Sheri F. Crawford (essay date Summer 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9053

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe: Outlaw Gentleman,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 39–50.

[In the following essay, Crawford analyzes how Wolfe's protagonists often exhibit the characteristics of an “outlaw gentleman,” a rogue who clothes himself in respectability.]

Dedicated to
“all sorts of outlaws, and outcasts, by necessity or choice.”
(from The Pump House Gang, p. 3)
and to all incendiary poets:
“I am absolutely convinced that all poets, real poets, are rebels. I don't demand that all poets write political poetry, political declarations. Any kind of honesty is rebellion.”
—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Dangerious Dossiers, p. 239

The quintessential hero in Tom Wolfe's writings is the outlaw disguised as gentleman. In search of the heroic, he celebrates the lone adventurer—whether it's the last frontier in bootlegging, space, or the electronics industry. Each investigation has always led him into murky waters. He has pursued the Holy Grail of Truth while others have chased the pot of gold. As each turn occurred in his “holy calling,” he has remained undaunted in his definition of the true American hero. Early in his career, Wolfe selected assignments of seemingly mundane subject matter only to transform them into multi-faceted jewels through which we can glimpse human endeavor. His perceptions have antagonized, but that's what the unvarnished truth must do. This literary outlaw has perfected his examination through a conscientious attempt at being a gentleman. His portraits of Americans also exhibit the oxymoron: outlaw gentleman. His faithful yet “surrealistic” observations strike the reader with brutally honest details and particulars that point to a universal truth. The concentrated attention paid to the accessories, footnotes (literal and figurative), and the seemingly insignificant or inconsequential clues contribute to the best detective work done on American culture. To Wolfe, the tiniest grain is a world to be scrutinized in its reflection of the beach. His insights remind me of the camera obscura which revealed through the tiniest hole the most incredible panorama. It is this telescoping of human behavior that accurately records the choices made for good or for bad. The outlaw gentleman is that phenomenal American Hero who holds the key to our understanding of human potential.

Each of the selected outlaw gentlemen and ladies will be examined as to their social anomie or lawlessness. The autonomous individual is the keystone to Wolfe's construction of the American culture as he sees it. His earliest writing, a Ph.D. dissertation at Yale, was a sociological analysis of the League of American Writers. Apparently the Communist party transformed it into a monolithic bureaucracy until the outlaws awakened the world to the unquestioning, undivided loyalty and blind obedience to the organization. The dissenting voices sparked investigations which unfortunately led to the paranoid McCarthy era. Following the discussion of the League of American Writers, there will be a cursory comparison of those individuals who appeared in his writings from the mid-60s to the present. There are the men and women who put their hide on the line for their families, their nation, and the world. Finally, my examination will culminate with the quintessential outlaw gentleman, Tom Wolfe himself.

All the individuals discussed in this paper lived beyond the accepted orthodox laws of nature or the principles inherent in the society's fabric. Wolfe's heroes are unorthodox, heretical, answer to themselves, and are responsible to themselves. It is not the Cellini egotism, but the self-reliant Emerson or the defiant Paine who provide this love of Truth. There's no hubris here. Americans have come to know the arrogance of a John Wayne or Stallone movie character as heroic. These celluloid figures are...

(This entire section contains 9053 words.)

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not the epitome of heroism. Heroism requires more than guts. Wolfe might be enamored with an early historical prototype, such as the notorious outlaw “gentleman” Thomas Morton, who in defiance of Governor Bradford, sold guns and traded with the Indians. He was, as a result, imprisoned. [Wolfe's Ph.D. courses in American Studies would have covered the first American “Bust” at Merrymount. (For more information, see Robert Bannister'sAmerican Values in Transition by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.)] Morton's anarchism may be a great American tradition which has come down to us in the pernicious version of Oliver North.

Wolfe has been doing some gun-running for quite some time, too. His fascination for the off-beat story and his own stylistically quirky, idiomatic phrasing and vitriolic writings have placed him in that elite cadre who parade with credential, breeding, and experience in order to sneak into the holy of holies where he unveils the mysteries and hypocrisies of the aristocrats, bourgeoisie, and middle class. Many of his selected individuals cheerfully offer themselves for target practice only to discover that Wolfe is a marksman who aims and only hits the bull's eye. He uses a ritualistic method to secure himself access, and upon completing the Boho dance, he has only to thank them and collect the pay-off: fame, money, and perhaps the beautiful blondes. How does he do it? A Magister Ludi—the high priest of the Boho dance, he has survived by always being a gentleman despite protests, criticisms, and ostracism. In fact, one critic described him as radical in chic's clothing. What subterfuge!

It is no wonder that his very own unorthodox approaches are reflected in those outlaw gentlemen he admires. He demands high standards of himself, and he expects others to perform at his level if they intend to join with him as a member of this heroic tradition. It may entail taking the unpopular, unattractive, and unrewarding path, but in the end, there is promise of personal satisfaction which cannot come with having accomplished the job according to someone else's rules. While many of Wolfe's colleagues were writing by-the-book and kow-towing, he and the so-called “New Journalists” invented, or rather, stumbled upon a new genre.1 The literary Outlaw Gentleman was born out of this reportage school and the social realism of Johnson, Dickens, Zola, and Dos Passos.

Wolfe has emerged as the heroic “Man of Letters” in spite of his protests. Ironically, he developed a disdain for this appellation just as Dr. Johnson did. According to Carlyle, the literary man's role was a dissenter and opponent of entrenched power. While Wolfe appears to have criticized the “Man of Letters” label, his stylistic independence is indebted to that archaic term. His writings have been more than just commentaries upon the manners and morals of our society, but they assess those values held by risk-takers who made our civilization dynamic. As an outlaw critic himself, he achieved status and notoriety among peers and within the context of even larger circles such as his community, the nation, and the world.

Wolfe is the single-combat warrior-scholar on the new literary frontier. He has gone further, jumped higher, and run faster than anybody. His tenacity and good luck have worked together for his successful “calling” as outlaw. He has been one of the few who “pushed the envelope” and exceeded even his own imagination. Faithful to the outlaw gentleman, his heroic characters may become legendary along with Wolfe, who is certain to be immortalized by a twentieth-century Boswell.


Olympians are remembered. “Everyone knew the name of the individual who ranked foremost in the Olympus, the ace of all aces, as it were, among the brothers of the right stuff.”2 Certainly the Homeric Odysseus is one of the earliest examples of an outlaw gentleman. Odysseus was a “man of many devices and disguises.” He used every available tool to beat the odds. His cleverness and ingenuity were admirable. He risked it all to save his men. He killed the Cyclops, and yet he demonstrated the Olympian self-control, manner, and virtues of a gentleman. His achievements were due not only to innate capabilities, but to tenacity and self-reliance. He was one of the first single-combat warriors. Although it did take him ten years to return “home,” his heroism was acknowledged.

Other Trojan War heroes could be analyzed, but he is the only one who exhibits choice. His choice is self-conscious. He is not driven by his thumos. [Thumos: Emotional soul, from Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Chapter 3, “The Mind of Iliad.”] His courage is not provoked by the gods’ will as it is in the Iliad. He has a job to do. He is not “up against the wall” as Achilles, Agamemnon, and the others are. Rather, he is the outlaw gentleman who makes the personal sacrifice because he is truly free and desires it.

In the Republic, warriors are gentlemen. The ennobled warrior-gentlemen exhibit the high-spirited principle in the soul.3 In the Phaedrus 237e and the Cratylus 397e, the outlaw gentleman listens and obeys his daimonion as an inner guide, so that he can make judgements that aim at “what is best” (arete). According to Stone, arete (excellence) may be connected with the Greek god of War, Ares.4 Arete and virtue both have connotations of machismo and manliness. What better prerequisite for heroism than these qualities. In fact, Socrates also defined the good man or the golden race of men within these terms. In Cratylus 398 d and e, heroes are born of love (eros). This is the essence of the philosopher. As Socrates states in the Phaedo, “to philosophize is to die—to die daily.” So the hero must pursue or love wisdom but never claim to possess it as the Sophists did. Socrates lived up to this heroism; he stood outside the laws and answered to a higher law. He was considered an anarchist whose impeccable charm and manners attracted the greatest minds of the age. He was the ideal warrior-scholar. His political life may have been inconsequential. However, he apparently did fulfill two obligatory political responsibilities, but acted “outside the law.”5 While holding up a mirror to the Athenians, he exposed their avaricious and corrupt politicians and the Sophists, who carried out those laws that benefited their patrons. This outlaw gentleman, Socrates, was selfless and placed truth higher than any man-made law. One does what one must according to a higher unwritten law, but if it is viewed as illegal, one must pay the consequences. He did just that. (Of course, let it be known that this writer does not feel that Socrates broke any of Athen's laws at any time.)

There are probably few Socratic heroes who are political prisoners, but there are some who do challenge injustices and the exercise of personal freedom. Wolfe's characters parade upon what is left of the (ruined) landscape of the American dream. Sometimes we are moved and occasionally dazzled by outrageous stunts and heroic acts. His outlaws emulate the persona of the Homeric and Athenian heroes. According to Veblen, one of Wolfe's favorite sociologists, it is the high-bred gentleman and the rowdy that normally resort to blows.6 They are often caught competing in the same activity. Their attributes are prowess, bellicose chivalry, gambling propensity, barbarian temperament, truculence, and conspicuous consumption.7 Their behavior can be mildly mischievous or downright ludicrous. They can be classified as a prankster of the highest order. They prance, dance, caper, and strut to the beat of their own drumming. [Wolfe mentions Ken Kesey's early pranks on Perry Lane, Stanford University's Bohemian quarters. Coincidentally Veblen lived on Perry Lane, and evidently, Veblen's outlaw behavior got him into trouble as well! (See Stuart Chase's description of Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, p. 30.)]

Wolfe is willing “to rummage in vain … for the figure of great prestige who, in the Thoreau manner, marches to a different drummer—the solitary genius whose work can only be described as “sui generis.”8 This search does eventually lead him to that flamboyant superhuman intelligence, Frank Lloyd Wright. But before we tackle the outlaw gentleman Wright, we must take a look at the legendary fighter pilots who performed all the outlawed “hotdog stunts, outside loops, buzzing, flat-hatting, hedge-hopping, and flying under bridges.” All of the aforementioned and “dog fighting” could lead to a court-martial offense if the aircraft were destroyed.9 To qualify for the outlaw status, one had to create the “legend” and be “elected.” Elegare refers to choice and elegere to legend (from the Greek logos: word or law). To achieve legendary status, one was born out of the law (or word) and was chosen for the unrestricted love of freedom. The outlaw was born of love—the erotic and rebellious kind.

This special status carries with it special privileges and responsibilities. Since the outlaw does not sing the same tune as the other birds in the forest, he must be a percussive bird, the striking red-headed woodpecker. In Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, Spengler's organic theory has been updated. Why do civilizations rise and fall? Why do some individuals maintain dynamic energy, defying all preconceived notions of human potential? It is due to the woodpecker's role in society and history. He is not obsequious; he does not conform. He strikes his rythmic patterns on decayed trees; he warns the civilization that there is disease. “Humanity has advanced … not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious and immature.”10 The notorious woodpecker is the outlaw in a forest of obedient happy singers. His supreme responsibility is seeking out the truth about humanity's health. “Humanity, in its closest hour to the truth, ops for the lie.”11 So the woodpecker is dedicated to dropping the dynamite (truth) on those who ask no questions or lie to themselves.

In the Essential Insanities Department at Outlaw College, Robbins states the difference between the outlaw and everybody else:

Inessential insanities get one in trouble with oneself. Essential insanities get one in trouble with others. Essential insanities are those impulses one instinctively senses are virtuous and correct, even though peers may regard them as coo coo.12

It is not easy being an outlaw. Today the moral distinctions may appear blurred. For Plato, it is simple: To know the good is to do the good. But what or who knows what is ultimately good or right? The answer is Love. According to Robbins, it knows no laws; all one can do is aid and abet it. The woodpecker chooses to do what is necessary and right with heroic daring. His love of freedom is only matched by the love of choice:

The word that puts the free in freedom and takes the obligation out of love. The word upon which all adventure, all exhiliration, all meaning, all honor depends. The word the cocoon whispers to the caterpillar. The word that no mirror can turn around. In the beginning was the word, and the word was CHOICE.13


“Peckerwood” is an appellation affectionately thrown around by the “right stuff” characters. This is a respect for the outlaw behavior in the fighter pilots. The phrases “miserable peckerwood”14 and “augered in”15 are references to those who perform outlaw stunts. A woodpecker's exclusive membership is guaranteed in this fraternity. Ah, the freedom of the maverick bird! He is the true anarchist among his colleagues. This elevated status can, however, produce hubris.16 If the outlaw's swollen ego inflates, he may trip over it. If one's character is one's fate, as the Greeks believed, then a character flaw such as the hubris could diminish brilliance and destroy potential. The hero's nemesis is the inflated status beyond the hierarchy. The outlaw must learn to control his ego.

Perhaps the astronauts demonstrated this hubris more than other Wolfe outlaw gentlemen. In July 1989, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the lunar landing. According to Wolfe, the media projected only the aura of the heroic seven who prepared for the voyage. James Reston and the press glossed over the astronauts’ inadequacies and promoted “duty, faith, and country” as the theme for these risk-takers. It is interesting that six out of seven astronauts saw no combat nor were they true test-pilots. They may have gone to college (scholastic validation), but warriors they were not. On the other hand, Yeager was passed over because he only lacked the academic degree. The outlaw gentlemen is an amalgam of scholar and warrior. So who possessed the right stuff?

If anyone possessed the right stuff, it is Baldassare Castiglione. One of Wolfe's favorite historical figures was Samuel Johnson, whose inspiration came from Castiglione. He recommended the Courtier as “the best book that ever was written on good breeding.”17The Book of the Courtier insists that public recognition, fame, and glory are the true and only prizes for human accomplishments. The courtier must not be ostentatious or enter into self-praise or affection. All must be accomplished with that untranslatable word sprezzatura: effortless or graceful mastery. With nonchalance, but decorum, he must accomplish the heroic feats. Castiglione's gentleman possesses more than just manners; he has the desire to admit and to correct faults or defects in himself. Wolfe's outlaw gentleman, Ken Kesey, admits, “We blew it.”18 He realized it when it went wrong, but when a Mercury astronaut “screwed the pooch” and blew it, there was no admission of error. NASA wouldn't accept blame either. “It was a malfunction.”19 NASA engineers had official immunity for most of the screw-ups. They were not responsible. Yet, the courtier must be responsible and prepared to kill and be killed; he must exhibit the heroic spirit of Hercules.20

Were these astronauts heroes? Were they true outlaw gentlemen? Probably not. Thomas Carlyle, an early 19th century poet (a Wolfe favorite), might have answered the question with this: “Pride, vanity, ill-conditioned egoism are bred in [the hero's] heart … it need[s] to be cast out of his heart.”21 In six lectures on heroes, hero worship, and the heroic in history, this Scot examined the need for heroes. [In Brecht's Galileo, Andrea Sarti says, “It is an unhappy country that has no heroes.” Galileo's reply: “It is an unhappy country that needs heroes.” (George Roche's A World Without Heroes, p. 1.)] In his fifth lecture, he analyzed Bobby Burns, Dr. Johnson and Bozzy, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He accounts for the lack of heroes by stating that it is difficult to find any in a skeptical era.22 He distinguishes between the bringers of the light and the seekers of it.23 He concludes that in a mechanical (read industrial) era, there can be no hero or believer. It's impossible. He points out that there are no eyeless heroes (blinded Samsons) to bring down the Philistine Mill. (And, for that matter, I feel there are no eyeless Oedipus heroes who are capable of seeing their errors.) By the end of the 19th century, Max Weber believed the lack of heroism and heroes could be blamed upon the rising bourgeoisie classes which have seldom before and never since displayed heroism.24

His ethnocentric view states that emancipation from Catholic tradition and control produced high-achieving Protestants who took far more and greater risks. “The Catholic is quieter; he prefers a life of the greatest security to a life of risk and excitement, even though it may bring the chance of gaining honor and riches.”25 Weber admits this may be an incomplete characterization; there may be exceptions. For example, he sees the French Calvinists the way he sees Northern German Catholics. His stereotypes may be offensive to us today, but they were, nevertheless, his observations at the time. So why are the outlaws Protestants and Jews? Weber answers that, in Catholicism, the heretic was always punished.26 Deviation, nonconformity, or any outlaw behavior belonged to the Jews or Protestants. Carlyle's choice outlaw was Moses—“an outlaw tending his … herds.”27 Other Hebraic leaders, Esau and Jacob, are also mentioned by Weber, and Wolfe refers to Ken Kesey as Esau, the one who sold his birthright.28 Are we to speculate that Jacob (Timothy Leary) was the heir apparent?

Now that the historical origin of the outlaw has been traced back to at least the second millennium B.C.E., it is appropriate that we begin at the chronological origin of all Tom Wolfe's selected outlaws. In his Ph.D. dissertation of 1956, he presented a sociological analysis of the League of American Writers (LAW). His research took him to the Bureau of Census, government bulletins, court records, and the secretarial archives of literary associations and organizations.

The premise of his thesis rests upon the belief that Communism had infiltrated the literary community (LAW et al) and taken advantage of the social anomie of the craft. It was through cocktail parties that it could politically manipulate and exploit authors and dramatists for the Bolshevik cause. The precursor to the LAW was the John Reed Club which had promoted ideological conformity within their ranks.29 The Communist Party had encouraged literary cliques that hampered any individualism so that behavioral conformity was rewarded and personal deviation was not tolerated.30

As a result, the LAW released a number of public resolutions passed at its monthly meetings. For example, the Hearst empire was condemned. Many bourgeois Soviet and American individuals were denounced: Shostakovich, James T. Farrell, and Trotsky.31 At the Association of Western Writers (1937), the organizations opening exhortation was “Writers of the World, Unite,” The propaganda was very clear: “A writer was doomed not only to loneliness but to actual deterioration of his artistic faculties” if he broke away from the organic link of writers.32

The LAW began to take punitive action against various writers and started to support political causes that elevated or promoted its members. Manifestoes were issued (mostly in New Masses), and the writers who hoped to make a living adhered closely to the sanctioned goals. They had succumbed to and had become totally immersed in Party objectives,33 even though the vast majority were not even official Communist Party members! They had rallied behind political, social, and moral causes that increased their visibility as an organization. Using Machiavellian methods of physical and verbal abuse and ostracism—the ultimate punishment, the LAW succeeded in rewarding the soldier literatus for his undivided loyalty for at least a decade.34 Everyone knew it was professionally useful to belong to the organization if you wanted to acquire the bourgeois lifestyle that it publicly condemned.

As soon as the LAW achieved the prestigious, secure, omnipotent status, the outlaws registered their dissatisfaction and seceded. Archibald MacLeish became Librarian of Congress and issued a denunciation of the writers. He was called a Judas Iscariot.35 Gertrude Atherton left to protest the LAW's survey and its position on the pro-Loyalists in the Spanish-American War.36 Without these prominent figures and their defiance of the mindlessness of the literati, it might be argued that American writers were not just the tools of the Communist Party, but slaves to the status quo as well.

In Wolfe's dissertation, he relies on the lexicon from Whyte's Organization Man [McLuhan says Mr. Whyte saw how the oral revolution had replaced a book culture. He notes that the executive is (in 1956) a product of the print technology or the “Protestant Ethic” as Max Weber and Mr. Whyte have called it.]37 and Selznick's Organizational Weapons to define the social issues and conflicts as confronted by the alienated massman. In all of Wolfe's writings, except Bonfire of the Vanities, the outlaw gentleman wins because he has not been moved by fear, egotism, or social position, but by a personal sense of alienation. He cannot be persuaded to pledge his allegiance to a dogma or an institution; he is a law unto himself. The system can ask him to perform (or to conform), but he has the choice and excercises it frequently:

As institutions weaken, the individual loses the sense that he has a secure status and accepted functions with society; an alienation develops, a psychological atomizations.38

As long as he maintains that social anomie, there is self-respect and self-improvement. But, if the social issues are decided by the … contending systems which demand, win, as well as maintain enduring loyalties,39 the ultimate outcome is of tragic consequence. [Sherman McCoy did not win against the system, because it was operating on the principle of loyalty and Favor Banks.] By adhering to the vows of organizational life, (in the vain hope that it's American to do so), the outlaw gentleman could lose himself, get absorbed, and shirk personal responsibility since the organization or system is supposed to pay! “The individual had to prove himself—no authorative commands, but autonomous decision, good sense, and responsible conduct for citizenship.”40 This is Weber's Gentleman Ideal.41 Lawlessness enabled him to pursue without restriction and to attain all-around self-perfection and charisma.

Charisma: gift of grace; to characterize self-appointed leaders who are followed by those who are in distress and those who need to follow because they believe the leader(s) is extraordinarily qualified. Max Weber's definition of charisma is critically important to Wolfe and the selected outlaw gentlemen. Charismatic heroes, prophets, and charlatans are often mistaken for outlaw gentlemen because the masses believe in anything in order to not believe in nothing. According to Weber, [Weber's conception is a continuation of Carlyle's “Hero and Hero Worship.”] the dichotomy is: masses vs. personality and routine vs. creativity; conventions of ordinary people vs. inner freedom of the pioneering; institutional rules vs. the spontaneous individual; drudgery, boredom of ordinary existence vs. imaginative flight of the genius.42

As we shall see, Wolfe is reverential to those who, like himself, have a powerful impact on the masses. His secretarial skills in the holy office of chronicler demand that he choose his words and his examples wisely. One of his earliest choices was the Last American Hero, Junior Johnson.

It wasn't Wolfe who turned Junior Johnson into a legend. It was Junior who did it. He learned the art of outlaw bootlegging from his father. Without patronage, he challenged the system and won NASCAR with a Chevrolet, of all things. Unheard of! Wolfe compared him to Robin Hood, Jesse, James, and David against Goliath. Before Wolfe arrived, Vance Packard had visited this neck of the woods and wrote about them in the 40s. Not much had changed. Wolfe's generation witnessed how the automobile had not only increased efficiency in transportation but became a symbol of leisure time and social standing. Even before Packard and the automobile, Veblen discussed rowdy delinquents as a product of leisure in the late Victorian era.43

Wolfe's rowdy bunch of outlaws received either no pay or pathetic salaries to test-drive cars. And even in Right Stuff, Wolfe notes that test-pilots were paid miserably. Anyway, Detroit wouldn't give Junior any financial support or even talk with him, because Junior took the “pure” or total risk as no other driver.44 He was the perfect oxymoron: an outlaw gentleman. As a prosperous sober hillbilly burgher in North Wilkesboro, bred from the Scotch-Irish tradition, his family had been moonshining for centuries. The Appalachian's hollows became outlaw territory for those who could risk and beat the system. It's reminiscent of the unionizing in Matewan, West Virgina, where courageous mountaineers confronted those coal company bosses and demanded that Blacks and I-talians be given their equal rights with union protection. That town probably buried as many heroes in one day as the 32 (out of 78) Korean War Medal of Honor winners who were from the small towns in or near Appalachia. Wolfe cites them for valor.45 The heroism of these mountaineers is matchless.


This is the West Virgina state motto. Formerly a part of Virgina, West Virgina seceded from it in 1861 and formed its own government, which was granted statehood in 1863. Chuck Yeager was yet another Appalachian rebel who played outlaw gentleman. He was “Master of the Sky.”46 There was no limit to his potential as a test-pilot. He stayed cool, maintained decorum, and still exceeded all expectation. He was DaVinci's Vitruvian Man. He possessed the essence of the Right Stuff:

After all, the right stuff … was that a man … should put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experiences, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment … to do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.47

By joining the military, he thought he could improve his economic and social status. He could avoid the coal mines. The army offered an escape to new territories, challenges, and perhaps some rewards, along with the opportunity to fight as a single-combat warrior against the evil empire and a chance to break the sound barrier because it “didn't exist anyway.” He knew that risking his life and being prepared to die was essential for this privilege. Falling out of the sky at 21,000 feet may be one of the hazardous aspects of the job, but somebody has got to do it! Always in code, his parachute rolled up, helmet in the crook of his arm, he waited patiently for the ambulance. After nearly losing it and his life as a pilot, he went on to fly B-57s in South East Asia.

One of Yeager's best friends was Pancho Barnes, born Florence Lowe, daughter of a wealthy inventor. This San Marino aristocrat defected to the other side and became a gun-running pilot for the Mexican revolutionaries in the 1920s.48 Hence the nickname Pancho. In the early 30s, she broke Earhart's air speed record for women. She's the only female in Wolfe's writings who even comes close to this definition of outlaw. She was portrayed as a sophisticated dresser, but in the film it's less apparent. Unfortunately Wolfe didn't develop this woman's relationship with Yeager. She was, after all, a close friend, member of the cadre, and an aviational inspiration. Evidently she and her sister were very good friends with him. [This information came to author courtesy of Jimo Perini, San Francisco photo-journalist.]

Another outlaw is the late Robert Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit system. Whereas Pancho was from Episcopalian background. Wolfe tells us that Noyce is a Congregationalist. There is no hierarchy in that Church.49 Their dogma of an autonomous congregation was derived from hatred of the British system of class and status. Dirk Hansen identified Noyce as a son of an Iowa minister and graduate of Grinnel College.50 Wolfe states that the Noyce boys were polite and proper in all outward appearances but thrown out of college nonetheless.51 He was a prankster and an innovator. After being arrested for stealing a pig for a luau, he decided to enjoy new scenery in California where Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, took in Noyce. Soon Noyce defected from Fairchild (Shockley's company). He joined the dissidents.52 Noyce “betrayed” Shockley and founded Intel to work on his “no-connecting-wires circuitry.”53 If it hadn't been for Noyce, there probably would not have been a successful lunar landing in July 1969.

Last year Noyce fired Sematech's manager, Castrucci, because “it's mission is too critical to this nation to allow Castrucci to manage it.” According to Noyce, the government consortium is managing “not through hierarchy, but achieving consensus before taking action.”54 It would appear that he was an outlaw even in the manner in which he has supervised recent projects.


“Outlaws, by definition, were people who had moved off of dead center and were in some kind of Edge City.”56 This is Wolfe's description of one of the most notorious outlaws in literary history. (William Burroughs is probably a super-outlaw.) Kesey secured his immortality on Mr. Olympus when he headed up the psychedelic movement and became what he was as well as what society wanted him to be: an outlaw. “If society wants me to be an outlaw, then I'll be one—a damned good one. That's something people need at all times.”57 To qualify for that status, he performs his stunts until he escapes to Tijuana by faking his own death. In disguise, he “enters the land of all competent outlaws—Mexico.”58 Wolfe compares him to Bogart in Casablanca.59 Like Odysseus, he returns incognito. Without detection, he begins a life of secrecy—a fugitive—until a speed chase on the Bayshore freeway. It's after his arrest that Wolfe first meets him in the San Mateo jail. “With a kind of country politeness, Kesey warns Wolfe that he's working on the unification of the world through kairos.”60

The Hell's Angels were outlaws by choice,61 unlike Kesey who was made an outlaw by the San Mateo police department. And when the Young Turks (apostate Unitarians) arrived to check out the Day-Glo heroes, Kesey and the Pranksters were invited to the conference at Asilomar. Wolfe notes (in italics) that the Unitarians are people who stand up for the right to dissent and nonconformity. The Unitarians … “dressed in their sports shirts, tamping their pipes, joined in on the fun until it got to be too much. Dr.____ of the Church's liberals had left the conference in protest.”62 The following year the Young Turks had a separate conference in the High Sierras. The radical Protestant sect and the Pranksters had found a common denominator: being outlaws. When asked to merge, Kesey replied that the “Christ trip” had been done and failed.

Ten years later in an interview with Paul Krassner in City, Kesey candidly indicated Hollywood's control over the production of Cuckoo's Nest and refused the $300,000 contract offer to participate in an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test film. He wasn't going to sell to the highest bidder. He had refused to see Cuckoo's Nest, because he felt the director raped his script.63 He had maintained that the truth of Cuckoo or a potential Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test cannot be understood or honestly portrayed on a screen. This is an interesting statement in contrast to Wolfe's next film, Bonfire. As Wolfe has stated, only in print is the memory jogged. I think it may be nearly impossible to translate Wolfe's physiology of realism onto the screen for Bonfire, although it appears to have been accomplished in The Right Stuff.

So, back to Kesey … Maybe he didn't blow it. He appears to have remained true to his outlaw-gentleman reputation. What is it that Kesey and the other outlaws possess? Are they “in possession (or absorption) of the deity?” Are they vessels of the divine? Certainly all of Wolfe's outlaws are religious or at least appear to be so, but that doesn't mean the same thing. [Max Weber identified the objective functions of a religion as the abnegation or rejection of the world and the legitimization of wealth. See Wolfe's “Worship of Art,” Harper's, Oct. 1984. p. 62.] It seems to be more like a mystical unity. Just as Socrates’ daimonion resided within, so too, does the deity that Weber calls the unio mystica. The believer becomes a tool for the divine will and an instrument for historical progress. Even the “astronaughties” in their staged lab revolts, earn an “aura” of perfection and John Glenn's dissenting Protestant fervor enable the holy seven to “possess the deity.” However, out of the seven, Wally Shirra seemed to be the only one to express disapproval of shoddy aircraft.64 If that space vessel carried or possessed the deified, then it had better be perfect, too. (Without being too irreverant toward the astronauts, I have yet to give all of them the official status of outlaw gentlemen.)

Finally, we arrive at Wolfe's first anti-hero, Sherman McCoy. There are not high spiritual principles in his soul. He has not taken any risks in his entire life nor has he questioned authority. He is in the bond market. “How many [men] would have gone to work or stayed at work on cut-throat Madison Avenue if there had been a twenty-three-percent chance (nearly one in four) of dying from it”65 McCoy only takes risks and gambles with other people's money. He is bourgeois, and incapable of anything heroic. The proletarians have a much better chance and a greater desire to accomplish the heroic. As chief bond trader, he has no “holy Beruf” or calling. McCoy's job is a means to an end. It provides little satisfaction or personal fulfillment. He has played by the rules, gone to the right schools, married the right girl, and always accepted his father's advice. “Each step down … is irrepressible adherence to the moral code of Father.”66 His love of money is not compatible with heroism.67 Wolfe says prosperity and vanity undo all his characters. Even his pimps (who Veblen called spurious aristocracy) fall from grace for the same reasons. There are no heroes in the 1980s. If there were any, they wouldn't be in New York City. Bernard Goetz is a perfect example of a nonheroic “hero.” Like McCoy, he is suspicious of every person who doesn't look like himself. Both are xenophobic. Living in an insular and artificial vacuum. McCoy doesn't want to blow his security, but he is careless, thoughtless, loveless, callous, and selfish. “The Master of the Universe” is a script role that he has memorized, but he's constantly out of character. He has bought the “chic bourgeois trip” without questioning. He is a hollow man [See T. S. Eliot's poem “The Wasteland” and Hollow Men by Michael Gold, whom Wolfe cites in his dissertation.] who relates only to status, power, and success. He thinks he runs the universe, but he is slave to the universe. McCoy appears to support the Protestant ethic: one must make money, but not justify God's goodness through prosperity, rather, to stay competitive in a dog-eat-dog world. The Machiavellian world of high finance is a cut-throat environment. He doesn't view his bond-trading as a way to improve the world; his decisions benefit only himself, his family, and his investors. He must damage the competition and beat out the others vying for control and power. He is, after all, worshipping the “bitch-goddess”—success.

What has happened to Wolfe's outlaw gentlemen? They're not in New York City. There we find only crooks, criminals, fools, and hustlers. There are no heroes. But if McCoy's character is his fate, he must be responsible for destroying his dream, or was it snatched away from him? No hero, no outlaw gentleman, would blame society for his fate, but that's what Wolfe wants us to do. To me, fate followed its own inalterable course, and McCoy is not a victim of society. This is not a travesty of justice. McCoy chooses his fate. He is not impotent against society; he simply errored in his choices. He is not courageous enough to speak up. In short, his obsession with materialism is a total negations of every value associated with the Protestant ethic and Benjamin Franklin's secular ethics. Conspicuous consumption, at the expense of the soul, leads to hubris and not to moral or intellectual excellence. Due to his vanity, he pays the ultimate price: deprivation of freedom.


Shortly upon receiving his doctorate at Yale, Wolfe, joined the “Genteel Beast” and began a career in journalism. In one of his earliest articles for the new rival of New Yorker,New York magazine, he established himself as an incendiary upstart who spoke out against the conformity, allegiance, loyalty, and monolithic apathy of a bureaucracy under the dictatorship of William Shawn. In 1965 his vitriolic attach of Shawn's “ownership” of the literary community got him into trouble with everybody. He had assaulted the employer of nearly every writer on the East Coast. Even the Orthodox Columbia Journalism Review declared his attack as “ominous for the entire future of America.”69

Every writer—including a White House correspondent and academic colleagues—accused him of being reckless, breaking the cardinal rule, and betraying the monolithic writing community. He had really stirred up the hornet's nest. He had exposed the hypocrisies of an institution that purported to be committed to freedom of expression and freedom of the press but, instead, had become an organization absorbed with itself and the perpetuation of the status quo. The loyalty of these employees was undivided. There could be no dissent, no individualism, and no choice. They had all bought into the system. Their power, prestige, and income level were the results of obsequious service to the almighty sphinx, William Shawn. They were helping him perpetuate a myth and an image which, if destroyed, would lower the status of every writer with him. Wolfe's arsenal of literary devices and techniques enabled him to use the ultimate weapon of truth to smoke out the secure and apathetic Shawn and his pawns!

Subsequently, Wolfe began his audacious apology which culminated in his notoriety on two continents. He had catapulted himself beyond the hierarchy and achieved the outlaw-gentleman status among his colleagues, peers, and most importantly, the reading public. He knew that social and political ostracism could guarantee him either literary exile or preeminent social critic. He took a risk only more experienced and respected writers dream about. His incendiary articles and caustic commentary on the bureaucratic New Yorker and the monolithic literary community ignited a whole new approach to journalism—a new league about all the others.

As a result, he awakened the entire nation and a new generation to the personal responsibilities we each must bear. His typewriter began to record the most socially rebellious period in recent American history. His diverse and encyclopediac interest broadened and integrated our understanding of ourselves. With paradox and grace, but exactitude, his writing style has engrossed millions of readers. In his books, articles, and fugitive writings, he educates us about our love of independence and choice. His American sociological tapestry is filled with the art clerisy and self-appointed authorities who claim to be advocates for the customer, client, and public worshipper. He questions their right to dictate the preferences or opinions of the American proletariat. Once again his outlaw views irritate and agitate the bureaucratic art world. He has promoted the individual's duty and right to choose what will adorn his environment in the city hall plaza. In Portland, Oregon, Wolfe attacked the “maverick whoop-whoop group”70 who selected the symbolic statue Portlandia to personify the city. The real experts, the people, were not consulted.

In addition to his radical views on modern art and sculpture, he has excelled in deconstructing and deflating the Bauhaus movement in America. He has much to criticize about modularity and mediocrity vs. deviation and individualism. And since it may be that a civilization's soul is revealed in its architecture (the most utilitarian of the arts). Wolfe takes a quiver of arrows for his assault on the “form follows function” style. Greenough's aphorism was bought by Henri Sullivan, inherited by the Bauhaus, and boomeranged in Chicago. Wolfe blamed the movement for creating a mediocre modular box of conformity.

The Bauhaus “more is less” principle became the “less is a bore” slogan of Robert Venturi. He mocked the Bauhaus principles by questioning the premises of the dogma. He became an apostate [Apostate: to revolt, to take a stand.] along with Edward Durrell Stone, Sarrinen, Lapidus, Portman, Goff, and Greene who also revolted. (According to Wolfe, virtually all were banished.) After Stone's Kennedy Center was built, his name was anathema.71 It wasn't his career that ended, only his prestige. Into this pool of productive non-academic architects, jumped Frank Lloyd Wright who, likewise, had not paid his dues to the Bauhaus school. Nevertheless, these architects made unique contributions, and each maintained a personal and professional dignity—especially Wright.

Wolfe probably spends as much time in front of the mirror as Wright once did. It is well known that Wright impressed others with his costumes and haughty demeanor, as does Wolfe. It is this flair for personal style that separates the outlaw. It is, however, much more than a fashion statement; neither Wolfe nor Wright cared about fashion or fads. Wolfe's critics have called him a dandy,72 a Wolfe in fop's clothing.73 Wolfe admits his taste is “counter-Bohemian.” His clothes seem to reflect the “southern English tradition of the warrior-aristocrat.”74 According to John Taylor's interview, “his clothes are actually (to use the rhetoric of the left) a subversive political gesture.”75 Wolfe's response:

A rebel in a free country is the rebel within the status group. Clothes are a way of treating the literary-status world as cavalierly as I or any other writer would treat the outside world.76

Wolfe's friend, Eddie Hayes, explains that Wolfe is a “very Macho guy.”77 This, too, is an outlaw-gentleman trait. It is ironic that Wolfe's manners and gentleness seem to diminish any machismo in his interviews. He criticizes himself for errors and excuses himself to leave the table. His tastes, style, and demeanor appear impeccable. He states that “clothes are a doorway that most easily leads you to the heart of an individual; it's the way they reveal themselves” and that he “wears white to irritate people as a harmless form of aggression.”78

In 1965, Wolfe had dinner with Marshall McLuhan. In The Pump House Gang, he provides a detailed record of what was said and worn by McLuhan Wolfe notes that the McLuhan's 89¢ trick snap-on tie would bob and around while he spoke.79 McLuhan's words were permanently etched in Wolfe's mind as he kept track of his tie. McLuhan had a lot to say about everything, including clothing. And most of it later appeared in War and Peace in the Global Village. He references, fashion and clothing by citing James Joyce's Prankquean. He describes the Prankqueen as “the very expression of war and aggression. In her life, clothing is weaponry.” And quoting Joyce directly: “I'm the queen of the castle, and you're the dirty rascal.” McLuhan concludes that clothing is “… anti-enemies … anti-competitors … anti-boredom.”80 He mentions the advancements in European history such as stirrups and gunpowder, but he insists that Thomas Carlyle's mention of Gutenberg in Sartor Resartus is a form of social clothing.81 So armor and weaponry for the writer and printer are letters and words. All are a form of human clothing and a systematic form of aggression.82

Individualism (eccentricity) is alive in Wolfe! Clothes, like architecture, may be the doorway that opens onto the individual's status. Wolfe admits he loves to choose and hates to conform. He is a heretic who has lived outside the status group. In a recent interview he admits, “When I'm called a conservative … it really just means you are a heretic, you've seen something unorthodox.”83 A heretic literally means one who chooses. What could be more American than the freedom to be as off-center as possible.

The freedom of the outlaw gentleman has been Tom Wolfe's cherished value. It is personal freedom, commensurate to personal responsibility, that promotes and sustains innovation and individualism. A civilization, too, cannot survive without dynamic, creative virtuosi. In the early nineteenth century, the violinist Paganini stunned his critics and audiences with Pyrotechnic artistry. He “pushed the envelope” for violin technique and performance. Composers were challenged. So, too, Wolfe's flamboyance spills into every aspect of his life. His writings and personal signature are adorned with serifs. Without his neologistic phrases and words, his stream-of-consciousness, tangential, and ancillary style of writing, he would not be the twentieth-century virtuoso that he is—uno virtuoso con sprezzatura.


On the soil of Virgina, the old Dominion state, were born eight presidents, Wolfe, and this writer. It was Jefferson and other Deists who challenged American Protestantism with a new moral truth: a deep and abiding faith in the innate goodness of all men and women. The soul was redefined by Deists, Unitarians, and later, by Transcendentalists, who viewed moral perfection as a struggle against material progress. The Civil War may have been the dramatization of this polarized concept—master vs. slave; white vs. black; elite vs. poor and powerless. There were disparities, inequalities, and illusions of freedom in antebellum America. Have we resolved the dicotomies? No. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe gives the American public a twentieth-century glimpse of New York City on a collision course. The values of personal freedom and individual responsibility are disappearing in the new “gold rush.” If we lose these intrinsic qualities that reside within the outlaw gentleman, we will betray ourselves. Sherman McCoy, who is the negation of the heroic honorable chivalrous gentleman, is corrupted by his insatiable thirst for wealth, power, and prestige. His loss of self-esteem while in mad pursuit of personal happiness through material security is a lesson we never seem to learn. The Faustian lifestyle has its inevitable consequences. Is America listening?


  1. Tom Wolfe, “Birth of the ‘New Journalism’: Eyewitness Report of Tom Wolfe,” New York, Feb. 14, 1972, p. 34.

  2. Tom Wolfe, Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 43.

  3. Plato, Republic, 2.375.C

  4. I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates, (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 52.

  5. Ibid., pp. 111–113.

  6. Thorstein Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class, (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 185.

  7. Ibid., pp. 290–291.

  8. Tom Wolfe. From Bauhaus to Our House, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981), p. 28.

  9. Tom Wolfe, Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 31.

  10. Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker, (New York: Bantam, 1980), p. 19.

  11. Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction, (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 268.

  12. Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker, (New York: Bantam, 1980), p. 77.

  13. Ibid., p. 190.

  14. Tom Wolfe, Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 54.

  15. Ibid., p. 62.

  16. Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1970), p. 177.

  17. Kate Simon, A Renaissance Tapestry, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 175.

  18. Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 358.

  19. Tom Wolfe Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 290.

  20. Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), p. 42.

  21. Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, (London: Levey et al., 1841), Lecture 5, p. 275.

  22. Ibid., p. 276.

  23. Ibid., p. 256.

  24. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic, (New York: Scribner's, 1958), p. 37.

  25. Ibid., p. 40.

  26. Ibid., p. 36.

  27. Ibid., p. 261.

  28. Ibid., p. 282.

  29. Tom Wolfe, League of American Writers, Diss. Yale 1956, p. 52.

  30. Ibid., p. 78.

  31. Ibid., pp. 108–110.

  32. Ibid., pp. 134–135.

  33. Ibid., p. 220.

  34. Ibid., p. 164.

  35. Ibid., p. 257.

  36. Loc. cit.

  37. Marshall McLuhan, Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations, (New York: Something Else Press, Inc., 1967), pp. 15–21.

