of color. In Europe before 1914, artists invented Modern styles with fanatic energy--Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, Supermatism, Vorticism--but everybody shared the same premise: henceforth, one doesn't paint "about anything, my dear aunt," to borrow a line from a famous Punch cartoon. One just paints. Art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a canvas.
Excerpt from The Painted Word. ©1975 by Tom Wolfe.
The Right Stuff
A young man might go into military flight training believing that he was entering some sort of technical school in which he was simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he found himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity. And in this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.
As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) 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 moment--and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite--and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.
Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were on of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even--ultimately, God willing, one day--that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.
None of this was to be mentioned, and yet it was acted out in a way that a young man could not fail to understand. When a new flight (i.e., a class) of trainees arrived at Pensacola, they were brought into an auditorium for a little lecture. An officer would tell them: "Take a look at the man on either side of you." Quite a few actually swiveled their heads this way and that, in the interest of appearing diligent. Then the officer would say: "One of the three of you is not going to make it!"--meaning, not get his wings. That was the opening theme, the motif of primary training. We already know that one-third of you do not have the right stuff--it only remains to find out who.
Excerpt from The Right Stuff. ©1979 by Tom Wolfe.
From Bauhaus to Our House
Here we come upon one of the ironies of American life in the twentieth century. After all, this has been the American century, in the same way that the seventeenth might be regarded as the British century. This is the century in which America, the young giant, became the mightiest nation on earth, devising the means to obliterate the planet with a single device but also the means to escape to the stars and explore the rest of the universe. This is the century in which she became the richest nation in all of history, with a wealth that reached down to every level of the population. The energies and animal appetites and idle pleasures of even the working classes--the very term now seemed antique--became enormous, lurid, creamy, preposterous. The American family car was a 425-horsepower, twenty-two-foot-long Buick Electra with tail fins in back and two black rubber breasts on the bumper in front. The American liquor-store deliveryman's or cargo humper's vacation was two weeks in Barbados with his third wife or his new cookie. The American industrial convention was a gin-blind rout at a municipal coliseum the size of all Rome, featuring vans in the parking lot stocked with hookers on flokati rugs for the exclusive use of registered members of the association. The way Americans lived made the rest of mankind stare with envy or disgust but always with awe. In short, this has been America's period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo rampage--and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.
We brace for a barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world--and hear a cough at a concert.
In short, the reigning architectural style in this, the very Babylon of capitalism, became worker housing. Worker housing, as developed by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920s, was now pitched up high and wide, in the form of Ivy League art-gallery annexes, museums for art patrons, apartments for the rich, corporate headquarters, city halls, country estates. It was made to serve every purpose, in fact, except housing for workers.
Excerpt from From Bauhaus to Our House. ©1981 by Tom Wolfe.
Bonfire of the Vanities
The familiar 1920s Gothic palisades of New York Hospital were just up ahead. White Manhattan! They took the Seventy-first Street exit off the drive.
Maria parked across the street from the town house and her fourth-floor hideaway. Sherman got out and immediately scrutinized the right rear fender. To his great relief-no dent; no sign of anything, at least not here in the dark. Since Maria had told her husband she wouldn't be returning from Italy until the next day, she wanted to take the luggage up to the little apartment, too. Three times Sherman climbed up the creaking staircase, in the miserable gloaming of the Landlord's Halos, hauling up the luggage.
Maria took off her royal-blue jacket with the Paris shoulders and put it on the bed. Sherman took off his jacket. It was badly ripped in the back, in the side seams. Huntsman, Savile Row, London. Cost a goddamned fortune. He threw it on the bed. His shirt was wringing wet. Maria kicked off her shoes and sat down in one of the bentwood chairs by the oak pedestal table and put one elbow on the table and let her head keel over against her forearm. The old table sagged in its sad way. Then she straightened up and looked at Sherman.
"I want a drink," she said. "You want one?"
"Yeah. You want me to fix them?"
"Unh-hunh. I want a lot of vodka and a little orange juice and some ice. The vodka's up in the cabinet."
He went in the mean little kitchen and turned on the light. A cockroach was sitting on the rim of a dirty frying pan on the stove. Well, the hell with it. He made Maria her vodka-and-orange juice and then poured himself an Old Fashioned glass full of scotch and put in some ice and a little water. He sat in one of the bentwood chairs across the table from her. He found that he wanted the drink very badly. He longed for each ice-cold burning jolt in his stomach. The car fishtailed. Thok. The tall delicate one wasn't standing there any longer.
Maria had already drunk half the big tumbler he had brought her. She closed her eyes and threw her head back and then looked at Sherman and smiled in a tired fashion. "I swear," she said, "I thought that was gonna be . . . it."
"Well, what do we do now?" said Sherman.
"What do you mean?"
"I guess we oughta--I guess we oughta report it to the police."
"That's what you said. Okay. Tell me what for."
"Well, they tried to rob us--and I think maybe you--I think it's possible you hit one of them."
She just looked at him.
"It was when you really gunned it, and we skidded."
"Well, you wanna know something? I hope I did. But if I did, I sure didn't hit him very hard. I just barely heard something."
"It was just a little thok. And then he wasn't standing there anymore."
Maria shrugged her shoulders.
"Well--I'm just thinking out loud," said Sherman. "I think we ought to report it. That way we protect ourselves."
Maria expelled air through her lips, the way you do when you're at your wit's end, and looked away.
"Well, just suppose the guy is hurt."
She looked at him and laughed softly. "Frankly, I couldn't care less."
"But just suppose--"
"Look, we got outta there. How we did it doesn't matter."
Excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities. ©1987 by Tom Wolfe.
A Man in Full
RAM YO' BOOTY! RAM YO' BOOTY!--sang the chorus, which sounded like a group of sex-crazed crack fiends. It took a Roger Too White to imagine that sex-crazed crack fiends could get together and cooperate long enough to sing a chorus, although he did correctly identify Doctor Rammer Doc Doc, who was so popular that even a forty-two-year-old lawyer like himself couldn't completely shut him out of his waking life. His own tastes ran to Mahler and Stravinsky, and he would have gladly majored in music history at Morehouse, except that music history hadn't been considered too great a major for a black undergraduate who wanted to get into the University of Georgia law school. All of that, compressed into a millisecond, blipped through his mind in this moment, too.
The girl swung her hips in an exaggerated arc each time the fiends hit the BOO of BOOTY. She was gorgeous. Her jeans were down so low on her hips, and her tube top was up so high on her chest, he could see lots of her lovely light-caramel-colored flesh, punctuated by her belly button, which looked like an eager little eye. Her skin was the same light color as his, and he knew her type at a glance. Despite her funky clothes, she was a blueblood. She had Black Deb written all over her. Her parents were no doubt the classic Black Professional Couple of the 1990s, in Charlotte or Raleigh or Washington or Baltimore. Look at the gold bangles on her wrists; must have cost hundreds of dollars. Look at the soft waves in her relaxed hair, a 'do known as a Bout en Train; French, baby, for "life of the party"; cost a fortune; his own wife had the same thing done to her hair. Little cutie, shaking her booty, probably went to Howard or maybe Chapel Hill or the University of Virginia; belonged to Theta Psi. Oh, these black boys and girls came to Atlanta from colleges all over the place for Freaknic every April, at spring break, thousands of them, and here they were on Piedmont Avenue, in the heart of the northern third of Atlanta, the white third, flooding the streets, the parks, the malls, taking over Midtown and Downtown and the commercial strips of Buckhead, tying up traffic, even on Highways 75 and 85, baying at the moon, which turns chocolate during Freaknic, freaking out White Atlanta, scaring them indoors, where they cower for three days, giving them a snootful of the future.
Excerpt from A Man in Full. ©1998 by Tom Wolfe.
I Am Charlotte Simmons
When she next woke up, the first thing she noticed was the light coming in between the bottoms of the shades and the windowsills. It was alarmingly bright. My French class!
The little windup clock by the bed: 10:35! Forgot to set it! The class was already over! Couldn't happen! A scalding feeling at the base of her skull . . . The long night wasted babysitting Beverly . . . Beverly--not in her bed--hadn't touched it since she last staggered out. Must have finally sobbed, whined, wheedled her way back into the bed of her lacrosse player. Slut! Her crawling, drooling, sobbing, slobbering slut of a roommate had done this to her. And into the adrenal panic over heedlessly, pointlessly cutting a class came an ashy resentment.
Charlotte got out of bed and walked toward the windows. She was so groggy. She got down on her knees before she raised the shade about a foot. Brilliant sunlight. Gothic Dupont rose up almighty.
