Is Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine by Tom Wolfe in any sense a self-portrait?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What does "self-portrait" mean? In writing, it is a synonymous term for autobiography. Self-portrait is described by Crozier and Greenhalgh ("Self-Portraits as Presentations of Self") as representations of self-awareness, self-presentation and the "social construction" of self-hood. Autobiography is classically described as a narrative in chronological time that tracks physical and mental development in context of culture. In reference to both these definitions, the answer to your question must be, no, Mauve Gloves is in no sense a self-portrait.

There is, however, a sense in which elements of Wolfe's own life are reflected in or forming the background of some chapters within Mauve Gloves, all but one of which ("The Commercial--A Short Story") are essays written in the style of New Journalism: New Journalism: factual reporting that incorporates the emotions, the dialogues, the scenes and settings, the psychological realities of persons and events reported upon; the facts are all there but so are the personal and cultural dynamics.

In brief, Tom Wolfe had a calm upbringing by two successful parents and a successful academic career. While an undergraduate, Wolfe played semi-professional baseball in the Minor League and got a three day try-out with the New York Giants in the Major League. After this, he pursued graduate school, taking his doctoral degree from Yale in American Studies; his doctoral thesis was The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942.

Some of these biographical elements are reflected in Mauve Gloves. For instance, the short story is about a baseball player who has made it big and gets signed to do a men's cologne commercial. Told from two points of view, the story hits its personal and cultural conflict when the athlete reveals he cannot read the dialogue as written because it denigrates African Americans' intellect, though the laugh at the end is suppose to dissolve the image of the stereotype and restore the baseball player as an educated man. It is easy to see that while this is in no way autobiographical, Wolfe drew upon his own personal experiences and insights as a basball player to write the story. It is also easy to see that his field of academic specialty, American Studies, is the underpinning factor in the selection of the cultural conflict.

In a similar vein, the title essay, "Mauve Gloves," which, it turns out is the name of a catering company, might be seen as being built upon autobiographical elements since it is an essay about an unnamed writer who is all at one time awed, inspired and stifled by his own success and whose newest project is a work on American society (a la Wolfe's thesis) called: Recession and Repression: Police State America and the Spirit of '76.

However, one piece shouldn't be overlooked. "The Intelligent Coeds" gives Wolfe's impression of the general state of American academics and his own personal experiences with academics and academic tours. For example, he discusses one academic seminar in which a courageous student asks at what age does the realization of the doom and gloom being preached finally impress itself on a person since, at present, these realities seem invisible. In another instance, Wolfe discusses his participation is a panel discussion at Prinveton where he himself contradicts the panel consensus of present doom and gloom:

Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: "My God, what are you talking about? We're in the middle of a ... Happiness Explosion!" That merely sounded idiotic. The kid in the balcony did the crying baby [sound again].

Thus while Mauve Gloves is not in the strict sense of the definition autobiographical, it does contain autobiographical elements that are either foundation for something else or that recount isolated events. Yet, since these do not track Wolfe's development through chronological time, they can't be defined as a self-portrait or autobiographical.