  38. Philip, Selznick, The Organizational Weapon, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1952), pp. 281–282.

  39. Ibid., p. 333.

  40. Gerth and Mills, From Weber, (New York: Oxford, 1966), pp. 52–53.

  41. Ibid., p. 436.

  42. Ibid., pp. 52–53.

  43. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, (New York: Random House, 1899), Viking Press edition, p. 185.

  44. Tom Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Stream-Lined Baby, (New York: Noonday Press, 1973), p. 154.

  45. Ibid., p. 163.

  46. Tom Wolfe, Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 59.

  47. Ibid., p. 24.

  48. Ibid., p. 51.

  49. Tom Wolfe, “Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley,” Esquire, Dec. 1983. p. 353.

  50. Dirk Hansen, New Alchemists, (Boston: Little Brown, 1982), p. 91.

  51. Tom Wolfe, “Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley,” Esquire, Dec. 1983, p. 348.

  52. Dirk Hansen, New Alchemists, (Boston: Little Brown, 1982), p. 92.

  53. Ibid., p. 94.

  54. “Noyce Forces out Sematch's No. 2,” The San Jose Mercury News, 21 Mar. 1989, Sec. F. pp. 1, col. 5–6, and p. 13, col. 1–3.

  55. Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 309.

  56. Ibid., p. 235.

  57. Ibid., p. 235.

  58. Ibid., p. 237.

  59. Ibid., p. 299.

  60. Ibid., p. 115.

  61. Ibid., p. 326.

  62. Ibid., p. 65.

  63. Paul Krassner, “McMurphy,” City Magazine, Dec. 23, 1975, p. 27.

  64. Tom Wolfe, Right Stuff, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 189.

  65. Ibid., p. 23.

  66. N. Lehman, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 260, No. 6, Dec. 1987, p. 104.

  67. Bonnie Angelo, “Master of His Universe,” Time, Feb. 13, 1989, p. 90.

  68. D. Lehman, “An Unleashed Wolfe,” Newsweek, Oct. 26, 1987, p. 84.

  69. Tom Wolfe, “New Journalism: A la Recherche des Which Thickets,” New York, Feb. 21, 1972, p. 45.

  70. Tom Wolfe, “Cooper Goddess,” Newsweek, July 14, 1986, p. 34.

  71. Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981), p. 88.

  72. Tom Wolfe, “White Gods and cringing natives (views of T. K. Wolfe),” Time, Oct. 19, 1981, pp. 69–70.

  73. D. Lehman, “An Unleashed Wolfe,” Newsweek, Oct. 26, 1987, p. 84.

  74. John Taylor, “The Book on Tom Wolfe,” New York, Mar. 21, 1988, p. 56.

  75. Ibid., p. 58.

  76. Ibid., p. 58.

  77. Ibid., p. 56.

  78. Bonnie Angelo, “Master of His Universe,” Time, Feb. 13, 1989, p. 92.

  79. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang, (New York: Bantam, 1968), p. 115.

  80. Marshall McLuhan. War and Peace in the Global Village, (New York, Bantam, 1968), pp. 21–22.

  81. Ibid., p. 35.

  82. Ibid., p. 44.

  83. Bonnie Angelo, “Master of His Universe,” Time, Feb. 13, 1989, p. 91.

Works Cited

Anonymous, “Noyce Forces out Sematech's.” The San Jose Mercury News, 21 Mar. 1989, Sec. F. pp. 1 and 13.

Anjelo, Bonnie, “Master of His Universe.” Time, Feb. 13, 1989, pp. 90–92.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. London: Levey, Robson, Franklyn Printers, 1841.

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. trans. George Bull. Baltimore: Penquin Books, 1967.

Gerth, H. H., and C. Wright Mills. From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Hansen, Dirk. The New Alchemists. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1982.

Hughes, Robert. “White Gods and Cringing Natives (Views of T. K. Wolfe).” Time, Oct. 19, 1981. p. 70.

Krassner, Paul. “Kesey's Cuckoo War.” City. Dec. 23, 1975. pp. 25–28.

Lehman, D. “An Unleashed Wolfe.” Newsweek, Oct. 26, 1987, pp. 84–85.

Lemann, N. “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1987, pp. 104–105.

McLuhan, Marshall. Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations. New York: Something Else Press, Inc., 1967.

———War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Bantam, 1968.

Plato, The Collected Dialogues of, trans. Hamilton and Cairns. Princeton: Bollingen Press, 1961.

Robbins, Tom. Still Life with Woodpecker. New York: Bantam, 1980.

———Another Roadside Attraction. New York: Ballantine, 1972.

Roche, George. A World without Heroes. Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 1987.

Selznick, Philip. The Organizational Weapon. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1952.

Simon, Kate. A Renaissance Tapestry. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Taylor, John. “The Book on Tom Wolfe.” New York, Mar. 21, 1988, pp. 45–48.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Random House, 1899. Viking Press edition 1934.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic. New York: Scribner's 1958 edition.

Whyte, Jr., William H. The Organization Man. New York: Scribner's, 1956.

Wofe, Thomas K. “Birth of New Journalism.” New York, Feb. 14, 1972, pp. 1, 30–38, 43–45.

———The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———“Copper Goddess.” Newsweek, July 14, 1986, p. 34.

———Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam, 1969.

———From Bauhaus to Our House. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981.

———Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby. New York: Noonday Press, 1973.

———League of American Writers. Diss. Yale University 1956.

———“New Journalism: A la Recherche des Whichy Thickets.” New York, Feb. 21, 1972, pp. 152–158, pp. 272–280.

———The Pump House Gang. New York: Bantam, 1968.

———Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1970.

———Right Stuff. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979.

———“The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley.” Esquire, Dec. 1983, pp. 346–348.

———“Why They Aren't Writing the Great American Novel Anymore.” New York, Dec. 1972, pp. 152–159, 272–280.

———“Worship of Art,” Harper's, October 1984, pp. 61–68.

Secondary Sources

Bannister, Robert editor. American Values in Transition. San Francisco: Harcourt Brace Jovanonich, 1972.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1976.

Mitlang, Herbert. Dangerous Dossiers. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Selgwick, Henry Dwight. In Praise of Gentlemen. New York: Books for Libraries, 1935. Reprint 1970.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

Tom Wolfe 1930-

(Born Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.) American essayist, journalist, editor, critic, novelist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Wolfe's career through 1999. See also, Tom Wolfe Criticism and volumes 2, 9 and 15.

Considered among the most original prose stylists in contemporary American literature, Wolfe is credited with developing New Journalism, a form of expository writing that unites traditional newspaper reportage with such techniques of fiction as stream-of-consciousness narration, shifting point of view, extended dialogue, character description, and detailed scene-setting. According to Wolfe, the intention of New Journalism is “to achieve a nonfiction form that combines the emotional impact usually found only in novels and short stories, the analytical insights of the best essays and scholarly writing, and the deep factual foundation of hard reporting.” Wolfe's witty and informative books and essays reflect a critical yet tolerant approach toward icons and trends of popular American culture. Although his subjects, techniques and opinions have generated a great deal of literary debate, Wolfe is widely respected for his astute observations on contemporary culture.

Biographical Information

Wolfe was born on March 2, 1930, in Richmond, Virginia, to Helen Hughes and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Sr., an agronomist, college professor, and editor of the Southern Planter. In 1947 he entered Washington and Lee University where he divided his extracurricular time between pitching for the baseball team and writing for the school newspaper. After receiving his doctorate in American Studies from Yale University in 1957, Wolfe worked as a reporter for the Springfield Union and the Washington Post, later becoming a feature writer for the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. He quickly garnered acclaim for his reports on such disparate subjects as New York socialites, crime figures, and fashion trends. In 1963, after several weeks of researching a California customized car and hot rod show for Esquire magazine, Wolfe was unable to meet his deadline because he found traditional journalistic techniques inadequate to evoke the frenzied, garish subject of his article. Wolfe sent his notes to Esquire editor Byron Dobell to pass on to another writer who could complete the piece. Dobell accepted Wolfe's notes unedited, which resulted in “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Baby,” a seminal document of the literary style known as New Journalism. In the following years, Wolfe continued to develop a portfolio built around his provocative writing style, observations, and thoughts, in works ranging from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) to The Painted Word (1975). In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, which won an American Book Award and a National Critics Circle Award, both for non-fiction. During the 1980s, Wolfe focused on writing his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which originally appeared as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine between 1984 and 1985. The novel was eventually adapted into a film of the same name in 1990. More than ten years passed before Wolfe completed his next novel, A Man in Full (1998), a bestseller that garnered Wolfe a cover story in Time magazine. In 2000, Wolfe published the essay collection Hooking Up.

Major Works

Wolfe's first collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), examines the lifestyles of unconventional groups and public figures in contemporary culture. The essays incorporate street slang, obscure terminology, and eccentric punctuation to convey the sensory perceptions, random thoughts, and impressions of the subjects. The Pump House Gang (1968), his next collection, continues Wolfe's examination of the subcultures of southern California, London, and New York City. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, generally regarded as a definitive portrait of the drug culture of the 1960s, relates the experiences of author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a group of young people who attempted to introduce American society to hallucinogenic drugs because they believed that people would be liberated from the limitations of objective and subjective reality. Drawing on extensive interviews and personal observations, Wolfe used an elliptical, surreal style to convey the drug experience, comparing the group's fanaticism to similar occurrences in ancient religious cults. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers consists of two essays which examine extremist politics and liberal philosophy. The first piece, “Those Radical Chic Evenings,” is a satirical sketch of a fund-raising party hosted by composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers, a militant African-American organization. The second essay, “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” describes how some urban African Americans feigned militancy to intimidate the bureaucrats of government and social programs. The Painted Word mordantly attacks the modern art world, impugning such experimental painters as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack, as well as such prominent New York art critics as Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg. The Right Stuff, Wolfe's most widely respected book, examines the rhetoric surrounding the early years of the American space program. Besides being meticulously researched, the work delves beneath the public image of astronauts. From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) assails modernist architecture, particularly the Bauhaus school associated with Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Wolfe believed that Bauhaus represented a lamentable departure from American architecture with its emphasis on function over form. The Bonfire of the Vanities, described by Wolfe as “a Vanity Fair book about New York, á la Thackeray,” focuses on the downfall of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond salesman whose mistress strikes an African-American youth with McCoy's car while the two are lost in Harlem. Blamed for the accident, McCoy is publicly scorned and ridiculed as he becomes embroiled in the bureaucracy of New York City's legal system. In A Man in Full, a sixty-year old Atlanta real estate developer whose empire totters on bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer who works in a food warehouse owned by the developer confront the notion of being “a man in full” at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. Hooking Up collects both new and previously published pieces, including “My Three Stooges,” in which Wolfe attacks American literary critics John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving for their negative reviews of A Man in Full.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career Wolfe's subject matter, eccentric literary technique, and bold opinions have aroused much controversy concerning the significance of both New Journalism and his own work. After the publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, some critics objected to Wolfe's unorthodox prose style, although many argued that the work contained innovative studies of popular trends. The critical reaction to The Pump House Gang was predominantly positive; several reviewers singled out Wolfe's portrayal of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner as among his most trenchant studies of class structure and America's obsession with status. Critics widely acclaimed The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for its surreal and vivid descriptions of the 1960s drug culture. C. D. D. Bryan called the book “an astonishing, enlightening, at times baffling, and explosively funny book.” Several reviewers faulted Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, for degrading the integrity of the black power movement and accused Wolfe of biased reporting, while others saw the book as a vigorous critique of liberal naivete. Both The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House met with sharply mixed reviews, but The Right Stuff received almost unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. “That Wolfe can weave together [the] ragged strands of the astronaut story without minimizing the extraordinary courage, the sometimes incredible technical virtuosity, of these hand-picked space explorers,” one reviewer remarked, “… is a tribute to his skill as a journalist and his sensibility as a student of humanistic values.” Although some reviewers considered Wolfe's characterizations in The Bonfire of the Vanities superficial, many praised his incisive examination of New York's criminal justice system and the city's turbulent social and ethnic divisions. A Man in Full was met with generally favorable reviews. Some complained of the book's length and Wolfe's tendency to indulge in cultural stereotypes, with several major critics voicing disappointment, such as John Updike who called the novel “entertainment, not literature.” Despite the critical contention that Wolfe's exuberant prose style and his use of fictional devices distort or overwhelm the events he reports, many agree with Joe David Bellamy's assessment that Wolfe is “the most astute and popular social observer and cultural chronicler of his generation. … No other writer of our time has aspired to capture the fabled Spirit of the Age so fully and has succeeded so well.”

Tom Wolfe with George Plimpton (interview date Spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8489

SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction CXXIII,” in Paris Review, Vol. 33, Spring, 1991, pp. 92–121.

[In the following interview by Plimpton, Wolfe discusses how he became a journalist, the influences and inspirations behind his various works, why he chose to write novels, and his work habits as a professional writer.]

One of Tom Wolfe's favorite restaurants in New York City is the Isle of Capri on the East Side, specializing, as one might expect, in Italian cuisine; indeed, the menu does not condescend to non-Italian speaking customers: an extensive list of choices is not identified in English. The table set aside for Wolfe is in a corner of a patio-like glassed-in enclosure facing Third Avenue. Clusters of potted plants hang from its rafters. The author arrived wearing the white ensemble he is noted for—a white modified homburg, a chalk-white overcoat—but to the surprise of regular customers looking up from their tables, he removed the coat to disclose a light-brown suit set off by a pale lilac tie. Questioned about the light-brown suit, he replied: “Shows that I'm versatile.” He went on to point out that his overcoat only had one button—rare in overcoats, quite impractical, obviously, in a stiff wind. “One must occasionally suffer for style.” At the table he ordered bottled water and calamari. Squid. His accent is more cosmopolitan than southern though he grew up in the South (Richmond, Virginia) and went to school there (Washington and Lee). His face is pale, fine-featured. During the interview a young woman nervously approached the table for an autograph. She announced that she hoped to become a writer and that he had been her idol from the first. Wolfe thanked her and asked where she was from. North Carolina. While he worked the pen across the paper (Wolfe's autograph is a decorative scrawl which if stretched out straight would measure a foot.) the two chatted about her home state, which he knows well—his mother and sister live there. The young woman went on to say that she found New York City wonderful and looked forward to moving. Wolfe nodded, and afterwards remarked how pleasing it was to hear from someone not swayed by the bad publicity, least of all by reading his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Some particulars: Wolfe received his doctorate in American Studies from Yale University—his dissertation on an organization called the League of American Writers. He worked as a reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union, the Washington Post, and the New York Herald Tribune. Magazine pieces appeared in Rolling Stone,New York magazine, Esquire, and Harper's. In 1965, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was published; three years later The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test appeared simultaneously. In 1975, The Painted Word, Wolfe's controversial look at the world of modern art, was published. His book about the early astronauts, The Right Stuff, won the American Book Award for general non-fiction. From Bauhaus to Our House was his critical look at contemporary architecture. The Bonfire of the Vanities, his only novel to date, was published in 1987 to considerable critical acclaim—the nation's top bestseller, both in hard-cover and paperback, for many weeks. Wolfe lives in New York City with his wife, son, and ten-year-old daughter. Part of the interview which follows was conducted before the public under the auspices of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan.

[Plimpton:] When did you first realize that you had a knack for writing?

[Wolfe:] Very early. When I was six or seven years old. My father was the editor of an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn't think of himself as a writer. He was a scientist, an agronomist, but I thought of him as a writer because I'd seen him working at his desk. I just assumed that I was going to do that, that I was going to be a writer. There's an enormous advantage in having (mistakenly or not) the impression that you have a vocation very early because from that time forward you begin to focus all of your energies towards this goal. The only other thing I ever considered from six on was to become an artist, something my mother had encouraged me to do.

Regarding writing, was there any particular book which influenced you?

I was greatly struck by Emil Ludwig's biography of Napoleon, which is written in the historical present. It begins as the mother sits suckling her babe in a tent.

And that impressed you?

It impressed me so enormously that I began to write the biography of Napoleon myself, though heavily cribbed from Emil Ludwig. I was eight at the time.

Did it start the same way, with a babe being suckled in …

It did, though no one would tell me what “suckled” meant. I only knew that that was what Napoleon did at the start. I always liked Napoleon from when I was six on because he was small and had ruled the world and at the time I was small. I liked Mozart for the same reason.

What about Thomas Wolfe? Did he float into your consciousness at all?

Yes, he did. I can remember that on the shelves at home there were these books by Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River.Of Time and the River had just come out when I was aware of his name. My parents had a hard time convincing me that he was no kin whatsoever. My attitude was, “Well, what's he doing on the shelf then?” But as soon as I was old enough I became a tremendous fan of Thomas Wolfe and remain so to this day. I ignore his fluctuations on the literary stock market.

You started off writing for newspapers. …

The first newspaper I worked on was the Springfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts. I wrote over a hundred letters to newspapers asking for work and got three responses, two no's.

Style is pretty much dictated in newspaper work, isn't it? Can you say something about the development of your style, which is certainly one of the more unique in American letters?

The newspaper is, in fact, very bad for one's prose style. That's why I gravitated towards feature stories where you get a little more leeway in the writing style. When I started writing magazine pieces for Esquire, I had to unlearn newspaper restraints and shortcuts. Working on newspapers, you're writing to a certain length, often very brief pieces; you tend to look for easy forms of humor: “Women can't drive,” things like that. That's about the level of a lot of newspaper humor. It becomes a form of laziness. But I wouldn't give anything for the years I spent on newspapers because it forces you, it immerses you, in so many different sides of life. I did try to cut up as much as I could; I think I was a lively newspaper writer, but that's a long way from being a good writer.

Did editors tend to say, “Come now, you can't do this sort of thing?”

Yes, if the subject was serious. The greatest promotion I ever had on a newspaper was when the Washington Post suddenly promoted me from cityside general assignment reporter to Latin-American correspondent and sent me off to Cuba. Fidel Castro had just come to power. It was a very exciting assignment, but also very serious. Every time I tried to write about the veins popping out on the forehead of a Cuban revolutionary leader it was just stricken from the copy because all they wanted was, “Defense Minister Raul Castro said yesterday that …”

When did the breakthrough come?

Well, this happened really in two stages. While I was in graduate school at Yale I came upon a group of early Soviet writers called the Brothers Serapion. These were people like Boris Pilnyak who wrote a book called The Naked Year, and especially Eugene Zamiatin, probably best known for his novel We, upon which George Orwell's 1984 is based. He is a brilliant writer who was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1927, I believe. These were Russian writers writing about the Soviet revolution; they were heavily influenced by French Symbolism, so you had all the preciousness and aestheticism of the Symbolists converging upon a very raw subject, namely the Revolution. I began imitating the Brothers Serapion in the short pieces I was writing for myself. I even tried to sneak these things into my newspaper work. I never got very far with it.

What sort of thing?

For example, one of the things they did was experiment with punctuation. In We, Zamiatin constantly breaks off a thought in mid-sentence with a dash. He's trying to imitate the habits of actual thought, assuming, quite correctly, that we don't think in whole sentences. We think emotionally. He also used a lot of exclamation points, a habit I picked up and which I still have. Someone counted them in The Bonfire of the Vanities—some enormous number of exclamation points, up in the thousands. I think it's quite justified, though I've been ridiculed for it. Dwight Macdonald once wrote that reading me, with all these exclamation points, was like reading Queen Victoria's diaries. He was so eminent at the time, I felt crushed. But then out of curiosity I looked up Queen Victoria's diaries. They're childhood diaries. They're full of exclamation points. They are so much more readable than the official prose she inflicted on prime ministers and the English people in the years thereafter. Her diaries aren't bad at all. I also made a lot of use of the historical present (getting back to Emil Ludwig) in my early magazine work, along with eccentric images and metaphors. These were things that I began to use as soon as I had a truly free hand. That was when I began to do magazine work in 1963 for Esquire—which was that rarest of things: an experimental mass-circulation magazine.

Presumably there was an editor at Esquire who supported what you were up to. …

Well, Byron Dobell was the first editor I had at Esquire. I've written about this in the introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The piece about car customizers in Los Angeles was the first magazine piece I ever wrote. I was totally blocked. I now know what writer's block is. It's the fear you cannot do what you've announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn't worth doing. That's a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I'd never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn't do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting on the car customizers so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you're not thinking about style, you're just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, “Well, we're knocking the ‘Dear Byron’ off the top of your memo, and we're running the piece.” That was a tremendous release for me. I think there are not many editors who would have done that, but Esquire at that time was a very experimental magazine. Byron Dobell was and remains a brilliant editor, and it worked out.

Is it hazardous to have a style as distinctive as that?

It became so. At the outset I didn't think of myself as having something called a “Tom Wolfe Style.” Many of my first pieces were for the Herald Tribune’s new Sunday magazine which was called New York and is now an independent magazine. Sunday supplements at that time were like brain candy, easily thrown away. I never had the feeling that there were any standards to writing for a Sunday supplement. So you could experiment in any fashion you wished, which I began to do. Still, I didn't think of it as a “Tom Wolfe Style.” Finally, after The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby came out as a book, and I began to get a lot of publicity, people began to write about me and about this style. Suddenly I would start writing an article and I'd say, “Wait a minute. Is this really a ‘Tom Wolfe Style?’” Now that is fatal, I assure you. I wrote a number of pieces in the year 1966 that were so bad that, although I'm a great collector of my own pieces, I have never collected them.

Readers have always followed your fascination with clothes, material goods, and so forth. Where does that come from?

I couldn't tell you in any analytical fashion, but I assume I realized instinctively that if I were going to write vignettes of contemporary life, which is what I was doing constantly for New York. I wanted all the sounds, the looks, the feel of whatever place I was writing about to be in this vignette. Brand names, tastes in clothes and furniture, manners, the way people treat children, servants, or their superiors, are important clues to an individual's expectations. This is something else that I am criticized for, mocked for, ridiculed for. I take some solace in the fact that the leading critic of Balzac's day, Sainte-Beuve, used to say the same thing about Balzac's fixation on furniture. You can learn the names of more arcane pieces of furniture reading Balzac than you can reading a Sotheby's catalogue. Sainte-Beuve said, “If this little man is so obsessed with furniture why doesn't he open up a shop and spare us these so-called novels of his?” So I take solace in this. After all, we are in a brand name culture.

Do you read catalogues, for example, to keep up on shoes and so forth?

I must confess to having read furniture-auction catalogues so that if I walked into somebody's living room I'd be able to tell you what these articles of furniture were. When I wrote Radical Chic, as a matter of fact, about a party for the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein's apartment, I noticed that the platters upon which the Panthers were being served Roquefort cheese balls were gadrooned. They had this little sort of ribbing around the edges of the trays. You may think that's a small point, but I think that small points like that can really make a piece, particularly at the beginning. There's something about a gadrooned platter being served to the Black Panthers that really gives a piece a bite, particularly at the beginning. It doesn't matter if your audience doesn't know what a gadrooned platter is. Often people are flattered to have an unusual word thrust upon them. They say, “Well, that author thinks I know what he's talking about!”

At that party did you remember such things or do you have to whisk a notebook out and write a note down in the bathroom or wherever?

At that party I did take notes very openly. I was not the only person in the room doing so, incidentally. Charlotte Curtis of The New York Times was taking notes a mile a minute, and she did write about the party too. If it's a situation in which it's impossible or very awkward to take notes, I will try to write down everything I can remember before going to sleep. I find that memory-decay is very rapid. Even going to sleep and waking up the next day, there's an awful lot that simply doesn't come back. At least it doesn't come back accurately. So I do it as soon as I can.

Are memorable stories like that assigned to you by editors? How do you pick your subjects?

A great many stories that I did, particularly early in the game, were assigned to me, often things that I had no interest in covering at first. For example, after I did the piece on customized cars, Esquire assigned me a piece on the then Cassius Clay, which I did want to do very much, and then a piece on Las Vegas. I felt that Las Vegas was the most tired story imaginable, but I wanted to be in Esquire again. And I wanted the money. So I went off to Las Vegas, and the place was a wonderland in a way that I had never expected. It turned out to be a very successful story as well; other stories were assigned. There's probably never been a better originator of story ideas in journalism than Clay Felker. Harold Hayes and Byron Dobell at Esquire were both very good. I did a story on a stockcar driver in North Carolina, Junior Johnson, who had been a whiskey runner for his father. That was an idea that came from an Esquire editor. On the other hand, Radical Chic, which was about the party at Leonard Bernstein's, was my own.

Between journalism and fiction, which is the more difficult and which the more satisfying?

The problems are enormous with each, and I wouldn't say that one is any easier than another. I found it extremely difficult to shift from nonfiction to fiction and for reasons that surprised me. One was that I didn't face up to the most obvious thing of all … which is that in nonfiction you are handed the plot. You are handed the characters. It just didn't dawn on me how much I was now depriving myself of. The other thing that surprised me when I first started writing The Bonfire of the Vanities was that I was not nearly as free technically and in terms of style as I had been in nonfiction. I would have assumed it would be the opposite, since you have carte blanche in fiction, this tremendous freedom. What happened was that all the rules of composition I had been taught about fiction in college and graduate school came flooding back: Henry James's doctrine of point of view, Virginia Woolf's theory of the inner psychological glow. All things were suddenly laws. I was on an unfamiliar terrain and so I'd better obey. My first time around writing The Bonfire of the Vanities for Rolling Stone I was not nearly as free as I should have been. It took me a long time to realize that I could enjoy the kind of freedom that I'd had in nonfiction where I was operating without any rules to speak of. I finally began to appreciate the enormous flexibility of fiction but it really took some doing.

I believe you'd always wanted to do a huge non-fiction book about New York, and somehow you changed your mind. Why did you decide to do the book as fiction?

There were two things. One was personal. Practically everyone my age who wanted to write somehow got the impression in college that there was only one thing to write, which was a novel and that if you went into journalism, this was only a cup of coffee on the road to the final triumph. At some point you would move into a shack—it was always a shack for some reason—and write a novel. This would be your real métier. But by the time I got to the Herald Tribune a lot of things were happening in non-fiction. Gay Talese was doing amazing work; so were Jimmy Breslin and people like Tom Morgan at Esquire and many others. This was exciting to me and I started writing non-fiction, borrowing heavily, as others did, from the techniques of fiction writers. All along, even though I felt this was where things were happening, there was always a silent and perhaps not-so-silent rebuke from others that said, “This is an elaborate screen you're constructing to avoid the great challenge, which is the novel.” So I decided I didn't want to reach the end of my career and look back and say, “Well, gee, I wonder what would have happened if I had tried the novel.” I didn't want others saying, “Well, he ducked it. He never faced up to it.” Also, I had developed a theory about the future of the novel which I had elaborated to some extent in the introduction to the book The New Journalism in which I said that I felt the novel had taken a lot of wrong turns since 1950 in the United States and that its future would be highly detailed realism, a kind of hypernaturalism, to borrow a term from Zola. So I knew from the beginning that the type of novel I wanted to write would be that kind.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was first published in Rolling Stone as a serial. McCoy, the main character, was originally a writer. Why did you want to write it as a serial novel? Was that another challenge?

For eight months I had sat at my typewriter every day, intending to start this novel and nothing had happened. I felt that the only way I was ever going to get going on it was to put myself under deadline pressure. I knew that if I had to, I could produce something under deadline pressure. I found the only marvelous maniac in all of journalism willing to let me do such a thing. That was Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. This book would have never been written if Jann Wenner had not said, “Okay, let's do it. Let's see what happens.”

Was it the first fiction you had ever tried?

I had done a short story for Esquire called “Oh, the Big-Time, Game-Time, Show-Time Roll” in 1974. It was based on a couple of actual incidents about a black baseball star making a commercial here in New York. It was okay. I didn't see it in the O. Henry collection or anything.

So, you started doing the serial for Jann Wenner …

Yes. I wrote three chapters at the outset thinking that I would have a two-chapter cushion. In case I got in trouble in a subsequent issue I had something to fall back on. Well, Jann wanted me to get off to a glorious start, so he published all three in the first issue! From that time on I was scrambling desperately.

Well, did you have any grand design? Did you know where you were going?

Well, yes and no. I'm a great believer in outlines. The outline for The Right Stuff, for example, my non-fiction book about the astronauts, was three hundred pages, cross-indexed. So I did a very thorough outline for The Bonfire of the Vanities. Jann Wenner had read it and liked it. Then at the last moment I began to think of what I considered important changes. For example, in the outline everything took place in Manhattan. I began hearing these amazing stories about the Bronx, so I shifted my scene of operations from the Manhattan Criminal Court Building at 100 Centre Street up to the Bronx County Courthouse at 161st Street and the Grand Concourse. I changed the nature of the crime that the story was to pivot upon—actually a Class E felony, not much of a crime—to an automobile accident in the Bronx. Then, at the very last moment, I had gone down to Wall Street and I'd gotten entrée to one of the great investment-banking houses and what I'd seen was so exciting that I said to myself, “Well, maybe I'll change Sherman McCoy from a writer”—which he was in this long outline that I had—“to some kind of Wall Street figure.” If anyone cares to look back at the first three chapters of the Rolling Stone version of The Bonfire of the Vanities, he'll find that Sherman McCoy has no occupation. I was going to give myself the flexibility in the fourth chapter to make him a Wall Street figure. Then I got cold feet because I didn't really have the time to work this whole thing out. He remained a writer, a rather boring figure for the most part. He's not right in that version. I hate stories in which a person has an occupation and you never see him working at it, like all those marvelous Cary Grant movies where he's a surgeon, and you never see him in the operating room.

Was the serialization carried out to the end?

Yes, it was. I'm proud of this. It continued for twenty-seven issues. The magazine comes out every two weeks … a year and a week over. At the outset I began to wonder if my work would be more like Zola's, Dostoyevski's, or Dickens' … all serial novel writers. By the fourth chapter the only thing I wondered about was, would the hole be filled? I was out on Long Island in Southampton where there's a church in the middle of town that chimes the hours all through the night. I can remember it so well. I would go to sleep exhausted about ten o'clock at night. I'd wake up about 11:30 or midnight; I'd always hear the midnight bells, all twelve of those chimes. I had terrible insomnia for about six weeks. I finally realized that, in fact, I could fill the hole, that I would be spared the ignominy of not making the issue.

What a terrifying exercise. Did you ever feel like going to Jann Wenner and saying, “This is too much. To hell with it”?

Well, I didn't really put it quite that way, but to myself many times I said, “Why did I do this? I don't need to do it. I could have written a sequel to The Right Stuff.” After all, The Right Stuff was only the story of the astronauts doing the Mercury program. I could have written a book called Gemini. It was terrifying. I don't think I had the courage to tell Jann that we had to call it off!

How many words did that mean you had to produce in, let's say, a day?

That wasn't so much the problem. I had to produce about six thousand words every two weeks. That isn't a terrible amount if you're sure of what you're doing, but it's difficult if you don't, especially if you're trying to construct something with real coherence to it. At the beginning it was terrible. Just changing the locale from Manhattan to the Bronx was something that meant an unraveling of all sorts of things in the plot. This is something that happens in fiction. It doesn't happen in non-fiction. You can change the structure of a non-fiction book and, no matter how awkward, it's like an enormous Erector set. It may lurch into ungainly forms, but it's going to hold together because you're dealing with actual facts. On the other hand, when you start playing with your structure in fiction, it's like pulling a thread in a sweater. Everything begins to go in ways you never dreamed of. So I had a continual problem with that; I found myself reworking and rethinking chapters on the spot. I became very much interested in how people had done this successfully. I read a lot of Zola and Dickens and Dostoyevski with this in mind. I came to the conclusion that the master of the form was Zola. Typically Zola would write four or five chapters ahead of time, four or five out of twelve to fourteen chapters. Pick almost any novel by Zola and you'll see that it runs twelve to fourteen chapters because he had a contract to write a novel in the year for a monthly magazine. Now, if you've done that, written forty percent of a novel, by this time you have worked out the most difficult problems. You know your characters by now. You know the real course of your plot. You know how you're going to create suspense. By the end of twelve chapters he would have spent his cushion, and he'd now be writing against deadline pressure to finish the book. But that's not so bad. The last half of any book, particularly a book of fiction, is not nearly so difficult as the first half. At the very end, you often see Zola speeding up recklessly. Read the last chapter of that marvelous book Nana. Here's a guy who either is terribly tired or had a day and a half to finish … to finish a book! But if I had to do it over again, I would make sure I had written thirty-three to forty percent of the book ahead of time.

But would you ever want to subject yourself again to serialization?

I don't think I would.

What's the point of it really?

In this day and age there isn't much point to it. People do not read that way. If people want stories serially they'll go to television.

How close are the characters of the novel to real people?

Only two characters are actually based on real people—Tommy Killian was based on Counsellor Eddie Hayes, and the character of Judge Kovitsky is based on Burton Roberts, who is now the chief administrative and chief criminal judge of the Bronx. Otherwise I steered clear of the roman à clef game. I think that's a game of very limited usefulness. In some cases I have composites. For example, Reverend Bacon, the activist minister from Harlem, was based on the sort of figure I had begun seeing as early as 1969, shortly after the poverty program had gotten started.

For research and background, did you go to the holding pens in the Bronx?

I did. I managed to get entrée to the pens, just to see what's going on. I found that, though there were a great many colorful things happening before my eyes, I had no way of getting inside the mind of someone who was in that predicament. Even if you masquerade as a prisoner, you know you're going to be let out. Then I realized that I had to interview people who had been through it. By this time I had met a number of lawyers. They put me in touch with a few middle-class professional defendants—white defendants who had been through something like McCoy. I eventually met four men, one of whom was tremendously helpful. He told me that the most humiliating part of this experience for him came when he was marched through a metal detector which he kept setting off. They kept taking more of his clothes away from him. He still kept setting off the metal detector. Finally, the policeman in charge of the metal detector had a hunch. He told him to lean over and just put his head in the metal detector. This set the thing off. Then he said, “Open your mouth,” and he said, “Oh, look at that! You've got a mouth like a coin-changer!” It was the fillings in his teeth. He began calling the other policemen over. He'd say, “Look at this guy. Hey, do it again.” He wasn't abusive in language. He didn't lay a hand on him. Suddenly the fact that these police—whom the man had always regarded as his protectors and protectors particularly of people like himself—were now, not in any perverse or bad way, treating him like an object, an object of sport. It was crushing. It crushed what last defenses he had in this situation. Now this is something I could not have gotten except through interviewing. I don't think the unaided imagination of the writer—and I don't care who the writer is—can come up with what is obtainable through research and reporting. I'm firmly convinced of that, particularly in an age like this and particularly if you choose to write about a large city.

I can't resist asking whether, when you were in the holding pens talking to criminals and so forth, you wore the white suit.

Now we're getting down to cases! I'd like to be able to say that I went attired all in white. I didn't. I always wore a suit though and usually a double-breasted suit. That was pushing my luck enough right there! I found early in the game that for me there's no use trying to blend in. I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know. Fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don't know. They're some of the greatest allies that any writer has.

The Bonfire of the Vanities ends with an epilogue—a shattering epilogue, one page long or so, where you find out that a year later McCoy's back in exactly the same predicament. Was that always in the design?

No, it wasn't. That was one part of the outline that I hadn't worked out. I didn't know whether to make it a happy or an unhappy ending. I could have made it a happy ending, but I felt that this would not have been true to the criminal-justice system in New York! Having gotten their hooks into a highly publicized figure like McCoy—and I think this is one of the sad sides of the interaction of the press and the criminal-justice system in large cities—they were not going to humiliate themselves by letting this man off completely if there were any way to hold him. McCoy had committed a Class E felony—leaving the scene of an accident where there has been personal bodily injury. That can be considered an important crime or a very minor crime depending on the mood of the hour. In the case of someone in a highly publicized case, given his background, it would have been treated severely. He would have probably drawn a year in jail and would have ended up having to serve most of it. I had a choice of either giving it a happy ending or spending several more chapters to follow him through the maw and the innards of the criminal-justice system—the hearings, the various court appearances and appeals and all the rest of it. I felt that would be anti-climactic. So I came up with this device of the epilogue—a newspaper article written by the New York Times. My model—and this may seem farfetched—was the epilogue to Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night in which the Divers are seen from afar by someone who says, “The last time I saw them they were sitting in a terrace of a hotel having a drink. I should have stopped to say something to them and I never did.” It's very poignant. I decided to have this type of monologue-from-afar in the form of a newspaper piece in the New York Times. I'm not sure it worked, but that was my solution.

Did it bother you at all that the book was criticized for having so few, if any, sympathetic characters?

Well, I don't like to be criticized, but it didn't bother me a great deal because I felt that this was a book about vanity in New York in an age of money fever. In fact, those who triumph in an age like that are seldom what we usually consider heroic and admirable characters. I also looked back at novels about cities that I admire tremendously, John O'Hara's Butterfield 8, Zola's Nana, Balzac's Cousin Bette, and it's hard to find any major character in them who is sympathetic in the usual meaning of that term. Somewhere I ran into a theory which I'd never heard of before, that without love from the author a character is not noble. I was being called incapable of love for the characters. Actually, I was in awe of the characters. I couldn't very well love them.

Thinking back, would you make any changes now?

I might change the ending. The epilogue. Looking back on it I felt it had a somewhat gimmicky quality about it. I still couldn't give it a happy ending. That wouldn't be right.

How long was the title The Bonfire of the Vanities in your mind?

A long time. I once took an American Express bus tour of Florence. We reached the Piazza della Signoria where there is wonderful statue of Mercury by Cellini. The driver who was also the guide told the story of the “bonfires of the vanities,” which had taken place there. At the end of the fifteenth century the Florentines had just been through a hog-wallowing, hog-stomping, baroque period, and when suddenly this ascetic monk, Savonarola, came forward and said, “Get rid of your evil ways, strip down, get rid of your vanities.” A bonfire was built. Most of the things were thrown into the fire voluntarily. Some things weren't but most of them were—nonreligious paintings, books by Boccaccio, plus wigs and false eyelashes and all kinds of silver, gold. At first, the citizenry loved it. It's sort of like the granola period we're going into right now. They loved the asceticism of it. Then after two of these bonfires, they'd really gotten very bored with the whole process and besides the Pope was getting a little jealous of Savonarola who was really running the city, and so he was the victim of the third bonfire. Anyway, this idea of a bonfire of the vanities stuck in my mind, intrigued me, and I said to myself how some day I'd write a book called that.

There was nothing in your book that really reflects this title.

No. I started to write an epigraph that would explain this reference, sort of the way John O'Hara in Appointment in Samarra has this epigraph by way of an historical note. But every time I wrote it, I came off as Savonarola. So I finally said, to hell with it. The connection is more the fiery itch of vanity. It was a far-fetched analogy. But that was in my mind.

Does criticism bother you? I seem to remember that your book The Painted Word about the art world caused a great stir.

Yes. It was the most vitriolic response I've ever had anywhere, much more so than Radical Chic or Bonfire of the Vanities. The things that I was called in print were remarkable. In fact, there were so many, I started categorizing them. One was “psychiatric insults”—the usual thing: This man is obviously sick. Then there were the “political insults”—usually I was called a fascist but occasionally a communist, a commissar. And then there were the curious round of insults I called the “X-rated insults,” all taking the same form which was, “This man who wrote the book is like a six year old at a pornographic movie; he can follow the motions of the bodies but he cannot comprehend the nuances.” I always thought it was a very strange sort of insult because it cast contemporary art as pornography and I was the child. In various forms this metaphor was repeated by several different reviewers. Robert Hughes used it. He had the full image, the six year old, the grunts and groans, the pornographic movie and the rest of it. In the Times John Russell referred to me as a eunuch at the orgy. I think he was afraid that too many of his readers would be over-stimulated by the thought of a six year old at a pornographic movie. So I became a eunuch at an orgy. Because of the similarity of the sexual metaphors, I was curious about this and was told later on that there had been a dinner in Bedford, New York shortly after The Painted Word came out … a number of art world figures, including Robert Motherwell, in somebody's fancy home. The subject of The Painted Word came up and Motherwell supposedly said, “You know, this man Wolfe reminds me of a six-year-old at a pornographic movie. He can follow the motions of the bodies but he can't comprehend the nuances.” If it's true, it shows what a small world the art world is. Actually that was one of the points I was trying to make in The Painted Word—that three thousand people, no more than that certainly, with roughly three hundred who live outside of the New York metropolitan area, determine all fashion in art. As far as I can tell, it was Motherwell's conceit; he is an influential, major figure, and it spread from this dinner table in Bedford overnight, as it were.

What was it that outraged them more than anything else in The Painted Word?

Now maybe I'm flattering myself, but I think what made a bigger impact than the usual diatribe was that what I wrote was a history; there's not a single critical judgment in the piece. It's a history of taste, and I think that approach—it's pitted on the level of a history of fashion—was infuriating. The art world can deal very easily with anybody who says they don't like Pollock or they don't like Rauschenberg, so what if you don't. But to say these people blindly follow Clement Greenberg's or Harold Rosenberg's theories, which is pretty much what The Painted Word is saying, and that a whole era was not visual at all but literary, now that got them.

Do you have any artwork hanging at home?

Yes. Not a lot but I have some. Most of it is by my friend Richard Merkin. I don't know how to characterize his work. His work has titles such as “Van Lingle Mungo Enters Havana.” So he's right on my wavelength. He has a very strong palette. Outside his work and a few others, my real passion is caricature. Mostly from the turn of the century and from a couple of magazines, for example Simplicissimus, which had artists like Bruno Paul, Rudolf Wilke and Olaf Gulbransson. These were satirical magazines with brilliant illustrators.

It wouldn't be a Paris Review interview unless we asked you about your work habits.

To tell you the truth, I always find that a fascinating part of the Paris Review interviews. That's the kind of thing writers always want to know: What are other writers doing? I use a typewriter. My wife gave me a word processor two Christmases ago which still stares at me accusingly from a desk in my office. One day I am going to be compelled to learn how to use it. But for the time being, I use a typewriter. I set myself a quota—ten pages a day, triple-spaced, which means about eighteen hundred words. If I can finish that in three hours, then I'm through for the day. I just close up the lunch box and go home—that's the way I think of it anyway. If it takes me twelve hours, that's too bad, I've got to do it. To me, the idea “I'm going to work for six hours” is of no use. I can waste time as handily at the desk as I can window-shopping, which is one of my favorite diversions. So I try to be very methodical and force myself to stick to that schedule.

Is there any mnemonic device to get you going?

I always have a clock in front of me. Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in a half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I'm feeling inspired. It's mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write. There's a marvelous essay that Sinclair Lewis wrote on how to write. He said most writers don't understand that the process begins by actually sitting down.

