Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 15)
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, 9 and 147.)
Tom Wolfe is not a generous writer. He's gifted in almost heroic proportion, not only with the writer's ear for irresistible words (a common enough talent, in truth), but with independence of mind, an amiable manner which persuades people to tell him things, and a genius for effortless self-promotion. He's not just good at what he does; he's a figure as well, somebody in particular, a presence, unique. (p. 142)
His peculiar gift is for satire, but it is satire of an odd sort. He is not like Juvenal, angry and excoriating, animated by fierce passion. Far from it. His portraits are pitiless enough, but he seems to speak from a great distance, as if none of this mattered very greatly to him. Occasionally he speaks of himself as "the man in the white suit," amused and remote, a visitor at the carnival taking in the sideshows. His targets are ordinary humbug, inflated self-esteem, cant, childish preoccupation with style, confused and timid sensibilities. His world is a pampered place, filled with the rich, sometimes pugnacious follies of the over-protected. But Wolfe is not trying to reform us; the silliness amuses him, just as it would have amused him at the court of Louis XIV…. Unlike Juvenal, Wolfe does not long for a braver age. There is no Puritan or Republican fire in him. He is amused in the manner of a man convinced that human nature is immutable, and it is his strength to see that our age is as sunk in vanity and folly as all the...
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[A major share of The Right Stuff] is devoted to unraveling the mystique of the test pilot….
I lived at Edwards [Air Force Base] for four years and, improbable as some of Tom's tales seem, I know he's telling it like it was. He is the first gifted writer to explore the relationship between test pilots and astronauts—the obvious similarities and the subtle differences…. Edwards hotshots knew that the Mercury astronauts were just talking monkeys, sealed in their funny little cans and fired off onto some computerized trajectory, with damned little to do on board except blather about the view, so that the stupid newspapers could quote their stupid inanities—on the stupid front page, no less. It was too much.
From Edwards the Shrine we move on to the Cape and the Seven, and here Wolfe falters a bit. He's obviously done a lot of homework—too much in some cases—and he gets bogged down with details that he apparently feels compelled to blurt out, just because he knows them. Some of this stuff could only be interesting to Al Shepard's mother. While the first part of the book is a paean to guts, to the "right stuff," it is followed by a chronology—a damned good one, but one that might have profited from a little tighter editing. But it's still light-years ahead of the endless drivel Mailer has put out about the Apollo program, and in places the Wolfe genius really shines….
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There's nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker after so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn't have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn't have it….
[But] writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff … tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It's a scary combination.
The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it—it's his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book [The Right Stuff]—although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone's imagined perspective—even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees—but because Wolfe is everywhere, he is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, "I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject" style, sometimes using...
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Wolfe's major theme has always been the changes wrought in American style and sensibility by the post-World-War-II money boom; in the early 60's, technology, the youth culture, and go-go capitalism came together in the most baroque ways ever….
More than any other journalist, Wolfe has relied on a shared understanding with the reader. A typical strategy was to describe a person or phenomenon, then isolate a key element (what he calls a "status detail"), italicize it, and follow it with an exclamation point and ellipses. To wit: "She was wearing Gucci hip-huggers. Gucci hip-huggers! …" The assumption was that the reader knew what it meant to wear Gucci hip-huggers; in the status-detail-laden 60's, he usually did. Wolfe once said he tried to pretend he was composing a letter, because people directed their best writing to friends, "or someone you think understands you."
Now that the money has dried up somewhat, and the massed contradictions that made the 60's what they were have thinned out, Wolfe has had to search a little harder for subjects. He has turned, in particular, to what is known rather pejoratively in journalism circles as the "think piece."
These essays, many of them collected in Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine …, make for enjoyable and provocative reading; we have one to thank, everlastingly, for the phrase "The Me Decade." But Wolfe's style doesn't have the...
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Tom Wolfe has never applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction more carefully, more elaborately or more successfully than in The Right Stuff, his study of the American astronauts. Whether he is empathising with the fraught wife of a test-pilot, given reason to believe that her husband has just been killed, or chronicling the resentful emotions of war-heroes treated by scientists like laboratory specimens, Wolfe produces a compelling authenticity. Much of the narrative is exciting, and some of it is surprisingly moving. From his de-mythification of contemporary fashion, Wolfe has proceeded to what's among other things, a revealing study of contemporary myth-making. Publicity was integral to the space programme, and, simply by choosing the right stories to tell and then telling them simply, he shows how men shaped for different careers partly accepted and partly rejected the images that government officials thought suitable for them. (p. 29)
Ronald Hayman, "Tom Wolfe in Interview" (© copyright Ronald Hayman 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 2, November, 1979, pp. 29-31.