On a walkway out in the middle of the courtyard, near the statue of Charles Dupont, a girl was teetering along on high heels. From up here, five floors above, Charlotte was looking down at a disheveled rick of straight, flat streaked-blond hair on a head hung over toward the ground . . . the bony processes of her breastbone were showing from the way she had left her cerise shirt unbuttoned way down . . . a pair of tight black pants--then the sway and staccato of the gait, click teeter click teeter click teeter. Oh God . . . Her heart misfired--a premature ventricular contraction--Beverly. It couldn't have been more obvious that she was wearing clothes from last night and was just now returning home, still intoxicated.
From a window across the way a boy yelled out, "You're money, baby, and you don't even know it!"
Laughter from another window somewhere.
Beverly started walking faster--clickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeter--and broke into a run for the entryway to Edgerton, sprinting on the pointed toes of her shoes. She had gone no more than a few yards when one of her high heels struck the walkway. She pitched forward, fell, rolled over the walkway's border of green-and-white liriope and onto the lawn, where she wound up on her back. She put a forearm up in front of her face to shield her eyes from the sun. Not a sound from the windows now. She rolled over onto her abdomen and struggled up into a crawling position. Her pumps were still on. One high heel had almost completely torn away from the sole and hung at a crippled angle. On all fours now, she lifted one leg and tried to kick the pump off. No luck. A couple of students down in the courtyard just stood there, absorbed in the spectacle. After a clumsy struggle, Beverly managed to stand upright. She looked about in an abstract, unseeing way and began limping the rest of the way to Edgerton, one heel high, one heel dragging lengthwise on the walkway.
NEH Chairman Bruce Cole discusses the impolitic in education, art, and architecture with Tom Wolfe. Wolfe is the author of fourteen books, among them The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, and his most recent, I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Bruce Cole: I wanted to talk about literature and you as a chronicler. You just spent a lot of time on college campuses talking to kids. What is happening with how we study literature and how we interpret literature in the academy now?
Tom Wolfe: The study of literature has been so politicized at the graduate level that I urged my daughter, who has a degree in English from Duke, not to even think about it. It's a theory-ridden field now and the theories, somewhat like the theories of the international style in architecture, are essentially political.
The assumption is that all languages have been molded by the masters. It's kind of considered vulgar Marxism any longer to talk about the capitalists. So, you don't use terms like the proletariat, the bourgeosie, infantile leftism, and all those things. You talk about the masters of the establishment or the powers that be. The idea is that the powers that be have been able to mold the language so that--to use the most blatant example--the word "women" is 60 percent men. I don't know if you remember the age when feminists were urging that we spell women with a y--"womyn"--instead of an e.
Cole: Or "history" and "herstory." His-story is only part of history.
Wolfe: Which leads to the theory of deconstruction. First, you have to deconstruct the language to show the way that language itself has been manipulated as a way of trapping your mind according to a prescription written by them, the masters. Then you can actually study literature.
I notice from reading The Chronicle of Higher Education that we may be at the beginning of the end of theory, but it certainly has not ended yet.
Take Stanley Fish and his reader response theory--that no piece of writing means anything. The entire meaning is given to it by the response of the reader. So, if the reader has been conditioned to have the wrong responses, the literature becomes worth that much less. It's the lesson that says you've got to reeducate the readers politically.
Cole: If it means something different to everyone, then it means it doesn't mean anything.
Wolfe: It doesn't mean anything.
Cole: Is this because some people believe there are no universals any more, no truths?
Wolfe: I'm sure Stanley Fish has his universals, but they wouldn't fit into conventional teaching of literature.
Cole: What has been the effect of all this, either on how people read or how they look at literature as art? Has it had ramifications in the wider world of writing?
Wolfe: In my experience in going around to these different colleges, it has very little effect upon most undergraduates. They just discount it. But they also give the teachers back whatever they want. As Solzhenitsyn said, if you give the dishonest response long enough, you might as well be believing it.
It does create a climate in which it becomes impolitic to stress certain things. Eventually, everybody needs reinforcement by some kind of authority, whether the beliefs are about literature or religion. It makes you wonder--I'm going to exclude myself--it makes you wonder about your own beliefs and your own theories of the meaning of life.
This brings us to political correctness, which also is ignored, I would say, by 80 percent of all undergraduates. It does have one rather positive effect: it has become extremely bad manners almost everywhere in college to use racist slurs and to speak intolerantly about almost anybody.
Now, that's a good thing: just simply increasing respect for all sorts of people. Of course, it has down sides, too. No longer does the premise of racial-ethnic harmony hold at all. Diversity means something else. Diversity really means dispersion, which you can see in any university dining hall. There is far from being any integration. There are ethnic clusters all over the dining rooms, ethnic and racial.
But I really don't find the students terribly political.
Cole: I can't remember where I heard the slogan, "unity in diversity." I could never quite figure that out.
Wolfe: I think the assumption was that there would be unity. No, there's diversity in diversity.
Cole: Let me turn to your work. You've described yourself as a chronicler. What is that exactly?
Wolfe: Balzac enjoyed saying, "I am the secretary of French society," meaning a secretary who takes notes, not like the Secretary of Labor or something . . . He keeps tabs on what is happening in society, in the sense of social mores as well as just "society" with a small s. If I'm working well, I'm first and foremost bringing the news.
That was Nietzsche's expression when he said "God is dead." He said this is not a manifesto for atheism. He said, I'm just bringing you the news. I'm bringing you the news of the biggest event in modern history. God is dead, by which he meant, of course, that educated people were beginning to have no faith in God any longer. This was the 1880s. He predicted that in the twentieth century would come the rise of "barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods," leading to "wars such as have never been fought before." In other words, he predicted Nazism, Communism, and the world wars. Not bad, no matter what anybody thinks about his overarching take on life. In the twenty-first century, he said, would come the total collapse of all values.
He said if that happens, it will be worse than the world wars. He said the psychological devastation when people come to the point where they believe there is absolutely no meaning to life will be horrifying.
With a book like I Am Charlotte Simmons, my feeling is that I'm just bringing you the news.
Cole: You're the secretary.
Wolfe: I'm the secretary. In fact, in all the long books I've written I do not think you can find a political agenda. I Am Charlotte Simmons was interpreted by a lot of reviewers in a political way. On the left, there was great hostility to the book which at first I couldn't comprehend. I don't dismiss the fact that people just may not like the book. I didn't mean to say that. Then a number of conservative commentators went out of their way to defend the book, which is just the other side of hostility.
Cole: What was the criticism from the left?
Wolfe: There was the notion that this was simply not the case: that college wasn't like this. These were reviews written by people in their fifties, who hadn't been near a college for thirty years or so. They really had no idea what goes on.
Among liberals, it was taken as an attack on the sexual revolution because the sexual activity of the heroine, or the pressure of sex on her, had devastating results. Intellectuals pride themselves on having been liberated from the harsh grasp of religion when it comes to sexual mores. I make a distinction between intellectuals and people of intellectual achievement.
Cole: Who are intellectuals?
Wolfe: An intellectual feeds on indignation and really can't get by without it. The perfect example is Noam Chomsky. When Chomsky was merely the most exciting and most looked-to and in many ways, the most profound linguist in this country if not the world, he was never spoken of as an American intellectual. Here was a man of intellectual achievement. He was not considered an intellectual until he denounced the war in Vietnam, which he knew nothing about. Then he became one of America's leading intellectuals. He remains one until this day, which finally has led to my definition of an intellectual: An intellectual is a person who is knowledgeable in one field but speaks out only in others.
This whole business was started unintentionally by my great idol, Émile Zola, in the Dreyfus case. Zola was an extremely popular novelist. A popular writer writing fiction had never been considered a person of any intellectual importance before, but in the Dreyfus case he and Anatole France and others who were trying to defend Dreyfus were singled out by Clemenceau as "the intellectuals." The term had never been used that way before-meaning people who live by intellectual labor. That was Clemenceau's term.
When Zola wrote his great manifesto, J'accuse . . .!, it appeared on the front page of a daily newspaper. All 300,000 copies of the newspaper were sold out by afternoon. Suddenly the world of writers and teachers and all of these intellectual laborers realized that it was possible for a mere scrivener to be called an intellectual and be considered an important person.
Zola, incidentally, was very knowledgeable about the Dreyfus case. He knew it as well as anybody, as well as any law clerk did. That part was lost later on; it was considered not necessary to go that deeply into anything. All that was required was indignation.