Hemingway stood up when he wrote. Used the top of his bureau.

Well, actually, so did my namesake, Thomas Wolfe. He wrote using the top of the refrigerator he was so tall …

What about your confidence as you write?

You go to bed every night thinking that you've written the most brilliant passage ever done which somehow the next day you realize is sheer drivel. Sometimes it's six months later that it dawns on you that it doesn't work. It's a constant hazard. I can sympathize with Ken Kesey who once said that he stopped writing because he was tired of being a seismograph—an instrument which measures rumblings from a great distance. He said he wanted to be a lightning rod—where it all happens at once, quick, and decisive. Perhaps this applies to painters, though I don't know. I suspect there are some awful dawns for them too.

Is there any characteristic the fiction writer has that means perhaps more power, more of an effect than can be achieved by the journalist or the essayist? Why fiction, is what I'm really trying to ask.

In answering this, I'm inevitably promoting my own theory of fiction: that you can dramatize reality in fiction so easily and with such economy, bring so many strands of a society onto one plotline. You can have a real impact with fiction provided that you deal with reality, provided you want to show how society works, how it fits together. This has been true at many points in our literary history, most notably in the thirties, with books like The Grapes of Wrath. It's hard to remember today the impact of a book like The Grapes of Wrath. We're in an age that cries out, I think, for that type of fiction. Instead, most of that impact has come from non-fiction; it's a great time for non-fiction writers because the main terrain—realism—was largely abandoned by an entire generation of talented writers. It's a worldwide phenomenon. When I was in Germany last year I became interested in the Berlin Wall—obviously one of the historical epicenters of the twentieth century, this fantastic, medieaval wall built in the mid-twentieth century dividing a city, a whole country in two, literally dividing brothers and sisters from brothers and sisters on the other side. So I asked about the great novels about the Wall written in Germany. I came up with a list of zero! Talented writers weren't going to look at the Wall. Amazing! What are the great Italian novels from the whole era of the kidnapping of Moro, the rest of the terrorist experience? Or what were the great French novels about the North African adventures?

Or Vietnam novels in our country?

Finally now they begin to appear, usually written by people who had not gone to college with the slightest notion of becoming writers, such as our recently resigned Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, who wrote what I consider the finest of the Vietnam novels, Fields of Fire. A career military officer, who happened to go to Vietnam and just wanted to write about it.

What denotes a “good” novel?

To me, it's a novel that pulls you inside the central nervous system of the characters … and makes you feel in your bones their motivations as affected by the society of which they are a part. It is folly to believe that you can bring the psychology of an individual successfully to life without putting him very firmly in a social setting. After The Bonfire of the Vanities came out I was accused of the negative stereotyping of just about every ethnic and racial type known to New York City. I would always challenge anyone who wrote that to give me one example. I have been waiting ever since. I think what I actually did was to violate a rule of etiquette—that it's all right to bring up the subject of racial and ethnic differences, but you must treat it in a certain way. Somewhere in the tale you must find an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who shows everyone the error of his or her ways; a higher synthesis is created and everyone leaves the stage perhaps sadder but a good deal wiser and a good deal kinder and more compassionate. Well, this just simply isn't the way New York works. The best you can say is that New York is held together by competing antagonisms which tend to cancel one another out. I tried to face up to that as unflinchingly as I could.

What's been the effect of film on your writing?

I've never been consciously affected by film—that is, I've never said to myself, I should set this scene the way it would be done in a movie. I do very consciously, however, think about how to set up a scene—whether fiction or non-fiction—and often it may coincide with cinematographic technique. For example, I'm often drawn to start a story with a long shot—as they would say in the cinema. It's an instinctive way of setting up a scene. A wonderful example is the way Truman Capote begins In Cold Blood—a very long shot of a Kansas wheat field, gradually focusing in on a solitary farmhouse on the horizon. Another way is to start with a very tight close-up—which I've done especially in my non-fiction. Radical Chic, for example, starts with a description of the aforementioned gadrooned silver platter with cheeseballs on it, and then pulls back—to use another cinematic metaphor—and you see that a person down whose gullet the cheeseballs is disappearing is one of the leaders of the Black Panthers.

How would you categorize your political outlook? After Radical Chic and to a certain extent after The Bonfire of the Vanities you were called reactionary, conservative.

I think of myself as a seer! Those two words, “reactionary” and “conservative,” are part of the etiquette of intellectual life in New York City—simply a way of saying “you're bad” or “I disagree with you.” Some time ago I attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of the National Review at a big party at the Plaza. About 2,500 people there. A reporter came up and asked if I would say that this was a gathering of the neoconservative clan. First I asked him if he spelt clan with a “K.” When he assured me he was going to use a “C,” I answered him. I said that what we were looking at in the room were 2,500 people, most of whom had never laid eyes on each other, who for one reason or another had not gone along with the official gag for the last quarter-century. I think that's about what it amounts to.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 102

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (essays) 1965

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (non-fiction) 1968

The Pump House Gang (essays) 1968 [published in England as The Mid-Atlantic Man and Other New Breeds in England and America]

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (essays) 1970

The New Journalism [Editor with E. W. Johnson, and contributor] (anthology) 1973

The Painted Word (non-fiction) 1975

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1976

The Right Stuff (non-fiction) 1979

In Our Time (essays) 1980

From Bauhaus to Our House (non-fiction) 1981

The Purple Decades: A Reader (essays) 1982

The Bonfire of the Vanities (novel) 1987

A Man in Full (novel) 1998

Hooking Up (essays) 2000

Marshall W. Fishwick (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 1–10.

[In this essay, Fishwick gives an overview of Wolfe's life and career, focusing on the segments of American culture that Wolfe profiles in his work.]

The Big Bad Wolfe is loose on the land—providing America with her most articulate and controversial winter in our generation. From the Good Ole Boys and Bad Ole Hippies of the 60s to the self-serving pols and Yuppies of the 90s, Tom Wolfe has held the mirror up to America: our fads, follies, cravings, crazies, architects, astronauts: “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours.”

His 1988 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, seemed after a full year at the top of the best seller list to have won tenure; in 1991 it became a high budget Hollywood movie. By then his trademark outfit (white suit, stiff collar, spats) bedecked magazine covers, talk shows, “serious” TV and radio panels. He was, envious critics screamed, a Wolfe in fop's clothing.

In this issue of the Journal of American Culture we hope to show that he is much more.

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931—his father, Thomas Wolfe Sr. was a Cornell Ph.D. who edited the influential magazine Southern Planter—young Tom was from the first an over-achiever. At the local private academy, St. Christopher's, he was an honors student, student council president, and school paper editor. Writing and drawing were his obsessions, as his column “The Bullpen” illustrated. Young Tom was a precocious word monger.

“When I was nine,” Wolfe remembers, “I started writing a biography of Napoleon. He was small and I was small. It bothered me that the world was run by large people, and Napoleon was this little guy who, at one point, ran the world.”1

Nine years later, Wolfe was a student at Washington and Lee University—and, fresh out of graduate school, I was there launching a program in American Studies. We hit it off. We explored the local country side, listened to country music, saw second-run movies at the local theater. A college classmate, Bill Hoffman, recalls that “Tom had a real sense of the absurd. I hated to go to the movies with him. He'd see something ridiculous like Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe and yell out in the theater: ‘You can't beat Hollywood!’” He also liked to flout the student dress code by wearing fitted English jackets and Hollywood tough-guy suits. Most of all, Tom wanted to be a big league pitcher. “At one point I went to a tryout camp for the New York Giants,” he later recalled.2 At that point in his life, at least, he lacked the right stuff.

Not so with the senior thesis he did in American Studies. Entitled A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti Intellectualism in the United States, the paper began: “It is January of 1951: Somehow there is a great unnaturalness about our national consciousness today.” Forty years later, Tom Wolfe is still examining that “great unnaturalness—” and giving us new, often jolting, insights into our lives as we lurch and stagger towards the end of “The American Century.”

Reading this first major essay of the young collegiate Wolfe, we detect some of his later concerns, beliefs, and stylistic traits.

Wolfe's thesis emerges quickly: we are a materialistic nation, and proud of it. This trait has clothed us, fed us, sheltered us to an extent greater than that realized by any other nation in history. Yet we are restless and perplexed:

We wonder, all of us at some moment in our lives, if we have not managed to translate the dun bulk of the material into our most spirited thoughts, deadening them, novocaining our self-expression and ultimately our conscience.3

We have tried to shut out the intellectual part of our consciousness; the part that brings conscience, the part that realizes beauty, the part that enables us to do something about the future. Wolfe wants “to illuminate our perverse dichotomy: animalism versus intellectualism: to show that our animal ideal and the present state … forces us into a crisis much more severe than we yet realize.”

Is this not the tension and dichotomy that underlies much of Wolfe's works—especially The Bonfire of the Vanities? Has he not presented these concerns and fears for forty years?

Modern American philosophy, young Wolfe contends, might be written in terms of physics and psychology, since they “give an almost sublime validity to our animal ideal, justify all impetuses with the goblin objectivity of immutable scientific law.” We refuse to admit that science cannot deal with the little dreams which give character to all our waking thoughts; that it has made matter and motion the sole reality, “thus dismissing the elements of experience that give life its real significance and poignant reality.”

In a section reminiscent of Ortega Y. Gasset, Wolfe discusses the rise of the mass man to social dominance, and the dreadful consequences:

He crushes everything beneath him, tears everything alien to his level, and therefore everything which is excellent, down to that level, which is, like the technological naturalness of water, the lowest level.

Mass man tries to escape, and chooses the murky realms of sex, mystery, and horror. He devours fast food and cheap pulp magazines, like True Romances,Hot Dog,Whiz Bang,Wild Cherries,Paris Nights,Passion Stories, and Medical Horrors.

The same capitalism which gave birth to these abortions of human nature has reached deep into government as well. The business man in government, the neat precise anti-intellectual, has inevitably messed things up: Chamberlain and Baldwin in England, Hoover in this country. Both nations found salvation in intellectuals: England in Churchill, the United States in Roosevelt.

Our political parties today use the revolt against intellectualism to further a threadbare idealism offering sentimental inanities. American democracy is now just a thing of symbols: the Fourth of July, Washington's Birthday, Armistice Day, hallowed days enabling the American to “strike out down a hot tarry highway for the beach or up the tortuous winds of a deep-rutted road into the shotgun-infested tangles of the hunting grounds.” We do not even remember what we first meant by democracy: its pristine ideals are parodied by racial prejudice and a whole conglomeration of social taboos.

What then is the smallest state in the Union? The state of Intellectualism. We have, Wolfe contends, intellectual “sets” rather than a realm of intellectuals. (This idea turns up time after time in his later writing.) American intellectuals are too prone to become hypnotized by their own delightful enterprises; to become too delicate, too expert, too exacting—which is precisely his charge in the famous 1989 Harper's Magazine article which set the literary world abuzz. As he put it in 1951:

Thus we have the world's largest cult of pseudo-intellectuals, who read book reviews but no books, who make a fetish of unintelligibility, who spray favorite expressions about as a substitute for erudition.

Here, from the 20-year old college senior, is the thesis which would sustain him for the rest of his career.

Here are the stylistic devices that would become his trademark: alliteration, polysyllabic passages, inversions, long convoluted sentences, sudden injection of pop phrases. The key word—one which Wolfe was using to describe America in the 80s—is baroque—the style prevalent especially in the seventeenth century, marked by elaborate and sometimes grotesque ornamentation and expression; in literature, by complexity of form and bizarre, ingenious, and even ambiguous imagery.

An excerpt from A Zoo Full of Zebras—a short chapter called “The Victor's Spoiled Spoils”—makes this clear:

The winners and still, still champion are the animalists. They rule America. But just what have they won?

They have won the means of specializing everything in their animal life. This barbarism of the specialist stems from science, but it has its real roots in the cataclysmic nature of animal materialism. The animal man denies himself the use of intellect, so that he cannot order this great hulking affluence that rises up about him like a geni, but must rather take each object as it comes. He is simply incapable of consuming this great blob of existence piece by piece, fact by fact. Since he rules out the Big Picture, he seeks to find his own little picture, thinking that if he can only get a little toehold in the materiality that ambients him he can somehow find coherence, for coherence is found only by the theorist who is the author of all things which man can make, the intellectual to whom the monstrous overhanging reality of the material is but a stain on the glass.

Failing to find coherence, the mass man resorts to conformity, so that nobody else is better than he is amid this great riddle of the universe. So it is that America is preeminently a nation of Goodguys, of mediocre people bound forever to the sacred oath of non-excellence, dispelling once and for all in spirit, though maintaining in voice, that idea of individualism which the phantom Forefathers hauled over on the Mayflower or the Prairie Schooner.

We fear Communism because of the conformity of behavior involved. That is frankly a laugh. We are tyrannized always by ourselves. We live always under a subtle unwritten social tyranny. The individuality of Americans is superficial; their conformity is profound. The mass man is reluctant to apply his own intellect to our problems and is resentful when the intellectual does so. Possessing a national creed which includes such tenets as ‘Mechanical gadgets mean progress,’ ‘Local misgovernment is due to wicked politicians,’ ‘Business men have more common sense than poets, scientists, philosophers, or women,’ and ‘Intercollegiate football is a great character-builder,’ how can we claim an intellectual superiority over the barbarians who consulted a soothsayers and the Delphian oracle? We are led by unthought thoughts, thoughts we say but do not think.

Something has gone out of our lives; love of the excellent. But there are no normalities to return to. Whatever comes is new and will make all things new. The mass American is ethically unprepared for what is coming, even as he is unprepared to use the hugh cornucopia which he has.

On to Yale from Washington and Lee—and a Ph.D. in American Studies. There he had many of the same professors who had taught me: Stanley Williams, Norman Holmes Pearson, Ralph Gabriel, Cleanth Brooks. His 1956 dissertation was a detailed analysis of the League of American Writers (LAW).4 The meticulous research in government bulletins, court records, and secretarial archives pointed toward what would later be called the New Journalism. Wolfe contended that Communism had infiltrated the literary community, exploiting authors for the Bolshevik cause. This tended to hamper individualism and the denunciation of writers like James T. Farrell. A writer was doomed not only to isolation but to persecution if he broke away from the organic link of writers.5

At the heart of American Studies ideology in the years in which Tom Wolfe and I attended Yale was the “culture concept.” The much-used metaphor for introducing it came from Digger Indian mythology; “In the beginning God made heaven and earth. God gave to all people a cup of clay. From this cup they drank their lives.”

That “cup of clay” we call “culture”—a crucial word to 20th century scholarship. The Kroeber-Kluckhohn volume, Culture—A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, examines 164 different definitions, and shows how culture has entered into the most complex schemes of our time. Culture begins not with the Parthenon, but with a mud hut. Before marble statues come pots and jars. “Do not despise a culture of humble things” Herbert Read admonishes us, “because the best civilizations of the past may be judged by them.”

Read (in To Hell With Culture) points out the Greeks didn't even have a word for culture. The first recorded use of the word dates only from 1510. But the root goes back to Roman times, and has to do with tillage, breaking the soil. Our job, we were told, is to apply the concept to American civilization.

Any comparative study of cultures rests upon a certain number of assumptions which though generally held today do not command universal subscription. It is assumed that with proper regard for diffusion, there may be discrete cultures and not simply stages of culture. Such as assumption is not maximal but minimal and stress the concept of culture as system.

Paralleling as it does the development of mathematical physics, the growth of the history of science, and the wide application of the scientific method, this position diverges from an evolutionary theory of process—it separates change from system and makes it at best an incidental and unstressed aspect of each culture. One theory would relate cultures according to their classification upon a ladder of change.

It seems to me that this is what Tom Wolfe has been doing ever since he left Yale … and why he has greatly influenced American culture.

The similarities between the approach of anthropology and American Studies are clear: both strive to give perspective not only in time but in range of human behavior. Both widen the daily stage on which people play many roles, drawing from the buried past and the vital present. Both attempt to take off our cultural blinders—to permit us to peer over the rim of our own little world, and to see through the illusions which we so prize and protect. And who has done this better than Tom Wolfe?

Anthropology centers on symbolic acts—including visual forms. It is significant that Wolfe has not only written but illustrated many of his articles. For him, objects are visible portraits of a culture. Words are signs of natural facts. So are drawings. Yale had served him well, but he did not want to spend his life as a scholar.

Preferring the streets to the stacks, he became a journalist in Springfield, Washington, then New York, as feature writer for the late Herald-Tribune. His fame grew. Esquire sent him to California to cover a hot rod and custom car show.

“I stayed up all night,” Wolfe later wrote, “typing like a madman meeting a deadline, advancing a thesis … We are witnessing ‘The great Prole Revolution’ in the industrialized West. This calls for a New Journalism.”

A journalism that rejects traditional canons of objectivity, which often function to insulate truth. (Canons like “Reporting should be detached and impersonal …”: or “The government is a trustworthy source of prime news.”) Instead, the writer should be subjective, involved, and creative in relation to the events he reports and comments on. New Journalism is a broad attitude which umbrellas different genres: Alternative Journalism, Advocacy Journalism, Counter-culture Journalism, Alternative Broadcasting. Where did such belief in passionate and powerful reporting begin? In 63 A.D. with Saint Paul, or 1964 A.D. with Tom Wolfe? The argument rages and there will never be full agreement. After writing The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,The Pump House Gang,The Electric Kool-Aid Test, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. Wolfe was the major spokesman and theorist for New Journalism.6

Wolfe was fascinated with the New Nonfiction. “The standard nonfiction writer's voice,” he wrote, “was like the standard announcer's voice—a drag, a droning.” New Nonfiction writers should use the techniques of the novelist to provide the kind of excitement to stimulate and increase the readership. He was beginning to sound like a great nineteenth century American journalist: Mark Twain.

Style—the dye which colors the total fabric, seeping into cell and crevice—is supremely important and extremely illusive. Those who have style don't often discuss it; those who write about it often don't have it. Style involves semiotics, repetition, attitudes. One of Wolfe's most admired essays begins: “Hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, HERNIA, HerNIA, hernia …”

Meaningless repetition? No. A comment from a spaced-out observer mocking the running singsong at a Las Vegas crap table. “The hernia sound,” wrote Wolfe, “is part of something rare and rather grand: A combination of baroque stimuli that brings to mind the bronze gongs that Louis XIV … personally hunted out in the bazaars of Asia Minor.” Do you mean that the American equivalent of Versailles is Las Vegas? Exactly!

So he went on to write about good ole’ boys, rock ‘n’ roll, stretch pants, decal eyes, merry Pranksters, mock-up, put-downs, flake-offs—“the incredible post-war American electro-pastel surge,” resplendent with superhighways, superculture, counterculture, puppies, pumps, pimps, and things that go bump in the night.

In short, he wedded New Journalism and Popular Culture, giving them both a new vitality and respectability, changing not only the attitudes of millions of readers, but of colleges and universities which have come to recognize (finally) that Gilbert and Sullivan were quite perceptive: art did NOT “stop short in the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine.”

The New Journalist who once typed all night spent months doing careful research of America's space program, The Right Stuff, put together as meticulously as a Swiss watch, expanded Wolfe's audience as it expanded American Studies.

And what is the Right Stuff? In Wolfe's words: “the quality a man has to put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the exper, the COOLNESS to put it back at the next yawning moment—and then to go up the next day.” THE RIGHT STUFF: another culture-tag, like Radical Chic, Painted Word, Me Too Generation, New Journalism: the mark of the Wolfe.

His range is enormous, The Painted Word challenges the New York coterie who dominate the art world (what you SEE is what we SAY) and From Bauhaus To Our House, dares challenge the Europe modernists who not only dominated but suffocated archit. style in this country for decades. (Prince Charles is saying some of the same things these days about English architecture—there, too, professions hackles are up).

Then came his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, which John Lucas called “a significant historical event.” Another critic, R. Z. Sheppard, explained why. “Like Balzac, Thackery, Zola and Dickens, Wolfe is a master of social satire—he is, in fact, the best of his generation.”

Already the chief characters of that novel: Sherman McCoy (Master of the Universe), the ne'er-do-well British journalist Peter Fallow, the rabble-rousing Rev. Bacon are becoming archetypal—like Moll Flanders, Uriah Heep, J. Alfred Prufrock, Archie Bunker, and the Simpsons.

Balzac and Zola wrote extensively of the clash between old money and new as does Wolfe. “Old money has its standards,” Wolfe says, “but it can't resist going to the new parties.” At those parties he found the phenomenon that sums up the feverish pursuit of social ambitions: “I discovered the laugh, the excessive compulsive Laughter …” The Way We Live Now, to revive an Anthony Trollope title dear to Tom Wolfe.

Meanwhile, the critics rage. For Matthew Wills The Bonfire of the Vanities becomes Vampire of the Banalities; Mary Gordon calls Wolfe's essay calling for writers to take on the richness of American life, “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours,” the most “self-aggrandizing literary piece I've seen in a good, long time.”

Undaunted, the Big Bad Wolfe attacks the trendy and the chic wherever he finds it: Absurdism, Radical Disjunctionism, Magical Realism, Neofabulism, Minimalism (a.k.a. the “K-Mart Realists”) and the pomposities of the Old Left and New Right. Even his severest critic—Gore Vidal—admits that Wolfe's antennae is “very good indeed.”

Wolfe's love-hate relationship with New York—and indeed all of America—continues to fascinate, and sometimes infuriate us. At times he seems to be saying of New York what Livy said centuries earlier of Rome: “We have reached the point where we can stand neither our diseases nor their cure.”

What next? What will the author who left such an imprint on the 60s, 70s, and 80s, have to say about the 90s? Wolfe writes that he is currently doing research on real estate development, the art market, and Asians in America for a novel about the contemporary United States.

Meanwhile, on May 28, 1990, Yale University has honored its most controversial American Studies graduate with the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, the most prestigious honor available.

The citation read for Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. was:

Tom Wolfe, for a quarter-century you have shaped American self-consciousness, pushing, probing, irritating, exposing until, layer by layer, its pretensions are stripped away to expose the essential self, the American character, not afraid that uncovering absurdity besmirches resilience, even glory.

From The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965 to the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1988, your books have been consistent best-sellers. They would alone be important for their fame, their acerbic wit, their telling microscopic description, and their devastating satire. Two phrases of your creation—‘Radical Chic’ and ‘The Me Decade'—stand for their achievement. With one you brought down a whole movement, with the other you exposed a mode of life all too characteristic of late twentieth-century culture.

You have striven to understand the evolution and corruption of modern aesthetics. Your description of car customizing shattered the formal custodialism that circumscribed ‘art’ in American museums, and your confrontation with ‘modern art’ and ‘modern architecture’ demanded a return to aesthetics in professions seemingly burdened by cronyism, cant, and simple crass commercialism.

In creating a literature of late twentieth-century excess, you have indelibly shaped a dialogue of America with itself. Like Twain and Emerson before you, your satire and social criticism have used foible to explore morality and meaning. You have attained an influence desired by all ethicists but achieved by few—to shape public values in a still redeemable democracy.

For each and all of these achievements, we present you with the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal.

Looking at Wolfe's 11 books we find (sometimes far beneath the surface) an older, nobler conservatism quite unlike our so-called conservative (or fundamentalist) preachers, politicians, and paper-swappers who heal cancers and convert Kraft cheese to gold—that pack of well-handled hounds who bay for money on Wall street, on Main Street, and in high places.

The BONFIRE has become a landmark—a Rosetta stone for deciphering our time, when many in the middle class became middle crass; when knowledge was replaced by information; and when our leaders fought to divide the world between the haves and have-more's.

Meanwhile, Wolfe continues to surprise and delight us. His inflammable essay in the November 1989 Harper's Magazine, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” calls for big social realistic novels—for a look at America outside Manhattan, with its precious faddish groups.

“We live in an age in which it is no longer possible to be funny. there is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.”

This, while Dan Quale, Marion Barry, Donald Trump, Jesse Helms, 2 Live Crew, and Leona Helmsley stalked the land.

No wonder we are proud to present this special Tom Wolfe section in the Journal of American Culture.


  1. Toby Thompson, “The Evolution of Dandy Tom,” Vanity Fair, October 1987, 119.

  2. Ibid., 120.

  3. All quotes from Wolfe's term paper are from the manuscript in the author's possession.

  4. Tom Wolfe, The League of American Writers: Communist Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Sterling Library, Yale University.

  5. Ibid., 40.

  6. For more on this evolution and development, see Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy M. Scura (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990).

Parke Rouse (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe Unchanged By Fame,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 11–12.

[In the following essay, Rouse recalls a personal meeting with Wolfe, while also discussing the writer's early years and development into a journalist.]

It was in the 1960s. My wife and I were flying to England and we had just boarded the airplane. Down the aisle came a thin young man. He wore a white suit despite the fall weather.

“Aren't you Tom Wolfe?” I asked.

He was, and we were soon in conversation about our alma mater, Washington and Lee, and mutual journalistic friends.

“Excuse the white suit,” Tom said, “My p.r. man insists I wear it. I'm having an interview with the British press when we reach the airport to promote my new book.”

Wolfe had just made a hit with his Esquire piece, “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about California custom-car designers.

That was the beginning. Since then, he's become perhaps the most celebrated non-fiction writer in America. His novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a best-seller.

Wolfe is now 59, but he's still trim, dapper, and dresses like a Delta dude. I saw him last in November at a W & L alumni reception here in Williamsburg, where he'd come as a W & L trustee. He was deep in conversation with his ex-W & L roommate, Dr. Thomas Wash, a Newport News physician. And I see him often on TV, wearing a vanilla suit and talking amusingly.

Tom's salvation was his discovery of the California counterculture back in the 1960s. Many of America's privileged youngsters were beginning to opt out of the mainstream in favor of Woodstock and the hippie world of drugs, motorcycles, and communes. Wolfe became the epitome of the New Journalism, writing in Rolling Stone about the freakish cults in the coastal capitals of aberrant behavior, New York and Los Angeles.

Strangely, though, this guru of Radical Chic is a clean-cut product of an upper middle class Richmond family, reared in Ginter Park. He grew up a Presbyterian, played baseball at St. Christopher's School and W & L, and was encouraged at W & L by Professor Marshall Fishwick to get a doctorate in American studies at Yale. This was his crucial decision.

What tantalizes New York's feral press is Wolfe's stubborn conventionality as he moves among the weirdos of Soho and Haight-Ashbury. For all the public sees, he remains a squeaky clean WASP, with gentle Southern manners and a Mr. Kleen family life. (He's married to an art director, the charming, Sheila Berger, 41, has two children and an apartment at 2 Beekman Place, one of New York's “best” addresses.)

Gay Talese, another New Journalist, calls Wolfe “very much the Southerner who feels distance as he moves through the New York scene. It doesn't touch him. He doesn't want it to touch him.” And Wolfe has worked hard, writing 11 books.

Tom is the son of Thomas Wolfe Sr., a Cornell Ph.D. and ex-Virginia Tech professor who moved to Richmond to run the Southern Planter, a once-influential farm magazine. The boy was an overachiever from the start, studying tap and ballet and drawing imaginatively. At St. Christopher's he became an honors student, student council president, a so-so athlete, and co-editor of the school paper. For the latter, he wrote and illustrated “The Bullpen,” a fore-taste of his hypersensitive style.

Tom is devoted to his 90-year-old mother, who now lives in North Carolina. He flies frequently to W & L meetings in Lexington and to Richmond speeches and autographings. He often goes back to St. Christopher's classrooms or hosts its headmaster, George McVey. In New York and at the Wolfes’ New England hideaway. Recently, he was in Farmville to receive the Dos Passos Prize from Longwood College, where his mother went to school.

From the start, Wolfe wanted to be somebody. Fishwick saw his talent at W & L and directed it toward acute social observation. At W & L, Tom is remembered as the ambivalent personality he remains, pledging a “good” fraternity and pitching for the varsity nine but flouting the student dress code by wearing fitted English jackets and Hollywood-tough-guy suits.

Professor Fishwick, who is now head of the Virginia Tech communications department, fixed Wolfe's attention on America's popular cultures. “He gave a course which in effect was all of American studies compressed into one year,” Tom says now. It included American art, psychological theories, history, and much else.

“I tried to baptize the proletarian,” Fishwick recently told writer Toby Thompson of Vanity Fair “Tom immediately took the bait.” Fishwick led field trips of students to hear country music bands, taught students how to rebuild old houses, and showed them how to lay bricks.

At W & L, Tom Wolfe says he learned to respect his father's Valley of Virginia heritage and to use the discipline of social observation creatively. Says Fishwick, Tom “saw through the facade of the small, elite college and demonstrated that everyone was of the same pattern.”

After Yale, Wolfe began his journalistic climb. He worked for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, The Washington Post, and in 1962 made it to the New York Herald Tribune. There, he rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and talked Esquire magazine into sending him to California to cover a Hot Rod and Custom Car Show. The result was Tom's effervescent “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

That was about the time Betsy and I encountered Tom Wolfe flying to London. His first book was a collection of such magazine pieces, and a hit. Others followed, unearthing bizarre social phenomena across America. Notable was The Right Stuff, about the first astronauts, which Wolfe wrote serially for 29 issues of Rolling Stone magazine.

Rolling Stone also serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom's first fiction. Now it appears as a 659-page novel in a first printing of 150,000.

Meanwhile, people in Richmond and Lexington are shaking their heads in disbelief. “So that's what Tom Wolfe was getting at,” they tell each other. The dandified young man from Ginter Park has made his mark indeed.

Further Reading

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“Atlanta Burnt Again.” Economist 349, No. 8093 (7 November 1998): 89.

This review of Wolfe's A Man in Full compares the novel to Wolfe's earlier The Bonfire of the Vanities, calling it “equally good.”

“Tom Wolfe throws down a glove: Back to Reality.” Economist 313 (11 November 1989): 111–12.

This essay discusses Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and how it relates to his “literary manifesto for the new social novel.”

Edwards, Brian. “Wolfe's Bonfire and Barth's Tidewater: An Essay in Cultural Politics.” Australian Journal of American Studies 10, No. 1 (July 1991): 31–38.

Edwards analyzes the effect that cultural context has on literary works, specifically Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and John Barth's The Tidewater Tales.

Grunwald, Lisa. “Tom Wolfe Aloft in the Status Sphere.” Esquire 114, No. 4 (October 1990): 146–54.

Grunwald profiles Wolfe's career and discusses the importance that Wolfe places on status in society today.

Updike, John. “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT! Tom Wolfe Looks Hard at America.” New Yorker 74, No. 34 (9 November 1998): 99–102.

In this review of A Man in Full, Updike calls the work a “brave, flamboyant effort,” but ultimately faults the book for “trying too hard to please us.”

Additional coverage of Wolfe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, 1989, Issue 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13–16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 9, 33, and 70; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152 and 185; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2.

Sheri F. Crawford (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Rebel-Doodle Dandy,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 13–18.

[In the following essay, Crawford dissects the typical Wolfe protagonist, portraying them as well-tailored anti-heroes and heroic outlaws who only have allegiance to themselves.]

Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence.1

Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life

In 1974 Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby appeared on the screen with Robert Redford as Gatsby, a twenties racketeer. Wolfe complained that the novel had been reinterpreted by the garment industry.2 Redford's Hollywood wardrobe tailor failed to fit him properly in white linen suits. The suits looked awful and appeared uncomfortable for Redford.

Deja vu. In 1990, Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities appeared on the screen with Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy. He wore tailored $4,000 Saville Row suits made from $200 a yard wool. Nevertheless, Hanks’ suits did not appear to look or fit better than Redford's suits. Without genuine clothing that pays attention to the details, the movie fell short of the graphic realism in Wolfe's novel. When he sold the rights to the book, he sold McCoy and everyone in the cast, to an inferior tailor and screenwriter.

Wolfe's fascination for the well-dressed hero originated with his love of Baldassare Castiglione's Courtier and his deep admiration for Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. In each text, status and credibility begin with clothes which genuinely convey the “real self.” Although, Wolfe believes that “fashion is the code language of status,”3 he prefers the counter notion that the “‘real self,’ his psyche, his soul, is largely the product of fashion and other outside influences on his status.”4 Consequently, clothing does not only reveal but also, conceal and insulate the true self.

Wolfe calls his clothes style anti-fashion. I address Wolfe's style as ‘Rebel-Doodle Dandy’ because it is a camouflage, an anachronistic gracefully rebellious style of dressing. Thomas Carlyle, a significant influence in Wolfe's writings, called it Sansculottism.5 It was a derisive term which refered to revolutionary clothing. Under the Dandy's costume is a streak of Yankee: the American Revolutionary War rebel transformed into the Confederate Rebel from Virginia.

Whether he's describing Radical Chic or Funky Chic, Wolfe attributes to style “the power to create political change on its own.”6 Wolfe's Excalibur pen strikes a contrary way of looking at things—an aggression waged upon the status quo. Wolfe and his heroes provoke and are vulnerable to criticism but a charming exclusive demeanor works symbiotically to protect the ‘real self.’ Wolfe's literary serifs and sartorial flair mask the real Wolfe. He is the Outlaw disguised as Gentleman. Under the Dandy's costume is a rowdy bellicose maverick.

In an unclassifiable treatise on the philosophy of clothes, entitled Sartor Resartus, Carlyle invents an outsider, a well-tailored German professor whose unusual name, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, translates roughly as a cynical devil's dung or excrement. His persona and lifestyle are projected through his fascination for clothes; his pursuit of the finest and most excellent exhibition of his wardrobe eventually leads him to imitate the English Dandy. Wolfe carries on the Carlylean tradition.

Carlyle used the name of this imaginary professor to create a subterfuge. Carlyle's Dandy personified a conscious duplicitous fusion of the Outlaw enveloped within the Gentleman's clothes. “A Dandy is a Clothes-wearing Man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of clothes wisely and well: so that others dress to live, he lives to dress.”7 His body, mind, soul and purse are dedicated to this persona. Carlyle considers the Dandy's heroic consecration to the wearing of clothes a religious duty of Self-worship.

There is a subtle repudiation of the Self by Carlyle which is often ignored or missed by the reader. Carlyle's sardonic treatise condemns the self-centered, self-serving and flamboyant Dandy. Although, Carlyle's book on Dandyism became a Bible for this new sect and many converted, (it certainly converted Wolfe), Carlyle's obsession with style was more than a fashion statement; he reinvented the Platonic belief that “the clothes make the man.”

In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates illustrates that the tailor's coat is an analogy for the relationship of the soul to the body. “Each soul wears out a number of bodies.”8 The soul outlives the vehicle or body. If Wolfe adheres to Carlyle's Dandy, there is the admonition to reject the Self and cultivate the Soul.

But, what really was a Dandy?

The original model for the Dandy was Mr. “Beau” George Bryan Brummell himself. He lived from 1778–1840. Lord Byron and the Edwardian, Oscar Wilde, admired him. Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly, in his 1845 publication of Dandyism, challenged Carlyle's definition of a Dandy written in 1830. Barbey's quintessential Dandy was Brummel, who not only chose a particular way of wearing clothes but a style of existence.

According to Barbey, a Dandy must be wellmannered, charismatic, and a raconteur who is “capable of acidic wit and possesses enough grace which is the dissolvent.”9 He had declared the Articles of Faith: an admiration of himself and an acknowledgment that the “Dandy, alone, was content.10 But it took a great deal to satisfy those needs. His toiletry needs, perfume bottles, household furnishings including full-length mirrors, and closets of shoes, necessitate a full-time French valet so that he can be the charming but rebellious free spirit performing for those who rub shoulders and vicariously experience the demimonde.

Carlyle and Barbey give us fraternal twin Dandies but we are fooled if we mistake the clothes for the true identity. Carlyle's Dandy seeks to destroy the illusion while Barbey's Dandy creates it. Wolfe and his heroes reconcile this dichotomy of the Outlaw who resides within the Gentleman's clothes. The Gentleman dresses for or acts the part but it's the Outlaw who participates in the revolution. How do we know which one will be unheroic? The tip-off is “dressing wrong or doing it lame.”11

In The Painted Word, Wolfe described the contemporary artist mated with the patron in a seductive ‘Apache Dance’.12 It awarded the artist with precisely what he wanted. He could “be high, live low, stay young forever—in short, be the bohemian.”13 The Bohemian artist had a lot in common with the funky Dandy. Both were willing to prostitute themselves for their religion; self-worship was just the beginning to celebrity status. The artist wore his freshly splattered jeans with a tuxedo jacket. Voilà—‘The Dandy as Artist’; they both carried the identical message. Epatez la bourgeoise or shock the middle class. It is an anarchist's message delivered in a bottle of perfume. This is how the Outlaw practices his subterfuge in order to sell his wares.

Brummell's reputation was based on the vanity of the Self and that message was the medium: his clothes. He conveyed his independence through his style of dress. (One wonders how he might have fit into Wolfe's “Me-Generation.”) The Dandy abhorred social codes and refused to follow and obey rules. There were no models to imitate. Wolfe's own outlaw behavior has found its expression in his pyrotechnic writing style. Whether he offends or defends, his message is heard: “Don't be taken in!” Or, in Wolfe's conclusion to his chapter on Funky Chic: “… stay alert! use your bean!”14

Independence makes the Dandy! “Every dandy dares—with tact and stops at the intersection between originality and eccentricity.”15 His sartorial and writing style is his disguise. He is a chameleon; a wolf in sheep's clothing. He is the outsider … who's in! His flair for personal style hurls him above and beyond the fashion and fads. It is his admission ticket to the world. The camouflage attire may appear as affectation but it is essential gear for the sociologist who hopes to understand his subject.

Wolfe probably spends as much time as Brummell once did preparing for an excursion into Manhattan. Brummell, weary from the hours spent grooming, eventually selected a more simple elegance. On the other hand, Wolfe has maintained his fashion image and persona for over thirty years. It allows him to go for the ride … without getting on the bus! The incognito passenger is both invisible and prominent.

Thus, the figure of the Dandy is ambiguous. He lives a role and masquerades in full costume. His Bohemian and counter-Bohemian subterfuge enables him to gain access to the aristocratic class where his patronizing is considered an art. To others, he doesn't appear to be leading an artificial existence; his disguise is convincing. Like a chameleon, he appears to fit in. He maintains his decorum and carefully protects his vanity.

Barbey's Dandy is unheroic but he has a primary concern with appearing heroic. He does not dare but he succeeds at pretending he possesses heroic daring. His cavalier and quixotic pretense is both attractive and repulsive. He ingratiates himself by pleasing his patrons. Barbey's description of the Dandy sums it up: “It is an ostentacious elegance.”16 “It is the impertinance of a veiled genius—the best shield against the vanity of others, so often hostile—and the best cloak to cover one's own weaknesses.”17

As nearly everyone knows, Tom Wolfe was born a Dandy. Like his father, a Virginia Gentleman, he grew up among Jeffersonian agrarians with the English aristocratic polish. His father would go to Richmond where a tailor would outfit him with a white linen Norfolk-style suit, the belt in the back and pleats over the shoulders.18 Just as his father had done, Wolfe searched for his own individual expression.

When Tom first started his newspaper beat in Washington, he, too, ordered the Southern gentleman attire. He began to speak, write and dress with a distinct individuality. Perhaps, he was imitating that rebellious journalist, Mark Twain, who also preferred the white linen for those humid summers in the South.19 Was Wolfe protecting his vulnerability or did it give him his independence? Is he an “unheroic Barbey-Doll Dandy” or a “heroic Carlylean Dandy?” … with the right stuff? Let's examine the evidence.

In some of Wolfe's early articles in 1963, 1964 and 1965, he would switch back and forth between points-of-view. Often this was abrupt and disconcerting to his critics and reviewers but not to Wolfe, who took their frustrations as a compliment.20 Wolfe's quirky literary style, filled with onomatopoeias, metonymic descriptions, Homeric lists and Joycean stream-of-consciousness tangents became as fascinating to the reader, as they were to Wolfe. His highly embroidered prose matched his own exterior camouflage. His radical experiments “pushed the envelope” of journalistic technique in the reportage school. He had performed a spinal tap on popular culture, in spite of the orthodox rules.

Like Carlyle, who used clothes as a metaphor, Wolfe's words were his “garment of thought.” It was a flashy, eeeeeeelectrifying, idiosyncratic reportorial style of realistic prose mixed with a wrangling subjective personal reflection on status and heroes. He wrote like he dressed. He dynamited the most traditional edifices, modestly took the credit but remained unscathed. As in Benjamin West's painting of the “Death of General Wolfe on the fields of Abraham,” both emerge perfectly clean, amidst the chaos.

Wolfe's Manhattan tailor, Vincent Nicolosi provides the dozen or so suits which keep Wolfe in his masquerading costume. His close friend, Richard Merkin, described Wolfe's Dandyism as a mask but also “applauded his modest and sensitive inner self.”21 In an interview for Rolling Stone after Bonfire was published, Wolfe offered this caveat: “Never underestimate how much of your childhood is sewn into the lining of your garments when you go to New York.”22 Whether it was Wolfe's admiration for Carlyle's Dandy or his filial devotion to his father, clothes are essential for the inventing of the hero. A tailor can make anyone's dreadful body appear perfect with the right (amount of) stuff in the padding! Only Wolfe's tailor knows for sure.

Consequently, Wolfe's critics have called him a dandy,23 and a “Wolfe in fop's clothing.”24 Wolfe admits his tastes are “counter-Bohemian.” The “Man in the White Linen Suit” seems to reflect the “southern English tradition of the warrior-aristocrat.”25 But his vanilla ice-cream suits are not his only disguise.

Wolfe also shields himself with a projected air about him which contributes to the arrogance, noted by some critics. Wolfe's clothes have often been viewed as a subversive political gesture.26 Of course, Wolfe's response is neither to confirm or deny those accusations leveled against him. The demeanor of this “Rebel-Doodle Dandy” is to never appear as though your feathers have been ruffled.

“A rebel in a free country is the rebel within the status group. Clothes are a way of treating the literary-status world as cavalierly as I or any other writer would treat the outside world.27

The heroic life of the cavalier is revealed in Wolfe's Clothes-philosophy but according to Carlyle, “no man is a Hero to his valet-de-chambre,”28 His cavalier tastes, style, and demeanor must appear impeccable. Like the heroic but sad clown, Pierrot, who never seems to stain his costume, Wolfe appears spotless in name and reputation. He “wears white to irritate people as a harmless form of aggression.”29 He describes his clothes as “a doorway that most easily leads you to the heart of the individual; it's the way [individuals] reveal themselves.”30 Clothes, like architecture, may provide that doorway that opens onto the individual's inner life or “real self” but unlocking that door is still the task of a good psychic detective turned biographer. Just as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, heroes in a half-shell, deflect violence, Wolfe has managed to deflect most criticism.

