Tom Wolfe Essay - Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 2)

Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 2)

Wolfe, Tom 1931–

American New Journalist, author of such Pop-Mod essays as those found in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. (See also, Tom Wolfe Criticism and volumes 9, 15 and 147.)

For Wolfe, as for any satirist, manner is matter. To reduce his scenes to message is to miss both his point and his quality. Still, given the high-voltage polarity of the age, Wolfe is already being unfairly abstracted for message and misread something like this: the black movement is a put-on; the poverty program is a feckless giveaway; white liberals are pure patsies. As a result, he will endure not merely the embarrassing approval of the Neanderthals ("You see! you see!") but the threat of stoning at the hands of enraged reformers and black extremists alike. When a Time reporter recently asked a minister of the Panther Party's shadow government about the truthfulness of Wolfe's Radical Chic account, the reply was ominous: "You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?"

Wolfe's peculiar blend of artistic omniscience and journalistic detail has often troubled readers who cannot decide where reality leaves off and Wolfe begins. These two pieces are not entirely proof against such doubts. Radical Chic frequently goes too far in Wolfe's "Everybody there felt …" generalizations. Still, it is generally so accurate that even some of the irate guests at the Bernsteins later wondered how Wolfe—who in fact used shorthand—managed to smuggle a tape recorder onto the premises. Satire is no way to win friends. If the Panthers ever do take over and Wolfe winds up behind bars, who will want to give a bail party for him?

Timothy Foote, "Fish in the Brandy Snifter," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), December 21, 1970, pp. 72-4.

Those of you who are not aware of Tom Wolfe should—really—do your best to acquaint yourselves with him. For one thing, he is probably the most skilful writer in America. I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else: a greater variety of things. He is like the pianist, Henry Scott, who can play the "Flight of the Bumblebee" while wearing mittens. That is of course stunt-stuff, but Wolfe, the virtuoso, does not depend alone on his flashy cadenzas. He can do anything. Meanwhile he is a leading figure in the New Journalism, which weds the craft of the novelist to the obligations of the journalist. And on top of that, he has written a very very controversial book [Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers] for which he has been publicly excommunicated from the company of the orthodox by the bishops who preside over the New York Review of Books….

What Mr. Wolfe did in his book was MAKE FUN of Bernstein et al., and if you have never been told, you MUST NOT MAKE FUN of Bernstein et al., when what hangs in the balance is Bernstein's moral prestige plus the integrity of Black Protest; learn the lesson now. Tom Wolfe, although thoroughly apolitical, focused on the paradoxes involved in the spilling of Black Rage over the extraporous sensibilities of an antimacassar liberal, who has been trained to salivate over the plight of any Negro, even one whose cause is the absolute right of Black Panthers to commit revolution, bomb department buildings and rage against the Jews.

William F. Buckley, Jr., "Mau-Mauing Wolfe," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 12, 1971, p. 51.

Wolfe is a writer's writer, the king of the new journalists, and a writer reviewing one of his books is tempted just to quote the whole damned thing, line by line. Wolfe can do it all himself, and he needs no critic getting wedged in between him and his readers. But the snobs are mad and they're wedging in there anyhow….

There are, to be sure, some legitimate objections to Wolfe's work, most of them concerning matters of technique and point of view. This [Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers] is a piece of non-fiction, and in many spots there's just a touch too much author omniscience. And another objection, this one strictly personal. Two short articles don't quite make a completely satisfying book. I wish that Wolfe would sit down soon and write that first-rate novel of American manners that he's capable of. Wolfe thinks of himself as a journalist, but he's a natural novelist working essentially in the great manners tradition, a Thackeray in miniature. It's time that he expanded his canvas. It's a shame to find all our potentially fine novelists writing non-fiction. And there's a country full of snobs out there … just waiting to be laughed down to size.

John R. Coyne, Jr., "Sketchbook of Snobs," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 26, 1971, pp. 90-1.

The worst news to come this way in some time (if you exclude the recent unpleasantness at the polls) is that Tom Wolfe is serious. I don't mean artistically serious—I always assumed that—but, you know … serious. He has been carrying on at some length lately about his baby, the New Journalism, but with none of his old nerve-racking audacity. More like a … grandfather, for God's sake.

This could have several dire consequences, even beyond the endless panel discussions it has already launched on "Is There a New Journalism," all of which are on Wolfe's head. It has also robbed us of one of our most resourceful literary performers in the middle of his act: rather as if Groucho were to come back at Mrs. Ritten-house with a lecture on comedy. That sort of thing should be postponed till dotage, at the very earliest.

Wolfe at his best seemed to be impenetrable. No criticism could pierce the white suit or provoke a straight answer. One assumed that the effect was calculated, but one couldn't quite be sure. That is the essence of eccentricity-as-art (see Tiny Tim). He is kidding, isn't he? The clown bats his lids, seems not to hear the question. Gooses you, one way or another….

To avoid any … aroma of the panel discussion (which Wolfe is now conducting with himself anyway in the December Esquire) let's allow that the boys he cites are doing something new in close-to-the skin reporting. But did anyone ever read Wolfe for that? It is actually a quaint feature of his gift that readers assume his reporting to be inaccurate, even when he swears it isn't.

He claims that he and his friends evoke a subject for you as it really is, and maybe that's what his friends do. But in his own case, this is like El Greco boasting about his photographic accuracy. We enjoy Wolfe (or not) precisely for the distortion….

Wolfe's prose is also a distorting mechanism. He maintains that he finds a language proper to each subject, a special sound to convey its uniqueness; but loyal readers may find that this language is surprisingly similar, whether dealing with stockcar racing or debutantes, and that it obliterates uniqueness and drags everything back to Wolfe's cave. This is what artists do, and it's strange that he refuses to recognize it. In his frenzied assault on the Novel, he allies himself with some quite talented but prosy journalists who don't do any of this, in order to beat up on a form much closer to his own.

Call it subconscious strategy, if you dabble in such superstitions; but his blindness on the point may serve an artistic purpose for himself. By muttering "Reporter, I'm a reporter" over and over, he reminds his nose to stay down near the details where it works best. But upon these truths he imposes his own consciousness, his own selection and rhetoric, and they become Wolfe-truths, and he is halfway over the border into the hated Novel. He ingenuously wonders why no novelist has ever used the reporting he did on the West Coast Beats in "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," but doesn't realize he has already used it himself. That book may well be the best literary work to come out of the Beat Movement, yet the material is quite inaccessible to anyone else. I pity the poor writer following Wolfe to the Coast hoping to find what he found. It is all in Wolfe's skull. The Beats probably weren't like that at all, as far as anyone else could see. In fact, rumor has it that all they wanted to do was splash his white suit. Like everybody.

So let's hear no more social realism out of Wolfe, that supreme fantastist. The Truman Capotes may hold up a tolerably clear glass to nature, but Wolfe holds up a fun-house mirror, and I for one don't give a hoot whether he calls the reflection fact or fiction.

Wilfrid Sheed, "A Fun-House Mirror," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 3, 1972, p. 2.