Marshall McLuhan once said that moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity. I think that's quite true these days.
It also meant--the Zola example--that the intellectual is really above the government. It doesn't mean he hates his country or even hates his government. It just means he looks down upon it from a great height, and he's been raised to this height by indignation. Without it, it's impossible to be an intellectual or to be taken seriously.
It caught hold here in the twenties and thirties, this idea of the intellectual who is above all the dim bulbs who actually govern.
Cole: You are a visual artist as well as a writer. How did you get into art?
Wolfe: My mother always encouraged me in that direction. I took art classes during the WPA era in Virginia. It cost twenty-five cents a week. Probably in every state during the Depression, down-and-out artists were given employment by teaching in the WPA art project. Wonderful artists were teaching art. I attended these classes for about three years. Then I just drew. I used to like to draw a lot and even did some painting. I started working summers for a commercial artist. Then when I was working in Springfield, Massachusetts, on my first newspaper job, I was sent to cover a murder trial. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom. I saw something I'd never seen before anywhere. The defendants sat in a half cage, which was like a hockey goal, and I said, "I don't believe this. I mean, here the jury sees defendants who have been put in a cage." It just didn't seem fair.
As I sat there covering the trial, I drew the cage and the defendants from the back and the rest of the courtroom. And the newspaper ran it. I started doing illustrated features for the Sunday magazine and an occasional one for the daily. Then I sold myself to the Washington Post as a reporter who illustrated his own stories. I did some of those for the Post, but I tell you, it will drive you crazy. When you're on a scene and you're drawing--this is what I found--you can't hear words, just sounds. That must be the left side and right side of the brain in conflict.
Cole: You have a PhD. What was your dissertation?
Wolfe: My dissertation was on the League of American Writers. The subtitle was "Communist Activity Among American Writers, 1927 to '42."
This was a very dangerous dissertation to do. We're talking about the late fifties now. I got my degree in 1957, which was still known as the McCarthy period. And many people advised me not to even undertake this. As a result, if anyone ever had the bad fortune of having to read it, it's written as if it's by a man from Mars who has arrived in a strange land and these things are happening.
For example, I would refer to Ernest Hemingway as "E. Hemingway, a novelist of the period," to make it absolutely remote in terms of objectivity. I was intrigued with sociology. The dissertation was a sociological study of the makeup of the literary world, complete with the usual statistical data.
Cole: What impelled you to choose that subject?
Wolfe: I did a paper in graduate school about the first American Writers' Congress. Why was I interested in that? I honestly don't remember, In the stacks at Yale, I remember coming across volumes of the New Masses, which was a Communist publication--quite well done, incidentally.
This first American Writers' Congress was held in 1935 . It was an attempt by the Communist Party to remove the red glare in the coloring of their cultural movement--in the arts, movies, literature--and to focus on the anti-Nazi, anti-fascist cause.
In fact, it was the Communist Party that invented the word fascist to apply to the Nazis. The fascists were only in Italy, members of a socialist party known as the Fascisti. The word was never used in Germany. The Communists wanted to obscure the fact that the Nazis and the Fascisti were, like themselves, national socialists. The acronym NAZI stands for the National Socialist Workers Party. So, was Soviet communism national socialism? Absolutely. Communists the world over never did a thing that wasn't for the defense or the advance of the Soviet Union.
Cole: This is when Hitler and Stalin were getting ready to sign the nonaggression pact.
Wolfe: Actually, it was before then. They started in 1935 and they were going great guns. If you look at the roster of the League of American Writers, which was a front, it includes most of the well-known writers of that period because it was presented to them strictly as an antifascist organization. Then in 1939, you get the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. And that destroyed the whole movement.
To this day, the fact that National Socialism in Germany and so-called International Communism in the Soviet Union led to exactly the same results really never has registered among intellectuals who still look at Communists as liberals in a hurry.
Cole: You got out of graduate school and then you were a journalist, right? When did you start writing fiction?
Wolfe: That came much, much later. I came out of college and like most people who want to be writers, I assumed I was going to write novels eventually. So, I did something which used to be common before the Second World War: I went into journalism as a form of writing. Then I fell in love with it and with the life.
You get wonderful little status points every day: Here's your byline and you can go through the police line. You have this press card that will get you almost anywhere. You get a little, nice status stimulation every day.
I finally reached New York, which was my goal. I worked on the New York Herald Tribune and then came a strike in 1962. All the papers were on strike and the strike lasted for months. Just to make a living, I began freelance magazine writing and then became interested in what was eventually called the New Journalism, which was very, very similar to the journalism Stephen Crane did in the 1890s.
I just wrote an afterword for a Penguin edition of Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Crane was most famous for a novel, The Red Badge of Courage. But most of his career was journalism. He loved getting material as a journalist. Before he wrote Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, he spent night after night in the 1890s version of the homeless shelters. Namely, the flophouses, seventeen cents a night or less. Probably where he got tuberculosis, which he died of at the age of twenty-eight.
He did many pieces in which he stuck to the facts, like any conventional journalist, but wrote using the techniques of the short story and the novel. They are very specific techniques, incidentally.
I hadn't read any Stephen Crane at the time, but his kind of work was beginning to be done in the early 1960s. I noticed it first in Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin. I said, "Hey, this is exciting." By the time I got into it, I was not even thinking about novels any longer. Up to this day, I think that the experimental nonfiction that was done in the sixties, seventies, a little bit in the eighties was the most exciting new direction in literature in this country in the second half of the twentieth century.
For the novel now, it's all downhill. It's heading downhill very fast because the writers today almost always come out of Master of Fine Arts programs such as the famous ones at Iowa and Stanford. These programs are like standing water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water. It has become unfashionable to put your hands in the social muck of a society and deal with all these vulgar motivations such as social status or greed or anything of this sort.
The psychological novel, which is mainly the novel of yourself at home, is what is taught. Your own experience is the only valid experience that you can draw from.
If Dickens had believed that, he might have had one book in him, probably David Copperfield, but that would have been it. Tolstoy was lucky. He was many things: warrior, socialite, farmer. He would have had two books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina features both High Society and farming, ton after exhausting ton of farming, in fact. But those two books would have been quite enough, I guess.
Anyway, nonfiction was very exciting. It remains, I think, a very strong direction and one that will survive, unlike the novel. There's no reason why the novel will survive, except as an anachronism like epic poetry. Unfortunately, that's the way poetry is now regarded--as a worthy but unpopular pursuit, enjoyed only by a sympathetic coterie.
The novel will become a worthy but unpopular pursuit unless the novelists get outside of their own lives, depart their comfortable little studies, insulated floor to ceiling by shelves of books, the poor scrivener's version of Proust's cork-lined room, and do what writers did in the great period of American literature, which was the first half of the twentieth century. Everybody from Stephen Crane to John Steinbeck quite intentionally went outside of his own experience. Steinbeck became a reporter for the San Francisco News. By this time, he had sold Tortilla Flat to the movies and had no financial incentive to write for a newspaper, but he saw it as a way to get materials for a novel. So he started going around these migrant labor camps he knew nothing about. He ended up with his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, which probably is what won him the Nobel Prize.
Cole: This is a zealous secretary in a way, isn't it?
Wolfe: Yes, it is; it is.
Think of Sinclair Lewis. He decided that he wanted to write a novel about the Protestant clergy, which had tremendous power in the 1920s. To prepare for it, he used to fill in for ministers who wanted to take a vacation in the summer and he would give sermons. He would go to Chautauquas. He would go to divinity schools, carrying around his five-by-eight cards, where he would take notes to write Elmer Gantry, which I like the best of all of his books.
This was what you did. Dos Passos would go out into the country to get materials for Manhattan Transfer or the USA trilogy. You got outside of yourself.
Alfred Kazin said in a book that he wrote in 1942 that American novelists were in love with every last detail of American life. They might be skeptical of it, but they loved the material and they just couldn't get enough of that material. I think the novel could revive and survive if that attitude were renewed.
I didn't mean to write but one novel. It was The Bonfire of the Vanities. It came after I had written the book The Right Stuff, nonfiction, about the astronauts. It gave me the first financial cushion I had ever had as a writer. I said to myself, "well, I know that a lot of people are saying that this New Journalism is just a very complicated writer's block so you don't have to face the big one, the novel. Now is my chance to try the so-called 'big one.'" I ended up writing The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Even then I had to go to Rolling Stone and persuade them to run it serially in the magazine. I needed the deadlines. Otherwise, I would never have gotten the thing done.