Let's continue the investigation with an early audacious interview in a topless restaurant. In 1965, Wolfe had both dinner and lunch with Marshall McLuhan. The evening's interview rendered an article entitled, “What if He's Right?” In it, Wolfe scrutinized this little-known Canadian professor of English who would soon, thanks to his publicity agents, be transformed into a celebrity-guru of popculture. Wolfe's Freudian analysis of McLuhan became permanently etched in his mind upon watching McLuhan's 89-cent, snap-on bow tie bob up and around his Adam's apple over dinner. McLuhan had a lot to say about everything, including clothing.

In War and Peace in the Global Village, McLuhan described Joyce's Prankquean as “the very expression of war and aggression. In her life, clothing is weaponry.”31 He concluded that clothing is “… anti-enemies … anti-competitors … anti-boredom.”32 McLuhan discusses that philosophy during a second interview which took place at the Off-Broadway, a bottomless and topless restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach; it was across the street from Carol Doda's The Condor where she displayed the world's first emulsified silicone breasts. (Wolfe notes that silicone is the same ingredient found in Silly Putty.)33 While he meticulously records the dialogue, he doesn't acknowledge the irony of McLuhan's luncheon lecture. McLuhan had expounded upon his fascination of James Joyce's Prankquean and Thomas Carlyle's “clothes philosophy” in the one place where clothes were NOT the attraction!

McLuhan instantly sized up the whole scene and proposed a Carlylean theory. “They're wearing us. We are their clothes. We become their environment. We become extensions of their skin.”34 (The word, environment, as we define it today, was, coincidentally, used first by Carlyle.) No one quite knew what McLuhan meant. McLuhan's “no clothes” clothes philosophy engendered quizzical looks around the luncheon table as he confused everyone by concluding that “the topless waitress was the opening wedge of the trial balloon.”35 This led Wolfe to pronounce, perhaps facetiously, that Carol Doda was “a heroine of her times!”36 After lunch, the waitresses modeled in a “Style Show.”

McLuhan's nude reinterpretation of Carlyle's clothes philosophy had inspired Wolfe to reexamine Freud and the Victorian morality. Wolfe's sociological background in American Studies provided a comparison between McLuhan's analysis and Freud's psychological insights fifty years before. Whether right or wrong, Wolfe concluded that both men had earned the German proverb: “Many enemies, much honor.”37

Wolfe dared to both attack and praise McLuhan within one single audacious article. Without a commitment to or a rejection of McLuhan's ideology, he placed him opposite the most renowned communication expert of the decade: S. I. Hayakawa, a well known semanticist of the sixties, who would later become San Francisco State University's “on-strike-shut-it-down” president and a California Senator. McLuhan assessed the semanticist's annual conference as operating upon ‘obsolete premises’ and thereby upstaged him.38 McLuhan, a good Wolfean hero, artfully and ever so tactfully, put down his competitor.

Wolfe's bellicose analysis and ambivalent descriptions of Freud39 and McLuhan were irreverent but respectful; a tribute to visionaries who explored their senses and their environment. Freud had worked out his theory with electricity and McLuhan with electronics. Those mediums of technology would both come together in film. Just as Wolfe noted that realism put the electricity in novels, he had hoped that his realism would be the bolt of lightning that would ignite the Bonfire film. Alas, when he sold his rights, he surrendered to the enemy.

The aggression and power of print that transformed the Renaissance, may be the modern film-frame which gives us the powerful truth twenty-four times a second. It could have brought us the realism of the Bronx, New York City's legal system of “Favor Banks” or the emaciated social X-rays and Lemon tarts. But Wolfe prophetically acknowledged his doubts with his comments on the Great Gatsby film. However, in The Right Stuff, film director Philip Kauffman, was conscientious in the recreation of genuine activities among the Right Stuff cadre. What happened in Brian de Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities? He mutilated the book by showing it through the eyes of one man, Peter Fallow.

Although Wolfe has not publicly expressed his disatisfaction with the movie, he has privately communicated his reactions to this author.40 The fact that none of the cast members have read the book,41 may indicate how little the power of print affected the actual script, thereby rendering the film impotent. In April 1990, Spike Lee announced that the film contained a new and perhaps potentially racist conclusion, one that was different from the book.42 Although he was somewhat misinformed, there were substantial changes in the plot and characters.

The book's jacket title is the only evidence of Wolfe's signature. The film industry and the garment industry, in complicity, destroyed The Bonfire of the Vanities. How much realism was communicated to the audience, relied upon what McLuhan called a “Cool” medium. The film failed to deliver the accurate information or data.43 As mass communication shifted from the word to image and from the “Hot” to the “Cool” Medium, realism suffers. Just as Freud saw the covering up of Victorian bodies as a suppression of erotic energy, so McLuhan, a staunch Catholic, viewed the exposure of flesh as a dissipation of sexual aggression. Whereas Victorian-laced corsets and shoes promoted aggression, Carol Doda's nudity diffused it and Wolfe acknowledged erotic seduction in Maria Ruskin's voice and clothes, by not undressing her.

As a consequence, there were no pyrotechnic displays ignited on the screen. Truth depends on the physiology of realism and Wolfe depended upon the microscopic ancillary descriptions of Maria's silk blouses, Sherman's suits, and mise-en-scene antique furniture from faux-marble. From tip to toe and hat to shoe fetishes, Brian de Palma did not pull it off. How could de Palma, scriptwriters, cast and crew provide verismo drama when they ignored Wolfe's book and placed a disclaimer at the end of the film? These tailors altered, patched, or should we say, butchered, the graphic details.

Carlyle's cynical Sartor Resartus means the tailor retailored or the patcher repatched. In the future, Wolfe needs to be more cautious, lest his sartorial writing style be retailed by the least skillful tailor! Brian de Palma's Bonfire rendered us an inferior and cheap imitation of the book which was written to dynamite our smug premises and prejudices.

If film can be identified with the power of the printing press and, as McLuhan said, a form of social clothing for martial advancement, comparable to stirrups and gunpowder in European history,44 then Bonfire should have accomplished much. But this film was not a “form of social clothing,” it was an impotent attempt to electrify reality. McLuhan believed that the art of printing was a tool which contributed to the aggression of man.45 The film director should have taken the writer's pen and ammunition to the screen and fired off the intentions of the author with accuracy. Instead, he missed the target.

Wolfe's style has always been to distract the opposition while taking a sharpshooter's aim. He has excelled in the art of subterfuge but he should be admonished: the Dandy depends on his tailor. Wolfe took a risk and made a bundle when he sold out, but the “Rebel-Doodle Dandy” has taken risks before and survived.

Whether it is clothes philosophy, the statusphere or social manners and customs, Wolfe's journalistic techniques and writing style give us ordinary individuals who are heroes and heroines, long before and long after, they became stars or celebrities. Junior Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Carol Doda and Chuck Yeager took heroic chances without becoming martyrs. Their effortless grace and natural style or panache remain the key to their heroic daring. Even when their feathers may have needed preening, they were not narcissistic.

A flamboyant but unheroic Dandy, such as an Oscar Wilde, could not have fought gallantly as a Wolfe revolutionary. Wolfe's gentlemen (and ladies) make revolutions, they do not follow in them. Oscar Wilde did not face his disappointments and defeat with courage but chose to emulate the “Barbey-Doll Dandy” whose mania was his demise.

Wolfe may wear a Dandy mask but under it, is the outlaw who values his independence and promotes it in his choice of heroes. Although Wolfe refers to Sherman McCoy as a hero in an interview with William F. Buckley, McCoy is an anti-hero. The only heroic gesture in the novel, was an unconvincing clenched fist. McCoy's vascillation matches the Hamlet-style procrastination. Everything substantiates his spinelessness. In the movie, however, Wolfe's anti-hero is made into a victim by the system, not because he has a character flaw. Unlike the book, he wins a hollow victory by default.

The Wolfean hero consciously knows how to reconcile the outlaw within the facade of a gentleman. Within the heroic Janus-faced Dandy, there can be no equivocation. He understands that real heroic daring involves taking responsibility and accepting the consequences for one's own actions: win, lose or draw. McCoy lies, cheats and abdicates responsibility. He is a criminal, not an outlaw.

Wolfe's eccentric rebellious sartorial style is indefatigable evidence that the Outlaw must be protected by invisible clothes-screens of the Gentleman, but such protection is not a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. Heroic outlaws must face the consequences of their inaction, as well as their actions. Furthermore, Wolfe and his outlaw heroes adhere to no models and rules except a defiant allegiance to oneself. For that reason, this “Rebel-Doodle Dandy” can stick a feather in his cap and call it anything he wants.


  1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), Chapter IX, “The Dandy” 26.

  2. Tom Wolfe, In Our Time, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1974), 15. Coincidentally, McCoy plays a young bondsman, just as Nick Carraway did in Gatsby. The Jay Gatsby character is uncannily similar to Sherman McCoy's. In fact, there are parallels between the two plots that make one wonder about Wolfe's originality.

  3. Wolfe, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine, (New York: Bantam, 1977), 189.

  4. Ibid., 177.

  5. Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1921), 270. Sansculottism was Carlyle's favorite synonym for a revolutionary. The professor is often described as having that characteristic.

  6. Wolfe, Mauve Gloves, Ibid.

  7. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History, (New York: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1921), 204.

  8. Plato, Phaedo 88 B-E and Hipp Major 294A.

  9. Barbey, 42.

  10. Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly, Dandyism, (New York: PAJ Publications, 1988), 8. translator Douglas Ainslie.

  11. Wolfe, Mauve Gloves, 190.

  12. Apache is pronounced ahposh. It refered to the nineteenth century Parisian ruffian.

  13. Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975), 15 & 21.

  14. Wolfe, Mauve Gloves, 190.

  15. Barbey, Dandyism, 51.

  16. Barbey, Ibid., 8.

  17. Ibid., 56.

  18. Scura, 206.

  19. In a caption under a photo of Mark Twain, his dandy appearance is described: “The white suit is the sartorial equivalent of the white whale emblem of innocence and purity; it is the embodiment of clothing without human concessions. Metaphorically, it is a triumph of the dandy over his environment.” Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Jocks and Nerds, (Buzzoli International Publications, Inc.: New York, 1989), 205.

  20. Wolfe, Birth of the New Journalism: Eyewitness Robert by Tom Wolfe, 43.

  21. Ibid., 206.

  22. Ibid.

  23. John Taylor, “The Book on Tom Wolfe,” New York, March 21, 1988, 56.

  24. D. Lehman, “An Unleashed Wolfe,” Newsweek, Oct. 26, 1987, 84.

  25. John Taylor, Ibid., 58.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, 246.

  29. Bonnie Angelo, “Master of His Universe,” Time, Feb. 13, 1989, 92.

  30. Ibid., 92.

  31. Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village, (New York: Bantam, 1968), 21–22.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang, (New York: Bantam, 1969), 1 & 131.

  34. Ibid., 132.

  35. Ibid., 133.

  36. Wolfe, The Pump House Gang, 74.

  37. Ibid., 130.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Lisa Grunwald, Esquire. “Tom Wolfe Aloft In The Status Sphere,” October 1990, 158 & 160. This essay is a delightful psychoanalysis of Wolfe, as the “man in the white suit” whose own psychoanalysis of Freud, the “man in the white jacket,” reveals a long history of love and hate toward Freud. Wolfe prefers Jose M. R. Delgado's physiological theories on reality and the self. (See Footnote 4). But, he admits Freud was on the frontier first. Incidentally, Delgado's theory of the self is of paramount importance when analyzing Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities. (See pages 511–512 in the Bantam paperback).

  40. In a letter to the author, dated December 19, 1990, Wolfe reacted to having just seen the movie: “I don't know quite what to make of the movie, to tell you the truth. But in light of what you've written, I think you'll have a field day with it.”

  41. Tim Golden, New York Times, “Some Vanities are Ablaze Over the Bronx on Film,” April 24, 1990, B1. An interview on the Today Show revealed that Hanks did read the novel but we don't know when.

  42. Josh Getlin, San Jose Mercury News, “Bonfire of the Personalities,” May 14, 1990, 9B.

  43. Marshall Fishwick, The Hero, American Style, (New York: David McKay, 1969), 221–229.

  44. McLuhan, Ibid., 35.

  45. Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 29–30.

Lisa Stokes (essay date Fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3955

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Narratives as Stories of Growth,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 19–24.

[In the following essay, Stokes focuses on the relationship between the narrator and the subject of Wolfe's works, and the effect that relationship has on the reader.]

“What a feast was spread out before every writer in America! How could any writer resist plunging into it? I couldn't.”

So admits Tom Wolfe in his recent manifesto “for the new social novel” which appeared in Harper's.1 Wolfe didn't simply plunge—he cannonballed into the literary scene with the publication in 1965 of his collected essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and the resounding waves have continued to be felt with his non-fiction novels The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff and his social novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. His splashes get attention—whether the reader loves or hates Wolfe, all respond to the energy and liveliness of his language and the strong persona created by his writing.2

Curiously enough, however, little notice has been given to Wolfe's narratives, including the special relationship which exists between narrator and subject and narrative and reader.3 Much Wolfe criticism addresses the satirical elements of Wolfe's writing; however, my approach investigates how Wolfe works with his subject rather than against it. According to this perspective, the Wolfe-man interacts with his subject, is transformed by it, and moves ahead as he imagines and lives a new story creatively (i.e., writes the narrative).4 His seeing eyes, which respond to the concrete visual world, the world of the journalist, become narrative eyes (and the narrator's “I”).

By focusing on four representative Wolfe narratives, I intend to emphasize Wolfe's contribution to American writing and the literary scene. My examination includes two areas: 1. the special way in which the narrator connects with his subject and how this affects language; and, 2. the implications of the characteristics of the subjects Wolfe writes about. I will discuss Wolfe's first published collection of stories, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and extended essay, The Painted Word, and two non-fiction novels, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, in each case looking at the initial encounter between the narrator and his subject, built around some kind of “happening.” The variations on these “happenings” indicate the narrative direction taken and the reader's integral part in shaping the narrative.

Narrator Wolfe respects his subjects’ integrity as autonomous narrative forces. Their special relationship can be described as the reciprocal social relationship which exists between a speaker and a listener.5 Wolfe treats them as subjects, not objects—i.e., the subjects fulfill the relationship of subject to verb. They exist as active forces in the narrative with voices that speak, not merely as passive objects to be acted upon by a narrator who enacts the subject/verb/object relationship. The narrator's voice is simply one alongside others—his subject, his reader, and language as other—and he remains responsive to the undiminished power of their voices.6

The narrator, distinct from his living subjects, is linked to them finally only through words, words which place him imaginatively in a functioning relationship with others, and through words the Wolfe narrator moves or comes alive. His excitement in response to his subject is expressed in language itself, through the panoply of voices, exotic punctuation, strange vocabulary in an unusual context, and neologisms. His humor and excitement often make the words bounce off the page, endowing him with narrative life. He allows all voices to speak, silencing none, providing the terrain on which they can compete for dominance.

Many voices speak in a Wolfe narrative.7 The voices of the subject converse with the narrator, as the narrator responds, both beside the subject and combining with its voice, extending the narrative and stimulating new encounters between narrator and subject. Wolfe is sensitive to the conversations his subjects speak and he literally quotes them as well as picks up their vocabulary himself. Of the many voices which converse, two repeatedly appear and characterize the narrator. These include the voices of an interpreter/translator, who defines and clarifies, who recognizes the pitfalls of generalization and abstraction and works to modify them, and the voice of articulation, whose constant refrain is “how can one put it into words?” Wolfe's preoccupation with not just saying it, but getting it right, dominates his voice and runs through all the Wolfe narratives as the narrator responds to his subject.

Wolfe's compendium of subjects reads like a Cook's Tour of strange and unusual phenomena. Car customizers, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, modern artists and critics, and test pilots and astronauts identify only a few which superficially seem to have little in common. Yet a closer look reveals Wolfe's subjects share distinctly American values and attitudes. Wolfe is attracted to and celebrates rebel heroes, individuals specifically set against a larger social contest, hell bent on “pushing the envelope” or breaking the confines of the dictates of their society or sphere and reflecting anti-Establishment ideologies. They are independents with clearly defined identities, interested in exploration and discovery. Their subversion of the status quo can be traced back to impulses characteristically American. They serve as a link in the chain from America breaking with Britain and 19th-century American writers discovering an authentic voice and distinguishing American from European literature, to the movement westward and the whole concept of “moving on,” as evidenced in the novels of Kerouac, Kesey, and McMurtry. Their insistence on self-definition is inherent in the individual freedoms set down in the Bill of Rights, and their opening up new territory reflects Hemingway's code, which emphasizes “pursuit as happiness,” not “pursuit of happiness.”

Wolfe's attraction to these subjects is acted upon by the “good thinking” of his narratives, in which a reader discovers a narrative unfolds through Wolfe's recognition of the immense power of language to convey the energies of Wolfe and his subject. Voices confront, answer, question, and listen in a Wolfe narrative, and at any moment a reader can enter the conversation. While a detailed discussion of any Wolfe narrative using my approach would require an analysis lengthier than the Wolfe narrative in question, I believe the easiest point of entry is to begin with Wolfe's beginnings, because narrative inceptions can tell us much about narrative futures.

The initial interaction between Wolfe and his subjects begins, naturally, with the beginning. In the “Introduction” to the first published collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe describes the process of writing its title story: “I could tell that something was beginning to happen … What had happened was that I started writing down everything I had seen the first place I went in California, this incredible event, a ‘Teen Fair.’ The details themselves, when I wrote them down, suddenly made me see what was happening” (xiii-xiv). The “something” Wolfe alludes to is the possible integration of narrator and subject, working and moving together to create the narrative. Narrator Wolfe responds to the concrete, visual details of the teen fair and the language of the teenagers, both of which grow out of their energies. He uses their voices, as they influence his voice and as they speak for themselves.

“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” is the seminal story of Kandy-Kolored; the title of both story and book refers to the car that George Barris customizes for Ronny Camp. Immediately striking is its “kurious (sic)” spelling and grammatically correct but eye-catching punctuation. The words themselves are taken from a special color of paint Barris mixes to color customized cars. The title, taken from the words of the car customizers themselves, directs the reader's attention to the power of the emerging narrative. “Kandy-kolored tangerine-flake” is a warm color, both visually appealing and life enhancing, suggesting an elemental force (sun, heat, fire). The “k's” of “kandy-kolored” reflect George Barris's individual style (expressed through language) of functioning in his world as a custom car artist; “streamline” suggests that the car is built for movement and will utilize its energy to the utmost, and emphasizes Wolfe's interest in new forms; and, “baby” pertains to birth and life (as does color) and the integration of man and machine (the car is the baby, as is Ronny). Driving the car, Ronny, aided by its streamlining, will direct its power, just as Wolfe, utilizing his skills, will articulate “the real story” of the hot rod and custom car show through language, “the real story” being the narrator's integration with subject.

In Kandy-Kolored, Wolfe brings together twenty-two stories and six illustrations in search of a new narrative form whose underlying drive is to cross the barriers between stories and sections through its voices. The subjects have in common energies that attract Wolfe and incite narratively. Narrative direction depends upon the energies of both subjects and narrator. High-energy subjects dominate the stories through their appearance and language, and these subjects, like the car customizes, are the ones which the narrator relates to most effectively as he works in synch with their energies. What they are doing in their respective worlds parallels what Wolfe is doing narratively. When Wolfe encounters subjects whose energies are misdirected, he still remains alive to their potential energies expressed through their language.

The narrative experimentation which “was beginning to happen” in Kandy-Kolored leads to new narrative venture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Acid Test narrative begins in medias res, with the narrator responding to Cool Breeze: “That's good thinking there, Cool Breeze. Cool Breeze is a kid with three or four days’ beard sitting next to me on the stamped metal bottom of the open back part of a pickup truck. Bouncing along” (1). The reader is invited into the midst of a “happening” as the narrator relates to Cool Breeze's dress and conversation. The narrator's opening comment reflects the perspective of the reporter Tom Wolfe, responding ironically to Cool Breeze's outrageous dress despite his wish to maintain a low profile. Secondly, the comment emphasizes “good,” the kind of thinking being done by narrator Wolfe who incorporates a Prankster phrase into his own conversation. As character Wolfe is bounced along in the Prankster-driven pickup truck, in the early chapters the narrator as well is less directing the narrative as being directed by it, these chapters growing out of his openness to whatever his subject offers him and his readiness to move with it.8 As the narrative develops, however, the narrator directs the possibilities the Pranksters’ energies present, through acid, the bus trip, the movie, and “beyond acid,” while Kesey himself becomes obsessed with control. Wolfe's direction is drawn from the Pranksters’ world, alongside Kesey's, and is not Wolfe's imposition on the narrative; it grows as an expression of the “happening,” the encounter of narrator and subject, and depends upon their voices and his own.

With the words, “An extraordinary thing happened: I noticed something!,” Wolfe begins The Painted Word and a force is born as the narrator anecdotally relates having read a New York Times article about contemporary art. Wolfe emphasizes the encounter as “extraordinary,” set apart from the germinal “something was beginning to happen” of Kandy-Kolored and the “happenings” of Acid Test. Compared to other Wolfe narratives, here he is stimulated not by concrete details of the physical world, but by the word—literally Hilton Kramer's words, an unintentional paraphrase of the position put forth by the art theorists themselves. Wolfe describes the encounter in the past tense, in contrast to the earlier happenings. This, coupled with the avoidance of the immediate present, here and throughout the narrative, suggests not only the distance between narrator and event, but the distance that will be maintained between Wolfe and his subject, as an imaginative writer approaches a theoretical subject. Wolfe notices the following in Kramer's article: “To lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial” and he is “jerked alert” (4). Stimulated to narrate, Wolfe begins by making Kramer's words his own, putting them into his own words. Reading, initially a visual activity, becomes an imaginative one as Wolfe creates the book's premise and the narrative's conception which he will work through: “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text”” (6). Narrativity illustrates the thesis “believing is seeing” but it does so through an imaginative journey which develops around the energies and articulativeness of the theorists, whom Wolfe extensively quotes and paraphrases. They are perceived similarly to Wolfe's non-intellectual subjects, as subjects who have energies to be used and use them.

The Painted Word provides Wolfe with the opportunity to explore how he can use the theoretical to stimulate narrative growth and prepares the way for the enormous amount of theoretical information he must deal with in The Right Stuff. The test pilots and astronauts of this narrative depend upon the theoretical and technical for their enterprise and movement, but they, more than any other subjects Wolfe has written about, exist as voices who articulate their identities, without a first-person narrator's presence. The narrator is a distanced presence who exists only through language.

In Right Stuff, the initial encounter between Wolfe and the subjects’ energies has already transpired. The use of past and present perfect tense in the opening reflects this.

Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there.

‘Jane, this is Alice. Listen, I just got a call from Betty, and she said she heard something's happened out there. Have you heard anything?’


The narrative opening begins, like Acid Test’s, in media res, but the historical present in which Acid Test’s “happenings” are set, along with the presence of the Tom Wolfe character and narrator, which clearly identifies the roles of narrator and subject, are missing in Right Stuff. The new narrative distances the encounter temporally and through voice. “Something has happened out there” and “something's happened out there” both refer to an action that begins in the past and is finished when one speaks. The encounter has already taken place, and Wolfe's narrative desire to articulate “the right stuff” set in motion. Wolfe is and will remain “out there,” not as a first-person narrator, but as a narrative identity developed through language. His position exists through his voice and its relation to the other voices—of astronauts, test pilots, NASA brass, even a president. As he brings the subject's words and belief systems into his language, he establishes his position through the interplay of their voices, playing out competing languages to creatively understand “the right stuff.” Incorporating the voices by which his subjects exist and the technical language on which their endeavor depends, introducing a voice which translates and interprets it, and creating his own terminology, Wolfe forges a new narrative identity determined solely by what is said and how it is said.

If Wolfe narratives depend upon the special relationship between a narrator and his subject, and this relationship nurtures interaction, growth, and possibility, what affect, then, do Wolfe narratives have on their readers? The celebration of autonomy and individualism through the subjects could be in danger of reinforcing a conservative politics (perhaps nurtured by the posturing of the white-suited dandy, Tom Wolfe.) In this light Wolfe could be seen as co-opting individuality, thus validating the subversive element these subjects represent and reinforcing the inequalities of contemporary American society. The narrative message read in this case would be that individualism and rebellion are alive and well in America, so that subversion is not only tolerated but legitimized. This message in turn defuses the potentially subversive reader, and society and culture continue to function without significant change. This message would rob the narrative of its potential effectiveness to the reader, sapping his/her energies before they can be activated.

To the contrary, Wolfe narratives tell readers to enlarge their “scripts” and make their “movies a little bigger” as expressed in Acid Test. The very life of Wolfe's multi-voiced language and the energies exchanged between narrators and subjects undermines any conservative politics. Wolfe was once asked,

With Wolfe for the Defense you don't need a Prosecutor, is the way someone described your ‘ambivalent’ attitude towards your subjects. Isn't it necessary to have a moral attitude toward them? Wolfe responded: ‘No! You can't approach a subject with a moral commitment and come up with anything new. As soon as any approach has reached the stage that it takes on a moral tone it is already out of date—it's frozen.’9

Wolfe co-exists alongside his subjects, and the presence of the subjects and their many voices influence narrator and narrative to such a degree, that, when the reader's voice is also added to the narrative, a voice heard even as the narrative is being written, the struggle for domination remains unresolved and the potential for power and change is on-going. Consider this passage from The Painted Word.

‘Pollock's strength,’ he [Greenberg] would say, ‘lies in the emphatic surfaces of his pictures, which it is his concern to maintain and intensify in all that thick, fuliginous flatness which began—but only began—to be the strong point of late Cubism.’ And all through bohemia the melody played … That thick, fuliginous flatness got me in its spell … ‘It is the tension of the inherent in the constructed, re-created flatness of the surface,’ Greenberg would say, ‘that produces the strength of his art' … That constructed, re-created flatness that you weave so well … ‘his concentration on surface and tactile qualities …’ Those famous paint-flings on that picture plane … Ah, the music was playing! And Clement Greenberg was the composer!


Playing off the specific language of Greenberg's art theory and “That Old Black Magic,” the narrative incorporates both into itself, and also the reader's associations brought to this narrative moment. The narrative rhythm becomes seductive, like the original song, and according to Wolfe, like the purpose behind the theory of modern art, which seduces us into “believing is seeing.” Likewise, Wolfe's narrative is a siren song which uses the theoretical as a springboard into the imaginative, and the narrative voices become an incentive for the reader's imagination and exploration of his own powers. As Michael Holquist remarks, “Literature is important because it gives the most vigorous on-the-job training for a work we must all as men do, the work of answering and authoring the text of our social and physical universe.”10 Wolfe's narratives empower readers by awakening their energies to the unresolved struggle between ideology and narrative.


  1. Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” Harper's Nov. 1989: 50.

  2. For example, among the writers whose letters were printed in Harper's in response to Wolfe's manifesto. Scott Spencer described Wolfe's “boyish glee,” and “a self that finds its writerly expression in style,” T. Coraghessan Boyle his “marvelous frenetic, hyperbolic comedy,” Alison Lurie his “energy and lively interest,” and Walker Percy remarked, “Tom Wolfe has his nerve. I'm glad somebody does.” See “Letters,” Harper's Feb. 1990: 4–12.

  3. Studies of Wolfe's narrative include: A. Carl Bredahl, “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's ‘Acid Test,’” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 23 (1981): 67–84; Ronald Weber, The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing (Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1980); and, Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976).

  4. The American tradition of rebellion, transformation and process is described by standard critics like Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, and R. W. B. Lewis. See Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1957); Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968); and, R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955).

  5. See Mikhail Bakhtin's principle of dialogism which describes how language develops and how meanings are generated and heard as social voices which anticipate and answer each other. Bakhtin recognizes that voices represent distinct socio-ideological positions and narrative becomes a shared territory on which various voices are influencing and influenced by the voice of the other. Says Bakhtin: “Discourse lives on the boundary between its own context and another, alien context.” Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) 284. See also “Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another.” In Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1984) 91.

  6. The narrator is a participant, not a dictator. Instead of a godlike author who oversees and manipulates the elements of his work, like Bakhtin's Dostoevsky, Wolfe is a Christlike author: Christ as “a loving deity, who is silent so that others may speak and, in speaking, enact their freedom … Dostoevsky gives up the privilege of a distinct and higher being to descend into his text, to be among his creatures.” Katarina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984) 249.

  7. Wolfe himself listed the stylistic voices he uses. They include:

    1. The voice from the possible perspective of a character

    2. The “downstage voice,” as if it were coming from someone who was a part of the scene

    3. The “hectoring narrator” through which the reader envisions what is taking place and can confront characters and poke fun at them

    4. The third-person voice which writes objectively about “Tom Wolfe”

    5. Stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue which selects those thoughts which most effectively convey the personality of the character

    6. Quoted dialogue

    For a detailed description of this list of voices, see Wolfe, introduction, The New Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 3–52. To this list I would add several other voices:

    7. The first-person speaker “Tom Wolfe,” who often starts the narrative (see the introduction to Kandy-Kolored or the opening of Painted Word)

    8. The voice of the translator or interpreter who defines, elaborates, and clarifies, who recognizes the voice of abstraction and tries to modify it, and whose typical response begins, “Which is to say, …”

    9. The voice specifically interested in articulation, whose constant refrain is, “How can one put it into words?”

  8. I am indebted to A. Carl Bredahl for his understanding of Acid Test and have been influenced by his article “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's ‘Acid Test'” cited in note 3 above.

  9. Tom Wolfe, interview, “Tom Wolfe … But Exactly, Yes!” by Elaine Dundy, Vogue 15 Apr. 1966: 153.

  10. Michael Holquist, “Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983) 318.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

———Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson. Vol. 8 of Theory and History of Literature. Minneapolis: Minnesota P, 1984.

———Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Bredahl. A. Carl. “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's ‘Acid Test.’” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 23 (1981): 67–84.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.

Clark, Katarina, and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Fiedler, Leslie. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Holquist, Michael. “Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics.” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 307–19.

“Letters.” Harper's, Feb. 1990: 4–12.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. 1955. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.

Weber, Ronald. The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1980.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 1968. New York: Bantam Books, 1969.

———The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. 1965. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.

———The Painted Word. 1975. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

———The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979.

———“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Harper's Nov. 1989: 45–56.

———Interview. “Tom Wolfe … But Exactly, Yes!” By Elaine Dundy. Vogue April 1966: 124+.

James N. Stull (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 25–30.

[In the following essay, Stull criticizes Wolfe for his stereotypes of women and minorities, and for his generalizations about status and politics. Stull believes that Wolfe's “detached observer” writing style removes him from his characters, making them passive participants in Wolfe's literary “games.”]

The examination of arcane worlds and societies is one of the central appeals of the new journalism and a fundamental part of Tom Wolfe's writing. While Wolfe ostensibly makes overtures to explain subcultures on their own terms, he in fact describes and understands them all with a strikingly similar method of cultural analysis. Wolfe believes, as he explained in an interview with Tony Schwartz, that “the fundamental unit in analyzing behavior is not the individual, but some sort of status group or status structure.”1 Wolfe privileges an omniscient authorial self and attends to the nuances of status and power within the construction of his carefully controlled literary and social worlds. He is the master gamesman in the white suit whose journalistic performance is predicated upon his ability to establish the rules of the social game and lead the reader to believe that they (the rules) are actually part of the reality they signify.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Wolfe suggests that there is a game-like interaction between the Merry Pranksters and certain members of mainstream culture. Kesey and the Pranksters’ interaction with the police, for example, is identified as the “cops-and-robbers” game. The Pranksters themselves, Ken Kesey in particular, are aware that their identities are determined by socially prescribed (or proscribed) rules and roles of the social game. Their acquired appellations—Neal Cassady is known as “Speed Limit,” for example, and Kesey is “Chief”—are ironically chosen to illustrate how one's individuality is subsumed by a name that is determined either by a social role or a single, usually superficial, trait. In “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” Wolfe maintains that white civil servants “sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your frustrated ghetto youth.” Then the flak catchers knew—“if you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad”—which groups “to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to.” In both these works, Wolfe employs a method for interpreting social phenomena, the game metaphor, that is congruent with his subjects’ alleged understanding of their own experience. Wolfe all but states that there is a goal-directedness on the part of the social players when he interprets their interaction as a dramatized (or staged) confrontation; the social players—civil servants and “certified angry militants”—knew the “rules” of the game, acted accordingly, and anticipated the expected rewards at the conclusion of the encounter. Ethnic and minority groups received poverty grants while civil servants were assured they had made the right choice in distributing those grants. While a number of cultural critics and historians interpreted the interaction between mainstream culture and various adversarial groups in more “serious” terms—as a symbolic and often real clash of value structures—Wolfe astutely recognized the calculated, even playful interaction between groups whose members presumably understood the tacit, if not overt, rules of the social game.

Generally, however, Wolfe is less successful in explaining in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” and other works how social players come to understand the rules governing their behavior. While a minority leader named Chaser seems to be cognizant of the “game” he is playing—“he had everything planned out on his side, right down to the last detail,” Wolfe tells us—Wolfe is more equivocal when he remarks that “there were people in the Western Addition who practically gave classes in mau-mauing.” While the usefulness of the game model does not depend on the awareness of the social actors, Wolfe himself is at times unsure of how the game and its rules originated. He often relies, as the following passage suggests, on a teleological interpretation of social interaction: “The strange thing was that the confrontation ritual was built into the poverty program from the beginning. The poverty bureaucrats depended on the confrontations in order to know what to do.” But how did the poverty bureaucrats know they had to depend on the confrontations to know what to do? While Wolfe suggests that his interpretation of cultural is based on the observation of, and the interaction between, social players, the frame of sociological analysis is employed to explain, I believe, the ostensible goal-directedness of the principal actors. Wolfe discerns a pattern in a number of social situations and then proposes that it was consciously conceived or recognized by the social players. This allows Wolfe to disguise his method of social analysis by suggesting it is an inherent part of social life and a prerequisite for making sense of it.

Wolfe's authority as journalist and master gamesman is founded, in fact, largely on his ability to reveal what others—press members or social players—are not able to recognize or articulate. This is principally determined by the management of information. Wolfe selectively controls the flow of information and lets readers believe they are privy to esoteric knowledge which is withheld from, or unknown to, social others. In The Right Stuff, for instance, Wolfe says, in discussing “the right stuff,” that “none of this was to be mentioned, and yet it was acted out in a way that a young man could not fail to understand.” In another example, Wolfe asks why members of the press, and seemingly every other human being, were so emotionally moved that they created instant heroes of the seven Mercury astronauts. He explains that

This was a question that not James Reston or the pilots themselves or anyone of NASA could have answered at the time, because the very language of the proposition had long since been abandoned and forgotton. The forgotton term, left behind in the superstitious past, was single combat.

The Right Stuff is filled with similar comments: “The message seemed to be”; “No one spoke the phrase”; “No one knew its name”; and “that was probably unconscious on Al's part.” While many of Wolfe's “characters,” particularly in The Right Stuff, act without being cognizant of what governs their behavior, Wolfe, who is able to articulate the unnameable (“single combat”) and make the “unconscious” recognizable or transparent, penetrates the insular and reticent world of the fighter jock and claims, implicitly at least, to speak for uninformed social others. He establishes himself as the only player—and usually omniscient narrator—who has full knowledge of the social game.

This helps to establish, of course, Wolfe's authority as a cultural critic. Wolfe also suggests, however, that it is the epistemological authority of the New Journalism which allows him to understand what other press members cannot. Like many other literary nonfiction writers, Thompson and Mailer among them, Wolfe criticizes mainstream journalists for their inability to act autonomously. In The Right Stuff Wolfe repeatedly refers to the press as either “the Genteel Beast” or “the Victorian Gent,” “a great colonial animal … made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system.” Wolfe explains that “the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail.” Wolfe does not fully explain what conditions foster this phenomenon, commonly known as “pack” or “herd” journalism. Yet, he criticizes reporters for a behavioral and institutional conformity in which they allegedly have no control over, while he nominally articulates an imperial journalistic self which defies, or escapes from, the tyrannizing rules governing all social membership.

While it is common for many new journalists to rely on first-hand experience, gathering material from witnessed events, Wolfe's two most successful works, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, are based largely on information taken from secondary sources: interviews, public documents, letters, and so on. In part, I believe, Wolfe relies greatly on this material because he is unwilling to participate in events or get too intimate with subjects he later writes about; he refuses to relinquish personal control by stepping out of his role as detached observer (and cultural critic) and confronting—as Hunter S. Thompson does, for example—the “raw experience” of life. Wolfe seems to feel more comfortable as a journalist and person when he can orchestrate the dynamics of social encounters and tacitly claim an implied power associated with his allegedly neutral journalistic perspective.

The success of Wolfe's journalistic and interpretive performance is largely based, in fact, on his scholarly training, on his ability to wed historical and esoteric ideas and insights to contemporary incidents and ordinary events. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for example, Wolfe illuminates the religious dimension of The Merry Pranksters’ experience by comparing it to other historical religious movements: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on. Similarly, in “Radical Chic” Wolfe interprets the courting of Black Panthers by wealthy New York liberals as a recent manifestation of the historically established practice of “slumming”: cultivating “low-rent” styles and mixing with people of a lower social class. While Wolfe tries to demystify alien cultural experiences and make them intelligible to his educated, middle-class readers, he relies on conventional and historically established information and frames of reference derived from mainstream culture. Wolfe establishes journalistic authority by defining his role as a cultural interpreter—a disembodied voice—who gives historical depth to events that are ostensibly peculiar to the moment. At some expense, of course. As David Eason points out, Wolfe yokes all idiosyncratic views of reality to “a well-ordered, non-threatening past that promises to extend into the future.”2 In this respect, Wolfe minimizes—and at times depoliticizes—contemporary experience by encoding it in familiar terms and past social contexts. Within a specific text (context)—for instance, “Radical Chic”—Wolfe may position himself as objective observer who is principally interested in chronicling the political dialogue between two disparate social groups: Black Panthers and New York liberals. Instead of fully recognizing the polyvocality of this social moment, however, all discordant voices are subverted, as they are throughout much of Wolfe's writing, by the monophonic and ideological authority of the transcendent observer. While Wolfe's work nominally represents a democratic mode of expression, it implicitly reveals—as does most literary journalism—both a tacit literary and social elitism and a traditional and conservative interpretation of contemporary experience. According to David Eason, the “ethnographic realism” of Wolfe and other literary journalists “constitutes the subculture as an object of display, and the reporter and the reader, whose values are assumed and not explored, are cojoined in the act of observing.” Eason adds that the “effect of this strategy is to reinvent textually the consensus which cultural fragmentation had called into question.”3 Wolfe naturalizes discrepant realities by suggesting that the method used is the most commonsensical way, if not the only way, of making sense of such contemporary experience. Though Wolfe criticizes other conventional journalists for their institutional allegiances, his journalism authority and method of cultural analysis arise from his scholarly training at Yale, from his class position within a hierarchical institutional and academic order.

The social “game” is thematically and formally understood, as I noted, on personal and ideologically conservative terms. Wolfe's exploration of subcultural experience, for example, might be superficially interpreted as a celebration of cultural diversity and American pluralism. Wolfe explains that the proliferation of subcultures and status systems was due primarily, if not solely, to the post-World War II economic boom. Behind the cataloguing of (exotic) status symbols, in other words, is an underlining economic interpretation of subcultural experience which links it to the ideological (material) superastructure of mainstream culture. Wolfe refuses to acknowledge, however, that the emergence of a succession of youth cultural styles might constitute a form of symbolic opposition which reflects a more general dissatisfaction with American life. Instead, Wolfe minimizes ideological and political dissent by focusing on style and interpreting conflict in “dramatic” (literary) and rhetorical terms.

In part, Wolfe achieves this dramatic tension by bifurcating the world into a rigid we-they polarity. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for example, Wolfe notes “that the world is sheerly divided into those who have had the experience and those who have not—those who have been through the door—” (that is, taken LSD). Throughout The Right Stuff we are repeatedly reminded that there are those who have it—“the right stuff”—and there are those who do not. Wolfe expresses, of course, the collective sentiment shared by members of each respective status group, Merry Pranksters and test pilots, and successfully dramatizes and exposes status competition, both between and within status structures. In The Right Stuff there is, to name a few, the rivalry between fighter pilots and astronauts, astronauts and engineers, and between the astronauts themselves. Overshadowing these conflicts is the race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to control the heavens. Though the race to conquer space had a political and ideological base, Wolfe's journalistic treatment is principally literary and polemical; he is most interested in the drama, tension, and hysteria behind space flights and the disparity between Soviet successes and U.S. failures. The race into space is reduced almost to an Olympic competition between countries with a familiar protagonist hero (the U.S.) vying against an equally familiar evil antagonist (Russia).

As compelling as Wolfe's writing is in this case, he often over-emphasizes status competition and competitive social interaction and inadequately accounts for the cooperation that occurs between social players. In “Radical Chic,” for example, Wolfe is so intent on exposing status incongruities, he does not acknowledge that the “radical chic” evening might be conceived as a bona fide attempt, however superficial or ineffectual, to meliorate social differences and promote racial harmony. Wolfe's insistent preoccupation with status and status differences, in fact, might be interpreted as perverting, or at least undermining, the implied rules of any social game. Theoretically speaking, a game can only be played if participants subordinate themselves to the rules of the gathering. Power, status, wealth, beauty, strength, knowledge—all relevant in many other social contexts—are extrinsic to game interactions.4 Wolfe's preoccupation with status details, in other words, is irrelevant to how these social players—Bernstein (and friends) and the Black Panthers—participate in this particular encounter. In fact, in order for the game to succeed it is necessary that members from both status groups minimize their social differences and recognize that they both can benefit, as social antagonists do in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” by abiding by the acknowledged and tacit rules of the social interaction.