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The Right Stuff represents a departure for the satirist, whose observant eye and caustic pen have impaled on the page a wide range of American social phenomena….
[By] and large, Wolfe's reporting, while being marvelously entertaining writing, has also represented a telling and trust-worthy point of view. His is one of those finely critical intelligences that can detect the slightest pretention or falsification in an official posture or social pose. And, when he does, he goes after the hypocrisy—whether large or small, left or right—with all the zeal of the dedicated reformer.
In Wolfe's work, it is seldom the subjects' lives or deeds per se that have drawn Wolfe's attention, but rather the particular style they affect in going about their business. The writer has no war [in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers], for example, with the charitable impulse of the radical chic crowd towards the Black Panthers, nor finally, does he even object to the methods with which they carry out their charity. Instead, he simply moves up close, records the voices, clothing, hair styles, and settings of the encounters, and leaves the reader to decide what motivates the participants.
In some respects, The Right Stuff … is a continuation of the writer's technique. Again, he has looked closely and with disbelief at the official, popular version of early space heroes and their...
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Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is about the first American astronauts, and it is not a great example of 'New Journalism'. Like all Wolfe's writing, it is not a great example of anything. If Wolfe described Judgment Day, he would somehow make it sound like July the Fourth in the Hamptons.
The Right Stuff looks like Robert Redford in blue, and sounds like closing time on Cup Final night….
Shepherd, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Grissom, Schirra and Slayton had The Right Stuff, Wolfe tells us. Now, as a New Journalist, it's his job to get us inside that shining armour and give us a swig from the Grail. We don't get near it…. (p. 812)
Wolfe, the intellectual from Yale, the observer of air-conditioned abstracts in centrally-heated penthouses, has no entrée into the hearts and minds, motives and memories, of these farmers' sons from the styx….
I did manage to understand the humiliation of professional pilots whose performance in a space capsule—bound hand and foot, stripped of all initiative—was inferior, if anything, to that of the heroic apes who first hurtled through the heavens, expecting no reward but a banana-flavoured pellet and a pat on the head…. I was impressed by the grotesque ceremonial barbecue held in the Houston Coliseum—the scene is allowed to speak for itself, without italics, exclamation points, 'Pow! Wham! Bam!' balloons. Apart from the information...
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Postures of glory came naturally to the first seven men to be chosen from the combative and competitive brotherhood of military test pilots, men constantly struggling to keep their places or climb the pyramid of achievement (Wolfe calls it a ziggurat but no matter), to display the proper qualities of classy and conspicuous bravery—the "right stuff" of the title.
In his opening chapter—the best thing in [The Right Stuff]—Wolfe describes with passion and an appalling vividness what it is like to live with the accident statistics: the pressure of a by no means atypical run of bad luck, in which comrade after comrade is macerated, incinerated, crunched. But the pilots' fears are of failure, not death: "anything—even the great Kaboom!—was better than hearing bingo over your earphones". They are all those un-British things like raunchy and feisty and gung-ho: on the ground, the right kind of sleaziness and liquor and cars and chicks constitute Fighter Jock Heaven. The irony is that, picked for the top-status job of all, they find fame, fortune and fun all right, but precious little flying…. How the astronauts reasserted, against all the pressures, their fly-boy values, is one of Wolfe's themes….
Wolfe's other main theme is the contrast between the patchy but glorified performance of the spacemen and the steady and controlled progress of the piloted and manoeuvrable rocket planes of the X-series:...
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Over the years Tom Wolfe has set his original mind to caustic descriptions of people who have done much to nurse along American self-denigration…. In the process he has produced some of the most brilliant social criticism to see print, and allied himself with the defenders of this country….
Wolfe's formidable literary virtues are at work in [The Right Stuff], providing every bit of the graceful language that is always his strong suit, and, better, rendering a portrait of true old-fashioned American heroism. (p. 85)
Reviewers of [The Right Stuff] while offering its author indisputably well-deserved praise, have consistently—and with good reason—neglected to come to terms with its real point. And that is that far from being a celebration of the astronauts, The Right Stuff is as denigrating a portrait of them as may ever have been rendered. Wolfe would have us believe that the honor that was lavished on the astronauts, both before and after the fact, was undeserved. The right stuff, a most desirable and enviable quality, was possessed by the test pilots, not by the astronauts…. [His] deliberate contrasting of astronaut to test pilot marks the book from beginning to end. Astronaut does not benefit from the contrast.
Nor is the invidious comparison restricted to the narration of events. In characterization, too, Wolfe chooses one side over the other…. The astronauts,… if...
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