I wasn't going to write another novel, but that book did so well on a lot of levels, temptation overcame me, and I said "maybe I'll try another one." As a result, I've now written three, but I still believe that nonfiction is the great American form of the last fifty years.
Cole: Running a book in serial form was something Dickens did. I take it you're an admirer of Dickens.
Wolfe: I am a big admirer of Dickens, but I must confess that I think the greatest serial novelist was Zola. You could see Dickens spinning his wheels. There are passages in his books where really nothing is happening. If you read biographies of Dickens, he would be in a book store browsing and somebody would come in and say, "where's the new Dickens installment? When is it coming out?" He'd say, "Oh, my God, I need to go home and start writing it. I have about a week to go."
Zola used to do about 40 percent of his books ahead of time. If you've done 40 percent, then you've worked out most of the big problems.
Cole: One final question. As well known as you are as a writer, you cut a figure in and out of literary circles for your white suits. A friend of mine wanted to know if Vincent Nicolosi is still your tailor.
Wolfe: Yes. In England, you're not supposed to tell the name of your tailor, but I want to make sure that the tailors flourish.
Mr. Nicolosi is a perfectionist in details. He does his own sewing for jackets. There's a million stitches. And he does nice little things with curves on the end of cuffs and so forth. He's very attentive to details. But he's much more flexible than British tailors. The British tailors will tell you that they will do anything for you, but they won't. They have an idea of what a suit should look like and that's it.
Cole: When I lived in Italy as a graduate student, nobody bought suits. You'd have your suits made. That was absolutely incredible for me.
Wolfe: I think today, given how much suits cost in the department store or a boutique, you might as well have them made. For a little more, you're going to get exactly what you want.
My father lived in a small town in Virginia and there was no such thing as a department store. He was born in 1892. All men had their suits made.
Cole: Why is fashion important? What does it tell us?
Wolfe: Every man and every woman is equally fixated on fashion. Men who would bridle at that suggestion are usually men who want to fit in in whatever milieu they want to be in. They do not want to stand out in any way, shape, or form. That's just as true in the stands at the stock car races as it might be at Sullivan and Cromwell, the law firm.
Somebody like myself, perhaps, stands out on purpose with just minor variations on the conventional. My suits are conventionally cut. They just happen to be white. The same with shoes, everything else.
I feel it's to a writer's advantage, since he sells a mass-produced product called a book, to catch attention any way he can. This is not shared by my fellow writers, you understand. But you'll notice how few writers are willing to appear on the back of a book with a necktie on. That's a bohemian fashion that's supposed to show one way or another you're thumbing your nose at convention. Then it becomes a convention itself. If I saw one more writer with an open shirt, the wind blowing through his hair, I was going to stop buying books. They've calmed down a little bit, but still the tie is anathema.
Ironically, if you read a book such as The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, about the arts in Czechoslovakia under a Communist regime, the writers in the Writers' Union were dressed like businessmen. They were on top. If you were in the Writers' Union, your books were published automatically, even if no one read them. And I've just been reading Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages.
Cole: That's a very great book, I think.
Wolfe: The attention to status detail and dress is absolutely fascinating. I forget the French nobleman who was found guilty of a capital crime, who insisted on arriving in his full regalia--an ermine-trimmed coat and the works--for his beheading. He just wasn't going to show up looking like a common, vulgar victim. I liked that.
To this day, I think it hasn't changed. It's just more covert now. Style is always a window into what a person thinks of his place in the world or what he wants his place to be in the world.
Balzac often would start off chapters with a description of a room and the types of furniture. He might point out that the curtains on the windows were not really damask. They were half cotton. He would give you a whole picture of the inhabitants just through his status details.
And Saint-Beuve, who I guess was the leading French critic of the day, said, if this man Balzac is so obsessed with furniture, why doesn't he own a shop and spare us these tedious novels. [Laughter]
Tissot, who has become my favorite painter the more of his work that I see, is a great example of that. For a long time, Tissot was written off as a sort of fashionista. He was in love with the look of women's clothes. But I think now he's being perceived as a great painter.
Cole: He's a much more nuanced painter, I think, than people give him credit for.
Wolfe: A lot of the work was outdoors in that period. I'm not talking about landscapes, but paintings done of things going on in the street. And on boats. The love of illustration was quite frank and open. Then suddenly, it became a much-denigrated approach to art; by the 1940s, to call a painter an illustrator was one of the worst things you could call him.
Interestingly enough, right now abstraction is going out of fashion. Young painters are crying for life classes in the art schools and a lot of art schools are left with very few teachers who can teach draftsmanship. They are returning to the object and to the human form.
Cole: As the idea of object was denigrated, the illustration got denigrated the most. So did wonderful painters like N. C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish.
Wolfe: Remember how absolutely bottom of the swamp that Norman Rockwell was? Now, he's been accepted as a painter of American folk myths. He's been gone long enough. El Greco, who went way out of fashion after his death, is now quite all right.
Cole: This is very true. If you're going to do a history of twentieth century American art, you'd have to put Rockwell front and center. If you went around asking people to name a twentieth century artist, they'd probably say Rockwell. They wouldn't say Rothko or Motherwell or someone like that.
Wolfe: Or they might mean Rockwell, but thinking that you might know better, they'd try to dream up some fashionable artist.
What we call the art world is such a small number of people. I once estimated it as 10,000, probably 3,000 in the United States, about 2,700 in New York. They're either in New York or they orbit around New York galleries and New York museums. It's really a very few people.
The critics today don't dare discover anybody, because they might be discovering the wrong fashion. So, they're just couriers. They bring you the opinions of this small group of people known as the art world and they bring it to you in the New York Times or in Time magazine or in Newsweek.
There are huge sectors of art works that simply aren't considered. They aren't reviewed.
Cole: Since Picasso, the hallmark of great art has been originality, which was certainly not the case in the preceding periods. Since everyone is original now, how do you know who is original? There are no boundaries anymore.
Wolfe: Well, the art world decides for you. That's, that's really what happens. Tom Stoppard in his play, Artist Descending a Staircase, has one of his characters say that imagination without skill gives us modern art.
Cole: I do think you're seeing a return to the object and the figure. But my question is can you ever put it back together again after artists have really seen things in different ways?
Wolfe: Often the artists simply have not been taught. They don't know enough about draftsmanship to do it. They don't know enough about color. They don't know enough about light and shadow. You can see a lot of it in Picasso.
Picasso left art school at the age of fifteen, on the grounds there was nothing more they could teach him. This is extolled in biographies of Picasso. Unfortunately, he never learned perspective. In his realistic period, early in his life, there's never a room with perspective. He puts a figure or two and a stick of furniture in the foreground, and everything beyond them is fog. He never really learned anatomy. In many of his realistic pictures, fingers and thumbs are like a bunch of asparagus that you buy in the grocery store. He was never very good on things like foreshortening. If I were as ill-prepared as Picasso or Braque I would have thought up a name like Cubism, too, as a way of legitimizing one's lack of skill.
Cole: If you look at Jackson Pollock's figurative things, poor guy, he never could draw.
Wolfe: Think of De Kooning. His skills are negligible.
However, some of the people will fool you. I was thinking of Joseph Albers, who spent the last thirty years of his life trying to solve the problems, if any, of placing one square of color on top of another. In his youth, he was a wonderful artist of the human figure. He had a touch of Egon Schiele in his work.
Cole: The only abstract artist I can get excited about is David Smith and that's because it's sculpture. I like that interplay between those three-dimensional or two-dimensional forms.
Wolfe: Architecture is no different. The new generations in architecture are returning as fast as they can to pure Le Corbusier. They feel that there are some first principles of early Modernism, about a hundred years ago, that have not been properly understood and appreciated. They look upon Postmodernism as an aberration, to quote Brad Cloepfil, who is one of the fashionable new reactionaries.
Cole: What do you think about Postmodernists in architecture--this revival to fantasy and whimsy and revivalism. Is that a good sign?
Wolfe: Anything that would break out of the box, to me was a good sign. In early Modernism, so-called International Style, the architects very willingly tied one hand and both elbows behind their backs, which meant they couldn't handle anything but a straight edge and a pencil. It's amazing what they were able to do anything at all, and even more so that their tastes prevail today, going on a hundred years.
You look at what was done at the Bauhaus by Gropius or Mies, Breuer, any of them and what was done by Le Corbusier. It was founded on essentially a socialist notion that the bourgeoisie had caused World War I--which was a horrible piece of self-destruction by European civilization--and that therefore you should take all bourgeois elements out of architecture.