Wolfe would have us believe, however, that cooperation between status groups is almost impossible. In both The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe repeatedly indicates that the artist (painter and architect) is tyrannized by the desire to separate himself (or herself) from the “hated” middle-class—“to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie.” Similarly, Wolfe maintains that “composers, artists, or architects in a compound began to have the instincts of the medieval clergy, much of whose activity was devoted exclusively to separating itself from the mob. For mob, substitute bourgeoisie.” While Wolfe clearly reveals that status competition figures more prominently in the world of art than people believe, he frames this discussion in the form of an argument replete with historical generalizations and identifies, I believe, a personal metaphor of self—a preoccupation with status and class—by implicitly revealing a symbolic and perhaps real desire to separate himself as an artist (new journalist) and person from the “hated” bourgeoisie (conventional journalists). Though status competition explains much, it cannot begin to explain why an artist, let alone a great number of artists, produces a particular work of art. The homogenizing nature of consensus history (and social criticism), however, provides a tidy and reassuring picture of how the world works and helps certify the conceptual and explanatory powers of the author. Generalizations and encompassing statements—“every artist knew,” for example, and “every soul here”—underscore Wolfe's facile ability to sum up a particular world and make it intelligible. In “Radical Chic” Wolfe punctuates the narrative with his use of “everyone,” as in “everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows.” A claimed consensus and Wolfe's implied omniscience—the ability to know what others are thinking and feeling—buttress his authority and objectify his personal interpretations. This is one way in which Wolfe implicates readers and benignly coerces them into seeing the world on his personal and metaphorical terms.

Wolfe's writing, like all written works, addresses a particular audience and establishes communication between a specific sender (author) and a more general receiver (reader). While Wolfe's manner of address may be more indirect than, for example, Joan Didion's, he establishes, nonetheless, an implicit pact in which the reader is privy to the author's knowledge and superior insights. Just as Wolfe divides the world into us/them polarities, so Wolfe and his readers share insights and knowledge about the social and artistic worlds unknown to others. Wolfe establishes a closed interpretive frame and defines the reader as a cooperating participant in the communication exchange. This entente among insiders is established in part by disclosing privileged information to educated readers, but also by the manner of Wolfe's rhetorical address. In Radical Chic, for example, Wolfe's repeated use of “deny it if you want to” (or “deny it if you wish to”) challenges and implicates the reader and, finally, dictates only one response: “But, of course,” the reader is supposed to say. “That's how it really is.”

In describing the social game and distinguishing one statusphere from another, Wolfe generally relies, of course, on careful observation and documentation of symbolic details—clothes, speech, hair styles. As the following passage reveals, Wolfe is adept as other social observers in identifying status incongruities and conflicts between status structures:

the grape workers were all in work clothes, Levi's, chinos, Sears balloon-seat twills, K-Mart sports shirts, and so forth. The socialities, meanwhile, arrived at the height of the 1969 summer season of bell-bottom silk pants suits, Pucci clings, Dunhill blazers, and Turnbull & Asser neckerchiefs.

Because Wolfe focuses so relentlessly on status minutiae, however, the personal and psychological dimensions of his subjects are largely ignored. For example, while Wolfe nominally portrays the test pilots and astronauts in The Right Stuff as individuals—in some cases as individualists—we are given only a few superficial details of each person and one general characteristic to define them all: that is, of course, “the right stuff.” Wolfe suggests that association with a status group is the primary way in which identity is determined. The personal (or core) self is usurped by a socially constructed public identity based on status group membership and, in this case, gender. As Chris Anderson notes, “the pilots and the astronauts are models of the stereotypical American strong-silent male.”5 By not challenging or exploring this stereotype, Wolfe reaffirms his belief in the sanctity of a private self and all but states that emotions and personal idiosyncrasies are of little consequence in understanding or illuminating human nature. Morris Dickstein maintains that Wolfe's subjects are, finally, merely “manikins of chic, butts of social satire”; that even when he writes from inside his characters their “subjective reality remains stubbornly uninteresting or inaccessible.” Wolfe ultimately homogenizes “his characters into one inner voice, a single mentality, a collective embodiment of a social attitude.”6 Wolfe is more interested in portraying a static idea—a status distinction, conflict, or incongruity—than with dramatizing diverse interactions of psychologically individuated selves. Wolfe's rendering of characters and his understanding of human nature also reveal, I believe, a characteristic unwillingness of a number of male literary journalists to fully explore the psychological and emotional relationship between self and other, or journalist and subject.

Wolfe, of course, often relies on caricature, and he is capable as any social critic as characterizing and satirizing types. There is the garrulous and cloyingly friendly Texan in The Right Stuff, referred to as Herb Snout:

Hi, there little Lady! Just damned glad to see you, too! And then he'd give a huge horrible wink that would practically implode his eye, and he'd say, We've hear a lot of good things about you gals, a lot of good things—all with that eye-wrenching wink.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, Doctors (and scientists), referred to as white smocks, are summarily portrayed as impersonal and unfriendly. In The Right Stuff, this depiction of doctors allegedly illustrates the typical test pilot or astronaut's feeling about members from this status group. While Wolfe successfully uses stereotypes and caricature to convey animosity between these status structures, his satirical portraits can be unflattering, narrow, snobbishly prejudiced, to some even sexist, racist, and brutal. In “A Wolfe in Chic Clothing,” Christopher Hitchens questions Wolfe's frequent use of racial and minority stereotypes. In “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catcher,” for example, Wolfe describes Samoans in the following way:

Everything about them is gigantic, even their heads. They'll have a skull the size of a watermelon, with a couple of little squinty eyes and a little mouth and a couple of nose holes stuck in, and no neck at all. From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner … They have big wide faces and smooth features. They're dark brown, with a smooth cast.

Wolfe talks about Chinese, Mexicans, and blacks in a similar sophomoric manner. Hitchens comes to the conclusion that while Wolfe depends heavily on racial caricature, it is a “sign of laziness rather than prejudice.”7 In “Radical Chic,” however, Hitchens maintains that “Wolfe is striking much harder than a [responsible] satirist would. His intention was really to do harm, and he succeeded brilliantly.”8

Of all the status structures and groups Wolfe describes and satirizes, women are portrayed, more often than not, in the most unflattering terms. In “Radical Chic,” for example, Wolfe makes at least three references to an allegedly native but “beautiful ash-blond girl.” On one occasion, Wolfe reports that she wants to know what she can personally do, without money or political power, to help the Black Panthers. “Well, baby, if you really”—Wolfe begins, then adds—“but [Don] Cox tells her that one of the big problems is finding churches in the black community that will help the Panthers in their breakfast program for ghetto children, and maybe people like her could help the Panthers approach the churches.” Wolfe's initial comment—“Well, baby, if you really”—suggests that she can, if nothing else, donate her liberal body to the cause. Clearly, Wolfe is taking liberties by inventing and attributing thoughts to one of his characters, Don Cox, at the young woman's expense.

Throughout Wolfe's writing, women are constructed in a similar fashion. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test he notes that the “West Coast” was “always full of … long-haired little Wasp and Jewish buds balling spade cats.” Wolfe may be suggesting, of course, that such coupling is merely a more intimate yet equally fashionable form of consorting with “raw-vital, Low Rent primitives,” but because similar comments appear through much of his work it raises questions about Wolfe's depiction of women. At the Southern stock car races, Wolfe notes, you always see “those beautiful little buds in short shorts … spread-eagle out on the top of the car roofs, pressing down on good hard automobile sheet metal, their little cupcake bottom aimed up at the sun.” In The Right Stuff Wolfe similarly explains that

The most marvelous lively young cookies were materializing … They were just there waiting beside the motel pool, when one arrived, young juicy girls with stand-up jugs and full sprung thighs and conformations so taut and silky that the very sight of them practically pulled a man into the delta of priapic delirium.

Wolfe's writing may not be intentionally sexist, but his portrayal of women and his use of stereotypes and satire raise questions about his moral and social responsibility to his subjects, even if they figure only marginally into his work. Because Wolfe depicts women unsympathetically, he tacitly conspires with his subjects in constructing a masculine world based in part on the exploitation of women. In a 1983 interview Wolfe candidly admitted that the gang bang described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was a “horrible scene.” Yet, Wolfe's almost comedic treatment of the event—he describes the woman as “some blonde from out of town … just one nice soft honey hormone squash”—raises questions about his ability to deal authoritatively and sensitively with women's experience. For a journalist who claims to be a chronicler of contemporary society, much like Balzac was in his day, it is quite surprising that Wolfe—and for that matter, other male literary journalists—almost entirely ignored two of the most important subjects of the 1960s and early 1970s, the “sexual revolution” and the women's movement.

Wolfe's depiction of women, his satirical portraits, as well as his stereotypes and status group generalizations, reveal the political affiliation and social class biases of an educated and fairly well-off white male. His chosen journalistic role of detached observer and the use of the third person, omniscient narrator reflect the social space that separates him from, and perhaps elevates him above, many of his subjects. Wolfe's use of satire and his preoccupation with status details, furthermore, allow him to maintain unimpeded control of the re-imagined social game. If his characters were more dramatically rounded and more psychologically complex, they would acquire identities resistant to stereotyping, satiric snobbery, and status group identification. As it is, Wolfe's social players possess no such voice or identity of their own; they remain participants in a game defined, played, and interpreted by the master gamesman in the white suit, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.


  1. Tony Schwartz, “Tom Wolfe: The Great Gadfly,” The New York Times Magazine, December 20, 1981, 46.

  2. David Eason, “The New Journalism and the Image-World: Two Modes of Organizing Experience,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication I (1984): 54.

  3. Ibid., 52.

  4. Elizabeth W. Bruss, “The Game of Literature and Some Literary Games,” New Literary History 9 (Autumn 1977): 154.

  5. Chris Anderson, Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 15.

  6. Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 141.

  7. Christopher Hitchens, “A Wolfe in Chic Clothing,” Mother Jones, 12 January 1983, 18.

  8. Ibid., 14.

James Card (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe and The ‘Experimental’ Novel,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 31–34.

[In the following essay, Card discusses Wolfe's development of the social-realist novel and his belief that highly-detailed realism is “the future of the fictional novel.”]

Tom Wolfe's essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” (subtitled “A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel”)1 urging American writers to produce novels that will convey a sense to readers of what life is truly like in “the American century” (i.e. the Twentieth century) through “a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him” has its counterpart in “Le Roman expérimental” (“The Experimental Novel”) set forth in 1880 by a writer whom Wolfe admires, Emile Zola.

Zola's essay was a manifesto for the scientific novel or, more accurately, for the kind of novel that Zola wrote which, in its depiction of life in the Second Empire, often offended certain readers because of its frankness. Called “sixty pages of mumbo-jumbo” by one of Zola's literary critics,2 the essay nonetheless delineates what Zola thought a novelist should do. Modeled directly on Claude Bernard's “L'Introduction à la médicine expérimentale” (1865) which discussed experimental medicine as a science rather than an art, Zola “substituted the word ‘novelist’ for ‘doctor.’”3 Practitioners of the naturalistic method, whom Zola called “hommes de science,” would record life using the inductive method as a scientist uses it in a laboratory, observing the real world with “the support of observation.”

His essay is mumbo-jumbo to the extent that Zola seems to claim for the novelist the function of a dispassionate recorder of the material world, whereas, following the lead of nineteenth-century science, the naturalistic novelist documents “the beast in man” and the laws of nature which are those of heredity and environment. Thus Zola's series of novels Les Rougon-Macquarts traces the “histoire naturelle e sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire” but in ways that demonstrate the interaction of genetics and social forces. In effect, despite his claims to scientific objectivity, Zola's novels are most often written to support various theses and give every impression of being what they essentially are, novels of social protest. Still, Zola's method of “documentation,” a word that Wolfe admiringly attributes to him in his essay in Harper's, presents an image of the writer who goes about the city with notebook in hand, recording “reality,” and it is plain to see in The Bonfire of the Vanities which Wolfe more or less hopes American novelists of the 1990s might take as their model.

The difference between Zola's professed scientific objectivity and his practice is exemplified in two of his less familiar novels, Le Ventre de Paris (The Guts of Paris) and Au Bonheur des Dames (For the Pleasure of Ladies) which record the realities of the great food market of Paris, Les Halles, and of the first “grand magasin” or Department Store in Paris. Seemingly, both books exist to document what these contemporary establishments were like. Here, for instance, is a description in Le Ventre de Paris of vegetables being brought to market at dawn:

Day was breaking slowly, in the softest of greys, washing everything in the world in clear water-colour tints. The heaps like white horses on a frothing sea, the river of green which seemed to flow down the bed of the street like the torrents of autumn rains, assumed shadows of a pearly delicacy, a tender violet, a milky pink, a green soaked deep in yellows, all the pale suggestions of colour that turn the sky into a cloth of shot silk as the sun begins to rise; and as the fire of morning sent up its bursts of flame at the end of the Rue Rambuteau, the vegetables appeared to come still farther out of their sleep, rising from the bluish expanse of shadows along the ground. Lettuces, endives, chicory, all open and still thick with soil, showed their bursting hearts; bunches of spinach, sorrel, and artichokes, heaps of beans and peas, mounds of cos lettuces, tied with strands of raffia, ran right down the scale of greens, from the lacquered green of the pods to the coarse green of the leaves; a scale which never flagged even as it died down to the tufts of celery and the bundles of leeks. But the shrill notes, those that struck highest in the scale, were still the bright splashes of the carrots, the snowy splodges of the turnips, scattered in tremendous quantity along the market, which they enlivened with their medley of colours. At the circus of the Rue des Halles the cabbages rose in mountains; enormous white cabbages, packed tight and as hard as pale metal cannonballs; curly cabbages with large leaves that resembled shallow basins of bronze; red cabbages, transformed by the dawn into superb flowers of the colours of wine, bruised into crimson and rich purple. At the other end, by the circus of the Pointe Saint-Eustache, the opening of the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barrier of orange pumpkins in two rows sprawling at their ease and swelling out their stomachs. And here and there the varnished bronze of a basket of onions kindled in the eye, or the blood red of a heap of tomatoes, the unobtrusive yellows of the cucumbers, the deep mauve of a bunch of aubergines; while large black radishes, laid down in funeral carpets, still preserved a few memories of the night in the midst of such vibrant waking joys.4

Zola extends such virtuoso turns of description to other parts of the market later—to cheese and fruit stalls, to the fish shop, to the pork butcher, and so on. A reader might think that his sole purpose was to describe for the rest of the world the phenomenon of Les Halles (now replaced by the Pompidou Center), which when he wrote the book was indeed only five years old. Instead, he has a thesis, contained in a central metaphor of food: that the bourgeosie is becoming “fat” by feeding voraciously on the rest of society. The abundance of the Second Empire masks what the final sentence of the novel makes explicit: “What swine nice people are!”

Au Boheur des Dames, gentler in its social criticism, describes another new establishment on the Parisian scene, a great department store, and still manages to present some truths observable in the present, whether in Paris or New York: a public is hungry for novelty (“nouveaute”) and “haut commerce” depends on sales, shamelessly advertised, to attract a public. In short, since an economy depends on the quantity of goods sold, people must learn to spend and spend. Here is a sale day early in the novel:

A compact surge of heads was flowing through the arcades, broadening out into a river in a spate in the center of the hall. A real commercial battle was developing, the salesmen were holding the multitude of women at their mercy, and were passing them over from one to another, vying with each other for speed. The hour of the tremendous afternoon rush had come, and the overheated machine was calling the tune to the customers and extracting money from their very flesh. In the silk department, above all, there was madness in the air, the Paris-Bonheur had attracted such a crowd that for several minutes Hutin could not advance a step … By now the commotion inside was muffling the sounds from the street; the rumbling of cabs and the banging of doors could no longer be heard; beyond the huge murmur of the sale there remained nothing but a sensation of the vastness of Paris—a city so vast that it would always be able to supply customers. In the still air, in which the stifling central heating brought out the smell of the materials, the hubbub was increasing, composed of every imaginable sound—of the continuous trampling of feet, of the same sentences repeated a hundred times at the counters, of gold ringing on the brass of the cash-desks which were being besieged by a scrimmage of purses, of baskets on wheels with their loads of parcels falling without respite into the gaping cellars. In the end everything was becoming intermingled under a fine dust, the divisions between departments were no longer recognizable; over there, the haberdashery seemed swamped; further on, in the household linen, a ray of sunlight coming through the window facing the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin was like a golden arrow in the snow; there in the woolen and glove departments, a dense mass of hats and hair was cutting off the far confines of the shop from sight. Even the clothes of the crowd could no longer be seen, only headdresses, gaudy with feathers and ribbons, were floating on the surface; a few men's hats were making black smudges, whereas the pale complexions of the women, tired out and feeling the heat, were acquiring the translucency of camelias.5

As in Le Ventre de Paris, Zola appears to take pleasure in documenting every aspect of the working conditions of the establishment and in describing the abundance of goods for sale whether they be carpets, or linens or whatever. That all of this activity is for gain, often for separating women from money meant for necessary household expenses, is part of the experience of the Second Empire in Paris. In these descriptive passages, the result of the author's voluminous documentation, Zola conveys a “sense of felt life” although not in the sense that Henry James used the phrase. It is, rather, “a slice of life” (“une tranche de vie”). In addition, Zola is that “rare bird,” in Wolfe's phrase, a writer who has “something to say.”

The Zolaesque novel never really took root in England although it flourished for a time in the United States. As vehicles for social protest—because there was much to protest—and as reflections of class distinction (in Wolfe's view still important in novels)6 naturalistic novels ought to have found a proper home in Great Britain, but only the unlikely George Moore, by way of his experience in Paris, brought them home in A Mummers Wife (1885) and Esther Waters (1894). George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, and a handful of others were influenced by Zola, but when James Joyce went about Dublin with notebook in hand it was to record epiphanies,7 not Zolaesque slices of life, and in Ulysses catalogs that resemble Zola's lists of vegetables or carpets are parodic.8 In America, on the other hand, where there was also much to protest, Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, Frank Norris in McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit, and Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy accounted for a naturalistic tradition that is a necessary study in any course in American Literature.

For whatever reason—Wolfe blames the New York intelligentsia—writers like Norris and Dreiser have been out of fashion. (With them one could lump James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, John O'Hara, Willard Motley, and the Nobel Prize winner cited favorably by Wolfe in the Harper's essay, Sinclair Lewis.) It may be that their concern with Naturalism as opposed to Realism will assure them permanence in our letters only because of historical interest. However, the influence of Zola's “experimental” method made a spectacular re-entry into American literature with The Bonfire of the Vanities. Of course, Zola alone was not an influence on Wolfe's novel. Anyone can see parallels between Dickens's brilliant portrait of the courts system in Bleak House and Wolfe's picture of the courthouse in the Bronx, but Dickens, too, was once out of fashion, swept out on the wave of anti-Victorianism created by Modernism and dismissed as a mere entertainer in The Great Tradition by F. R. Leavis. But, as Wolfe states, “a chasm of time—eighty years, in fact” has enabled Dickens to be restored to his proper place in British letters. The point is that honored practices by distinguished nineteenth-century authors have been revived by Wolfe and applied to a modern setting to provide a verisimilitude that has been lacking, Wolfe convincingly argues, in the American novel.

Wolfe certainly knows that what he is calling for in American fiction is now “new” but “old.” Nonetheless, he has every reason to desire a return to the kind of novel that he writes which is not currently “fashionable.” Like Cicely Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wolfe must be tired of hearing from the Gwendolyn Fairfaxes of the Literary Establishment what is “fashionable.” (“Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.”) Like T. S. Eliot arguing for “metaphysical” poetry, Wolfe wants to restore a literature and a method that have fallen into disuse. When Prufrock and other Observations appeared in 1917, English literature had seen nothing like Eliot's patient etherized on a table for a hundred and fifty years, and just as Eliot proselytized later in his essays for the kind of poetry he was writing, so Wolfe calls for realistic fiction like The Bonfire of the Vanities using the method of “documentation” or reporting. Furthermore, like Eliot, Wolfe can argue that his kind of fiction is in the “mainstream,” as Eliot argued Donne's poetry was.

Fashions come and go, and literary reputations wax and wane. As persuasive as Eliot was for a generation or more, no one presently is writing Eliotic verse. Wolfe may not succeed, as Eliot did, although Richard Vigilante in his review of The Bonfire of the Vanities said “Largely because of Wolfe's efforts [as a novelist], it is finally safe to predict that the social-realist novel will soon reemerge as an acceptable and perhaps dominant force on the serious-fiction scene.”9 As a model for others, Wolfe demonstrates that nothing succeeds like success.

In an episode of Peanuts, Lucy watches Snoopy dancing on Linus's piano and playing the violin at the same time. Finally she asks “But is it Art?” Anyone encountering those sometimes breathtaking descriptive passages in Zola and in Wolfe would say “yes,” admitting however that this kind of art differs from that which imagines what we have not seen. An old cartoon in New Yorker shows Dante walking through The Inferno while one devil remarks to another, “There's a guy here taking notes for a book.” Dante's art differs from Zola's and is not “base sur les faits” (“based on facts”), but only cultural snobbery would argue that this is art, that is not; this is literature, that is journalism; this is outmoded, that is not. Obviously, The Bonfire of the Vanities demonstrates that the writer with a notebook is not outmoded. In “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” Tom Wolfe as a novelist repeats with variation what he said as a journalist in The New Journalism (1973), that “the future of the fictional novel [lies in] a highly detailed realism based on reporting.” Moreover, his call for “big” novels which will give the United States “a literature worthy of [its] vastness” (quoting Sinclair Lewis) marks not so much a return to the search for The Great American Novel as a return to the idea of America which caused Gutson Borglum to sculpt Mount Rushmore. For his pains, Wolfe has been called a Philistine.10 However, he is not advocating size for its own sake. Michener is not his model. His own work bulks large enough, is good enough, and successful enough to justify emulation.


  1. Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Harper's, November, 1989, 45–56.

  2. Graham King, Garden of Zola. London (Barrie and Jenkins, 1978), p. 152.

  3. William York Tindall, Forces in Modern British Literature. New York (Vintage, 1956), p. 122.

  4. Emile Zola, Le Ventre De Paris (translated as Savage Pairs by David Hughes and Marie Jacqueline Mason). London (Elek Books, 1955), pp. 32–33.

  5. Emile Zola, Au Bonheur Des Dames (translated as The Ladies’ Delight by April Fitzbyrne). London (John Calder, 1957), pp. 106–07.

  6. For support of Wolfe's views on the importance of class in American fiction see Benjamin DeMott, The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class New York (William Morrow, 1990).

  7. James Joyce, Epiphanies ed. O. A. Silverman. Buffalo (Univ. of Buffalo, 1956).

  8. For Joyce and Naturalism, see Philip Raisor, “Grist For The Mill: James Joyce and The Naturalists,” Contemporary Literature xv, 4, 457–473.

  9. Richard Vigilante, “The Truth About Tom Wolfe,” National Review, December 18, 1987, 46–49.

  10. Robert Towers, “The Flap Over Tom Wolfe: How Real Is the Retreat From Realism?” The New York Times Book Review, January 21, 1990.

Jerry A. Varsava (essay date Fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5404

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Defense of the New (Old) Social Novel; Or, The Perils of the Great White-Suited Hunter,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 35–41.

[In the following essay, Varsava compliments Wolfe on the realism of The Bonfire of the Vanities, but states that the novel doesn't live up to the values of the social-realist novel that Wolfe himself outlined in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.”]

Our response to things in life is determined in great measure by our expectations. Knowing whether our dinner is supposed to be a West Texas taco or a Beijing spring roll will get us off to a good start in deciding if our meal is good Texmex fare or passable Chinese. Having served up one profundity to hungry minds, let me turn to the matter at hand. Is Tom Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” a taco or Chinese roll? Is it journalism or literary criticism (or even some crossgeneric mutation)? Our response to this question determines in large measure, I think, how we will greet the views he advances in the essay, whether with enthusiasm, or without it? And precisely what expectations do we bring to the perusal of yet another essay by one of America's most celebrated contemporary journalists? Do we expect a quick, assured (new) journalistic glance at several grand themes drawn from literary history, past and present, a collection of easily apprehended, if perhaps disconnected, wry observations? Or, do we expect something more rigorous, something along the lines of serious literary criticism with all of the genre's attendant obligations, conventions like defining one's terms, covering one's field of inquiry, and, optimally, self-critique.

Since Tom Wolfe calls himself a journalist, indefatigably, maybe I should take his word for it. Perhaps “Stalking” is journalism and one should leave it at that, accepting it as a different kind of essay than that which finds its way into those journals that like to refer to themselves (often accurately) as “learned.” I, however, will not treat “Stalking” as a mere opinion-piece, as just another entertaining journalistic provocation in a career of such provocations. There are two reasons for this ill-natured response. First, I am a literature professor and find it difficult to be much of anything else. (A lot of quite disparate prose ends up looking like literary criticism to me.) Second, I think in Tom Wolfe's heart of hearts, in what we might call (after Fitzgerald) the three-o'clock-in-the-morning of his journalistic soul, he wants to be taken seriously as a literary critic. Who knows, maybe being a literary critic nudges upward ever so minutely the journalist's “status”—that most Wolfian of terms, indeed (I suspect) that most Wolfian of virtues.

Anyway, lit. crit. it is, and I begin the way so much lit. crit. does by asserting that my absent interlocutor's understanding of literature is less than faultless, and that this essay will count the ways. Or, more to the point, and less succinctly, let me state quite simply that although Tom Wolfe may know a lot of things, and in particular a lot of things about the “American scene”—did he coin that or was that Henry James?—“Stalking” suggests his knowledge of American fiction, past and present, is a tad parochial. So, having immediately ingratiated myself with Mr. Wolfe and those who respect his literary judgments, let me enumerate the aforementioned ways.

Published two years after the appearance of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” serves, narrowly, as an apology for Wolfe's novel and, more broadly, in the words of the essay's subtitle, as “a literary manifesto for the new social novel.” Promotion of a particular canon is of course the very essence of literary criticism and entirely appropriate, even when promotion is inseparable from self-promotion as it is not only in Wolfe's essay but in others published by Harper's and Atlantic over the years by, for example, John Barth—otherwise identified as the “enemy” by Wolfe in “Stalking”—(although, it must be said, Barth's notion of self-promotion has less in common with Madison Avenue's than does Wolfe's). Now there is nothing wrong in principle with manifestoes and self-promotion. These are the ways of the world in the rancorous and commercial late twentieth century. Problems develop however with manifestoes and advertisements—to give self-promotion its colloquial name—when they advance their tendentious claims through a strategy of reductions and tactical evasions. I believe this to be the case with Wolfe's manifesto and indeed its greatest weakness. In “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe seeks not merely to promote his own views of the novelistic canon but, as manifestoes usually do, to denigrate a counter-tradition, in this case postmodern fiction, that appears to him to be impoverished both in its mimetic efficacy and in its capacity to elicit from the reader a visceral response.

The opening section of “Stalking” is one of the most interesting in the essay. A piece of genetic criticism, it discusses both Wolfe's early New Journalism of the 60s and 70s and his growing infatuation with the idea of writing a big fat novel about big fat New York City. Wolfe has of course tilled these fields before in interviews and essays—notably in “The New Journalism”—but his account is still fascinating. Tom Wolfe is a major contemporary American writer and what he says about his own development and, more generally, contemporary letters commands our attention. He has helped pioneer in the United States one of the more interesting literary developments of the post-war period. New Journalism demonstrates the richness of narrative prose in inventive ways. Wolfe goes wrong, however, when he subsequently indicts his novelist-peers for having not followed the strictures of “realism” in their own work, for not having written his kind of new (i.e., old) social novel. (And I will return presently to Wolfe's troubled notion of realism.)

Regrettably, both in “Stalking” and elsewhere, Wolfe fails to see the fundamental continuity that exists between highly subjective forms of journalism and highly subjective forms of fiction, each of which seeks through narrative a renegotiation of those Urpolarities in human experience, subjectivity and objectivity.1 Authorial subjectivity is a major preoccupation not only of New Journalism but indeed of American literature in recent decades. Formal reflexivity is one manifestation of this newfound subjectivity and we can cite works by, among many others, Barthelme, Pynchon, and Raymond Federman, not to mention Sukenick and Coover who come in for unkind words in “Stalking.” Another important experimental form is what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafictions.” Such works deal with real historical figures and real historical events but in a far more playful, self-conscious way than, for example, we find in the traditional historical romance as developed by Walter Scott (and imitated to this day by legions) and the documentary or “nonfiction” novel. Examples of historiographic metafictions include of course novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, Coover's magnificent The Public Burning, Doctorow's Ragtime, and DeLillo's recent and quite intriguing Libra. This interest in self-consciousness, in authorial self-accountability, has clearly not been confined to American literature. In German fiction, what we have come to know as the “neue Subjektivität” has been an important orientation since the 60s as fictions by Peter Handke and Helmut Heissenbüttel document. At the same time, Latin magical realism brings authorial subjectivity to bear on the interpretation of local history and local mythology.

New Journalism, we might say, is intent on mining the same motherlode of subject matter—call it contemporary reality—as most fiction of the last thirty years. Further, I think, it is even using the same device, a heightened awareness of authorial subjectivity and hence authorial sovereignty. What is fundamentally different of course is that New Journalists initiate their explorations from a different place than do metafictionists or authors of fictional historiography or magical realists, and of course the ore they extract has a different shape and luster. In suggesting the superiority of New Journalism and, even more questionably, the bankruptcy of other experimental narrative forms, Wolfe becomes nothing more than a claimjumper though, ironically, there is a surplus of finds to be made by both the experimental journalist and the experimental novelist.

Now I do not think that Wolfe's views on postmodern American fiction have always been indefensible, even if I hasten to admit never having shared them.2 Let me cite two brief quotes from Wolfe to illustrate my point.

The novel is not dead. It's only the novelists who are strangling themselves on what is now a very orthodox, conventional aesthetics based on form. And there are no novelists today who are considered “talented” who would want to do what Balzac did, or what Thackeray or Dickens did … There's so much terra incognita that novelists should be getting into that they could easily be wholly concerned with social fabric, the social tableau. Forget the ersatz psychology that they get into.

(Scura, 39)

Philip Roth was absolutely correct. The imagination of the novelist is powerless before what he knows he's going to read in tomorrow morning's newspaper. But a generation of American writers has drawn precisely the wrong conclusion from that perfectly valid observation. The answer is not to leave the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.

(“Stalking,” 55)

The quotes advance virtually identical views. Both criticize the purported inclination of contemporary writers to flee the social for the personal and esoteric, and both promote for fiction the kind of detailed description of contemporary history one finds in nineteenth century realism and some American modernism. However, in my view, the judgments of the first citation are correct, arguably, while those of the second are manifestly wrong. I'll explain.

The paradox here disappears when we learn that the first statement was made in 1974 in an important interview with Joe David Bellamy while the second appears at the end of “Stalking,” published of course in late 1989. The 60s and early 70s did indeed witness the rise of a metafictional sensibility that did not take as its first priority an unfiltered depiction of American social history although one can argue, as I have elsewhere, that few metafictions are entirely devoid of covert social content. In many cases, it was left up to the reader to relate allegorical claims to their contemporary socio-historical context. This was true of works like “Lost in the Funhouse,” The Universal Baseball Association, and The Crying of Lot 49. This phenomenon of course changed the way readers read, making them far more active than had been formerly required by traditional realistic fiction, but that's another story. In any event, I certainly agree, and have noted elsewhere, that there was a kind of innovation hysteria during the early postmodern period that led to a lot of silliness where, for example, novels were written on cash register tapes or interchangeable cards, where writers bludgeoned their readers with the club of narrative reflexivity: “Look Mom, I'm writin’ a novel” (Contingent Meanings, 39–40). Further, given that metafictionality was best explored in the shorter prose forms, rather than in the novel, many postmodern works were not well-suited for the kind of expansive social depictions constructed by the residents of Wolfe's literary pantheon, the great nineteenth century realists and selected American modernists. To be fair, from the vantage point of the early 70s, Wolfe's position is justifiable even if it does not offer a very differentiated view of the fiction of the period.

However, two things happened to address this preoccupation with novelty, and hence to deflate Wolfe's thesis. The important metafictionists of the period, indeed those authors who have emerged as major writers of the postmodern period—Coover, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon—did not develop creative arteriosclerois but continued to explore their medium and either attenuated their experimental program or developed a complementary orientation that was more obviously world-referential. Indeed, those writers who did not adjust—is “mature” the word?—have found that their critical reputations have suffered. And I would cite Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman as members of the latter constituency. Indeed, though Wolfe refers to Sukenick's fiction as much praised, his work has not inspired a single book-length study to date, nor has Federman's while Barth et al. have been studied at monographic length.

We should bear in mind, and Wolfe does not, that many of the metafictionists proved themselves capable of powerful social satire—for example, Coover's The Origin of the Brunists and The Public Burning, Sorrentino's Crystal Vision and Blue Pastoral, and the bulk of Vonnegut's and Pynchon's works—and, further, that the period is marked by the emergence of major black and women writers, some of whom like Ishmael Reed and John Edgar Wideman have adapted postmodern innovations while others such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have remained more traditional. All of these have become major American writers of the late twentieth century. The claims that Wolfe makes in the 1974 Bellamy interview and elsewhere are simply insupportable in the late 80s. To advance them in 1989 is less a diagnosis of contemporary literature than it is of self-preoccupation. The overview of post-war American fiction that Wolfe elaborates in “Stalking” is far too simplistic and fails to contend thoughtfully with nearly a half-century of fiction unprecedented in both formal diversity and thematic richness, a tradition to which Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities to be sure, makes an interesting contribution. It is startling that “Stalking” does not pay tribute to a single postmodern writer, except of course Wolfe himself. It does not mention a single contemporary woman writer, not one. Nor does the essay mention a single writer of color, not one. Nor does it cite a single ethnic writer or regional writer, not one, except of course Wolfe's ongoing references to himself, that earnest chronicler of the Big Apple. Perhaps Wolfe's aesthetic bonfires are stoked less by critical acumen than simple vanity. At one point in the essay, Wolfe laments Barth's Chimera winning of the 1972 National Book Award for fiction, implying the event signals the hijacking of American fiction in the 70s by the experimentalists. Regrettably, Wolfe fails to survey who else has won major fiction awards over the last fifteen or twenty years. The list is as richly diverse as the period's fiction itself.3

Now Tom Wolfe has successfully pulled off this sort of thumbnail critical sketch before—of modern painting in The Painted Word and of architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House—but in each case the object of his obloquy was dealt with far more patiently than he ever has contemporary fiction. There probably is an art historian or two who feel much the same way about The Painted Word as I do about “Stalking.” I happen to think the book is brilliant in its unmasking of the absurd pretensions of post-war American art. Its interpretation is obviously reductive but reduction is the essence of satire. Through caricature, through parodic inflation, through his trademark neologisms, through his deft movement between verbal registers, Wolfe ridicules the motley of -isms that the Art World has frenetically consumed in the post-war period. But “Stalking” does not share the success of The Painted Word (nor for that matter even the more limited achievement of From Bauhaus to Our House). The reasons are fairly obvious. Wolfe's discussion of painting is up-to-date. He did what he and his fellow journalists call the “legwork” or “digging,” what lit. professors call familiarizing oneself with the material and others, less pretentiously, “checkin’ the stuff out.” He read, he researched, he conquered. In The Painted Word his winsome colloquial style betrays no sense of self-importance, none of the “high seriousness” he mocks in others. And, let me note in passing, that the National Gallery of Canada spent—read squandered—the lion's share of its mouse-size 1990 acquisitions budget on a giant striped canvas by Barnett Newman, one of those old minimalist ruses that Wolfe has so much fun with; clearly the art world still takes its high seriousness very seriously. But back to Wolfe.

It is precisely this same kind of high seriousness that he falls prey to in “Stalking.” In the essay, he identifies the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities as the would-be and perhaps even the actual savior of American narrative literature in the late twentieth century. Clearly Tom Wolfe needs to lighten up a bit. (Lighten up, Tom!) Take for example the heaviness, not to mention the presumption, with which he plays his Zola Card at the end of “Stalking.”

At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade of Zolas to head out into this bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.

(“Stalking,” 55)

Now Zola, to digress briefly, is of course a special kind of literary saint. Not only does he both theorize and develop a modestly innovative literary form—the naturalistic novel—but he is also a great champion of human rights and, therein, of social justice. (That he died under circumstances some believe suspicious—of carbon monoxide asphyxiation in his Paris home—strengthens his hagiographers’ position generally, and the martyr thesis in particular.) Consequently, Zola made a mark not only on the literature of his epoch but also on its literary theory and, most importantly, on its morality. Arguably, he was the best the early Third Republic could do along the lines of a Voltaire. Okay, so Zola was a good guy. But is Zola a true precursor of Wolfe as Wolfe implies? Does Wolfe follow in Zola's footsteps? Well, sort of, but not really.

Literary theorists have debated for a very long time the issue of authorial intentionality. Or, stated differently, the relevance of the author's own intentions to the finished text itself and the reader's understanding of it. The consensus that has evolved over the last quarter-century holds that meaning must be invested in the literary work, and that subsidiary enterprises by the author such as interviews and essays may elucidate that meaning but are not substitutes for it. If the proof is in the pudding, then the meaning is in the text, and nowhere else. Is Tom Wolfe a New World reincarnation of Zola as he intends himself to be? There are some interesting symmetries. Both are journalists. Both take their national metropolis as their personal journalistic beat while sometimes ranging farther afield. Both write fictional and nonfictional narrative. And, they are peers … at one century's remove (and I'll return to this later). Yet, there is a single and singular difference between the two, and one that overrides these several similarities. Zola was a moralist; moralists, almost invariably, are disenchanted with their times. For them, the time is always out of joint. Zola sympathized with workers and others who made up the impoverished class in late nineteenth century France; he sympathized with French Jews who suffered the scourge of anti-semitism.4 He was a social critic, not a satirist, not a social commentator, not a social observer, not a nineteenth century Tom Wolfe. When Zola went to the journalistic whip, he applied it to the backside of social oppression. Neither the “Experimental Novel” essay nor “J'accuse” addresses some local internecine squabble between middle-class, middle-aged, by-now establishment writers. Each is at root about a fundamentally unjust application of social power.

Mr. Wolfe is not a moralist, though I would hasten to add this is not an evil circumstance. Few major writers today are in fact old-school moralists. The pluralistic temper of the times does not allow bald proselytizing even among those would-be moralists in the writing community. Increasingly, writers simply lay out it out for readers and let them decide who's right, who's wrong, and who's beside-the-point. And what are Wolfe's views on the function of moralizing in literature? As he has pointed out as long ago as 1970 in an interview with Michael Dean and as recently as May 1990 in a real yawner of an interview with Bill Buckley on Firing Line, he's against it which I think is okay but then again he's not doing it à la Zola. And what does Wolfe think of contemporary American society? He thinks things are fine. In 1980, we find him bucking the widespread pessimism that ensued with the end of the Vietnam War, the heaveho of Nixon, and Carter's Iranian Waterloo by proclaiming that the 80s would be “a rather rosy ten years” (Scura, 128). And so they were of course … if ecology wasn't particularly important to one, if fiscal responsibility was low on one's list of priorities, if the decade provided the subject matter that inspires one to write a national bestseller. But there is nothing Zola-esque in these sentiments. There is no trace of Zola's righteous indignation, of his belief that society was racing toward moral and material chaos. (And we might take the powerful train scene that concludes La bête humaine as an encapsulation of Zola's outlook.)

And what serves as the Wolfian equivalent of Zola's “J'accuse”? Well, I think “Stalking” is Wolfe's “J'accuse” but, interestingly, curiously, this accusatory essay deals not with the fate of a nation, not with the human condition, but with an issue that is rather narrow in social terms, perhaps even parochial: what writers should do with their time. (And it is doubtful that Wolfe will ever face criminal prosecution for his essay as Zola did for his.) Wolfe has written a lot, and I have not read it all, but I think this is the first time that he has relinquished his sartorial logo, the white suit, for the cleric's basic black, and actually preached to his readers. And this is no polite, tolerant Unitarian tract but good ole downhome Virginny fire-and-brimstone. Writers of America reform yourselves or your work will be condemned to the everlasting fires of obscurity, also known as the remaindered tables of the nation's bookstores. But let me quote from the sermon:

Of one thing I am sure. If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life but also seized the high ground of literature itself.

(“Stalking,” 55)

Wow! Talk about high seriousness! Lighten up Tom. It's going to be alright. Hang in there. There's room in this here town for both you and them. At least that's what American publishing policies and readership patterns of the last quarter-century suggest.

In touting the cogency, the excellence, maybe even the genius of The Bonfire of the Vanities, “Stalking the Beast” invites scrutiny of the novel. And in closing, I would like to look briefly at that work though it deserves less perfunctory treatment than I'll give it here. I do not recall any first novel for which grander public claims have been made by its author. Will Bonfire save Am. Lit.? No, I don't think so for Am. Lit. is not quite so enfeebled as Wolfe would have it. (Indeed the only thing that has died lately, though Wolfe tries to resuscitate it, is talk of the death of the American novel.) A less easily answered question revolves around the novel's immediate value? For Tom Wolfe, both as journalist and novelist, the most important thing is simple temporal precedence, i.e., to be the first on the scene and not to get the scooped. Well, he sure hasn't been scooped often as a new journalist but I think he has been scooped the odd time as a novelist though there is no shame in that. Perhaps the journalistic analogy, with its assumption of a naked truth, doesn't even work in the field of fictional representation.

In “Stalking,” Wolfe chronicles his growing surprise and disappointment during the 60s and 70s at both the decline of realism and the failure of writers to write the story of New York City. And, he tells us, he wasn't alone.

Half the publishers along Madison Avenue … had their noses pressed up against their thermopane glass walls scanning the billion-footed city for the approach of the young novelists who, surely, would bring them the big novels of the racial clashes, the hippie movement, the New Left, the Wall Street boom, the sexual revolution, the war in Vietnam. But such creatures, it seemed, no longer existed.


Well, since he doesn't name the publishers, we'll just have to take his new-journalistic word for it. But have realism and NYC been neglected? Hardly. New York is without doubt the most written about locality in the U.S., probably in the Western world, and quite possibly in the universe. (There are many reasons for this but the four most important ones have to do with the city's large population, its economic clout, the presence of the bulk of major U.S. publishers, and, not least, its citizens’ preoccupation with themselves and NewYorkness.) In her 1982 study of the fictional portrayal of New York, Joan Zlotnick catalogues nearly 200 titles and she misses a few pre-1980 novels not to mention recent important works by the likes of McElroy, Doctorow, Gaddis, Vonnegut, and DeLillo. New York and its themes neglected? Get outta here, as they might say in the South Bronx. But what about realism? Maybe the Realism Quotient of these novels is too low. Let us consider that for a moment.

