The Purple Decades
Is Tom Wolfe becoming respectable? His most recent collection, The Purple Decades, suggests that such a process might be taking place. This is a retrospective reader, with the selections chosen by Wolfe himself. All the material in the volume is recycled from his previous books. For the seasoned Wolfe fan, it is a trip down memory lane; for the newcomer, it is an excellent introduction to Wolfe’s writing, the kind of volume that sends one in search of the books from which it was assembled. Many of the familiar Wolfe “characters” are here—Bob and Spike Scull, Junior Johnson, Baby Jane Holzer, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Leonard Bernstein, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, and anonymous favorites such as the California freshman English teacher with “big Honest Calves” who reads aloud to her class from Soul on Ice, (1968), and the secretary in the “EST” seminar who groans into the microphone about her hemorrhoids.
The introduction to The Purple Decades, contributed by Joe David Bellamy, gives one reason to meditate. The ten-page piece is academic in tone and compares Wolfe to Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, and James Joyce. Bellamy even footnotes in the best MLA Handbook style. Is this a portent? Will next December’s annual meeting bring one of those grim sessions at the Modern Language Association in which Wolfe’s writings are examined by a panel of specialists?
If Wolfe begins to attract serious academic attention, he will in some ways have traveled full circle. A collection such as The Purple Decades provides a good opportunity for reviewing his career and examining his background. Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., was born into an academic family on March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia. His father, an agronomist, once served as a department head at Virginia Polytechnic Institute; later, he edited the Southern Planter. Wolfe was reared in upper-class Richmond. His mother recalls that as a boy he did not care for juvenile fiction and insisted that she read to him only from “true” books. He showed an early interest in writing and drawing and, as a boy in the late 1930’s, took art classes at a school run by the W. P. A. (Works Progress Administration).
Wolfe attended St. Christopher’s, a private Episcopalian boys school in Richmond, where he was active in athletics and coedited the school newspaper. He was graduated from St. Christopher’s in 1947 and went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He continued to work on school publications; he was sports editor of the college newspaper and became one of the founders of Shenandoah, Washington and Lee’s literary magazine. Wolfe also kept up his interest in athletics and starred as a baseball pitcher. He had an impressive array of junk pitches, including, as he recalls it, “a great screwball.” He was good enough to pitch two seasons of semiprofessional ball but failed his tryout with the New York Giants because he did not have a big-league fastball.
After earning an A.B. degree from Washington and Lee in 1951, Wolfe enrolled in the American Studies program at Yale University. His fellow graduate students remember him as a quiet observer whose usual approach to his papers and seminar presentations, even that early, was to examine the social context within which a...
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