That's a piece of false reasoning. It's reasoning by analogy and science abhors analogy. Let's say the bourgeoisie did cause--which is a stretch itself--did cause the First World War. What does that have to do with removing whatever the bourgeoisie liked, such as comfort, from architecture?
They ruled out easy chairs. They were too bourgeois. No more applied decoration like moldings or any kind of ornament, because that was bourgeois. No pretty colors. The only colors allowed were black, white and a rather pallid beige.
Cole: This then turns into the kind of symbol of high capitalism in the United States. Take the Seagram Building.
Wolfe: I think that architectural historians and cultural historians said, basically, this is a good move. It was antibourgeois architecture to be imposed upon the very Babylon of capitalism, which is New York City or America in general.
It was really ludicrous and I think that is what was on Edward Durell Stone's mind when he did the New Delhi Embassy with a lot of ornament.
Cole: Anyway, I have to say thank you for The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House. Those were such validating books. They gave people some armor, you know, some ammunition.
Wolfe: I intended those books as permission slips for everybody to like what they want.
The Human Beast
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.
I take that term, the human beast, from my idol, Emile Zola, who published a novel entitled The Human Beast in 1888, just 29 years after Darwin's The Origin of Species broke the stunning news that Homo sapiens--or Homo loquax, as I call him--was not created by God in his own image but was precisely that, a beast, not different in any essential way from snakes with fangs or orangutangs . . . or kangaroos. . . or the fang-proof mongoose. Darwin's doctrine, Evolution, leapt from the pages of a scientific monograph into every level of society in Europe and America with sensational suddenness. It created a sheerly dividing line between the God-fearing bourgeoisie who were appalled, and those people of sweetness and light whose business it was to look down at the bourgeosie from a great height. Today, of course, we call these superior people intellectuals, but intellectual didn't exist as a noun until Clemenceau applied it to Zola and Anatole France in 1896 during the Dreyfus Case. Zola's intellect was as sweetly enlightened as they made them. He was in with the in-crowd. Evenings he spent where the in-crowd went, namely, the Café Guerbois, along with Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Nadar, and le tout Paris boheme. He took his cues from the in-crowd's views, namely, Academic art was bad, Impressionism was good, and Homo sapiens had descended from the monkeys in the trees. Human beasts? I'll give you human beasts! Zola's aforementioned novel of that name, La Bete Humaine in French, is a story of four murderers, a woman and three men, who work down at track level on the Paris-Le Havre railroad line, each closing in on a different victim, each with a different motive, including the case of a handsome young passenger train engineer with a compulsion . . . to make love to women and then kill them. With that, Zola crowned himself as the first scientific novelist, a "naturalist," to use his term, studying the human fauna.
I love my man Zola. He's my idol. But the whole business exudes irony so rich, you can taste it. It tastes like marzipan. Here we have Darwin and his doctrine that in 1859 rocks Western man's very conception of himself . . . We have the most popular writer in the world in 1888, Zola, who can't wait to bring the doctrine alive on the page . . . We have the next five generations of educated people who have believed and believe to this day that, at bottom, evolution's primal animal urges rule our lives . . . to the point where the fourth greatest pop music hit of 2001, "You and Me, Baby" by the Bloodhound Gang, proclaims, "You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals. / So let's do it like they do on the Dis-cov-ery Channel"--it's rich! rich! rich beyond belief!
O. I love you, Emile, but by the time you and Darwin got hold of it, evolution had been irrelevant for 11,000 years. Why couldn't you two see it? Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," but Homo loquax, "man talking"! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends--we're very sentimental about predators these days, aren't we--the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars--they're "endangered," meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast's sufferance. The beast has dealt crippling blows even to the unseen empire of the microbes. Stunted adults from Third World countries with abysmal sanitation come to the United States and their offspring grow six or more inches taller, thanks to the wonders of hygiene. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys would be extinct by now had not the human beasts hit upon the idea of animal husbandry. So far the human beast enjoys the luxury of crying sentimental tears over the deer because she's so pretty. But the day the human beast discovers deer in his cellar, fawns in his bedroom closet, bucks tangling horns in the attic at night above his very bedroom . . . those filthy oversized vermin, the deer, will be added to that big long list above. We're sentimental about the dolphins, because they're so smart. What about the tuna? It's okay to kill tunas by the ton because they're dimwits? It would take an evolutionary mystic (and there are such) to believe these animals will ever evolve their way out of the hole they're in thanks to man's power of speech.
No evolutionist has come up with even an interesting guess as to when speech began, but it was at least 11,000 years ago, which is to say, 9000 B.C. It seems to be the consensus . . . in the notoriously capricious field of evolutionary chronology . . . that 9000 B.C. was about when the human beast began farming, and the beast couldn't have farmed without speech, without being able to say to his son, "Son, this here's seeds. You best be putting 'em in the ground in rows ov'ere like I tell you if you wanna git any ears a corn this summer."
Do forgive me, Emile, but here is the tastiest of all ironies. One of Homo loquax's first creations after he learned to talk was religion. Since The Origin of Species in 1859 the doctrine of Evolution has done more than anything else to put an end to religious faith among educated people in Europe and America; for God is dead. But it was religion, more than any other weapon in Homo loquax's nuclear arsenal, that killed evolution itself 11,000 years ago. To say that evolution explains the nature of modern man is like saying that the Bessemer process of adding carbons to pig iron to make steel explains the nature of the modern skyscraper.
Now shall we begin? Shall we take a look at the actual nature of the human beast--an artificial selection, 100% man-made?
To start with, I beg your indulgence in a scrap of personal history. In 1951 I graduated from Washington and Lee University, where I majored in English, and entered the Yale University graduate school seeking a Ph.D. in American Studies. American Studies was an interdisciplinary field, requiring the study of, among other disciplines, sociology. I recall having the standard literary attitude toward sociology, a pleasant assurance that the social sciences in general were undeserving arrivistes, nouveau admis, here in the realm of the higher things. That notion vanished the moment I came upon the work of the German sociologist Max Weber.
Weber was well known in academia for his essay "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," written after he toured the United Sates in 1904. It was the origin of the unfortunately non-Protestant cliché, "the work ethic." He introduced the terms "charisma" and "charismatic" in their current usage; also "bureaucracy," which he characterized as "the routinization of charisma." He coined the term "style of life," which was converted into the compound noun "lifestyle" and put to work as the title of a thousand sections of newspapers across the United States. But what caught my imagination was the single word "status." In a very short, very dense essay called "Class, Status, and Party" he introduced an entirely new concept.
I was by no means the first person to get excited over Weber's "status." The concept was well known within the field of sociology, although it was more often expressed in such terms as "social class," "social stratification," "prestige systems," and "mobility." Six years later Weber's terms "status-seeking" and "status symbols" began showing up in the press. Soon they were part of everyday language.
The great American sociologists of the 1950s, W. Lloyd Warner, the Lynns, August B. Hollingshead, E. Digby Baltzell, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, were turning out studies of how Americans rated others and themselves, often unconsciously, according to race, ethnic group, address, occupation, vocabulary, shopping habits, bill-paying habits (personal checks in lump sums as opposed to installment payments in cash), bureaucratic status symbols (corner offices, fine wooden desks as opposed to metal ones, water carafes, sofas as well as chairs, speaker phones, etageres of brass and glass), education (the great divide existing between those who had bachelor's degrees from a respectable four-year college as opposed to those who didn't), even sexual practices. The upper orders made love with the lights on and no bed covers. The lower orders--in the 1950s--found this perverted. Sociologists never rejected Karl Marx's brilliant breakdown of society into classes. But his idea of an upper class--the owners of "the means of production"--and their satellites, the bourgeoisie, in a struggle with the masses, the working class, was too rigid to describe competition among human beast in the 20th century. Weber's entirely novel concept of "status groups" proved to be both more flexible and more penetrating psychologically.
Within the ranks of the rich, including the "owners of the means of production," there inevitably developed an inner circle known as Society. Such groups always believed themselves to be graced with "status honor," as Weber called it. Status honor existed quite apart from such gross matters as raw wealth and power. Family background, education, manners, dress, cultivation, style of life--these, the ineffable things, were what granted you your exalted place in Society.
