Tom Wolfe Essay - Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 1)

Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 1)

Wolfe, Tom 1931–

American author of Pop-Mod essays, such as those found in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. (See also, Tom Wolfe Criticism and volumes 9, 15 and 147.)

Hard as it is to take Tom Wolfe seriously, whether as stylist or swami of culture, his version of America in the sixties is worth some thought. He himself is a phenomenon of the decade, a journalist whose talents would in any earlier time have been flattened out and institutionalized by the copy editors of Time or the New Yorker or some lesser slickness; Esquire and the Herald Tribune in fact brought him to light in their scurryings after new formats and tones, and his mannerism did seem to be what the age demanded. For what must have seemed to him an enchanted few years everyone read and talked about his portraits of freakishness in pop society, the teen-age underworld, the T-shirt cultures of the backlands. Since then the fun of his articles has worn a little thin, but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his recent book on the Ken Kesey circle, is a successful new departure in many ways….

I blame Wolfe not for thinking public concerns trivial or fraudulent—that is sometimes salutary and necessary—but for insinuating that the reader in the suburbs or wherever is somehow supported in his essential indifference to social justice by the very different indifference of the teen-agers and proles and the deracinated impressarios who manipulate and use them. Not that Wolfe's devices aren't cunning. He's interested in power, not as a political possession but as a personal one; his heroes are usually men of impressive physical or psychic force, strong men who have mastered difficult skills or powerful machines like motorcycles or souped-up cars and whose personal style claims an indifference to fear or the complex social delicacies….

Wolfe does I think play with a tragic shape in Kesey's career, his growing authoritarian demands, hubris leading to paranoia, the breakdown or death of some of the Pranksters, and we are I suppose free to attribute the pattern to the stuff they were taking, but if the relations between Kesey and his people were affected and in some ways damaged by drugs, they remain recognizable versions of personal relations in a community that seems to have been no more unstable than most straight groups….

And that, I think, is Wolfe's best and trickiest point about America now. The freakiest behavior, the scariest challenge to the Herald Tribune world, is only a new permutation of that world, another way of using its materials. Read one way, this is a valuable idea, since it helps explain one's mixed feelings about the Youth Scene, the New People. It's exciting to see old things put to new purposes, it's about time they were, and yet one wishes the purposes were even newer, the materials a little less junky and apt to break. Those dying generations do die, literally, like some of the Pranksters, or just figuratively, drifting back disheveled from the Territory to serve out their time in the old settlements. Read another way, however, Wolfe's point gives aid and comfort to the oldsters it mocks. For all his insistence on the Newness of what he sees, he leaves us free to think it isn't really that new, not quite so scarey [sic] as it seems. Wolfe remarks that there was some of the air of an Old Style college weekend, or a summer camp, about the Pranksters and their doings, and we can thus reflect that the alcohol scene of our youth (whenever that was) was pretty wild and silly and violent and self-destructive and pathetic too, though of course we dressed a little neater and had to work harder for sex. Whether or not he believes it—who can say?—Wolfe caters to this hopeful idea, and I'm afraid too many good people secretly entertain it. We won't learn much from the Pranksters, or any of Wolfe's lesser creatures, if we think they're only differently costumed versions of the kids down at the old Tappa Keg House; and if that is really all they are, it's a great pity.

Thomas R. Edwards, "The Electric Indian," in Partisan Review, No. 3, 1969, pp. 535-44.