Just what is realism? Well, for Wolfe, it's a lot of things. It is a period designation as in the Age of Realism (1830–80) and its big-city writers, notably Balzac, Dickens, and Zola. But it is also an honorific term he assigns to those authors whose literary styles and perspectives he likes, namely a few early twentieth century American writers like Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Pearl Buck. For Wolfe's money, these writers have provided their readers what Lewis had demanded in his 1930 Nobel acceptance speech, a literature commensurate to America's “vastness” (48). Needless to say, Wolfe's is a very conservative canon, one not much different from that found in the more cautious undergrad syllabi of the 50s and 60s.

Wolfe neglects a crucial differentiation in his discussion of realism. I noted earlier, in an attempt at irony, that Zola and Wolfe are peers at the modest remove of a century or so. This needs restating. Zola and Wolfe are not peers but citizens of vastly different worlds. Because historical epochs are, by definition, fundamentally different, their literatures must also be fundamentally different if they are to be sensitive to the nuances of contemporary society, if, in short, they are to be “realistic” or mimetic. This is the thesis of Erich Auerbach's wonderful study of Western literature, Mimesis, a work whose cogency has only increased since its publication in the 40s. Wolfe implicitly knows this when he honors, quite legitimately, major “realists” of the past; he doesn't when he rebukes contemporary novelists. The postmodern period is unique in very many respects and I won't enumerate them all here—and indeed couldn't—but I'll cite a couple. The contemporary period is extremely heterogeneous in social terms. Its variegations are a direct result of the success of liberal democracy and its economic system, capitalism. Consequently, the fiction of the period reflects this dispersion of moral authority, of wealth, and, increasingly, of political power through the proliferation of themes and styles that characterizes contemporary American literature. Wolfe's many essays have in fact chronicled some of these developments in insightful and entertaining ways. His literary historiography has been less successful. We have then a curious tension between a journalist who understands the particular pressures, trends, and dispositions of his time and a literary critic who does not. And, interestingly, we find the same sort of schizophrenia in many marxian literary critics—Lukács and Fredric Jameson, for example—who, on the one hand, are very much aware of history and epochal shifts but who, on the other, rail against those novelists intent on depicting these same phenomena.

No one writer can write the quintessential “new social novel” in a period as diverse, as fragmented, as rich as ours. Such a novel can only be a composite of novels, a library in short. The most a novelist can do is to attend to those social facts—what Wolfe calls petits faits vrais—that he or she knows and cares about (55). This is the nature of postmodern mimesis, of contemporary realism. Whether we think of Gaddis's introspective Carpenter's Gothic—my own (current) choice for best American novel of the 80s—or Walter Abish's postmodern realism or Kathy Acker's punk feminist novels or DeLillo's great fictive conspiratorial webs or Wideman's powerful Philadelphia Fire, few postmodern works are bereft of substantive world-referential claims, few fail to wrestle in some way with “the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us” (55). While their aesthetic mediations are very diverse, these are the social novels of our time, for better or worse.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is Wolfe's attempt to deal with his vision of America in the 80s through the narrative conventions of past realisms. And, on first reading, one influenced by a familiarity with “Stalking the Beast,” I was tempted to say he failed because he succeeded. But, as I have suggested above, one needs to have a capacious view of postmodern realism if one is to have a capacious understanding of contemporary American society. Wolfe captures well the idioms and temperaments of NYC. He is, as always, excellent on surface detail, and the descriptions of clothing, interior decor, and architecture are very effective. Wolfe spent a lot of time and exertion stalking his billion-footed beast in the canyons of Wall Street and the badlands of the South Bronx. His novel has realism and we need only mention names like Bernhard Goetz, Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, to confirm the point. And did the great white-suited hunter bag the beast? Naw, but he got off his best shot, a good clean shot, as Hemingway would have said, and might even have drawn blood. And that's quite a lot. Besides, we learned a long time ago from Ike McCaslin that making the kill isn't the most important thing anyway.


  1. In Fables of Fact, his fine study of New Journalism, John Hellmann expatiates on other similarities between the latter and the experimental fiction of the 60s and 70s (8–17).

  2. Wolfe is obviously not alone in his criticism of postmodern fiction. A number of academics have been similarly hostile though their repudiation of it has typically had a strong moralistic tenor. See, for example, monographs by John Aldridge, Gerald Graff, and Charles Newman. I offer a critique of the latter in Contingent Meanings (7–21).

  3. For a fairly comprehensive list of recent winners of major fiction awards, see the last several yearbooks of Dictionary of Literary Biography.

  4. One recent biography points to the unflattering stereotypes of Jews in Zola's fiction as evidence of the author's own anti-semitism, claiming he only revised his position late in life in the early 90s. With regard to Zola's role in the Dreyfus Affair, Alan Schom goes so far as to say that Zola “was not so much a spokesman for Jews, as for principles” (146).

Works Cited

Aldridge, John. The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Barth, John. “It's a Long Story.” Harper's (July 1990): 71–75, 78.

———“The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic (August 1967): 29–34.

———“The Literature of Replenishment.” Atlantic (January 1980): 65–71.

Graff, Gerald. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Hellmann, John. Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1981.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Patrick O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 3–32.

Newman, Charles. The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1985.

Schom, Alan. Emile Zola: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

Scura, Dorothy M. Conversations with Tom Wolfe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Varsava, Jerry A. Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1990.

Wolfe, Tom. “The New Journalism.” The New Journalism. Ed. Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 3–52.

———“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel.” Harper's (November 1989): 45–56.

Zoltnick, Joan. Portrait of an American City: The Novelists’ New York. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1982.

Mikhail Epstein (review date Fall 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5967

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe and Social(ist) Realism,” in Common Knowledge, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 147–60.

[In this negative review of Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” Epstein criticizes the essay for its suggestion that “realistic fiction” is the future of the fictional novel. Epstein goes on to compare the essay to the 1855 dissertation of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, entitled The Esthetic Relationship of Art to Reality.]

Like two people facing opposite sides of a wall, Eastern and Western cultures have opposite views of left and right. The idea of a free market economy, an established reality in the United States, is staunchly defended by “conservative” economists and politicians. In the Soviet Union, this same idea was championed by the “radical” forces. Likewise, Tom Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel” makes a stunning impression on a reader from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Wolfe tilts at the “literary establishment” of modernist literature, offering in its stead the kind of “class approach” which has served as the literary establishment in the Soviet Union. Once unleashed by Lenin and Stalin, the beast named Socialist Realism stalked the Russian artistic mind and held it captive for many decades.

Since Wolfe himself holds up Russian novelists as an example to American writers, it is appropriate to subject Wolfe's arguments to the scrutiny of the Russian literary tradition. The iron curtain has fallen. A renewal of dialogue between Eastern and Western literatures creates the need to find a new conceptual framework in which identical things can be called by the same name.

Wolfe contended in his article that the realist novel was left for dead in 1960 and only he himself resurrected it in Bonfire of the Vanities. Many critics and even novelists have shown that Wolfe underestimated the role which realism has played in post-1960 American literature.1 Few reviewers, however, called into doubt the very premise value of Wolfe's manifesto, namely the aesthetic qualities of this type of writing which he calls most desirable and productive for contemporary literature: “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, …” (50).2

I do not intend to dwell on Wolfe's negative evaluation of American literature of the last thirty years, as this point has already been elaborated. What I would like to discuss are his positive ideas expressed in the two key words of his manifesto: “social” and “realism.”



Out of reality's many dimensions, Tom Wolfe considers the social to be the most crucial for contemporary literature. He refers to Lionel Trilling's evaluation of the nineteenth-century European novel: its highest success was the production of great characters through the portrayal of “class traits modified by personality.” Whereas Trilling asserts that this old class structure had by now disintegrated, particularly in the United States, Wolfe believes that the social engagement of literature can and should be continued: “Again, I would say that precisely the opposite is the case. If we substitute for class the broader term status, that technique has never been more essential in portraying the innermost life of the individual” (51).

The idea that characters in a literary work are defined by their class nature and social milieu was an axiom of Soviet aesthetics, as defined by Engels: “Realism presupposes, besides the authenticity of details, the truthful reproduction of typical characters in typical circumstances.” A character was thought to be primarily a manifestation of social type, whether functioning as a landlord or a serf, a shock-worker or a party leader. Even “the innermost life of the individual,” personal sentiments and affairs of the heart should be determined by the upheavals of class struggle and labor efficiency.

As for Wolfe's model, in the classic literature of the nineteenth century, great characters are not passively shaped by their circumstances; these figures rise to challenge them or escape from them. Such literary heroes as Eugene Onegin, Raskolnikov, Prince Mishkin, or Pierre Bezukhov are significant in that each is engaged in both inner and outer struggle with his own social status. It is a character's resistance to circumstances that makes him a true personality.

Bakhtin defined the essence of the novel as a genre: “In the novel, a man is either higher than his fate or lower than his humanity.” A person cannot be limited by the narrow boundaries of his social role or fate. It is the disparity between the personal and the social which imparts the dynamics to a novel's plot. Fiction focuses on an individual as distinct from his class traits.

Nonfiction is an entirely different matter. Social mores can be presented in the form of characters who are nothing but the manifestation of some general type. This kind of journalistic characterization may be vivid and picturesque but in no case should be identified with fiction. Otherwise, fiction would be reduced to social generalizations in which individuals serve as an example for broader models or functions. This is what happened to Soviet literature, which turned out to be a collection of exemplary modes of thought and behavior.


As for other dimensions of reality—psychological, aesthetic, mystical, metaphysical—Wolfe sees all of them as distracting literature from its social destination. Allegedly it is not enough for literature to be “good literature,” it must eagerly meet the demands of historical circumstances. While he criticizes the modernist and minimalist schools of writing, Wolfe recognizes the literary accomplishment of their members: “Many of these writers were brilliant. They were virtuosos” (50). Is this combination of qualities enough for a writer to accomplish his literary destiny? Not at all. Wolfe discloses the screaming disparity between these artistic talents and their misconceived creative endeavors. “But what was the lonely island they had moved to?”

In Soviet criticism it was acceptable practice to distinguish between the “talent” and the “direction” of a writer. Even a brilliant author, if he chose an improper social or ideological direction, risked wasting his talent and imperiling his career. According to Soviet “materialist” methodology, this happened to all avant-gardists and modernists who squandered their talents by turning away from reality and delving into spheres of fantasy and subjectivity. It is symptomatic that the targets of Wolfe's manifesto and official Soviet aesthetics coincide: “avant-garde position far beyond realism … Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels,” and so forth [49].

It was in this very manner that Stalin's chief ideologue, Andrei Zhdanov, justified his attack against two among the few independent writers remaining in the Soviet Union, Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. “These works can only sow sadness, depression, pessimism; attempt to escape the important issues of social life; deviate from the wide path of social life and activity into a narrow world of personal experience … wretched private feelings and digging in their petty persons.”3

A striking interchange emerges between Wolfe and Zhdanov across the continents and decades. “To be an engineer of human souls means to stand with both feet on the soil of real life. And this, in its turn, means a break with romanticism of the old type, with that romanticism which represented nonexistent life and nonexistent characters, and led the reader far away from the contradictions and the pressures of life to the world of the impossible, to the utopian world.”4

Tom Wolfe amplifies this accusation in words addressed to contemporary neo-romanticists, or “Neo-Fabulists”: “The action, if any, took place at no specific location. … The characters had no background. They came from nowhere. They didn't use realistic speech. Nothing they said, did, or possessed indicated any class or ethnic origin” (49).

For its own part, social/socialist realism is ready to fight such unforgivable errors as “nonexistent” characters “from nowhere” by providing these characters with clear class origins: “In our country, literary protagonists are active builders of a new life: male and female workers, male and female members of collective farms, Party members, economic planners, engineers, komsomolists, pioneers. These are principal types and principal characters of our Soviet literature.”5 As a consequence of these strict requirements of social/socialist realism, those writers who failed to fit them were exiled to “nowhere,” were doomed to the same “nonexistence,” which they unfortunately tried to represent in their verse and novels.


Wolfe's passage continues in a manner familiar to those acquainted with the style of Soviet literary polemics: “But what was this lonely island they had moved to? After all, they, like me, happened to be alive in what was, for better or for worse, the American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history, … We were alive in the first moment since the dawn of time in which man was able at last to break the bonds of Earth's gravity and explore the rest of the universe. … What a feast was spread out before every writer in America!” (50).

Try to substitute “Soviet” for “American” and “the Soviet Union” for “America”—and you will get a typical fragment from something like a typical anthology (“Soviet Literature Guards Great Achievements”) that might have been published in Moscow by Politizdat. Of course, this “feast spread out before every writer” would render a severe verdict against those writers who irresponsibly oppose themselves to the festive spirit of their great epoch and their great country. They should have been overjoyed to live in the society of “affluence that reached clear down to the level of mechanics and tradesmen on a scale that would have made the Sun King blink.” Why did they ungratefully turn away from this marvelous social reality and give themselves up to soul-searching “within the narrow limits which they had set for themselves”? (50).

A student of Soviet culture might ascribe these didactic passages to some officious critic of the thirties or fifties were it not for the fact that Wolfe mentions “mechanics and tradesmen” instead of “workers and peasants.” This would be an honest mistake. There is a conspicuous similarity between what Wolfe wrote and what was written by Soviet literary ideologists and public prosecutors thirty and fifty years ago.

A curious parallel can be drawn to arguments made by Zhdanov in the 1946 crackdown against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko.

Our people wait for Soviet writers to understand and generalize the enormous experience which the people acquired in the Great Patriotic War, to represent and generalize this heroism, with which people now work to restore the people's economy after the enemies’ expulsion. … Where will you find such a people and such a country as we have? Where will you find such magnificent qualities as those displayed by the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War and which he shows every day in his occupation with work in transition towards peaceful development and the restoration of the economy and culture! Every day raises our people higher and higher. … To represent these new qualities of the Soviet people … this is the task of every conscientious Soviet writer.6

It is hardly believable that the sotsial'nyi zakaz—“demand formulated by a social class”—that dominated the Soviet literature of the twenties through the forties should be revived in contemporary American literature. I doubt that Tom Wolfe could have imagined whose path he is following in his “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”; but ideas have their own logic that often challenges an author's good intentions. The common premise of Zhdanov's and Wolfe's manifestos is that a writer is obliged to do this or that because he lives in such a society, such a century, or among such a nation. They share the same normative approach: both seek to prescribe writers’ duties and obligations before society. The difference is that Wolfe is proud of America's “mightiest military power,” while Zhdanov, a skilled political demagogue, glorifies “peaceful development.”


It is interesting to note that Wolfe even uses the same critical metaphors as Zhdanov. In arguing that realism was not just a formal device but an unprecedented achievement that cannot be surpassed by successive literary development, he likens it to a technological breakthrough: “The introduction of realism into literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. … For writers to give up this power in the quest for a more up-to-date kind of fiction—it is as if an engineer were to set out to develop a more sophisticated machine technology by first of all discarding the principle of electricity …” (50–51).

This engineering metaphor is a favorite cliché of Stalinist literary theory. It was Stalin himself who coined the maxim, which had to be used without fail in every critical article: “Writers are the engineers of human souls.” Actually, Lenin had initiated such use of mechanical metaphors in his article “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905): “Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, ‘a cog and a screw’ of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism …”7 However, Lenin, who had received a classical education, went on to qualify this crude image: “‘All comparisons are lame,’ says a German proverb. So is my comparison of literature with a cog, of a living movement with a mechanism.” By the middle of the thirties, the efforts to mechanize literature proved successful enough that Stalin and Zhdanov no longer felt a need to make any such qualifications.

The choice of metaphor cannot be but the expression of some general outlook. The technical image inevitably suggests itself when literature is to be manipulated. Wolfe's analogy between literature and engineering is a natural consequence of his conception of literature as reporting: both represent fiction writing as some manageable and mechanical work.

Unfortunately, Wolfe's idea of progress in literature goes back not only to the positivistic twist of the nineteenth century. It also alludes to much more dangerous fallacies of the early twentieth century, which presupposed that the efficiency of literary labor may be enforced by social and political means, as a purely technological process.

Then it is already no surprise that the same kind of work can be accomplished by whole brigades of writers, as was done in the Soviet Union in the thirties or in North Korea even today. No doubt, if the ivory tower (in which a “high-brow modernist” finds his isolation from reality) is to be transformed into a factory section, then a brigade can do the work more efficiently than a lone person.

This leads to Wolfe's next metaphor: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property” (55). Is it not remarkable that Wolfe asks his colleagues to follow the model set in the Soviet Union in the thirties, when brigades of writers were dispatched to the construction sites of great canals to represent the labors of repressed and convicted people as examples of “mutual socialist transformation of man and nature.”

In those brave new times, it was believed that the collectivist mode of production could churn out Pushkins and Gogols in mass quantities. Unique in the past, they would naturally proliferate under the sensible sponsorship of the party. The literature of the near future was imagined, in Wolfe's terms, as a battalion, or brigade of Tolstoys, vigorously composing hundreds of War and Peaces devoted to patriotic wars and socialist construction.

All Soviet people knew by heart the following maxim from Lenin's “Party Organization and Party Literature”: “One cannot live in society and be free from society.”8 This famous citation was used with alacrity to suppress free artistic thinking and to denounce dissidents. However, it is the bitter and agonizing experience of Russian literature, from Pushkin and Dostoevski to Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, that to live in the society and to be free of the society is what makes genuine literature.



The term realism is so overused that, in order for it to signify anything, it must be applied to specific objects which themselves demand a realistic mode of description. Wolfe calls the United States a baroque country, yet advises his colleagues to approach it with realistic methods. Would it not be more logical to approach an inherently baroque country with those artistic means appropriate to the baroque, the literary method least compatible with journalistic technique?

Wolfe in vain tries to identify Gogol as his predecessor in social realism worthy of Russia's/America's vastness.9 The idea of Gogol as a pillar of realism was once a popular Soviet conception. But most contemporary Soviet critics agreed that Gogol represents nothing but baroque creativity with its deliberate exaggeration of minor details and double-play, as well as its fantastic, overemphatic, and ornate style, or just what Wolfe himself condemns as “magical realism.” Probably the vastness shared by Russia and America may be more authentically portrayed not through reporting, but through wild fantasy. Only free imagination can embrace in the microcosm of a novel such a great macrocosm as is presented by multinational and multicultural societies.


Tom Wolfe refers to Philip Roth's pronouncement of 1961 which allegedly proved to be fatal for American realism. “He made a statement that had a terrific impact on other young writers. We now live in an age, he said, in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper. ‘The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist’. … The lesson that a generation of serious young writers learned from Roth's lament was that it was time to avert their eyes” (48).

A century earlier, the same lesson was taught by Dostoevski. He was among the first in Russian literature to appreciate the newspaper chronicle as a source for the novel, claiming that everyday facts, in their unbelievable logic, are superior to any fantasy. It might have been more relevant to refer directly to Dostoevski, but for Wolfe's scheme such a reference would have been ruinous. I also understand why Dostoevski (unlike Tolstoy) is not among Wolfe's favorite writers. For Dostoevski, the fantastic nature of reality did not prevent but argued for the most wild fantasy penetrating into the substance of fiction. One can find the following famous statement in his correspondence: “I have my own specific outlook on reality (in art) and what the majority calls almost fantastic and exceptional, this sometimes comprises for me … the very essence of the real.”10 Dostoevski did not doubt that reality itself is shaped by human fantasy and in this sense he called St. Petersburg the most fictitious city in the world because it came out of the fantasy of Peter the Great.

In other words, the fictional element is a constituent part of reality and the writer is all the more a realist the more he gives freedom to his own imagination. In the same letter, Dostoevski wrote: “In my mind, the everyday occurrence and conventional view of it is not realism at all, but even the opposite of realism.”11 In Dostoevski's theory as well as practice, realism includes the boundless play of imagination since reality itself is far from being everyday occurrence susceptible to journalistic devices.

Thus the “terrific” seduction of young writers occurred long before they read Roth's essay. Of course the genre of the literary manifesto does not oblige one to make rigorous references to original sources, provided that the manifesto fulfills its purpose: to proclaim something absolutely new. In the case of “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe's utterances betray the genre of manifesto. Rather, they fit into a framework of memorandum, being reminiscent of past literary discussions in almost every detail. Perhaps it is the theory of Literary Progress that leads Tom Wolfe to prefer Roth and his contemporaries to the earlier authors as his sources.


Adhering to this theory of literary progress, Wolfe naïvely surmises that pre-realistic writers such as Homer and Shakespeare were less successful in fascinating their audience than realist writers. “No one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and heroines in Homer, Sophocles, Molière, Racine, Sidney, Spenser, or Shakespeare” (50). Many of our contemporaries will agree that by the intensity of readers’ reactions, Shakespeare and Sophocles remain superior to Sinclair Lewis or even Zola, to whom Wolfe refers as the highest models of reportorial realism.

Wolfe's assertion that “the effect on the emotions of an everyday realism such as Richardson's was something that had never been conceived of before” (50) is likewise doubtful. It was exactly the intention and the power of ancient epics to have the listener identify himself with the rhapsodists, bards, and troubadors and to share all of the emotions of the hero. And if to discern any “progress” in literature, or more precisely some entelechy, it is not the growth of the reader's empathy with the characters, but rather the growing analytical distance which allows the reader, while being absorbed in the narrative, at the same time to examine and explore it from the outside. This is the crucial quality that distinguishes literary plot from ordinary life, where participants are so absorbed in the situation that they are deprived of any critical distance from it. Literature is a unique instrument of self-awareness, which allows the reader to be, yet to not be the person presented to him in the imaginary realm.


The majority of Wolfe's article is devoted to the importance of reporting for the writer. “I speak as a journalist, with some enthusiasm, as you can detect, a journalist who has tried to capture the beast in long narratives of both nonfiction and fiction” (56). The amazing quality of this approach (“capturing”) is that it does not allow Wolfe to discriminate between fiction and nonfiction. Moreover, in spite of all author's assurances that he is aiming at a “literary manifesto for the new social novel,” the reader gets the impression that Wolfe has in mind only journalism.

Had this intention been declared more explicitly, it would have saved—and simultaneously ruined—the whole affair, making pointless to argue with such a trivial suggestion: reporting is what gives value to nonfiction writing. But then why bother with a literary manifesto? Why proclaim reporting as the bright future of the fictional novel?

Only in his next-to-last paragraph does Wolfe raise the other, much more important question: what gives reporting the quality of art? Granting for the moment that fiction gains a great deal from reporting, one must ask what reporting stands to gain from fiction. Why should a writer or a reader prefer a realistic novel to a well-written journalistic report? Wolfe spares to this question no more than one and a half sentences: “The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that I eventually found exhilarating. It is a facility that is not available to a journalist …” (56).

It is amusing and horrifying to propose, as Wolfe implies, that fiction was necessary for Balzac only in order to bring together different currents of French society that in reality existed separately. Wolfe's implication is that Balzac was just a journalist when he described old Goriot, the ambitious Rastignac, and Vautrin the criminal, and that he became a genuine novelist only when he put them all together in Père Goriot. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy was a good reporter of St. Petersburg aristocratic society and Russian peasantry, but he turns into a great novelist only when he combines these pictures.


This theory of fiction as a combination of journalistic pieces, a montage of photographic images of reality, was expounded by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. His dissertation The Esthetic Relationship of Art to Reality (1855) became a manifesto for Russian social realism in the mid-nineteenth century and essentially shaped the aesthetics of twentieth-century socialist realism. Chernyshevsky stated that literature is subordinate to reality and gave a number of examples where beauty in the arts proved to be inferior to beauty in nature. But then, victoriously concluding his argument, he suddenly was forced to ask himself and the reader the question: why does art exist, if in all respects it is inferior to reality and has its best destiny only in mimesis.

I doubt that Chernyshevsky's naïve answer would appeal to Tom Wolfe, but the father of Russian social realism declared that literature is needed simply because it can substitute for more immediate and evident knowledge hardly attainable for some individuals. In Chernyshevsky's view, no one would prefer to look at a painting presenting a stormy sea if he could afford to go to the seashore and look at it in person. “But not all people live near the sea; many never have the opportunity to see it even once in their lives, but they would like very much to see and admire it, so seascapes are interesting and pleasing to them.”12 To report, to photograph in order to replace some distant or absent aspects of reality—this is the best that art can do for the viewer. But what comprises then the aesthetic specificity of art?

“Nothing!” proposed the Russian critic Pisarev, a follower of Chernyshevsky. In his notorious article “The Destruction of Esthetics,” Pisarev justly concluded that Chernyshevsky did not at all construct new aesthetics but destroyed the possibility of any future aesthetics. Literature lost its specific value and turned out to be a reliable reproduction of life: then aesthetics dies once and forever, joining such pseudosciences as alchemy and astrology and giving place to the reliable social and historical approaches to reality.13

In Pisarev's view, Chernyshevsky entered the aesthetic realm only in order to destroy it from within. The true consequences of such realistic aesthetics may be only the destruction of aesthetics itself in favor of other approaches to reality. “The doctrine of The Esthetic Relationship … is remarkable in that when breaking the shackles of all esthetic theories it does not simply substitute for them new shackles. This doctrine holds decisively that the right to pronounce final judgment on artistic works belongs not to aestheticians, who can judge only form, but to thinking men who judge content, that is, the phenomena of life.”14 From now on literary critics “will be forced to develop their whole-world outlook; they will have to delve into natural sciences, history, social science, politics, and moral philosophy, but not a single word will be said among them about art, because the meaning of the whole discussion will be concluded in relation to content and not in relation to form.”15

Chernyshevsky himself is very close to such a destructive conclusion. Perhaps all that restrained him from denouncing aesthetics in toto was the simple consideration that he was writing a dissertation for his Master of Arts degree. Nevertheless he succeeded in denigrating these “arts” in every possible way:

Defence of reality as against fantasy, the endeavour to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality—such is the essence of this essay. … The images of imagination are only pale, and nearly always unsuccessful imitations of reality … Reproduction of life is the general characteristic of art and constitutes its essence. … By its reproductions, art merely reminds us of what in life is of interest to us and strives to acquaint us to some degree with those interesting aspects of life which we have not had occasion to experience or see in reality.16

What remains for imagination? Chernyshevsky prefers to put the very word “imagination” in quotation marks because he doubts that it has any reasonable meaning. “The power of ‘creative imagination’ is very limited: it can only combine impressions obtained from experience … One thing the artist could do: he could combine in his ideal the forehead of one beautiful woman, the nose of a second, the mouth and chin of a third …”17 Chernyshevsky argues here precisely like Agafiia Tikhonovna from Gogol's “The Marriage,” who dreamed of placing the chin of one bridegroom against the beard of another—and for this reason, by the way, could not bring herself to marry anyone.

Disparaging “creative imagination,” Chernyshevsky invariably accompanies it with the words combining, combination: “The intervention of imagination as the ability to alter (by means of combination) the impressions of the senses …”; “the intervention of combining imagination seems least necessary …”; “still wider scope for the intervention of combining imagination is provided …”18 In Chernyshevsky's theory, imagination is capable only of combining what already exists in reality, just as in Tom Wolfe's view, “fiction can bring the many currents of a city together. …”

“To combine,” “to bring together,” to juxtapose various pieces of reality that exist by themselves when truthfully “reproduced” or “reported”—this, for both heralds of realism, is the hallmark of imagination. In addition, as a reader might notice, imagination necessarily means for Chernyshevsky “intervention,” implying some alien and hostile force. Imagination is not an inborn quality of art but an impudent invader who dares to intervene into the holy domain of art as “faithful reproduction of life.” In the same manner Tom Wolfe, at least a year into his novel, suddenly understood that it was nothing but “fiction,” which he “eventually found exhilarating” (56). As if “fiction” were not the nature of the novel but something found “eventually.”

The destruction of art is a naïve, but highly coherent, aesthetic position. To be as cohesive as Chernyshevsky and Pisarev had been, Wolfe would have needed to end his manifesto on the social novel by nullifying the genre of the fictional novel. Perhaps the only reason why the author did not cross this last boundary and reserved some place in the very end to praise literature is that he was writing a literary manifesto.


Perhaps I am too harsh in my criticism of Tom Wolfe's recommendations: presumably he suggests a worthy alternative to high modernism in a time when its public appeal seems near exhaustion. I only want to say that such conceptions periodically emerge in the history of literature and with the same inevitability yield place to other conceptions. In my view, Tom Wolfe's manifesto plays a similar role as Chernyshevsky's manifesto played in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was useful as a stern denunciation of those imitators of romanticism who lived out their last days in the 1850’s. However, the best literature that could be created in accordance with this manifesto proved to be that which Chernyshevsky himself wrote. Most people agree that even his greatest accomplishment What Is To Be Done? takes a modest place among the achievements of Russian artistic genius. Neither Dostoevski nor Tolstoy followed Chernyshevky's precepts in writing their novels, though they created truly new relationships of art to reality.

But then again, Lenin, the architect of both party organization and party literature, proved to be a faithful disciple of Chernyshevsky. Lenin angrily rejected disparaging remarks about the literary qualities of Chernyshevsky's novel. He acknowledged its enormous influence on his whole world outlook: “It captivated me. It made me over completely … It's something that charges you up for the whole of your life.”19

Finally, Zhdanov pretended to the legal successorship of this “great tradition”: “Therefore, the best tradition of Soviet literature is continuation of the best traditions of Russian literature of the 19th century, those traditions which were created by our great revolutionary democrats—Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Chernyshevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin. …”20 Of course, Chernyshevsky personally is not responsible for the persecution of Mandelshtam and Babel, Akhmatova and Zoshchenko, for the successful hunting and beheading of the wonderful billion-headed beast of artistic imagination. Yet ideas have not only their own logic, but also their own responsibility. When the slogan of “social realism” is pronounced, how can one guarantee against easy continuation: the logic of “social engagement” is so quick to add the three lacking letters to provide “socialist realism” with its full literal and spiritual meaning.


I would venture that even not long ago Wolfe's manifesto could have found many adherents in the Soviet Union. A considerable part of the intelligentsia felt that the critical realism of the nineteenth century was the hallmark and the most precious legacy of Russian literature. Many admirers of this classical tradition have been inspired by Solzhenitsyn's example, but this writer is a most persuasive argument against critical realism as a method of modern art. When Solzhenitsyn wrote a truthful investigation of Stalin's camps, The Gulag Archipelago, he shook the world by the force of his artistic nonfiction. However, Solzhenitsyn's multivolumed series of novels devoted to prerevolutionary Russia, The Red Wheel, does not find many readers even among his devotees in the Soviet Union—for the very reason that it is great journalism artificially shaped into fiction.

Works like Rybakov's Children of the Arbat or Duduntsev's White Clothes were very popular in the Soviet Union and even abroad until the political and social information that they conveyed about Stalin's circle or the case of Lysenko could be presented only in fictional forms. Now, journalism and scholarship are free to accomplish this job much more thoroughly than could be dreamt of by novelists five or ten years ago.

Reporting as the basis of fiction loses its appeal even for a Russian reader who has yearned for reliable information for seventy years. New perspectives in fiction are opened for those authors who avoid journalism and give themselves up to “wild fantasies” not reduced to facts and prototypes. The time of censorship when literature was forced to serve as the sole forum for public opinion in Russia is over. Now, philosophers, economists, journalists, demographers, historians all compete with writers of fiction for the same readership. The advantage held by literature in this competition is not its philosophical generalizations, historical thoroughness, or journalistic reporting.


  1. See novelists’ letters responding to Wolfe's manifesto in Harper's Magazine, February 1990; also see Robert Towers, “The Flap Over Tom Wolfe: How Real Is the Retreat from Realism?” The New York Times Book Review (January 28, 1990): 15–16.

  2. Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” Harper's Magazine (November 1989). Page numbers will be indicated in the text.

  3. Doklad t. Zhdanova o zburnalakb, “Zvezda” i “Leningrad.” Sokrashchennaia i obobshchennaia stenogramma dokladov t. Zhdanova na sobranii partiinogo aktiva i na sobranii pisatelei v Leningrade. OGIZ. (Moscow: Gosudar-stvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1946), 12, 16–17. All works cited from Russian sources were translated by the author.

  4. A. Zhdanov, Sovetskaia literatura—samaia ideinaia, samaia peredovaia literatura v mire. Rech na Pervom Vsesoiuznom s'ezde sovetskikh pisatelei 17 avgusta 1934 goda. Gosudar stvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1953, p. 9.

  5. Ibid., 8.

  6. Doklad t. Zhdanova, 19, 36.

  7. Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975), 149.

  8. Ibid., 151.

  9. In the last paragraph of his manifesto, Wolfe refers to the lyrical and patriotic conclusion of Gogol's masterpiece: “At the end of Dead Souls, Gogol asks, ‘Whither art thou soaring away to, then, Russia? Give me an answer!’ Russia gives none but only goes faster, and ‘the air, rent to shreds, thunders and turns to wind,’ and Gogol hangs on, breathless, his eyes filled with wonder. America today, in a headlong rush of her own, may or may not truly need a literature worthy of her vastness. But American novelists, without any doubt, truly need, in this neurasthenic hour, the spirit to go along for that wild ride” (56).

  10. Feodor Dostoevski, Fis'ma (Moscow and Leningrad, 1928–59), 2:169.

  11. Ibid.

  12. N. G. Chernyshevsky, Selected Philosophical Essays (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953), 364.

  13. “It was necessary to destroy esthetics completely, it was necessary to send them to the same place to which we have relegated alchemy and astrology.” D. I. Pisarev, Sochineniia v 4 tomakh (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1956), 419.

  14. Ibid., 434.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Chernyshevsky, Selected Essays, 379, 381.

  17. Ibid., 340.

  18. Ibid., 377, 378.

  19. Tucker, Lenin Anthology, xxxi.

  20. Doklad t. Zhadnova, 26.

Chris Harvey (essay date October 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3884

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Revenge,” in American Journalism Review, October, 1994, pp. 40–46.

[In the following essay, Harvey discusses the origins of the “New Journalism” that Wolfe helped to create and the effect that it has had on the world of American journalism.]

A few decades ago, feature writer Tom Wolfe was pilloried in print for having “the social conscience of an ant” and a “remarkable unconcern” for the facts. Only a visionary could have predicted his impact on journalism would be lasting.

Yet today, elements of the New Journalism that Wolfe so tirelessly promoted have become as commonplace as the pie chart in many newspapers, ranging from the New York Times to the Oregonian to the weekly Washington City Paper.

Practitioners don't call it New Journalism any more. They prefer the terms “literary” or “intimate” journalism or “creative nonfiction.” But their stories are marked by the same characteristics that distinguished Wolfe's work at Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune: They're written in narrative form, with a heavy emphasis on dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details.

Jon Franklin, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes at the Evening Sun in Baltimore, says the growing interest in literary journalism can be explained as easily as a pendulum swing. Now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, he says that just as the 1980s ushered in USA Today and its emphasis on the “news bite, the infobit [and] the nonsense statistic” as tools to lure readers back to newspapers, the 1990s are being marked by a renewed interest in narrative.

“Suddenly this light bulb seems to be going off all over … that people want more than USA Today provides,” Franklin told journalists in Spokane in May.

It didn't hurt, Franklin and others say, that a 1993 study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors confirmed what many of Wolfe's adherents had already come to believe. When stacked up against other types of newspaper stories, including the traditional inverted pyramid, the narrative was generally better read and better at communicating information.

But the renewed interest in the narrative is resurrecting old concerns about sourcing and accuracy. Some question whether newspapers should encourage the literary techniques, which critics argue have the potential to distort history and sow mistrust among readers.

Wolfe-like narrative stories are often told from the perspective of one or more of the main characters. Readers become privy to a character's thoughts but are not told how the thoughts were discerned by the reporter.

Sometimes, as in Bob Woodward's recent book about the Clinton administration, The Agenda, entire meetings or scenes are reconstructed, with no clues given about the source of the information.

“One of the big problems our profession has is people questioning the validity … of what we're writing,” says Francis Coombs, assistant managing editor of the Washington Times. “The minute you get to the point where the reader can't see where Bob Dole said it or Tom Foley said it … you're getting into a murky area.”

Even advocates concede there is tremendous potential for abuse in the narrative form. “These are real sophisticated techniques,” Franklin says. “If you're going to use them dishonestly you're going to use them powerfully.”

Adds Norman Sims, a former wire service reporter who is now a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “You cannot verify characterization. You frequently cannot verify dialogue. So forms of literary journalism that depend on those kinds of storytelling present more of an unknown factor.”

But Franklin and others argue that most literary journalists are no more likely to falsify quotes or stray from the truth than their colleagues writing in the inverted pyramid style. In fact, some say that because journalists writing the long story are more likely to be veterans, they are less likely to fudge quotes or embellish a story. They have hard-won reputations to safeguard.

“The temptations of narrative aren't like the temptations of heroin,” says Mark Kramer, a journalism professor at Boston University who has collaborated with Sims on a new edition of an anthology of literary journalists. “Once you taste them, you don't lose all sensibilities.”

The narrative form has been controversial for at least as long as Wolfe has been associated with it. But despite his pronouncements that New Journalism burst forth simultaneously from a few magazines and newspapers in the early 1960s, many say the form was around long before that.

“I can point you to two dozen writers in this century who were using the same techniques in effective nonfiction,” says Sims. Among them would be Lillian Ross, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, John Hersey, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, traces the roots a bit deeper. “Any historical study of journalism will reveal the existence of powerful narrative forms of writing, going back not generations, but centuries,” Clark says.

He says what distinguished Wolfe and his colleagues in the 1960s and early '70s—writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin and Hunter S. Thompson—was not “a matter of doing it differently,” but rather “doing more of it” and “doing it much more self-consciously than it was done in the past.”

Sims agrees. “The other two dozen writers were separated by time,” he says. The New Journalists “were working at the same time, looking at what each other was doing … and innovating.”

Wolfe, in particular, was prolific, writing four narratives for Esquire and 20 for the New York Herald Tribune's Sunday supplement in late 1963 and early 1964.

The Herald Tribune was willing to give him latitude, the paper's editor, Jim Bellows, recalled recently, because it was trying to create a niche for itself in a competitive New York market. “We had to do something to make a character or personality for the newspaper,” Bellows says. “That [New Journalism] was a help.”

The goal, Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism,” was to intellectually and emotionally involve the reader—to “show the reader real life.” To say: “Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do!”

In his works, Wolfe chronicled subcultures—such as the hippie drug scene and the Black Panther movement—with the eye of a novelist. He toyed with extended dialogue, point of view and interior monologue. He even played with ellipses, dots, dashes and exclamation points—attempting, he wrote, to leave the illusion of people thinking.

Eugene L. Roberts Jr., managing editor of the New York Times, says Wolfe's outlook, not his punctuation, was key. “The important thing he did was bring an American studies outlook to journalism,” Roberts says. “Most newspapers today take a look at subcultures in a way they never did before and I think Wolfe is responsible for that.”

Wolfe and other New Journalists also “loosened things up,” says Don Fry, an independent writing coach. In the 1950s, he points out, “it was very much ‘nothing but the facts, ma'am.’”

Most important, Clark says, Wolfe described what he was doing in such a way that it served as a blueprint for future generations of journalists.

In decades past, however, many were not so complimentary. Wolfe “is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant,” wrote Jack Newfield, formerly an associate editor of the Village Voice, in a 1972 issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Journalism reviews warned of the possibility that more than the structures of the New Journalism stories were borrowed from fiction.

Writer Dwight Macdonald was quoted as calling the form “parajournalism, … a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”

A 1966 issue of CJR contained an article and letter to the editor condemning Wolfe. They criticized two articles he had written for New York magazine, then the Herald Tribune's Sunday supplement.

The first article, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of The Walking Dead!” was an attack on William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker. It characterized Shawn as an embalmer of a dead institution. The second article, “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” began as a critique on the magazine's writing style and editorial values, “but developed into another atmospheric reconstruction … of the New Yorker as a smug, fusty, ingrown private club,” the CJR article said.

CJR noted that many journalists were condemning Wolfe for being “irresponsibly malicious and cruel” and for allegedly describing doings at the New Yorker inaccurately. The story quoted the New Yorker's longtime Washington correspondent, Richard Rovere, as saying, “In no important respect is [the New Yorker's office] the one described by Tom Wolfe. Physically and atmospherically [it] is a place I have never visited. The editor of the magazine described by him is a man I have never known.”

Repeated calls to Wolfe's home in New York were not returned. But Clay Felker, Wolfe's editor at New York, denies that the writer's pieces were full of mistakes. “These are people who are yelling and screaming because we'd insulted them. … The only people who got angry were the people on the payroll,” says Felker, who now alternates between consulting in New York and teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.

Felker says the pieces were controversial because of their theme or point of view. “If somebody doesn't agree with the theme, they say it's inaccurate,” Felker says. But, he says, “history has shown Tom was right. What they were doing [at the New Yorker] was embalmed stuff.”

The criticisms of Wolfe's 1966 pieces were only the beginning of the attacks on New Journalism.

In 1981, when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing—after it was discovered the eight-year-old drug user in her lead paragraphs was not a real person, but a composite—a whole new round of criticisms was fired.

Writing in the December 1981 issue of this magazine, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw said Cooke had fallen into a typical New Journalism trap: She had spent too much time searching for “flashy metaphors” and not enough time digging up “verifiable facts and legitimate news.”

Shaw added: “Janet Cooke wrote very well. Too well. She forgot she was a journalist, not a storyteller—a reporter, not a creator.”

Narrative advocates say the Cooke case is a poor measure of the craft's ethics or potential. “Janet Cooke is an interesting example. You never see her name mentioned as a New Journalist until she writes a feature story in the Post and it's exposed as a fraud,” says Sims. “She had no characterization [in her story]. She had no elaborate structure. She had no dialogue.”

Her story was “inaccurate, standard newspaper writing,” Sims says. “Why didn't people jump up and down and say standard newspaper people lie to us?”

More recently, Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor for investigations at the Washington Post, and author Joe McGinniss have been attacked for their narratives.

“Bob Woodward is the problem,” Fry says when asked about the bad-boy reputation narrative writing has earned with some reporters and editors. “He doesn't bother to cite sources and he reads minds. … One of the problems with Woodward is he doesn't tell you where he got it,” Fry says. “All the information just floats by.”