Military officer corps are rife with inner circles aloof from the official and all-too-political hierarchy of generals, admirals, and the rest. I went to work on a book called The Right Stuff thinking it would be a story of space exploration. In no time at all, I happened upon something far more fascinating. The astronauts were but part of an invisible, and deadly, competitive pyramid within an inner circle of American military fighter pilots and test pilots, and they were by no means at the apex. I characterized this pyramid as a ziggurat, because it consisted of innumerable and ever more deadly steps a fighter pilot had to climb to reach the top. The competition demanded an uncritical willingness to face danger, to face death, not once but daily, if required, not only in combat but also in the routine performance of his duties--without ever showing fear--in behalf of a noble cause, the protection of his nation. There were more ways to die in a routine takeoff of a supersonic jet fighter of the F-series than most mortals could possibly imagine. At the time, a Navy pilot flying for twenty years, an average career span, stood a 23 percent chance of dying in an accident and a 56 percent chance of having to eject at some point, which meant being shot out of the plane like a human rocket by a charge of dynamite under his seat, smashing into what was known as the "wall" of air outside, which could tear the flesh off your face, and descending by parachute. The figures did not include death or ejection in combat, since they were not considered accidental. According to Korean War lore, a Navy fighter pilot began shouting out over the combat radio network, "I've got a Mig at zero! A Mig at zero! I've got a Mig at zero!" A Mig at zero meant a Soviet supersonic fighter plane was squarely on his tail and could blow him out of the sky at any moment. Another voice, according to legend, broke in and said, "Shut up and die like an aviator." Such "chatter," such useless talk on the radio during combat, was forbidden. The term "aviator" was the final, exquisite touch of status sensitivity. Navy pilots always called themselves aviators. Marine and Air Force fliers were merely pilots. The reward for reaching the top of the ziggurat was not money, not power, not even military rank. The reward was status honor, the reputation of being a warrior with ultimate skill and courage--a word, by the way, strictly taboo among the pilots themselves. The same notion of status honor motivates virtually every police and fire fighting force in the world.
Status groups, Weber contended, are the creators of all new styles of life. In his heyday, the turn of the 19th century, the most stylish new status sphere, no more than 30 years old, was known as la vie boheme, the bohemian life. The bohemians were artists plus the intellectuals and layabouts in their orbit. They did their best to stand bourgeois propriety on its head through rakish dishabille, louder music, more wine, great gouts of it, ostentatious cohabitation, and by flaunting their poverty as a virtue. And why? Because they all came from the bourgeoisie themselves originally and wanted nothing more desperately than to distinguish themselves from it. They seldom mentioned the upper class, Marx's owners of "the means of production." They seldom mentioned Marx's working class, except in sentimental appreciation of the workers' occasional show of rebelliousness. No, as the late Jean-Francois Revel said of mid-20th century French intellectuals, the bohemians' sole object was to separate themselves from the mob, the rabble, which today is known as the middle class.
I thought bohemia had been brought to its apogee in the 1960s, before my very eyes, by the hippies, originally known as acid heads, in reference to the drug LSD, with their Rapunzel hair down to the shoulder blades among the males and great tangled thickets of hair in the armpits of the women, all living in communes. The communes inevitably turned religious thanks to the hallucinations hippies experienced while on LSD and a whole array of other hallucinogens whose names no one can remember. Some head--short for acid head--would end up in the middle of Broadway, one of San Francisco's main drags, sitting cross-legged in the Lotus position, looking about, wide eyes glistening with beatification, shouting, "I'm in the pudding and I've met the manager! I'm in the pudding and I've met the manager!" Seldom had so many gone so far to feel aloof from the middle class.
But I was wrong. They were not the ones who raised rejection of the middle class to its final, Olympian level. For what were the hippies and their communes compared to the great bohemians of our time in the status sphere known as Hip Hop, with its black rappers and "posses" and groupies, its hordes of hangers-on--and its millions of followers and believers among the youth of America, white and black? The Hip Hop style of life turns bourgeois propriety inside out. It celebrates the status system of the Street, which is to say, the standards of juvenile male street gangs, so-called gangbangers. What matters is masculinity to burn and a disdain of authority. The rappers themselves always put on looks of sullen hostility for photographs. The hippies' clothes of yore look like no more than clown costumes next to the voluminous Hip Hop jeans with the crotch at knee level and the pants legs cascading into great puddles of fabric at the ankles, the T-shirts hanging outside the pants and just short of knee level and as much as a foot below their leather jackets or windbreakers, and the black bandannas known as do-rags around their heads. What were the hippies' LSD routs known as acid tests . . . compared to the Hip Hop stars' status tests that require shooting and assassinating one another periodically? How cool is that? One of my favorite sights in New York is that of a 14- or-15-year-old boy who has just descended from his family's $10 or $12 million apartment and is emerging onto the sidewalks of Park Avenue dressed Hip-Hop head to crotch, walking through a brass-filigreed door held open by a doorman in a uniform that looks like an Austrian army colonel's from 1870.
Not all status groups are either as competitive as capital-S Society's and the military's or as hostile as the bohemians'. Some are comprised of much broader populations from much larger geographic areas. My special favorites are the Good Ol' Boys, as I eventually called them. I happened upon them while working on an article about stock car racing. Good ol' boys are rural Southerners and Midwesterners seldom educated beyond high school or community college, sometimes owners of small farms but more likely working for wages in factories, warehouses, and service companies. They are mainly but by no means exclusively Scots-Irish Protestants in background and are Born Fighting, to use the title of a brilliant recent work of ethnography by James Webb. They have been the backbone of American combat forces ever since the Revolution, including, as it turns out, both armies during the Civil War. They love hunting, they love their guns, and they believe, probably correctly, that the only way to train a boy to kill Homines loquaces in battle someday is to take him hunting to learn to kill animals, starting with rabbits and squirrels and graduating to beasts as big or bigger than Homo loquax, such as the deer and the bear. Good ol' boys look down on social pretension of any sort. They place a premium on common sense and are skeptical of people with theories they don't put to the test themselves.
I offer an illustration provided to me by a gentleman who is in this audience tonight and who witnessed the following: It was the mid-1940s, during the second World War, and a bunch of good ol' boys too old for military service were sitting around in a general store in Scotland County, North Carolina, waiting for a representative of a cattleman's association. They fell to discussing the war.
One of them said, "Seems to me this whole war's on account of one man, Adolph Hitler. 'Stead a sending all these supply ships to England and whatnot and getting'm sunk out in the Atlantic Ocean by U-boats, why don't we just go ov'ere and shoot him?"
"Whatcha mean, 'just go ov'ere and shoot him'?"
"Just go to where he lives and shoot the sonofabitch."
"I 'speck it ain't that easy. He's probably got a wall around his house."
"Maybe he does. But you git me a boat to git me ov'ere and I'll do it myself."
"I'll wait'il it's night time . . . see . . . and then I'll go around to the back of the house and climb the wall and hide behind a tree. I'll stay there all night, and then in the morning, when he comes out in the yard to pee, I'll shoot him."
Quite in addition to the Good Ol' Boy's level of sophistication, that story reveals four things: a disdain for the futility of government and its cumbersome ways of approaching problems, a faith in common sense, reliance on the inner discipline of the individual--and guns.
Even before I left graduate school I had come to the conclusion that virtually all people live by what I think of as a "fiction-absolute." Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world--so ordained by some almighty force--would make not that individual but his group . . . the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles. Politicians, the rich, the celebrated, become mere types. Does this apply to "the intellectuals" also? Oh, yes. . . perfectly, all too perfectly.
The human beast's belief in his own fiction-absolute accounts for one of the most puzzling and in many cases irrational phenomena of our time. I first noticed it when I read a book by Samuel Lubell called The Future of American Politics. Lubell was a political scientist and sociologist who had been as surprised as everybody else by the outcome of the 1948 presidential election. That was the election in which the Democratic incumbent, Harry Truman, was a president whose approval rating had fallen as low as 23 percent. Every survey, every poll, every pundit's prediction foresaw him buried by the Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey. Instead, Truman triumphed in one of the most startling upsets in American political history. Lubell was determined to find out why, and so he set out across the country. When he reached a small Midwestern town that had been founded before the turn of the 19th century by Germans, he was puzzled to learn that the town had gone solidly for Dewey despite the fact that by every rational turn of logic, every economic motivation, Truman would have been a more logical choice. By and by Lubell discovered that the town was still predominantly German. Nobody had ever gotten over the fact that in 1917, a Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson, had declared war on Germany. That had set off a wave of anti-German feeling, anti-German prejudice, and, in the eyes of the people of this town, besmirched their honor as people of German descent. And now, two World Wars later, their minds were fixed on the year 1917, because like all other human beasts, they tended to champion in an irrational way their own set of values, their own fiction absolute. The question Lubell asked was very much like the question that Thomas Frank asked after the election of 2004 in his book What's the Matter with Kansas? By all economic and political logic, the state of Kansas should have gone to John Kerry, the Democrat, in 2004. But it didn't. Had Frank only looked back to Samuel Lubell, he would have known why. The 2004 election came down to one state: the state of Ohio. Whoever won that state in the final hours would win the election. Northern Ohio, the big cities of Cleveland, Toledo on the Great Lakes, were solidly for Kerry. But in southern Ohio, from east to west, and in the west was the city of Cincinnati, Ohio went solidly for George Bush. And the reason? That great swath of territory was largely inhabited by the Scots-Irish. And when the Democrats came out in favor of gun control, the Scots-Irish interpreted this as not merely an attack on the proliferation of weaponry in American life but as a denunciation, a besmirching, of their entire way of life, their entire fiction absolute. Guns were that important in their scheme of things.
