The Bonfire of the Vanities Essay - Critical Essays

Tom Wolfe

Critical Context

Wolfe paints a picture of America’s biggest, richest city in the late twentieth century. Like all the major cities of America, New York is suffering form unprecedented social unrest. The white upper classes who have run things since before the American Revolution are retreating into enclaves as the cities become flooded with poor, nonwhite immigrants from other countries and from American farmlands, where mechanization is making their labor superfluous. Many of these newcomers remain unemployed because they have no marketable skills. They become a drain on the welfare system, and government subsidies are one of the attractions that draw more and more such people to the big cities.

In many American cities, the white majority is turning into a white minority. Political power is passing from whites to nonwhites because the one thing the nonwhites possess is their voting power. Some charismatic leaders in the minority communities take advantage of unrest to obtain power and profit.

Human greed and selfishness are not monopolized by any single race. Affluent whites are so obsessed with enriching themselves that they are content to buy time with government handouts while surrounding themselves with barred windows, watchdogs, electronic protection devices, and private armies of security guards. The underprivileged nonwhites are conditioned to develop a passive-aggressive attitude—the so-called welfare mentality—demanding more and more bribes in the form of welfare payments, food stamps, subsidized housing, and other benefits as the price for not engaging in open revolution. Wolfe has been accused of exaggerating the situation and deliberately falsifying the facts to make his case more dramatic. Whether readers agree with him or not is likely to depend on their political perspectives.