Woodward responds that he is not a literary journalist but a reporter. He says readers should be more trusting of his work, which includes the books Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA,The Final Days, and All the President's Men.

“My books are scrupulously reported,” Woodward said recently, nothing that more than 250 people were interviewed for his recent book on the Clinton administration. “All that's missing is who said it, whose diary it's in, what memo it's in.”

He says he follows the same standards when reporting his books as those at the Washington Post. He points out that his books have been excerpted in the newspaper, with accompanying explanations of his techniques.

In the introduction to The Agenda, Woodward wrote that reconstructed dialogue and quotes came from at least one participant, from memos, or from notes or diaries of a participant in a discussion. When someone is said to have thought or felt something, that description came either from the source or from someone to whom the source said it directly.

Critics have been harsher with McGinniss, accusing him of reporting and writing practices that would be unacceptable at many American newspapers.

In his 1993 rumination on the life of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, The Last Brother, McGinniss often speculates on what Kennedy thought or felt, yet he has said his repeated attempts to interview the senator were unsuccessful. Critics have also charged that McGinniss embroidered quotes and borrowed freely from other works on Kennedy.

McGinniss did not return phone calls. In a note at the end of the book, he acknowledges using articles and books as a “verifiable source” from which he “distilled an essence.” He says quotations in the book “represent in substance what I believe to have been spoken.”

McGinniss argued that the book should be accepted for what it is: “an author's highly personal and interpretive view of his subject.” He said that “when an individual is as encrusted with fable and lore as is Teddy Kennedy (and his brothers), a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography.”

Journalists writing in the narrative form will tell you they usually spend much more time reporting a story than a typical news reporter would. Three and four and five times as much.

And they say they take great pains to make sure facts, scenes and dialogue are accurate. “I personally don't believe in making up quotes or putting words in people's mouths or making up facts,” says Patsy Sims, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, which offers a master's degree in fine arts in creative nonfiction.

“I'm very strict with my students,” says Sims, who has worked at newspapers in New Orleans, San Francisco and Philadelphia. “If you say somebody had on a red dress, they better have had on a red dress.”

Walt Harrington, a Washington Post Magazine staff writer, says, “The basic premise is that you have to live up to all the standards of straight-ahead journalism.” A single tale may take months or even years of reporting. “There are layers and layers of reporting,” he says. “You have to be in a setting with your subject when not a lot is happening,” he says. You “play the fly-on-the-wall role.”

Techniques and standards vary from reporter to reporter. Harrington, for instance, says he won't “say somebody is thinking something,” unless they “have told you that's what they're thinking.”

It's a technique that the New York Times’ Roberts says he approves of, adding, “You'd need to explain sometime in the story that this is where it came from.”

Fry agrees. “You owe the reader an attribution.”

Others say they sometimes go to greater lengths to accurately portray what a source is thinking or feeling.

Cynthia Gorney, a Washington Post Style section writer on leave to write a book about abortion, says that when trying to explain a Catholic obstetrician's beliefs, she immersed herself in his world.

“I did lengthy, multiple interviews with him,” says Gorney. “I read much of the literature he would have been reading,” including ethics texts written in the time he would have been in college and a journal written for Catholic physicians.

“I learned as much as I could about growing up in Catholic schools,” Gorney says. Then she read her description to him. “He made a couple of tiny changes, but said I got it right.”

Thomas French, a St. Petersburg Times feature writer, spent a year in a Florida high school and another year reporting and writing a seven-part narrative series that ran in the paper in 1991. To get inside sources’ heads, the reporter says, he too would ask them what they were thinking “and try not to telegraph stuff you hope they were thinking. You don't want them to be making stuff up.”

Like Gorney, French says he sometimes goes over his descriptions “word for word with the people involved.” He explains: “I'm not 16. I've never been a girl. You're trying to write from their point of view.” He says he's not handing over control of the piece to the sources, “but I want them to tell me if it's wrong.”

Woodward says he sometimes relies on others to tell him what an individual might be thinking. Referring to The Brethren, the book he and Scott Armstrong wrote about the Supreme Court, Woodward points out, “We say we never talked to Chief Justice [Warren] Burger. And [yet] we'll have things saying, … ‘He was determined to get control of the building.’”

How, as reporters, could they confidently write what Burger was thinking? “There were only 16 people he told that to,” Woodward says. They talked to 15 or 16 of them, he says, adding, “All of his actions supported that.”

Reconstructing dialogue from scenes the reporter didn't witness can be trickier. But, says Franklin, if you've got several people from the scene who are willing to talk and a working knowledge of psychology, it's possible. People can remember surprising amounts of detail from traumatic or emotional occasions, he says. “A person can often remember quite a lot of detail about a wedding day or a day he buried a parent. If you were in a serious accident, you can remember the bug smears on a truck.”

To gauge the accuracy of their memories, Franklin asks the sources details he can check. “If it's a funeral, ask about the day and the weather, and go back and check. If they're accurate in those kinds of details, it certainly makes me feel better, and suspicious if they're not.”

But Shaw, the Los Angeles Times media critic, says it's not enough to talk with most of the sources. If a reporter is recreating a private scene—such as a conversation between two people in their bedroom—he says the reporter must speak to both people. The reporter must also make it clear in the story who the sources are and that this is their recollection of the conversation, Shaw says. “I'm opposed to reconstructing dialogue without sources.”

Memories are imperfect, Shaw adds. For instance, he says he and his friends had a “completely different take” on a conversation they had the previous evening. Shaw says he heard what one person said, while the man's wife “heard what he meant.”

Roberts believes higher standards should apply to nonfiction in newspapers than in books. “I think there's a sharp dividing line between newspaper journalism and book journalism,” he says. “When you're buying a book you're buying a product of one individual, and it purports to be nothing more or less than that. But when you're picking up a newspaper you're picking up a product of not just individuals, but an institution, with a past, present and hopefully a future. And the institutional integrity is all tied up in it.”

Despite the apprehensions of some, interest in the narrative form is growing. The University of Oregon's journalism school and its creative writing program are launching a master's degree in creative nonfiction this fall.

Scripps Howard's California television production company is working on a newsmagazine its executive producer, Craig Leake, says will display the artistry and intimacy of New Journalism. “Every week we would hope to have a reporter who had a really special passion about a story tell that story,” says Leake, adding he hopes to find a spot for his show by mid-season.

Meanwhile, the 13th Annual Key West Literary Seminar in Florida this January will focus on journalism for the first time, featuring literary journalists such as Pulitzer Prize winners David Halberstam, Madeleine Blais and Anna Quindlen.

And newspapers such as the Oregonian in Portland are explaining narrative techniques in an in-house newsletter.

Fry, who is affiliated with the Poynter Institute, says he understands the interest. He says editors “are looking for anything that might get people to read.” They should be. The Newspaper Association of America reports that the percentage of adults reading daily newspapers on week-days has dropped from 78 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 1993.

“Our competitors are masters of this,” says Oregonian senior editor and writing coach Jack Hart of the narrative. “Television. Hollywood movies. [Even] the computer game is interactive storytelling. It has a protagonist and challengers and story structure and rising action and … a denouement. It's one reason kids are so addicted to this form.”

The form is compelling, advocates say, because unlike the inverted pyramid style, it gives readers a reward for making it through a story. “The pleasure and knowledge that come from reading come from making predictions of what will happen in a story,” Clark of the Poynter Institute says.

The form is also easily recognized by readers, because “people in general, in their own memories, use narrative all the time,” Clark says. “They use it to learn, to understand, to remember and find meaning.”

Many journalists say the narrative form Wolfe, Talese and Capote helped popularize will be only one of the forms in newspapers of the future. They also predict more diversity of story formats and sizes, based on what suits a particular event best.

The short, inverted pyramid form will continue to be needed for some stories written on deadline. “But it's hopefully going to be one perspective in our quiver, instead of our whole ball of wax,” Roberts says. “We ran … off the cliff with translating USA Today journalism into our whole paper” during the 1980s.

Tom McNamara, managing editor for news at USA Today, says even his paper is evolving. “It's dramatically different” than when it first rolled off the presses in September 1982, when stories averaged eight to 14 inches, he says. Although the average story now runs about 15 inches, “it's not unusual to see 25- or 30-[inch stories], and every once in a while 50 or 60.”

The articles have gone from “cookie cutter to individual voices,” McNamara adds, noting the paper has even printed “first-person stories.”

Clark says he hopes to see “a greater reconciliation” of forms such as the narrative and the inverted pyramid. “I'm kind of eclectic, in terms of my tastes and also in my understanding of how these forms can be used,” he says. “I think people are wrong when they talk about forms being inherently good or bad. The forms are a frame. What's more important is the execution.”

Kramer of Boston University says an even greater reliance by newspapers on literary journalism would help readers sort out the complexities of life. “The thing that's wrong with most newspaper stories is they're missing the human context,” he says. “You wonder what kind of person was that robber.”

Sims at the University of Massachusetts agrees. Traditionally, he says, newspapers have not valued “the report on the ordinary life and everyday culture of their own towns.” They haven't covered ordinary lives. They have covered “extraordinary foul-ups.”

Narrative stories, on the other hand, often bring the ordinary to life. If newspapers valued “local culture and local community more highly,” Sims says, they would invest more in narrative nonfiction.

Tom Wolfe with Charlie Reilly (interview date Winter 1993–Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “Interview: Tom Wolfe,” in On The Bus, Vol. 6, No. 1, Issue 13, Winter 1993–Spring 1994, pp. 226–29.

[In the following interview by Reilly, Wolfe discusses the research and the work that went into creating his account of Ken Kesey's travels across America, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.]

Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published the very same day as his The Pump House Gang. In one of it's more trenchent reviews, The New York Times said, “Two Books!!!!!!!! HeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeWACK! The Same Day!!!!! TOO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O Freaking Much!” Most recently, Wolfe's novel, Bonfire of the Vanities was made into a major motion picture.

Wolfe's chronicle of the hippie generation in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was an account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who took a now legendary psychedelic bus trip from California to New York in 1964. To be “on the bus” meant you were part of that new generation, and later the term came to mean you were part of whatever movement was happening. If you're “off the bus,” you're not in the know, not with it. If you're “on the bus,” you're part of the group, going forward, one of the gang. “Are you on the bus or off the bus?—Are you with us or against us?”

[Reilly:] Could we talk about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Could we, if I may, get “on the bus?”

[Wolfe:] By all means let's get on the bus.

It hadn't occurred to me to ask this, but it just popped into my mind. When you first heard the phrase “on the bus,” did it leap out at you as a signature-phrase, as an anthem for the Sixties?

Absolutely not. Keep in mind I did an enormous amount of research on that book—most of it in the form of interviews with Kesey and the other Pranksters. One of the pleasures of interviewing is that it is full of surprises. Sometimes, you will ask a question and you will know instantly that what you are listening to is enormously important—something you can use. But the sentence or phrase is over in a matter of seconds, and the interview itself goes on. You pursue an important development, of course, but the interview continues. Just as frequently, you will only recognize an event or a phrase's significance when you are editing or compiling. In either case, the dramatic value or narrative power of a scene or a phrase is really established when you are actually doing the writing.

What I still find fascinating about the enduring popularity of “on the bus” and so many other elements of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the fact that, as far as the Pranksters were concerned, they did not think of themselves as beginning an era: as far as they were concerned, their grand experiment was over. They genuinely believed their era, their Grand Prank, whatever they thought it was—was finished. And, ironically, all this was occurring in 1966. the era of being “on the bus” had hardly begun.

When you began The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, did you know from the very beginning that you were going to use a flashback technique? Or did that strategy just work itself into the writing?

That was not calculated—although I do feel it worked out all right. I first started on what became the book on assignment for the Sunday supplement to the World Journal Tribune—it later became New York magazine, of course. I wrote three installments, the first of which is pretty much like the first chapter of the book. But the next two were really dreadful and, when I realized that the only way to tell the full story was to work with a much longer piece, I just discarded them. To answer your question, I suppose I started the book off that way—that is, in the “present” with Kesey's release from jail—because it was easy. I had done it once, it worked. Now after I had gotten well into the book, I was tempted to remove the first chapter and work with a straight chronological approach.

But I realized that starting with myself—and “I” only appear at the beginning and the end of the book—was a pretty good device. It was sort of an “Everyman” device because, after all, here was a subject that would simply be weird to most readers; it had seemed absolutely weird to me when I happened upon it. And I decided I could serve as a pretty good stand-in for the reader as he encountered the Pranksters. If you'll recall I made a good deal of fun of myself in the beginning so the reader won't dismiss me as a hotshot who knows all about these arcane matters. What I was trying to do was be ingratiating and lead the reader into the entrails of a very strange beast.

I liked the way you permitted the reader to study Kesey's worries and fears. It wasn't until the end that Kesey became fully realized as a character, I thought.

Kesey's was a hard mind for me to get inside, which in turn suggests a serious problem in this type of writing. Kesey was a difficult person to interview for a book like this. Sometimes he was in a mood to sit still and tell you everything he could remember about a certain incident or period of time. But at other times, he just didn't feel like having his brain picked, or he might want to talk to me about something else. So at certain points it was easy for me to use Kesey, to be inside Kesey and to present the experiences through his eyes. But at other times, I couldn't because we had never talked about them, we had never gotten onto that subject. I worried for a while about whether I was presenting his mental processes adequately, although I guess there was a good deal of that sort of thing toward the end.

And Stark Naked. She began as a titillating character, but it seemed to me she became someone of almost tragic dimensions by the end. When she “completed her trip” by going mad and screaming the name of her divorced-off child, I was quite stirred. Did you, as an after-the-fact observer, find it difficult to recreate that character, that agony?

That episode came about in a curious way. I got the information itself from a number of points of view. Kesey had her on one of the tapes from the bus and I had a number of separate descriptions to draw upon. Kesey, of course, described what happened to her; Sandy Lehman-Haupt spoke about her in detail; and that girl Jane—I forgot her last name—went into some detail about her memories of the incident. Then I called up Larry McMurtry, whom I didn't know at the time, and found him to be a wonderful source. He is an excellent writer, of course, and he had the letters as well. It was McMurtry who told me about “the end of the trip,” when this stark-naked woman appeared on his front lawn. Now, when I began to work on that passage, I hadn't set out to make Stark Naked the key figure, but in the middle of the writing, it occurred to me she more or less symbolized a whole side of the experience that was unfolding before me. You know, that's one of the most exciting and gratifying moments in the writing process: when a new idea presents itself, and suddenly you see things falling into place.

That sounds almost casual. Yet I'm sure you are always in control of what you are doing.

It's hard to explain. For example, when I wrote that passage in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and this was the case in many other passages, I would actually go into what could be called a controlled trance. That is, I would close my eyes and try to imagine myself inside of the skin of the person I was writing about. I'd begin with a certain feeling, I can't really describe it, within my nervous system somewhere, and then I would start writing. In the scene we're talking about, as soon as I had hit upon Stark Naked, I found myself coming back to her while developing the episode, and I let the figure carry me right through to the end of the scene.

I've wondered about the extent to which the Pranksters made moral judgments about some of the tragedies they were talking about. When they told you about Stark Naked's disintegration, did they speak with remorse?

Some of them clearly weren't moved. Some of them seemed to dismiss it as one more crazy thing that had occurred. But I recall vividly when Kesey played the tape for me, he was quite affected. At certain points you could hear Stark Naked laughing and singing, and I remember Kesey shaking his head and saying: “Listen to that, I should have known right then.” Then, by the way, was back in California. “I should have known,” he went on, “she was done for.” So, yes, Kesey seemed ultimately to experience genuine remorse about what happened to her. But at the time when it happened, nobody seemed to be unduly bothered. Rather, they seemed determined to keep going, to stay on the bus, and so they just dropped her off at the front of the hospital and drove away.

Would it be fair to describe your Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night as literary fiction?

I wouldn't use the term “fiction” because there is nothing fictive in either that I'm aware of. They might be called novels, though.

What distinction are you making?

When you refer to fiction you're getting back to what was always a sore point with the critics when we “New Journalists” started appearing. In other words, we were always accused of making up our material. They didn't accuse Mailer, but they certainly did accuse Truman Capote in In Cold Blood or Gay Talese in Honor They Father or Jimmy Breslin in a lot of his work. People were calling it a bastard form or, as Dwight McDonald put it, a form that exploited both “the license of fiction and the claims of authenticity of journalism.” To me, fiction has the connotation of thing-made-up; of course, there are some novels that are called fiction even though they're only non-fiction with the names changed. So I wouldn't have called the “New Journalism” fiction. But if you go back to the origin of the word “novel,” which I gather has something to do with a new thing, even news, you can make a case for a non-fiction novel—if by that you mean non-fiction that uses what I call the four devices of fiction: scene by scene construction; recording the dialogue in full; the so-called third person point of view; and the recording of those everyday gestures symbolic of what I've called status-life.

Gary Konas (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “Traveling ‘Furthur’ with Tom Wolfe's Heroes,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28.3, Winter, 1994, pp. 177–91.

[In this essay, Konas analyzes the mythic, rebellious heroes of subculture that Wolfe focuses on in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff.]

During the past quarter century Tom Wolfe has written about a motley crew of Americans who are in some ways emblematic of our culture—or at least a significant subculture. His subjects have ranged from such lightweight celebrities as Baby Jane Holzer to heavyweight heroes like Cassius Clay (shortly before he became Muhammad Ali). In these short slice-of-life profiles Wolfe shows that the Girl of the Year socialite can tell us as much about what we value as can the era's most recognizable man in the world. Although Wolfe, like other New Journalists, enjoys writing about “little people” in America in order to get the big picture, he also looks at famous Americans to see what they say about us.

On at least three occasions, Wolfe has studied American mythical heroes in some depth. The Right Stuff examines what lies beneath the façades of the cool test pilot and the (ostensibly) squeaky-clean Mercury astronauts. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test looks beyond the Day-Glo messages painted on a bus to examine the relationship between the Merry Pranksters and their leader, Ken Kesey. Finally, Wolfe devotes 40 pages of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to tracing the legend of “The Last American Hero,” Junior Johnson. In the end we don't really know any of these people well, since Wolfe is more concerned with trends than with nuances of personality. To be sure, Wolfe gives enough details that we can distinguish between Smilin’ Al Shepard and Gordo Cooper, or between Babbs the Vietnam veteran and cameraman Hagen, but ultimately Kesey, Johnson, the pilots and the astronauts are more important to Wolfe as phenomena than as individuals. His accounts of these characters constitute some of his most striking New Journalism pieces.

Unlike the seven Mercury astronauts, who strike a hymnlike chord with mainstream America, Kesey and Johnson are idolized by smaller subgroups. Kesey, known to readers as author of two popular novels before beginning the exploits Wolfe describes, draws his support from the burgeoning 1960s drug culture, becoming at the same time an outlaw from society. Junior Johnson, stock car driver par excellance, is the hero of the good old boys, a subculture within the New South. These heroic figures are nonetheless products of the same decade, and they all share the trait of going farther and faster. In The Right Stuff our nation's finest test pilots, most notably Chuck Yeager, poke at the “outside of the envelope” as they try to break both speed and altitude records. The astronauts strive to circle the globe in 90 minutes from a height of 100 miles. Johnson's job is to circle a track in Darlington a split second faster than the competition. The task for Kesey and his LSD-dropping Pranksters, as they take one lap around America on a former Greyhound bus with “Furthur” written on it, is to travel simultaneously outward toward the geographic heart of the United States and inward toward the psychic life of the person. During their respective journeys all these participants reveal their heroism or villainy, depending on the bystanders’ points of view.

Because hero is a broad term that spans the millennia between Aristotle and Joseph Campbell, it may be best to evaluate the heroism of an act by its effect on a society of non-heroes. Even Aristotle measured the tragic hero in terms of his ability to arouse fear and pity in the audience. George Landow states that in our time “Heroism in [Wolfe's] modern works has much the same meaning that it does in ancient authors. It provides us with a means of exploring the limits of humanity and formulating an ideal that serves as a norm by which to judge our acts and our hopes” (152). Similarly, Dorothy Norman says that “the myth is eternally ourselves,” that we all vicariously slay the dragon, even though our hero holds the sword (52). Here we can distinguish between the celebrity, who possesses some quality of temporary interest (vide Baby Jane) from the true hero, whose outstanding traits or accomplishments speak eternally for us. Campbell sees the hero more as an agent of change: “the dragon to be slain by [the mythological hero] is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past” (337).

Whether the adversary is a real enemy or simply inertia, the hero is not an average person who suddenly discovers courage when faced with an ogre who jumps out of the bushes. On the contrary, as Norman says, “The hero must transcend what already threatens” (235). The sound barrier, the Russians, the FBI, and the police are all out there waiting for someone to accept the challenge. Campbell also notes that while the hero is a person of exceptional gifts who is frequently honored by society, this same person is also often unrecognized or even disdained (37). Chuck Yeager's feats are largely ignored by Americans until, decades later, he writes a best-selling autobiography and becomes a familiar face through television commercials. Joe Walker pilots an X–15 into space while the press yawns. Junior Johnson is an embarrassment to middle-class Southerners trying to escape their traditional redneck image, and much of the nation remains indifferent to stock car racing. Kesey's acid tests are bile to straight society. Thus, one man's hero is another man's foe, even within a single culture.

Such differing perceptions should not surprise us, for as Orrin Klapp reminds us, many villains support the same values as heroes. The conflict between the hero and villain may actually be an unconscious conspiracy to “make everything come out all right in support of a value” (66). In this light we can see the U.S. and Soviet space programs, seemingly in conflict, as accelerating progress in space exploration through competition. Similarly, the police become part of the Pranksters’ “movie” to enrich it, and the Federal agents, who chase Junior Johnson and his trunkload of moonshine up winding back roads after midnight, help make an entertaining story and local myth.

Popular or not, the hero usually embarks on a perilous quest, whether it be in search of the Holy Grail, a dragon or the sound barrier. In one sense the test pilots simply search for numbers in their quest to go higher and faster, yet they face dangers on their frontiers as deadly as those of any dragon fighter. Indeed, Wolfe invokes fire imagery repeatedly, especially in the opening and closing scenes of The Right Stuff, to underscore that point. Kesey faces absurd danger from riding the bus down mountain roads with a tripping Neal Cassady behind the wheel, practicing Gestalt Driving and seeing fire in his rear-view mirror. Similarly, Junior Johnson's breakneck driving places him in physical peril; that's just part of the challenge. These two latter quests—perhaps being more prosaic—seem less classically hazardous than those faced in The Right Stuff.

Of Wolfe's three hero stories, the material in The Right Stuff lends itself best to mythmaking because of its quests, rites of passage and other classical forms.1 Joseph Campbell asserts that “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed” (249). Wolfe must avoid the opposite pitfall: reporting so many biographical, historical and scientific facts that the mythological aspects of the true story are lost. He handles this potential problem in several ways. First, he gives few biographical details of the pilots and astronauts. Next, he treats science almost as magic, even apostrophizing sarcastically at one point, “Oh, genius-engineers!” (RS 150).2 Finally, as we shall see, he explicitly links his characters with historical and mythical figures, going so far as to call the astronauts “Knights of the Right Stuff” (RS 33).

The most obvious and pervasive heroic reference is that of the astronaut as single-combat warrior, a superior individual pitted against the enemy's best fighter to determine a battle's outcome. Wolfe asserts that as early as the astronaut's first introduction to the public, the press recognizes the warrior status of these seven unproven spacemen-to-be and treats them as instant heroes (RS 101). America at-large follows suit with “a sort of glistening smile with tears and joy suffusing it; both tears and joy. In fact, it was an ancient look, from the primordial past, never seen in America before” (115). Later, NASA technicians act similarly: “Without knowing it, they were bestowing homage and applause in the classic manner: before the fact” (197, my ital.).

America's instinctive response to the astronauts derives from other sources too. For the first time in decades, Americans found themselves underdogs to the Soviets. People recognized that in the “space race,” we were David to the Soviet Union's Goliath. Compared to their rockets, ours seemed like slingshots. But as Wolfe notes, the parallel goes beyond this fact, for just as the power-hungry King Saul used the heroic David for his own purposes, the President of the United States “eyed John Glenn … and [brought] him into the Kennedy family orbit” (RS 303–04) and “[the astronauts] were the heroes of Kennedy's political comeback” (244). The media helped create Glenn's heroic image, which now became ripe for political exploitation. The egotistical flying jocks accept this near-reverence; indeed, “A little adulation on the order of the Pope's; that's all the True Brothers … really wanted” (50), and Wolfe repeats the Pope imagery twice more (123, 225).

Not to be forgotten, Chuck Yeager is one of the original American mythical heroes of the sky, albeit only to his fellow pilots, who know enough to appreciate his extraordinary gifts. Wolfe portrays the sound barrier as a demon ready to destroy anyone who dares challenge it. This monster in the clouds should not surprise us, for Norman reminds us that “it is the gods themselves who interfere with the hero's quest … [T]hey decree that dragons, serpents, and equivalents thereof should guard the very treasure the hero most passionately desires” (97). Yeager does not throttle back even when the demon seems about to kill him, and he wins what he desires, although he receives no public recognition for his accomplishment.

If Wolfe's heroes in The Right Stuff conform to the patterns of particular myths, they also fit the general paradigm of the hero's quest, including rites of passage. The standard path, according to Campbell, is separation—initiation—return: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30). Norman adds that for the initiate, “The desert, wilderness, wasteland … must be endured” (203). America's best pilots are separated from their home bases (and less talented colleagues) and sent to the wilderness of Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mohave Desert. Yet what may look like a God-forsaken place to the casual observer becomes the shrine of the Right Stuff, and it has a sense of place that Cape Canaveral never quite achieves.

The astronaut candidates are eventually sent to another desert wasteland, Lovelace (loveless?) Clinic in New Mexico, where they endure senselessly painful and humiliating tests before being sent on to Dayton for their actual training. It is here that the initiate “discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (Campbell 97). Indeed, NASA trains the candidates thoroughly for every aspect of space flight. Those who survive the physical and emotional tests are allowed to make their journey into space, then return to describe their transcendent experience to an idolatrous nation. Ironically, though, the initiation includes such realistic and thorough training that the astronauts are unable to experience the journey except by comparing it with their simulation. The heroes essentially have to make up a story, telling the people what they want to hear about space travel. Wolfe shows the American public accepting the entire myth, while simultaneously showing us the reality that subverts the myth.

The real and mythic journeys continue in space, especially for John Glenn, who enters a region of supernatural wonder during his first orbit of the earth, when he discovers what appear to be fireflies floating around his capsule. Although this is impossible, he has no rational explanation for the phenomenon. Glenn also has an experience common in the myth of the hero:

The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone. Nevertheless—and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol—the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero.

(Campbell 217)

Glenn experiences three nights in the course of less than five hours, and he is temporarily lost to us during his re-entry radio blackout. Although he is thought to be in mortal danger, Glenn shows little fear, as is appropriate: “the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave” (Campbell 356).3 Glenn survives and should return with an insight that would be especially apt during the Cold War: as the first American to circle the earth from outer space, he has the opportunity to see its beauty and the oneness of humanity—something the world in 1961 has forgotten. He does not deliver this message, however, perhaps because the people are not ready for it. Wolfe explains the dominant myth of the 1960s: “The incalculable power of the A-bomb and the bombs that followed also encouraged the growth of a new form of superstition founded upon awe not of nature, as archaic magic had been, but of technology” (RS 103). What people wanted to know, then, was that the machine worked and that America still had men brave enough to entrust their lives with it. Other machines could record the sights. The Merry Pranksters are no less interested in technology, as they use tape recorders and other equipment as part of their mind games, but Kesey's playing with machines helps lead him to his message: it's time to move “beyond acid.” No one wants to hear this tape, though, whereas America hangs on Glenn's every word.

Not all those with the right stuff are stamped from the same paradigm. Klapp shows that modern heroes form a diverse group. One of several variables is the degree to which the hero conforms to society. On one end of the continuum lies John Glenn, who falls into the category of conforming heroes, “who stand for the letter of the law, the rule perfectly applied: the sticklers, Puritans, saints, paragons” (41). Those less favorably inclined toward Glenn would put him in the overlapping category of rigid fool, to which one can attach such descriptions as prig,prude, and corny. “They stick to approved positions too long or carry them beyond the point where the majority, finding the position uncomfortable, bow out” (Klapp 84). Glenn's gee-whiz outlook and moralizing about sex certainly make five of his six colleagues uncomfortable, and it is this oscillation between hero and fool that makes him an interesting character. The blending is so subtle that Glenn himself sees Wolfe's portrait of him as flattering: “I came out pretty good in the book, so I can't complain” (qtd. in Hersey 296). In 1961 Americans thought Glenn looked good too, while most readers of The Right Stuff can see the “Kick Me” sign that Wolfe has attached to Glenn's back. Although Scott Carpenter seems morally closest to Glenn, he neither asserts his views to the point of appearing foolish, nor does he act heroically during his space flight, when he wastes fuel to a dangerous degree.

On the opposite end of the scale we find the independent spirit, Chuck Yeager, who fits several of Klapp's descriptions, including lone eagle,pioneer,free thinker and self-made man (43). Klapp asserts that Americans like such heroes, that they “are impressed not so much by the greatness of achievement as by the ability or will of these heroes to be different and follow the solitary path” (43), with Charles Lindbergh serving as the classic example. While the Mercury astronauts function as a group, Yeager is the loner, keeping aloof from the other test pilots who see him as a living legend. It is these distinctive qualities that make him stand out as the most interesting character in The Right Stuff, even more so than Glenn. Yet, as Gregory Sojka points out, “his great vitality for life and rebellious spirit would not allow him to epitomize (as do the traditional heroes) all the cultural values of the majority society which constantly requires a degree of subordinance and sacrifice of its ideals” (120). Yeager is, for example, too outspoken in his views of relatively passive space flight (which he dismisses as “Spam in a can”). In the end, though, he comes out ahead. As Stan Ivester puts it, “The astronauts perform their missions and receive the adulation of the American public. It remains for Yeager to attain the mythic stature Wolfe proves that he deserves. Yeager alone survives the mythic fall” (45). As evidence for this, we might note that today Yeager can still draw crowds and sell car batteries on television, while the Mercury astronauts are either dead, half-forgotten, or, in Glenn's case, a survivor of financial and political suspicion during his Senate career.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Ken Kesey suffers his own fall from grace, and it is more difficult to assess what he gained or lost as a result of his quest. After all, the heroes of The Right Stuff had tangible, measurable goals: to go farther and faster. Kesey, on the other hand, is a pioneer of the mind's inner space, which places him in the tradition of mythical heroes, as Campbell tells us:

the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case … and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung has called “the archetypal images.”


Not only is progress in the psychic realm impossible to measure, it lacks support from mainstream America. Nevertheless, Kesey establishes a camp in the woods at La Honda, California, where those who receive his message can find him. Instead of trying to break the bonds of gravity as the astronauts do, Kesey creates his own gravitational field that draws kindred spirits, just as Edwards attracts hot pilots like a magnet. Both sites are more than pieces of real estate; they are the only place to be for their respective groups.

Klapp would categorize Kesey as a flouter or outlaw, which are types of villains from society's point of view (53). However, America also secretly admires the colorful outlaw, especially if he is charming. Kesey, colorful enough to glow in the dark, says of himself, “If society wants me to be an outlaw, then I'll be an outlaw, and a damned good one. That's something people need. People at all times need outlaws” (EKAT 235). Such persons are usually seen as corrupted heroes, though, a term that does not apply to Kesey; whatever he is, he appears to be, like Yeager, uncorruptible by fame or money. It is more accurate to say that he is a comic rogue, which Klapp describes, in part, as a prankster (82). Wolfe's refrain throughout the book is “Never trust a prankster”—not only because the prank may be on you, but because following this hero's path may lead you nowhere. A mythical power drives Kesey, but Wolfe says that his power is not like that of “Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses, and Aeneas—but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, … The Flash” (35). We see Kesey and the Pranksters identified with comic book heroes throughout The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—not necessarily to demean them, but to reflect the way they see themselves. This pulp insubstantiality makes Kesey a mock hero, which Klapp says

is an ideal symbol for the alienated person, expressing the kind of world and the kind of heroes that he sees (squares, cornballs … people with low morale posing as conformers). Feeling himself apart from such heroes and such a society, he welcomes the mockery of Joyce, of Thurber, which shows his world to be what it is and gives a healthy, comic, specific antidote for what ails him.


Kesey, then, is the antithesis of John Glenn and everything he stands for. Glenn is gung-ho, always behind the cause 100 percent. Kesey, expected to make a rousing speech at an anti-war rally in Berkeley, instead simply advises the crowd—alienated from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society—to say “Fuck it” and walk away from the war. That is his healthy antidote for the problem.

Kesey is a mock hero in the tradition of Don Quixote, whom Norman describes as “a man of high ideals or character who makes a fool of himself while playing an approved role” (158). The only difference is that Middle America disapproves of Kesey's role, whereas Quixote is a deluded Knight of his culture's Right Stuff. Like Quixote, though, Kesey sometimes unwittingly harms those he tries to help through his high ideals (e.g., Stark Naked and Sandy, who slowly lose a grip on sanity through taking drugs provided by their Chief).

To travel even further from our culture, we can see Kesey as a sort of Bodhisattva, one who gives up Nirvana in order to save others. Thinking he has achieved enlightenment through LSD, he is committed to sharing his transformation (and stash of capsules) with anyone willing to climb on the bus with him. Wolfe notes that “Gradually the Prankster attitude began to involve the main things religious mystics have always felt, things common to Hindus, Buddhists … Namely, the experiencing of an Other World, a higher level of reality. And a perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level” (127). This accords with Campbell's assertion that one of the wonders “in the Bodhisattva myth is its annihilation of the distinction between life and release-from-life” (163)—a good description of the LSD experience as Wolfe describes it.

We can even consider the ultimate Christian hero's role for Kesey:

Jesus the guide, the way, the vision, and the companion of the return. The disciples are his initiates, not themselves master of the mystery, yet introduced to the full experience of the paradox of the two worlds in one … Flesh had dissolved before their eyes to reveal the Word. They fell upon their faces, and when they arose the door again had closed.

(Campbell 230)

In many ways this accurately describes the course of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The flesh of the initiates does dissolve during drug trips, and they have a profound sense of having discovered the Word, the key to the universe. Wolfe says, “Beyond acid. They have made the trip now, closed the circle, all of them, and they … emerge as Superheroes, closing the door behind them and soaring through the hole in the sapling sky” (EKAT 290). Late in the Pranksters’ adventure, however, we see little soaring. No longer initiates, they are unable to share the vision of their former hero, who wants them to act and think without relying on hallucinatory Superman costumes. San Francisco acid heads react by deciding that “Kesey had been just copping out all along, to keep from going to jail, and the superhero game was all part of it” (EKAT 361).

Just as the astronauts and Yeager begin their journey in an actual waste land, Kesey ends his journey in a symbolic one. “We blew it!, repeated nine times at the end of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, is reminiscent of the ending of The Waste Land: Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih.”4 Eliot uses these Sanskrit lines to describe the Fisher King's prescription for resurrecting an ailing society. It is, as Campbell puts it, “a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land” (16). By contrast, the chant of “We blew it!” acknowledges that Kesey's strategy for living, which Wolfe describes throughout the book, simply doesn't work. Perhaps the peace he offers is beyond the understanding even of his disciples, who become more interested in group, rather than individual, control. At least Kesey tries to deliver a new message that comes out of his experience, whereas Glenn, even after his mystic adventure in space, never goes beyond spouting patriotic homilies that were already a part of him before he left the ground.

Of the two, Kesey may even occupy the moral high ground. Recall that the hero, after separation and initiation, returns to deliver some boon to the community. Campbell says that “the responsibility has been frequently refused. Even the Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated, and saints are reported to have passed away while in the supernal ecstasy” (193). Kesey may well have gone “beyond acid,” but his message is not one the drug culture wants to hear. This prophet of the White Stuff becomes just one more religious leader scorned and destroyed by his people. Wolfe's choice to end the book on a self-condemning refrain portrays Kesey as an acknowledged failure, which seems an excessively negative assessment of a man who is remembered to this day as an important figure of the 1960s. The author's New Journalism subjectivity shows him leaning toward the Right.

Klapp provides a different explanation for Kesey's end: “A badly alienated society may feel that most of its idols have feet of clay, may even repudiate heroism itself … Inability to take a firm stand against villains is part of this picture” (137). In Wolfe's book the drug culture, alienated from the rest of America, seemed mainly interested in “doing its own thing” and is uninterested in advice, even from an anti-Establishment figure like Kesey, especially after he appears to be moving more toward the Establishment. Klapp also feel that young people of the 1960s, whom he labels “rebellious parasites,” were “not against conformity per se … but against … pseudo-integration—the false role playing and neurotic togetherness—of American society” (126). As Wolfe puts it, “It was clear [to Black Maria] how everything fit together and it wasn't really a world split up into pointless games and cliques. That was merely the way it looked before you knew the key” (EKAT 268). These people who collectively held the key were eager to ally themselves with the “old” Kesey—who had helped them find it—but not to the post-LSD Kesey. In this sense Wolfe implies that he is not a hero after all, but rather a celebrity who temporarily offers something (drugs and adventure) that interests his followers.

In their early activities the Pranksters seem like a collection of individual talents working as a group. Carl Bredahl feels that is part of the problem. Kesey

sought to extend his own perception while also stimulating others to begin perceiving for themselves. The Pranksters—as well as those drawn into their movie—should be developing that individuality, but their dependency on Kesey's energy has apparently limited their ability to concentrate and explore their own. What was to have stimulated the individual to discover himself has become a social enterprise where the group is dependent on a leader.


The result is that the drug subculture begins to be plagued with the same sorts of problems found in the society they are trying to escape—most notably, skepticism over leadership. The crucial distinction, “You're either on the bus or off it,” has been blurred by the question, “Who's driving?” Suddenly, “Kesey's an Elmer Gantry, says [Bill] Graham … That's it! Elmer Gantry, the evangelical demagogue” (EKAT 346; Wolfe's ellipsis). Kesey's former disciples agree with this assessment and destory the man they once called Chief from within more effectively than the police could ever do from without. The only ones trained to go beyond acid, they choose to remain in the drug scene, leaving Kesey as a leader with no constituency.

By contrast Wolfe's “Last American Hero,” Junior Johnson, enjoys an extremely loyal following. A rebel who is looked down upon by middle-class Southerners, a former moonshiner who served an unfairly stiff sentence in a Federal penitentiary, he is the fastest, most popular stock car racer of the early 1960s. Yet his status as hero of the good old boys does nothing to tarnish his natural modesty, thus providing a refreshing contrast to the big-ego characters of The Right Stuff. In fact Wolfe seems most sympathetic toward this hero because of his clarity of purpose and personal morality.

Unlike the astronauts, who are revered by America even before they perform, Johnson is what Klapp calls a hero of play, a splendid performer who becomes a drawing card by his or her level of intensity (36). Such performers often draw attention simply by playing to a crowd, but Wolfe makes clear that Johnson is a true competitor with superior skills. There is, in addition, the element of danger, which Wolfe establishes by noting that three race drivers—two of them former champions—had been killed in accidents during the previous year, a list of fatalities reminiscent of the death toll at Edwards. He tells how competitive speeds increased over the years from 150 to 180 miles per hour and gives one of Johnson's particular speed records (carried out to three decimal places) that he set in July 1963, the same month that Joe Walker set the X–15 altitude record of 67 miles.

Although Wolfe connects this legendary driver and former moonshiner with such well-known heroes and villains as Robin Hood, Jesse James, Little David and Jack Dempsey, Johnson is best understood for what he is: “a hero a whole people or class can identify with” (LAH 109), namely, Southern hill people. He always obeys the rural code of honor, and he remains accessible to those who admire him. “He is still a good old boy, rich as he is” (131). Wolfe clearly is one of those admirers, even though he is a dandy, not a redneck. As a Virginia gentleman, Wolfe can appreciate Johnson's morals and his ability to fit in with his Southern culture, even though it differs somewhat from his own.

Like the pilots and the Merry Pranksters, Johnson has his holy site. For him, however, it changes weekly as he moves from track to track. The word Daytona signifies not just a city to stock car aficionados, but rather an annual pilgrimage, a February rite that draws true believers from hundreds of miles around to a tri-oval track in Florida. Wolfe's description of the trek to a slightly less holy shrine at North Wilkesboro makes clear the importance of these races to the good old boys.

Johnson inspires Rebel yells at the rack track from these “country boys and urban proles” (LAH 112) who love the sport, but as Thomas Hartshorne points out, he is a complex rebel:

Johnson is a maverick, a representative of the rebellion of the proles against established status patterns … He is a representative of a subculture looked at askance even in his native South; he is a rebel even against the establishment in his chosen field, NASCAR; and, as a long-time participant in the whisky business, he is a rebel against the law.


Hartshorne goes on to compare Johnson to the unsuccessful rebel Ken Kesey: “Wolfe portrays Kesey as a failure, and he locates at least some of the reasons for the failure in Kesey's own personality. For all his talk of freedom and equality, Kesey was definitely the leader, and he did not take kindly to challenges to his authority” (160). By contrast, Johnson simply performs well, and off the track he acts like just another good old boy. His seeming simplicity, however, masks a web of conflicts in his life.

Johnson is, for all his rebellion, a conservative man of values, something that Wolfe admires. Johnson's former adversaries, the Federal agents, also had grudging admiration for him, since they maintained a code of fair conduct in pursuing him during his midnight whisky runs, never shooting out his tires or otherwise endangering him. Johnson even feels positive about his prison experience, understanding that society has to enforce its rules. Hartshorne says that “to Wolfe, it is a large part of Johnson's heroic statute [stature?] that he has not succumbed to this high-pressure hero-worship but has remained a simple man, devoted to family and business responsibilities, regardless of the strong currents of mythology that swirl around him” (161). These unchanging values are particularly important in a New South in which, as Wolfe shows, North Carolina is becoming more like New York every day. Those who resist change cling to heroes like Junior Johnson not only out of simple admiration but also from fear of losing their traditional Southern culture during a time when homogenization through television, middle-class aspirations and civil-rights legislation threatens to obliterate their way of life. Although Johnson is a splendid performer, part of his popularity, like that of the astronauts, derives from the people's need for a hero who can fulfill their fantasies. Yet even here we see less than unambiguous love, for some fans throw bottles on the track, trying to cause accidents. They want to enliven the auto race but are imperiling the life of their hero. Good old boys will be boys, Wolfe seems to say.