More recently, I returned to Washington and Lee for a conference on the subject of Latin American writing in the United States. The conference soon became a general and much hotter discussion of the current immigration dispute. I had arrived believing that, for example, Mexicans who had gone to the trouble of coming to the United States legally, going through all the prescribed steps, would resent the fact that millions of Mexicans were now coming into the United States illegally across the desert border. I couldn't have been more mistaken. I discovered that everyone who thought of himself as Latin, even people who had been in this country for two and three generations, were wholeheartedly in favor of immediate amnesty and immediate citizenship for all Mexicans who happened now to be in the United States. And this feeling had nothing to do with immigration policy itself, nothing to do with law, nothing to do with politics, for that matter. To them, this was not a debate about immigration. The very existence of the debate itself was to them a besmirching of their fiction-absolute, of their conception of themselves as Latins. Somehow the debate, simply as a debate, cast an aspersion upon all Latins, implying doubt about their fitness to be within the border of such a superior nation.
The same phenomenon, championism, I believe, solves the mystery of something I had been unable to figure out for a very long time, namely, what is it that accounts for the extraordinary emotion of sports fans? What earthly connection do the citizens of New York City think they have to, say, the New York Yankees, whose team includes not one person from the city of New York, which is, in fact, 40 percent Latin American, and an assortment of mercenaries who will play anywhere for the top dollar? How can such a team get such a strong grip on local emotions? Here we see championism in its most elemental form. As far back as the story of David and Goliath in the Bible, the human beast has become excited by those who represent them in what at that stage of history was known as single combat. Before a battle was fought each side would send forth its fighting champion. Goliath, a giant, protected by the most elaborate armor, was so awesome, that at first no one among the Israelites dared confront him. Finally, a young unknown named David volunteered. He turned down King Saul's offer of his own armor as protection and said he preferred to travel light and fast. He proceeded to slay Goliath with a slingshot. At this point, The Philistine army panicked. The defeat of its great champion was seen as a sign from the gods. They fled, the Israelites pursued and slaughtered them. This notion of a surrogate, a champion, who can represent an entire people and give them the exultation of victory when it triumphs and plunge them into depression of defeat when he loses, has persisted for millennia.
Single combat was never pursued as a substitute for actual battle; these contests were always held as an indication of which way the gods were leaning. Nevertheless, both the exultation and the depression were real emotions, curious emotions, on the face of it, entirely aroused by status concerns. The surprising insinuations of status concerns into every area of life must be understood if one is to understand the nature of the human beast. Consider the toxic power of humiliation. Humiliation is a wound inflicted upon the beast's status picture of himself, upon the validity of his standing within the boundaries of his own fiction absolute. Not long ago, in New York, a drug dealer named Pappy Mason was out of prison on parole standing on the sidewalk in front of a bar with a group of his buddies, drinking a beer. A police detective happened to be driving by in an unmarked car and recognized him. He stopped, got out, and said "Mason, you know what stupid is? Stupid is what you're doing right now, drinking in public. You get your ass back in that building--or I'm taking your ass in." Now here was Mason, in front of his buddies. He had a terrible decision to make. Taking his ass in meant taking him to the precinct station and booking him. Drinking on the sidewalk was--a--Mickey Mouse--misdemeanor but it was enough to violate his parole and put him right back in prison. On the other hand, just caving in to some pig of a cop in front of his posse and slinking back into the bar was unthinkable . . .On the other hand, maybe it was thinkable . . .To go back to jail--so he did think . . .slinked back into the bar . . .You did what you had to do, Pappy--but the humiliation! the humiliation! A day passed, two days passed--the humiliation! Day after day it festered . . . festered . . . Eventually he found himself back in prison for an unrelated offense . . .and the same old humiliation . . .slinking back into the bar that night . . .festered . . . Finally, it became too much. He got a message out to one of his boys on the outside: "Go kill a cop." And the guy said, "What cop?" And Mason said, "Any cop." And so three members of his posse drove about . . . looking for a cop, any cop They came upon a young patrolman alone in a police car in front of the house of an immigrant from Guinea who, as it tuned out had been threatened by drug dealers. They had already tried to burn down his house because he had reported their activities to the police. The young cop, named Eddie Byrne, had been assigned to protect him. It was now late at night, quiet, and the three assailants came up behind the car and assassinated the young policeman. It became a cause of public outrage. It had taken the life of a young man, Eddie Byrne. Yes, but the cops . . .they had trashed Pappy Mason's status picture of himself.
That a wound to one's status, not to one's body, not to one's bank account, not to one's general fortunes in life, that such a wound to one's status could have such a severe effect upon the psyche of the human beast, is no minor matter. It means that we have come upon a form of anguish that is somehow primal. Even the most trivial and the most unlikely circumstances can be colored by the beast's constant and unrelenting concern for his own status. Which is to stay, his own standing, his own rank, in the eyes of others and in his own eyes.
It could be anything as minor and trivial as a man in New York in a taxi five, perhaps even ten blocks from his destination, agonizing over what tip he should give the driver. His status verdict would be in the hands of only one person, the driver, someone he would most likely never see again. And yet, the human beast is perfectly capable of devoting the most excruciating mental energy to such a trifling decision. When I was working on a novel about college life entitled I Am Charlotte Simmons, I kept coming upon situations in which I thought surely other emotions would rule, love, if not love, passion, or if not passion, at least lust. Instead, as elsewhere, status ruled. Undergraduate life today, involves a status system in which sexual activity can be summed up as "Our eyes met, our lips met, our bodies met, and then we were introduced." The attitude young women have toward their own sexual activity, as well as the impression others have of it, has turned 180 degrees in one generation. There was a time when the worst . . . slut . . . for want of a better term . . . maintained a virginal and chaste façade. Today, the most virginal and chaste undergraduate wants to create a façade of sexual experience. One night I was in a college lounge sitting on a sofa that was backed up against a narrow table. Another sofa was backed up likewise on the other side. All at once a voice from the sofa behind me, a boy's voice was saying, "What are you talking about? How could I? We've known each other since before Choate! It would be like incest!" And then I heard the girl say, "Please. Come on. I can't stand the thought of having to do it with somebody I hardly know and can't trust." It turned out that she was beseeching him, her old Platonic friend of years' standing, to please relieve her of her virginity, deflower her. That way she could honestly maintain the proper social stance as an experienced young woman in college.
Even before I had left graduate school I had begun to wonder if somewhere in the brain there might be a center that interpreted incoming data and gave the human beast the feeling he was improving its status, merely maintaining its status, or suffering the grave wound of humiliation.
I turned to the literature of the physiology of the brain for the answer, only to discover that Sigmund Freud had stopped the physical study of the brain cold for 40 years. Freud had been so persuasive, had so convinced the scientific community and the academic community in general that he had found the final answers to mental disturbance in his theories of the id, the ego, the superego, and the Oedipal drama within the family, that it was rather pointless to go through the tedious, laborious business of determining what synapses, what dendrites, what circuits in the brain accounted for what one already knew anyway. The physical study of the brain didn't resume until 1969, thanks to the work of a Spanish physician and brain physiologist named Jose Delgado. Delgado was somewhat well-known already because of a striking and very public experiment he had conducted in a bull ring in Madrid. Delgado was experimenting with stereotaxic needle implants and other painless ways to reach regions of the brains of animals and eventually, as it turned out, humans. He was so sure that he had found specific regions of the brain that created specific reactions within animals that he had come into the bull ring possessing only a small radio transmitter and had allowed himself to be charged by a one and a half ton bull tormented into a state of rage by picadors. The bull charged. Delgado stood there, motionless. The bull finally reached the critical point where it would be useless for anyone, even a toreador, to flee. Delgado pressed a button on the radio transmitter--and the bull came to a shuddering halt within feet of the scientist, and then turned and trotted off in the other direction. Delgado had also run tests of sensory deprivation on healthy young college students. He put them in sensory deprivation chambers that were absolutely soundless. The temperature was set so that the human body would detect neither heat nor cold. The room was well-lit, but the subject wore translucent goggles and could perceive light but he could make out no details. The subject wore special gloves that reduced the tactile sense to a minimum. Within hours, not days, the subjects, these healthy young people, would begin hallucinating, losing their minds. To Delgado, this was proof of his proposition that the human mind is in fact not the possession of the individual but more of a town square into which anyone can come, into which any animal can come, into which even vegetation can come. And what the human beast thinks is his mind is in fact--and these were Delgado's words--a "transitory combination of elements borrowed from the environment."
