Tom Wolfe Essay - Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 9)

Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 9)

Wolfe, Tom 1931–

Wolfe, an American journalist and essayist, is a proponent of New Journalism. With wit and an eye for detail he describes the outward trappings which reveal the inner meaning behind the furniture, fashion, and attitudes of his subjects, who have ranged from Hell's Angels to Leonard Bernstein. (See also, Tom Wolfe Criticism and volumes 2, 15 and 147.)

In Wolfe's works, including his present claims to a new kind of writing, the mechanisms of a middlebrow mass culture are transparent. In Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his book about Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the California LSD scene, Wolfe writes: "I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to recreate the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don't think their adventure can be understood without that." Unquestionably a clever mimic, a shrewd observer, and sometimes pretty funny, Wolfe performs neat jobs of ventriloquism with his "downstage" voices. The gimmick is that all the words are authentic, taken from observation, correspondence, interviews, publications. They are ingeniously reassembled and appear as if they are the spontaneous generation of the narrated action itself. This way Wolfe seems to merge with his subjects, to be speaking their thoughts, feelings, words. Wolfe is at pains to authenticate his sources, but the claim matters little except as a device to keep the reader from noticing that the true facts of the genesis of the work—the interviews, research, listening to tapes, even being on the scene—are kept hidden. Unlike Terry Southern and Hunter Thompson, Wolfe does not dramatize his own participation. He is almost not there. This means that along with the actual apparatus of journalism, anything like a substantive perspective is impossible to locate. The corrugated verbal surface, the hyped-up prose, its tachycardiac speed, its fevered illusion of thinking and feeling, all disguise the reporter. That is why the direct quotations from a letter by a woman recounting her first experience with LSD comes with such relief: at last, a real voice. The rest is illusion of a group subjectivity, only and sheerly verbal, never complete, never completing itself in the reader's imagination, except as display, as spectacle.

What Wolfe gains by his pyrotechnics is an easy experience for the reader: just lean back and let it happen to you. But it is a deceit: by disguising itself and its procedures, by mystifying the presence of the author as a merely neutral recorder when he is in fact the only active producer of the product, Wolfe's work is a revealing instance of mass culture. The appearance of spontaneity is the product of the most arch manipulation and manufacture. By pretending to render the world always as someone's experience, from the inside, Wolfe may seem to be revitalizing the craft of journalism and preventing the loss of experience that comes with hardened journalistic formulae. But just the opposite results. He converts experience into spectacle, fixes it, reifies it as a reader's vicarious experience. He cheats us with illusions of deeper penetrations into segregated realities but the illusion is a calculated product that disguises what it is we are actually reading.

Wolfe's genre is a cool flaneur's version of the comic journalism practiced by Mark Twain and his brethren. He dons the guise of the Low Rent rebel, speaking on behalf of those who have been deprived of their status by the literary, intellectual, and political elite. His devices include a bogus erudition and intellectuality, an OED vocabulary of technical terms, outrageous but "learned" neologisms, and catalogue after catalogue of the names and things that fill the days and hours of American popular life, all presented without punctuation, as a kind of synchronistic pop mandala. He panders to both a hatred and an envy of intellectuals. His lumpenprole revolution is no more than a botched theft of what he thinks is the prize jewel of the intellectuals, the label of "art." Far from revolutionary it is a conformist writing, whose message at a low frequency is that you have never had it so good. Wolfe cannot see beyond the "chic" in middle-class radicalism, nor beyond the gamesmanship in confrontation (made into slick theater in "Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers"). Hardly a vision to disturb the sleep of the proprietors and managers. In many ways it is also their vision. Wolfe's revolution changes nothing, inverts nothing, in fact is after nothing but status. It is full of half-baked versions of ideas in currency. The best that might be said for it is that it is a put-on. But I doubt it. I think he is dead serious. (pp. 300-02)

Alan Trachtenberg, "What's New?" in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2, pp. 296-302.

In the Sixties, Tom Wolfe was fun because he could tag as stylish (and mimic) behavior everyone else assumed was merely weird. But now, in the Seventies, when we have no style but think we're flush, when we're no longer Merry Pranksters or Flak Catchers but just a bunch of folks full of attitudes—now even the zingiest journalist has got a problem. Attitudes give birth to attitudes, which sour as fast as milk, and the sharpshooter either turns curmudgeon (like Malcolm Muggeridge) or fancies himself a satirist.

Muggeridge at least has a faith, a place to withdraw back into. Wolfe, with his popcorn style and tailor's fussiness, has only the world, and it's one he doesn't much care for anymore. We're in the "Me Decade," this collection of essays [Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine] flappingly asserts; we brim over with silly selfishness and deplorable postures. Wolfe interestingly opposes this idea with a piece on the chivalric gesture and class found in the behavior of F-4 fighter-bombers "jousting" over Vietnam: to hang on the precipice of your mortal soul in a flying hunk of metal is better than crossing Dr. Freud's perilous gulch (the former presumably hasn't too much "me" about it—or much "you" either). The distinction is piquant, I'd say. In his last book and now this one, Wolfe seems to be going after tinsel with an ax. Two or three of the pieces here are still fun, one is fine, but the whole is increasingly no-account and over-fried. (pp. 39-40)

Ross Feld, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), January 22, 1977.

[Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, a] new collection of essays, journalism and fictional sketches (with a title John Berryman would have loved) reveals a different Tom Wolfe. He does not content himself here, as he once did, with mad torrents of words that could be enchanting, but often were gratuitous and cavalier. The old Wolfe was daring and sometimes felicitous in describing a kaleidoscopic world. Jazzy, syncopated rhythms enlivened his dayglo syntactic bravuras, making the age shimmer and tremble. Yet his prose was too much like the tumultuous gush of the acid movement he was chronicling—a theater of the '60s drug scene enacted in all its exuberance and apotheoses, crammed with "screeling screamers, megascope, fooling pooling…."

Mauve Gloves, by contrast, brings to mind one of those ancient Chinese tapestries that at first seems merely a huge multicolored blotch. Upon closer inspection you notice trees, animals, people, then the intricate jewelry the men are wearing, and finally the intimations of immortality in the crevices of their skin. So, too, initially Wolfe's present sensibility appears to identify with the fashions of contemporary life. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that he is mocking, not praising, in this deceptive maze of social analysis, sardonic humor and poignant ironies. (p. 21)

[Most] of the time the new Tom Wolfe tries to keep his distance. Writing with all the vitality of the old, he makes every effort to be, at the same time, cool, firm and dignified. This, added to Wolfe's wit and a lyrical quality that every now and then breaks through, makes Mauve Gloves an invigorating experience. (p. 22)

Nereo Condini, "The Mature Wolfe," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 31, 1977, pp. 21-2.