Delgado's theory of the mind as totally dependent upon the environment perhaps explains some of the more bizarre anomalies of recent history. In what became known as the Stockholm Syndrome, and in the case of Patty Hearst, young women were abducted and put into an environment totally controlled by their captors and closed to any outside influences whatsoever. In both cases, the young women emerged as friends and comrades of their captors; and in Patty Hearst's case, as their confederate in a bank hold-up. Having no other basis upon which to base their own status, they adopted an entirely new one.
But even those cases seem straightforward compared to the case of Kyle Zirpolo and the McMartin Day Care Center scandal of 1984. Zirpolo was eight years old at the time and became one of a score of children claiming to have recovered repressed memories of the McMartins subjecting them to sexual molestation and the most fiendish and depraved abuse. Some of the testimony of these children seemed so utterly bizarre that the prosecution dared not introduce it at the McMartin's trial. After six years of trials and appeals, the McMartins were found not guilty. This started speculation that the children had been brainwashed by the clinicians who had summoned up the supposed memories. The truth proved to be more shocking. Last year, now 29 years old, Kyle Zirpolo revealed that he and the others had known all along that the McMartins had not abused them in any way. Kyle Zirpolo had been put in a situation in which both the clinicians and his own parents insisted, with all the certainty of adults, that these things that happened, and he, Kyle, was too frightened to admit it. After repeatedly telling his parents that nothing had happened, he caved in to the mounting status pressure and testified to things he was quite aware of making up. Ever since then he had been tormented by the hell that he and the other children had put the McMartins through, destroying their reputations as well as their livelihood.
Delgado stressed the role of culture. Culture referred to those things in human life that could not exist without speech, whether culture in the sense of the arts or culture in the sense of the manners and mores of a society. Delgado insisted that the brain and its genetic history and evolution was simply the substratum upon which culture wrought its effects. He did not know the precise neural path. After all, he was re-opening a field that had been dormant for 40 years. But just last year, barely 6 months ago, three neurobiologists may very well have discovered the answer, in a study of African cichlid fish published in an article entitled, "Rapid behavioral and genomic responses to social opportunity" in the journal PLoS Biology. Russell Fernald of Stanford, his former associate Sabrina Burmeister, now at the University of North Carolina, and Erich Jarvis of Duke studied the behavior of the fish in a laboratory tank. In the tank was an obviously dominant male and his subjects, male and female. The others were gray in color but the dominant male had swelled up within a skin of lurid stripes and was the only male who had access to the females. They then removed the dominant male in the dark of night. When light returned, another male, just as gray as before, noticed the absence of the ruler, whereupon he swelled up with a skin of lurid colors, and his gonads immediately grew to eight times their previous size, and now he had exclusive access to the females. The three neurobiologists determined that a purely social situation, a status situation, had caused changes in the brain of the newly-dominant male at the cellular and molecular level, set off by a gene, known as egr-1, located in the anterior preoptic area. They had established that a change in social status had caused a change in the brain. It was the opposite of the situation envisioned by Neo-Darwinists neuroscientists who assume is that the genetic inheritance triggers changes in status.
Only foolish writers make predictions instead of descriptions, but this fool feels certain that Fernald, Burmeister, and Jarvis are sure bets for a Nobel prize in biology, should such a social influence prove to be the case with human beasts. The Neo-Darwinists, who dominate neuroscience in America today, have not responded, but in the past they have always characterized human behavior as but an evolutionary echo of non-human beasts. On the subject of status rankings and status-seeking, they point out that not only chickens but innumerable other animals have pecking orders. As for status groups, if you put a flock of canaries in a large enough cage, they will separate into smaller groups, each dominated by the biggest and most aggressive male. When the dominant male of one group is forced to confront a dominant male from another, at the central feeding station, one will passively submit to domination by the other.
As recently as the year 1000, Neo-Darwinists might argue, the entire world was divided into warriors and slaves or virtual slaves, aside from a few highly skilled artisans organized into guilds. Not only that, when the warriors couldn't find a real war to fight, they fought each other with blunted swords and spears in tournaments. At the conclusion of a tournament, ordinary religious restrictions on sexual behavior were suspended long enough for the winners to help themselves to as many young women as they cared to. The young women were there expressly for that purpose. This reward, which is so similar to that of dominant males among the non-human beasts, endures symbolically to this day in the form of pretty little cheerleaders with short skirts and their underpants showing.
But such comparisons collapse when the human beasts' third class is taken into account. This is the clergy, the priests and the prophets. Here in the 21st century, it is impossible to comprehend the power that the clergy had 1000 years ago. In the year 1082, Pope Urban II gave a speech on a platform in a field in France in which he exhorted all the knights of Europe--of Christendom--to go to the Middle East and take back Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Saracens, referring to the ruling Arabic Muslims. Immediately the Crusades began. Later, cynics would maintain that the Crusaders had gone to the Middle East only to bring back the booty that was eventually theirs. In fact, the warriors hadn't the faintest idea of what they would find. They were obeying the command of their Holy Father, the Pope. Until well into the Middle Ages the German Empire continued to call itself the Holy Roman Empire.
Book One, first verse, of the Book of John in the New Testament says cryptically: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This has baffled Biblical scholars, but I interpret it as follows: Until there was speech, the human beast could have no religion, and consequently no God. In the beginning was the Word. Speech gave the beast its first ability to ask questions, and undoubtedly one of the first expressed his sudden but insatiable anxiety as to how he got here and what this agonizing struggle called life is all about. To this day, the beast needs, can't live without, some explanation as the basis of whatever status he may think he possesses. For that reason, extraordinary individuals have been able to change history with their words alone, without the assistance of followers, money, or politicians. Their names are Jesus, John Calvin, Mohammed, Marx, Freud--and Darwin. And this, rather than any theory, is what makes Darwin the monumental figure that he is. The human beast does not require that the explanation offer hope. He will believe whatever is convincing. Jesus offered great hope: The last shall be first and the meek shall inherit the earth. Calvin offered less. Mohammed, more and less. Marx, even more than Jesus: The meek will take over the earth now! Freud offered more sex. Darwin offered nothing at all. Each, however, has left an enduring influence. Jesus is the underpinning of both Marxism and political correctness in American universities. There was a 72-year field experiment in Marxism, which failed badly. But Marx's idea of one class dominating another may remain with us forever. In medical terms, Freud is now considered a quack. But his notion of sex as an energy like the steam in a boiler, which must be released in an orderly fashion or the boiler will blow up, remains with us, too. At this very moment, as we gather here in the Warner Theatre, you can be sure that there are literally millions of loin spasms and hip-joint convulsions that are taking place at this very instant throughout the world that would not be occurring were it not for the power of the words of Sigmund Freud. Today, Charles Darwin still reigns, but his most fervent followers, American neuroscientists, are deeply concerned about this irritating matter of culture, the product of speech. Led by the British neuroscientist Richard Dawkins, they currently propose that culture is the product of "memes" or "culturegens", which operate like genes and produce culture. There is a problem, however. Genes exist, but memes don't. The concept of memes is like the concept of Jack Frost ten centuries ago. Jack Frost was believed to be an actual, living, albeit invisible, creature who went about in the winter freezing fingertips and making the ground too hard to plow. Noam Chomsky has presented another problem. He maintains that there is no sign that speech evolved from any form of life lower than man. It's not that there is a missing link, he says. It's that there is absolutely nothing in any other animal to link up with. It becomes difficult for Neo-Darwinists to continue to say that structures consisting only of words are not real and durable. What accounts for the fact, to choose but one example, that Islam has directed the lives and behavior of literally billions of people since the eighth century?
Princeton anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written, "There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture would not even be the clever savages of Lord of the Flies."
Now, at last, may we begin the proper study of homo loquax?