Tom Wolfe presents in these three works a variety of 1960s cultural or subcultural heroes, all of whom are well served by his use of New Journalistic techniques, which were, after all, developed in reaction to that puzzling decade. Indeed, Kesey's story could hardly be told in an “objective” journalistic style. Since his is a mind quest, the way in which he and the other Pranksters think while under the influence of drugs needs to be shown, and Wolfe uses the New Journalist's technique of entering each character's head and recording their thoughts, such as these from Neal Cassady: “But of course!—the whole emotional lag—and Cassady, voluble King Vulcan himself, has suddenly put it all into one immediate image, like a Zen poem or an early Pound poem—hot little animal red eyes bottled up by cold little blue nose hangups—” (EKAT 130). Through these words, we share Cassady's insight (though not without some effort!) into how sensory lags—which keep us living a split-second in the past—can be extended to explain emotional lags. Wolfe's narrative style in this book is hyperbolic, and it jerks along in a mixture of long and short chapters to match the Merry Pranksters’ tendency to live in the moment.

Wolfe employs other New Journalistic techniques especially well in “The Last American Hero.” He includes distinctive dialogue to convey the flavor of the South: “They all start baying up at that coon—h'it sounds like, I don't know, you hear it once and you not likely to forget it” (LAH 118). He also notices the details of the status life of these people. The grocery store, for example, features “a gumball machine, a lot of racks of Red Man chewing tobacco, Price's potato chips, OKay peanuts, cloth hats for working outdoors in, dried sausages, cigarettes, canned goods, a little bit of meal and flour, fly swatters, and I don't know what all” (133). Note that even Wolfe's narrative style takes on a bit of local color. He is a chameleon who, even this early in his career as a New Journalist (1965), adapts his writing to his milieu in order to make it as vivid as possible. Instead of telling us about North Carolina, he becomes a Tarheel and takes us there.

Finally, in all three works Wolfe employs the New Journalist's scene-by-scene construction whenever possible. In The Right Stuff he juxtaposes scenes so that, even though the bulk of the novel examines the astronauts, we see Yeager and the other test pilots at the beginning and end of the book as a reminder that in many ways they are the true heroes we should remember.

All these techniques serve to shrink the distance between Wolfe's subjects and the reader, which helps us reach our objective to identify with the heroes, even though Wolfe reports less personal history of his characters than most writers would. At the same time, it destroys any tendency to idealize the hero as a symbol of perfection. He includes the warts and lets us decide. In any case, Wolfe can only take language so far to reify these people. Kesey's aims are so cosmic, his LSD trips so experiential, that words can only approximate his reality. Yeager is an instinctive pilot, and the Right Stuff is not something you would talk about, even if you could find the words. But to Wolfe's credit, by novel's end we know who has the Right Stuff and would recognize it if we saw it again.

Although Wolfe may be a political conservative, he approves of the rebellious streak in each of his heroes. He shows Yeager to be more heroic because he conceals his injury before his historic X–1 flight instead of going by the book and disqualifying himself. The astronauts are most sympathetic when they band together as a group (Glenn included) to confront NASA, demanding changes in the capsule design. In this and other scenes Wolfe portrays the space agency as a foolishly rigid and unimaginative bureaucracy. The outlaw Kesey leads the police and FBI on a merry chase before finally being caught. In general, the police are shown as ineffectual clowns who hover nearby, convinced that the Pranksters are doing something frightfully immoral, but unsure of how they are breaking the law, since LSD has yet to be outlawed. Finally, we have seen that Junior Johnson rebels on several fronts, and, thanks in part to Wolfe's sympathetic portrait, we like him all the more for it, so much so that we regret that he was arrested for his benign lawlessness. At all times Wolfe takes the side of the hero against group paranoia, officiousness or ineptitude on the part of the respective authorities. Yet he stops short of condoning anarchy.

A strong desire to belong to the right group and a fear of losing group membership permeates all three works. In The Right Stuff, most of the heroes are not motivated primarily by courage, patriotism or teamwork, but by fear of being Left Behind. Pilots who don't make the final cut in the Mercury program, including Pete Conrad, are left behind. Deke Slayton, with his heart problem, is left behind. Even John Glenn, not chosen to be the first into space, feels left behind. Chuck Yeager is seemingly the only one not driven by this fear—perhaps the clearest proof that he has the most righteous stuff. The Merry Pranksters’ version of the metaphor is, “You're either on the bus or off the bus.” The test for inclusion is nonverbal but knowable. Even Sandy, who quit the Pranksters by riding off with stolen stereo equipment on the back of his motorcycle, later tells Wolfe, “You know … I'll always be on the bus” (EKAT 306, Wolfe's ellipsis). In Junior Johnson's culture, you're either a good old boy or you're a pretend Yankee in a split-level house. The test is whether or not you come to the track. In all three cases the hero defines the space of inclusion without saying a word. The only requirement is a desire to do whatever it takes to go Further.


  1. For another approach to this subject, see Sojka, who examines the heroes in The Right Stuff using Klapp's five stages: “spontaneous popular homage; formal recognition and honor; the building up of a legend; commemoration; and an established cult especially for heroes who have died young” (118).

  2. Page references to The Right Stuff hereafter given in the text as RS; similarly, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will be abbreviated EKAT and “The Last American Hero” LAH.

  3. Gordon Cooper faces an even greater challenge at the end of his long flight, when he loses all automatic systems. Instead of worrying about dying, he feels exhilarated at the prospect of having the opportunity to pilot his own re-entry. Except for Glenn, he is rewarded with the biggest hero's welcome of all the Mercury astronauts.

  4. Give. Sympathize. Control yourself. Shantih: “The Peace which passeth understanding.”

Liam Kennedy (essay date Spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6727

SOURCE: “‘It's the Third World Down There!’: Urban Decline and (Post)National Mythologies in Bonfire of the Vanities,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 93–111.

[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses how Wolfe portrays urban realism in The Bonfire of the Vanities and how the novel uses New York City as “a microcosm of contemporary American society.”]

The symbolic order of American nationalism has been profoundly fissured by socio-economic transformations which connect local cultures in the United States to the global system. “Globalization” has become a catch-all term for diverse restructurings characterized by the acceleration of global flows of people, capital, and information.1 This acceleration has propelled what Frederick Buell describes as “the movement from a period of globally disseminated nationalism, which reinforced the construction of national identities as objects of faith and focuses for social organization, to a period of globalism, in which the stereotypical national culture has become increasingly strained, fractured and demystified” (144). The idea of a “national culture,” once deeply encoded in the concept of the American Creed as civil religion and in its master narrative of exceptionalist ethnogenesis, has lost its power to describe a collective, national experience and evoke a shared historical consciousness. This idea has not simply disappeared, however, for it has come to form an important imaginary focus in public perceptions of the accelerated decline of the United States in the uncertain era of postnationalism. One of the most significant symbolic sites of this perceived decline is the American city and more especially the extended metropoles which have come to be known as “global cities.”2

The American city has long been “an abstract receptacle for displaced feelings about other things,” and narratives of anti-urbanism can be traced from at least the mid-nineteenth century (Marx 210). As Robert Beauregard has shown, though, it is not until the mid-1940s that “a fully developed discourse on urban decline” (75) emerges in the United States, one that has been expanded and elaborated upon to express wide-ranging social contradictions and antagonisms in the last fifty years.3 The discourse of urban decline is tied to the material conditions and transformations of urban society, but it is also a symbolic screen for national concerns. As Beauregard observes, the discourse “functions to site decline in the cities. It provides a spatial fix for our more generalized insecurities and complaints” (6). This spatial fix has served to mediate generalized anxieties about the dissolution of the national culture. The core of the American city has been radically transformed in the last twenty years, with “white flight” to the suburbs, decentralization of economic enterprise, the privatization of public spaces, and the concentration of a new urban “underclass” changing the spatial, cultural, and political form of the city. Many commentators now argue that the “city” as a synthetic totality has lost coherence and legibility; it has been ruptured as a coherent sign as it has imploded into fragmented spaces and exploded into metastasized urban agglomerations.4 And yet, urbanism continues compellingly to define the condition of American society as a whole and is the symbolic locus of ideological debates and moral panics about problems of crime, drugs, homelessness, immigration, and demographic change. The decentering of the culture of the core the city provides a spatial fix for a postnational crisis of urbanity itself.

This crisis of urbanity, as a register of postnational concerns in American society, has become an important issue of representation in American literature. In the last twenty years, literary conceptualization of the city has reflected its postnational transformations, its restructuring in both material and imaginary ways. A potent example is the urban writing representing “new ethnicities,” the work of writers voicing the concerns of migrant communities which have strong local and global consciousness of their identities. This writing, challenging ideological assumptions inscribed in the discourse of urban decline, is redefining ideas of territory, place, community, and culture in new urban cores.5 My main textual focus in this essay, however, is a novel which strikingly promotes the discourse of decline in its singular effort to reproduce the totalizing vision of the classic realist novel as the most adequate form of literary response to the complexities of urban change at the end of the twentieth century. Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, clearly fails in this effort, but this very failure underscores the significance of the discourse of urban decline in articulating the social and ideological contradictions of a postnationalist era.

In his essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” published in Harper's Magazine in 1989, Wolfe tells us that he very deliberately conceived Bonfire as “a novel of the city in the sense that Balzac and Zola had written of Paris and Dickens and Thackeray had written novels of London, with the city always in the foreground, exerting its relentless pressure on the souls of its inhabitants” (46). In detailing his novel's conception Wolfe uses the essay as a platform to debunk postmodern fiction in favor of social realism. He confides: “To me the idea of writing a novel about this astonishing metropolis, a big novel, cramming as much of New York City between covers as you could, was the most tempting, the most challenging, and the most obvious idea an American writer could possibly have” (45). He professes his surprise that contemporary writers had no interest in such a challenge, preferring to flee the social terrain for private and esoteric exercises in formal reflexivity. He dismisses the work of two generations of American writers, accusing them of having lost the will and nerve to “wrestle the beast” of social reality (56). Fusing this willingness to document and report with the “freedom of fiction” to condense and dramatize (56) produces Wolfe's recipe for the social realism which the age demands. “The past three decades have been decades of tremendous and at times convulsive social change, especially in large cities, and the tide of the fourth great wave of immigration has made the picture seem all the more chaotic, random and discontinuous, to use the literary clichés of the recent past. The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that I eventually found exhilarating” (56). This picture of urban change, he argues, is not “incomprehensible” to the writer willing to engage its realities (52).

As literary criticism, Wolfe's essay is a brilliant example of muckraking, grandstanding journalism. Neither his critique of postmodernist writing nor his willful ignorance of continued traditions of urban realism can stand up to close analysis. As a rationale of his aims and ambitions in writing his “big novel” of New York City, on the other hand, it is an intriguing portrait of an author's working assumptions. It underscores his faith not only in “a highly detailed realism based on reporting” (56) but in the totalizing, encompassing properties of social realist narrative. It is this totalizing perspective, enhanced by his satirical approach to his subject matter, which guides his assumption that realism can provide a necessary comprehension of the urban totality at a time of increasing fragmentation and polarization in urban social relations. This effort to totalize remains important despite Wolfe's quite conspicuous failure to bring “the many currents of a city together” in his novel. We might argue that this failure is evident enough at a documentary level—there is no mention of homelessness, for example—but more importantly it is evident in the hierarchy of voices and values his narrative constructs. Far from representing the diverse social realities of a polyglot metropolis, he constructs a narrative of two cities—represented by the black Bronx and white Wall Street/Park Avenue—and focalizes all the action through the consciousness of white protagonists. Such evident failings, however, must be set against Wolfe's undaunted faith in a totalizing realist narrative, and we need to ask: what drives this need to totalize (beyond cockeyed literary criticism), and what comprehension of the city does its failure leave us with? With these questions in mind, I want to interrogate Wolfe's realist aesthetic and satirical perspective to consider how Bonfire’s narrative of urban decline functions both to illuminate and to gloss postnational divisions in American (urban) society.

Bonfire begins with a prologue in which the white Mayor of New York City is addressing a black audience in Harlem. As demonstrators heckle and disrupt the meeting, the Mayor, panicked and angry, thinks of rich white New Yorkers watching on television:

Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?

Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It's the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tyron—porque pager mas! The Bronx—the Bronx is finished for you! …

And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops. … And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings … do you really think you're insulated from the Third World?


This passage is clearly intended by Wolfe to establish the symbolic geography of a city in which “the fourth great wave of immigrants … is now pouring in” (54) and challenging established structures of political and economic power. He positions New York at a point of monumental social change but also suggests that this change is not understood by white New Yorkers. The Mayor's thoughts may be “paranoid” (14), but they are rhetorically constructed as a warning or wake-up call which articulates broad social fears and anxieties which echo throughout the novel. More particularly, the Mayor's thoughts form a highly fitting preface to the central narrative which documents the “fall” of Sherman McCoy (one of the upper middle class Wasps the Mayor imaginatively addresses) from highly successful bonds trader to degraded criminal, against a backdrop of racial tension and media manipulation. Blamed for the fatal injuring of a young black man, Sherman's subsequent trial positions him as the “Great White Defendant” (151), the symbolic fall guy of a tribalized urban polity and of white fears of retrocession. As we shall see, the Mayor's warning is an emblematic displacement of Wolfe's own rhetorical designs and satirical intentions in Bonfire. Here and throughout the novel he dramatizes the prejudices and anxieties of white New Yorkers while assuming his omniscient, satirical distance from these.

While the Mayor imagines New York as a volatile mosaic of ethno-racial enclaves, Wolfe more fully depicts it in a narrower frame, that of the “dual city” characterized by extremes of wealth and poverty. The “dual city” concept emerged into public consciousness in the late 1970s and early 1980s as journalists sought to describe uneven development in major cities.6 As economic restructuring and occupational polarization produced a more sharply stratified social structure, commentators focused upon the developments at both the top and bottom ends of the income distribution. The widening gap between rich and poor became a focus of much media imagery in the 1980s, usually in the form of juxtaposed contrasts—affluence and degradation, gentrification and displacement, glitter and squalor—which dramatized, though they did little to analyze, social divisions. It is this model of stark dualities that Wolfe has recourse to in his narrative framing of New York as a totality, even as he pays attention to the spatial arrangements of ethno-racial and class differences in the city. Representations of urban duality and spatial difference in Bonfire require close consideration, for it is one of Wolfe's central conceits that his realist narrative can traverse very different spaces of New York life and produce a “story” which comprehends their connectedness. Throughout the novel, moreover, categories of duality and spatiality—of inside and outside, of self and other—naturalize the symbolic order of the city, reproducing social divisions and power relations.7

Wolfe's social knowledge and satirical talents coincide most fruitfully in his treatment of the Wasp pole of his dual city. He illustrates the distinctive spatial features of Sherman McCoy's world as determined by two closely-linked factors, conspicuous wealth and social insulation. Sherman lives in a $2.6 million co-op apartment on Park Avenue. With its “twelve-foot ceilings” and “two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon protestants who own the place and one for the help” (17), it is designed to look like a mansion “except that you arrived at the front door via an elevator (opening upon your own private vestibule) instead of the street” (159). The apartment, expensively decorated by Sherman's wife, is the most conspicuous signature of the McCoy's status, displaying the signs of economic and cultural capital which affirm the style, distinction, and exclusivity of their class habitus. Their domestic space is also designed to reflect their need for social insulation from the urban poor. The private elevator stop, controlled by an apartment doorman, is not only a sign of exclusive wealth but of greater security from the world outside, and the concept of “insulation” repeatedly echoes in Sherman's thoughts. Reflecting on how his father had always taken the subway to Wall Street, he recoils from the thought of potentially dangerous social contact this might mean: “Insulation! That was the ticket. That was the term Rawlie Thorpe used. ‘If you want to live in New York,’ he once told Sherman, ‘you've got to insulate, insulate, insulate,’ meaning insulate yourself from those people. … If you could go breezing down the FDR Drive in a taxi, then why file into the trenches of the urban wars?” (65–66). This desire for spatial insulation posits an external other, a threatening mass referred to by Sherman as “those people” who live “out there” (63, 64). It is a desire which reflects a growing social polarization oriented not only around wealth but also around fear, the latter becoming a significant influence in the privatization of urban space in the 1980s.8

Privatization of space has become a widely documented feature of the development of urban form in global cities, with the built environment reflecting socio-economic restructuring. In Bonfire, Wolfe refers us to images of this privatization in descriptions of Sherman's employers, “the investment-banking firm of Pierce and Pierce [which] occupied the fiftieth, fifty-first, fifty-second, fifty-third, and fifty-fourth floors of a glass tower that rose up sixty stories from out of the gloomy groin of Wall Street” (67). The glass tower, an overdetermined symbol of postmodern architecture, appears here as a capitalist citadel, both surveying and shutting out the surrounding city space. This withdrawal from the urban environment underlines the firm's involvement in other, global systems of communication. Wolfe draws ironic attention to this when he describes the offices of Pierce and Pierce, part of which have been designed by the firm's head to resemble an English country house. Fake fireplaces and mahogany clad walls greet the visitor:

Things British … were multiplying on the fiftieth floor at Pierce and Pierce day by day. Alas, there wasn't much Eugene Lopowitz could do about the ceiling, which was barely eight feet above the floor. The floor had been raised one foot. Beneath it ran enough cables and wires to electrify Guatemala. The wires provided the power for the computer terminals and telephones of the bond trading room. The ceiling had been lowered one foot, to make room for light housings and air-conditioning ducts and a few more miles of wire. The floor had risen; the ceiling had descended; it was as if you were in an English mansion which had been squashed.


Wolfe lampoons the colonial identifications of the firm's leaders while locating the invisible source of the firm's power in the wires which link it to global lines of communication and control. This is a striking image of what Manuel Castells has termed “the space of flows” (348), describing the accelerated electronic movements of money and information which organize new systems of power in the global reticulation of communications networks and financial circuits. The symbolic withdrawal from the immediate city environment corresponds with the construction of a highly abstracted, hyper-real space of late-capitalist communication. Working in this space fills Sherman with an ecstatic sense of power, confirming his self-identification as a “Master of the Universe” for whom there is “no limit whatsoever!” (19).

Wolfe offers some astute insights on the socio-spatial restructuring which shapes the lives and values of upper middle class professionals in the “regenerated” urban core of mid-1980s New York. He is less interested in class analysis, though, than in satirizing the lifestyles of what he views as an elite urban subculture, more popularly recognized as “yuppies.” He depicts them as the shallow avatars of a postmodern culture of stylish materialism, caricature figures of narcissism, totemism, and vanity. It is this satirical critique of yuppie lifestyles which won Wolfe the widest praise for his novel and which is most often associated with its commercial success. But Wolfe's representation of a crisis of urbanity is not simply defined by the myopic vanities of his yuppies, for these only take on dramatic meaning in his text in relation to the “Third World” barbarians gathering at the gates of the city. To better understand his concerns about the privatization of space we must examine the most disturbing component of urban decline in Bonfire, the presence of race.

When Wolfe turns to the opposite pole of his dual city it is clear that he has little or no knowledge of either the social or the interior worlds of the people occupying the blighted spaces of urban poverty. Rather than document their lives he constructs scenes of contrast and juxtaposition in which the urban poor—invariably “blacks and Latins” (51)—function as symbolic projections of the fears and prejudices of his white protagonists. Early in the novel as Sherman walks his dog in front of his Park Avenue co-op he becomes aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk: “Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street—a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five, Sherman stared at him. Well, let him come! I'm not budging! It's my territory! I'm not giving way for any street punks!” (25). This stereotype imagery of the “urban wars” is also displayed in the everyday anxieties of the assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, who travels to work in the Bronx by subway. Kramer carries his work shoes in a plastic shopping bag and wears sneakers on the subway ride in order to deflect attention: “On the D train these sneakers were like a sign around the neck reading SLUM or EL BARRIO” (45). In articulating such white fears Wolfe deals less with the specifics of race relations than with the imagery of racial stereotype and mines a rich seam of urban mythology associated with the “lower depths” of the city.

This urban mythology is most fully dramatized in a key scene which launches the central narrative of Sherman's “fall.” Taking a wrong turning on their way from Kennedy airport, Sherman and his mistress Maria find themselves driving through the South Bronx late at night. Sherman's increasing panic is recorded in a dream-like sequence of images:

A vague smoky abysmal uneasiness was seeping into Sherman's skull. … [H]e couldn't get his bearings. His sense of direction was slipping away. …

It was as if he had fallen into a junkyard. He seemed to be underneath the expressway. In the blackness he could make out a cyclone fence over on the left … something caught in it. … A woman's head! … No, it was a chair with three legs and a burnt seat with the charred stuffing hanging out in great wads, rammed halfway through a cyclone fence. …

astonishing. Utterly empty, a vast open terrain. Block after block—how many? six? eight? a dozen?—entire blocks of the city without a building left standing. There were streets and curbing and sidewalks and light poles and nothing else. The eerie grid of a city was spread out before him, lit by the chemical yellow of the street lamps. Here and there were traces of rubble and slag … in a ghastly yellow gloaming.


With these hallucinatory scenes Wolfe dramatizes the white middle class New Yorker's worst nightmare, to be lost in the degraded city spaces of the other, the black underclass. The “grid of a city” Sherman sees spread out before him in this uncanny “gloaming” is that of an alien city, one that does not correspond with the rational, horizontal grid plan that he knows: “Sherman had lost track of the grid pattern altogether. It no longer looked like New York” (97). This nightmare culminates in a scene of confused violence as Sherman and Maria, trying to reach the safety of the expressway, find the ramp blocked by a tire and encounter “two young black men” (101). In the melee which ensues, Sherman and Maria drive off but knock over and fatally injure one of the men. In their excitement following this ordeal, “desperate to escape the Bronx” (105), they congratulate each other: “‘We were in the goddamned jungle,’” Sherman tells Maria, “‘and we were attacked … and we fought our way out'” (111).

Their journey through the South Bronx is narrated as a colonial adventure in a wild, frontier space, a space of urban depravity rather than deprivation. It is not black poverty, but white fear, which dominates the scene and this “paranoid spatiality”9 focalizes dual city contrasts throughout the novel. Wolfe's most concentrated symbol of paranoid spatiality is the Bronx County Building which houses the court where Sherman's trial takes place. We are first introduced to the building and its environs through the eyes of Larry Kramer, who prosecutes the trial. Kramer emerges from the subway and reflects on the vista which confronts him:

He looked up—and for an instant he could see the Old Bronx in all its glory. … O golden Jewish hills of long ago! Up there at the top of the hill, 161st Street and the Grand Concourse had been the summit of the Jewish dream, of the new Canaan, the new Jewish borough of New York, the Bronx! … Did you want an apartment on the Concourse? Today you could have your pick. The Grand Hotel of the Jewish dream was now a welfare hotel, and the Bronx, the Promised Land, was 70 percent black and Puerto Rican.


This image of ethnic succession (as degeneration) sets the scene for the symbolic position of “the other great building at the top of the hill, the building where he worked, the Bronx County Building” (47). This “prodigious limestone parthenon” (47) is less a symbol of justice than an “island fortress of the Power, of the white people. … [a] Gibraltar in the poor sad Sargasso Sea of the Bronx” (48). Yet again Wolfe uses colonial and frontier imagery to depict the spatial arrangements of race relations. The court workers order in food rather than venture onto the streets, and if they work beyond sundown, they must “wagon train” (195–96), moving their cars closer to the building under the supervision of armed court officers. While the siege mentality has become naturalized, it is also laced with the fears sounded by the Mayor in the novel's prologue. The Bronx, a barely-governable space, is the hard-edge of a battle for the future of the city. Surveying the urban landscape from the sixth floor of the court building, the District Attorney Abe Weiss views the Bronx as “the Laboratory of Human Relations,” reflecting that where once Irish, Jews, and Italians populated the streets below now “there's none down there … and so how long are they gonna be up here in this building?” (542–43).

Wolfe offers many examples of paranoid spatiality, showing that white fears and fantasies are mapped onto the urban spaces of a virtually apartheid city. In his efforts to satirize this paranoia, though, he reproduces rather than challenges stereotype in his representation of racialized minorities. In scripting the unease of a white ruling class, he draws on urban myths of black criminality and depravity in which race orders conceptions of self and other. The “blacks and Latins” of the novel remain an abstract phenomenon, a socio-psychological fantasy which is crucial to Wolfe's metaphoric totalization of the city. As Michael Keith and Malcolm Cross observe, “Race is a privileged metaphor through which the confused text of the city is rendered comprehensible” (9). They note that racialized metaphor commonly constructs “blackness … as the cautionary urban other” of the postmodern city: “It is a constitutive element in the horror evoked in the yuppie nightmare films of the late 1980s … just as much as it is the barely hidden agenda of a fascination with clashes in Bensonhurst and ‘wilding’ in Central Park …” (10). Wolfe uses race as a privileged metaphor to render his New York comprehensible. The “single, fairly simple story” of the dual city relies on an urban imaginary in which the “urban wars” can be dramatized while the psychological focus remains securely on the white subject.

Wolfe presents his reader with a universalized and fantastical urbanism which elides close analysis or understanding of the empirical realities of racial subordination or economic immiseration. He is unable, as omniscient author, comfortably to transcend through satire the racialized images and discourses he invokes through stereotyping. Throughout the novel he works to offset his treatment of race by foregrounding the flawed perspectives of his white characters. A key example is his use of a British journalist as investigator and recorder of the events surrounding the driving incident and Sherman's subsequent trial. Peter Fallow, a snobbish expatriate working for a tabloid New York newspaper, narrates his experiences in the Bronx projects as a lurid “tale of the lower depths” (284). Fallow's perspective may be ignorant and egotistical, but it is a perspective which correlates with the novel's broader pathologizations of race and poverty. As a knowing, late twentieth-century “tale of the lower depths,” Bonfire invites a voyeuristic, even imperialistic, relationship between its implied reader and the alien, degenerate urban world it depicts.

This relationship is most tellingly reflected in the central narrative of Sherman's fall from status and power. As the narrative develops, the urban “depths,” often figured as underworld or labyrinth, come to represent the psychological space into which Sherman “falls.” It is this narrative of subjective deterioration which encodes the deepest moral drive of the novel, one that has ultimately less to do with class or race than with masculinity.

Bonfire caricatures distinct models of masculinity. There is the inept Kramer, obsessed with his physique, admiring his “powerful deltoids” (41) and hoping to attract women by tensing “his sternocleidomastoid muscles to make his neck fan out like a wrestler's” (45). There are the young black men “wearing big sneakers with enormous laces,” walking “with a pumping gait known as the Pimp Roll” (46). And there are the Irish cops, the self-styled “Donkeys” whose machismo is defined by toughness and loyalty (401–02). Sherman's masculinity, too, is first represented as caricature. He is a self-styled “Master of the Universe,” a man who can make “a $50,000 commission” from a single telephone call, one of Wall Street's elite for whom “there was … no limit whatsoever!” (19). His sense of mastery is evoked in the ecstatic sense of power he feels at work in the bond trading room of Pierce and Pierce:

It was a vast space, perhaps sixty by eighty feet, but with the same eight-foot ceiling bearing down on your head. It was an oppressive space with a ferocious glare, writhing silhouettes, and the roar. The glare came from a wall of plate glass that faced south, looking out over New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, and the Brooklyn and New Jersey shores. The writhing silhouettes were the arms and torsos of young men, few of them older than forty. They had their suit jackets off. They were moving about in an agitated manner and sweating early in the morning and shouting, which created the roar. It was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market.


For Sherman, this command post of capitalist power is the center of the universe, and he exults in the flows of male adrenaline which surround him: “The shouts, the imprecations, the gesticulations, the fucking fear and greed, enveloped him, and he loved it” (69). It is a space of aggressive masculinity where physical aggression is sublimated in economic competitiveness. As such, it directs the violent energies of the civilized entrepreneurs into professional competitiveness, driven by the injunction to “Make it Now!” (70).

Wolfe establishes his protagonist's inflated sense of masculinity so that he can bring it into crisis and then regenerate it in a new form. While he uses the story of Sherman's decline to show the white middle class “fear of falling,” of losing status, this story's psychological focus is more specifically that of a crisis of white-male (self-) mastery. The narrative hints as much in the first scene in which we encounter Sherman, “kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund” (17), preparing to visit his mistress while avoiding his wife's suspicions. The image of servility, linked to his female attachments, contrasts his sense of universal mastery with middle-class male powerlessness. That his manhood might be remade is first intimated after the fateful car drive in the Bronx: “All at once a wonderful feeling swept over Sherman. … He had fought his way out of an ambush on the nightmare terrain, and he had prevailed. He had saved a woman. The time had come to act like a man, and he had acted and prevailed. He was not merely a Master of the Universe; he was more; he was a man” (115). Sherman's sense that there is more to manhood than economic mastery, at first a fleeting insight, forms the redemptive ground of his fall.

Sherman's journey of remasculinization reaches its nadir when he is arrested and then detained in the cells of the Bronx County Building. His experience is one of nightmarish abjection as he is arrested by “the brutes from the outer boroughs” (497), subjected to a body search, and placed in a cell with underclass inmates. Surrounded by excrement, vomit, and vermin, he is mocked and intimidated by a “black youth” (524) in the cell. Barely able to think in his fear and confusion, Sherman yet “knew it was time to draw a line, stop this” (525) and stands up to his tormentor. Although he is soon released and has to undergo further humiliation at the hands of the press and friends, this experience of arrest functions as the beginnings of a symbolic rebirth. As he becomes newly conscious of the vanities of what once seemed a secure and familiar world, his own “civilized” self seems to him little more than a veneer of habits and behavior. As he tells his lawyer, “‘something's gradually dawned on me over the past few days. I'm not Sherman McCoy anymore. I'm somebody else without a proper name. I've been that other person ever since the day I was arrested. … I'm a different human being. I exist down here now … ’” (692).

Entering the lower depths of the urban justice system, Sherman discovers what it means to “act like a man.” Both appalled and fascinated by his own decline, his paranoid subjectivity becomes the locus of the novel's split urban consciousness, divided between civilizing rationality and primitive urge. As his patrician Wasp identity crumbles, he embraces its bestial counterpart, affirming that it is time “to turn into an animal and fight” (693). This embrace of the bestial self echoes the naturalist narratives of writers such as Frank Norris and Jack London, but Wolfe seems to be looking backward to a yet older, more celebrated myth of male self-empowerment—the frontier myth of imperial white manhood that depends on the mastery of threatening others. At the novel's end Sherman shows that his masculinity has been reconstructed in this new (old) register. As the trial is controversially dismissed, and Sherman is forced to flee an angry black “mob” (718), he is suddenly confronted by one of the demonstrators:

… the tall black man with the earring. He goes reeling to one side. All at once he's directly in front of Sherman. … Face to face! And now what? He just stares. Sherman's transfixed … terrified. … Now! He ducks, pivots on his hip, and turns his back—now!it begins now! He wheels about and drives his fist in the man's solar plexus. … The big sonofabitch is sinking, with his mouth open and his eyes bugged out and his Adam's apple convulsing. He hits the floor.


Sherman comes to embody the national myth of imperial white manhood, his narrative descent into the urban depths re-allegorizing the frontier tale of the lone white male in the wilderness and his violent assertion of identity.10

It is one of the striking ironies of Wolfe's treatment of white masculinity that what begins as a critique of the imperial vanities of a capitalist “Master of the Universe” ends up as a celebration of a precapitalist model of masculinity that is no less imperial in its ideological and historical foundations. Bonfire may parody the imperial individualism of white American manhood, but the novel does not negate it; rather Wolfe retells the story of the making of this manhood as a morality tale for a racially divided, postnational America. Regeneration through violence remains an appealing mythology in the reproduction of white male identity. At the center of Wolfe's story of “convulsive social change,” as cities pass “to the nonwhite majorities” (54), is the new victim of postnational divisions, the white middle class male. Wolfe's ambivalent treatment of the insecurities and anxieties of white men (prefiguring that of many writers and filmmakers in the last ten years) characterizes a fable of urban decline which both expresses and evades the contradictions of class, racial, and gender divisions in urban society.11 While he draws ironic and critical attention to the white male's loss of the privileged role of universal subject, he nonetheless assumes that the decentered subjectivity of the white male provides the primary focus for the contradictions and conflicts of his society.

It is not surprising to find Wolfe celebrating, however ironically, the rebellious individuality of white males, for this has been the focus of many of his new journalistic narratives.12 This celebration, as a form of narrative closure, also indicates that his ideas of what constitutes social realism are deeply influenced by his new journalistic premises and working practices. Wolfe's assumption that realism can hold the decentered whole together, that it is still possible to conceive of the city as a synthetic totality, requires that he close down the polyphonic urban complexities he claims as his subject—he can only display the inadequacies of this assumption in his own execution of a realist narrative. This is less a failing of realism than a failure of Wolfe's realism, a failure exacerbated by the models of sociological analysis he relies upon as the backbone of his documentary approach. He has argued that “the fundamental unit in analyzing behavior is not the individual, but some sort of status group or status structure” (qtd. in Schwartz 46). This position not only leads him to rely heavily on caricature and stereotype, as we have seen, but also to valorize his position as an omniscient cultural critic able to interpret and demystify “status group” experiences. In his new journalism Wolfe has long worked to describe subcultural differences within a transcendent authorial perspective which he assumes the reader will share. Commenting on this strategy, David Eason has noted that it operates “to reinvent textually the consensus which cultural fragmentation had called into question” (52). This strategy is at work in Bonfire, shaping its narrative of urban decline as a cautionary tale for white, middle-class males.

Wolfe's national allegory of postnational decline posits the dual city as a microcosm of contemporary American society and the paradigmatic site of its (dystopian) future. Bonfire narrates a crisis of urbanity which subsumes both the dominant socio-economic order and its pathologized other, the racialized underclass, into a closed system of symbolic conflicts. In doing so it reaffirms the interests of a national symbolic order, containing dissensus within an imaginary geography which continues to see the city as the crucible of American identity formation and expresses the exceptionalist ideology which claims the United States as a microcosm of the world. In the last twenty years, processes of economic and cultural globalization and of transnational migrancy have destabilized this symbolic order, revealing the permeability of both material and imaginary borders. These processes are opening up a closed national system, drawing attention to what Homi Bhabha calls “the disjunctive, liminal space of national society” that eludes totalization (312). Wolfe is unable to comprehend, to tell “a single, fairly simple story” about, this space, for it cannot be represented within his crude social and psychological dualities or textually assimilated into the cultural dominant of the nation. Neither margin nor center, the city is the locus of urgent questions about power, representation, and identity which cannot be contained by the discourse of urban decline.


  1. The literature on globalization is extensive. For influential commentaries, see Wallerstein and King.

  2. The “global city” concept has been thoroughly analyzed by King and Sassen.

  3. See Beauregard (279–326).

  4. See Sharpe and Wallock (15–22).

  5. The concept of “new ethnicities” (see Hall) has been widely taken to emphasize the hybrid and syncretic nature of identity formation for transnational migrants. See Brooker (127–55) for an analysis of selected urban writings which reflect the diasporic diversity of new immigrant experiences.

  6. See Beauregard (258–60) for coverage of the journalism. Mollenkopf and Castells provide an extensive critical examination of the “dual city” concept in their study of New York.

  7. The “production of space” (see Lefebvre) has become a major focus of urban studies. It refers, in the first instance, to a notion of space as an active social product.

  8. For examples of the ways in which “form follows fear” in urban planning and building, see Ellin (145–54).

  9. Mike Davis uses the phrase “paranoid spatiality” to describe the “underlying relations of repression, surveillance and exclusion” (238), which structure social relations in contemporary Los Angeles. See Davis, 221–63.

  10. See Slotkin for a detailed analysis of the cultural history of this tale.

  11. See Kennedy for an analysis of “white male paranoia” in Hollywood film.

  12. There are many examples throughout Wolfe's writings, including, most famously, the test pilots and astronauts of The Right Stuff.

Works Cited

Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Bhabha, Homi. “Dissemination: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 291–322.

Brooker, Peter. New York Fictions: Modernity, Postmodernism. The New Modern. London: Longman, 1996.

Buell, Frederick. National Culture and the New Global System. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Castells, Manuel. The Informational City. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso, 1990.

Eason, David. “The New Journalism and the Image-World: Two Modes of Organizing Experience.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication I (1984): 42–61.

Ellin, Nan. Postmodern Urbanism. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.

Hall, Stuart. “New Ethnicities.” “Race,” Culture, and Difference. Ed. James Donald. London: Sage, 1992. 252–60.

Keith, Michael, and Malcolm Cross. “Racism and the Postmodern City.” Racism, The City and the State. Ed. Michael Keith and Malcolm Cross. London: Routledge, 1993. 1–30.

Kennedy, Liam. “Alien Nation: White Male Paranoia and Imperial Culture in the United States.” Journal of American Studies 30 (1996): 87–100.

King, Anthony D. Urbanism Colonialism, and the World Economy. London: Routledge, 1990.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Marx, Leo. “The Puzzle of Anti-Urbanism in Classic American Literature.” The Pilot and the Passenger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 208–27.

Mollenkopf, John, and Manuel Castells, eds. Introduction. Dual City: Restructuring New York. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1991. 3–22.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Schwartz, Tony. “Tom Wolfe: The Great Gadfly.” New York Times Magazine 20 Dec. 1981: 45–48.

Sharpe, William, and Leonard Wallock. “From ‘Great Town’ to ‘Nonplace Urban Realm’: Reading the Modern City.” Visions of the Modern City. Ed. William Sharpe and Leonard Wallock. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 1–39.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Politics of the Urban Economy. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Wolfe, Tom. Bonfire of the Vanities. London: Pan, 1990.

———. “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Harper's Magazine. Nov. 1989: 45–56.

Jonathan Bing (essay date 7 December 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2928

SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe on Top,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 49, December 7, 1998, pp. 37–39.

[In the following essay, Bing profiles the research, time, and massive marketing campaign that went into the publication of Wolfe's A Man in Full.]

It took a decade to write. It is the panoramic saga of a hothouse Atlanta society on the verge of being burned to the ground. Its headstrong protagonist is an enduring symbol of American enterprise. It received rave reviews but was such a popular sensation that it demolished the barrier that traditionally separates literary from commercial fiction. The book is of course Gone with the Wind, but if you were to mistake the above description for that of Tom Wolfe's new novel from FSG, A Man in Full you wouldn't be far off the mark.

Lest you think that this eminent social satirist, known for his savage critiques of American pomp and pretension and for his ferocious, era-capping pronouncements, is ill-served by a comparison to the author of the most beloved potboiler of all time, rest assured; it's a comparison that he encourages. “I love being in the same paragraph as Margaret Mitchell,” he says over breakfast at the Ritz in Atlanta. “In literary circles, you're not supposed to say that. But you could argue, and I would if anyone would listen, that Gone with the Wind is the greatest American novel ever written.” Just two days after the National Book Foundation denied him a second NBA, it's not surprising to find this genteel contrarian slyly thumbing his nose at literary elitism. But rarely has Wolfe made his ambitions to write for the widest possible audience so unabashedly clear.

Thus far, readers have been happy to oblige him. No novel this year has been saddled with the high expectations that awaited Wolfe's first book since Bonfire of the Vanities and no novel this year has made such a splash in the publishing pool. The ravenous news media that, in The Right Stuff Wolfe famously decried as a “consummate hypocritical Victorian Gent,” have seized the author by his high-peaked lapels and refuse to let go. He has landed on the cover of Time magazine (one of a handful of authors this decade to do so), been profiled by newspapers from coast to coast and has been featured in seven separate articles in the New York Times alone, all of which has helped him set sales records at bookstore appearances during the most competitive book-selling season of the year.

When we last heard from Wolfe, the publishing industry was a different place. When Bonfire appeared in 1987, well before the advent of the one-day laydown, it came with a first printing of 200,000 copies, an ambitious sales projection in its day, and one that depended on the hand-selling efforts of a vibrant independent bookseller network. A Man in Full steps into a different world, sporting a first printing of 1.2 million, with its eye trained on a wide range of retail accounts, from independents to K-Mart to Amazon to the massive chain-owned superstores. The one-day laydown, meant to maximize a book's chances of immediately capturing the top slot of the bestseller list-a feat usually only achieved by the likes of a Crisham, Clancy or King-proved successful, and at press time, that's where the book remains. “It's surprising’ says Irwyn Applebaum, who will publish the book in trade paperback at Bantam sometimes next year, “that Tom Wolfe, who many consider a literary author, would be able, two out of two times, to attract such keen interest.”

But is Wolfe a literary author? In the modern entertainment market, serious fiction has always been overshadowed by commercial fiction, film and TV. As Time magazine book critic Paul Grey puts it, “The notion that literature occupies a higher cultural niche has gone by the boards:’ But can Wolfe's novel, an ambitious, multi-layered feat of storytelling that hit the marketplace like a commercial heavyweight, safely be defined as either literary or commercial? Would this doorstopper of a novel, published by a mid-size house known more for Nobel laureates than bestsellers, command the interest of so large a readership if it weren't also such a pop phenomenon?

These questions were foremost in our mind as we set out last month to follow Wolfe from reading to reading during the breakneck swing through Atlanta that promised to be the most highly charged stretch of his book tour. Ever since the headline of a Wall Street Journal article screamed “Fiddle-dee-dee! Wolfe Burns Atlanta’ the capital city of the New South was spoiling for a showdown with the cosmopolitan author who seemed poised to bring more attention to Atlanta than any event since the centenary summer Olympics.

The specter of Atlanta in flames certainly haunts the novel, whose myriad plotlines depict the decline and fall of local real estate titan Charlie Croker, proprietor of a quail plantation called Turpmtine; the political brushfire touched off by the accusation that a black Georgia Tech football star has raped the daughter of a white business tycoon; a mayoral race tinged by the vexed politics of a city unable to put to rest the racial conflagrations of the past; and the bizarre odyssey of a worker laid off from one of Croker's frozen food warehouses who finds himself on a collision course with his CEO.

When asked if he intended to write an inflammatory tract, Wolfe almost admits as much by voicing an opposite fear: “I was worried that people were expecting a firebomb or a blowtorch and that it was a warm bath.” In his words, “The book is neither pro-Atlanta nor anti-Atlanta. It is Atlanta.” But the controversial thrust of the book has paid off amply, helping to generate the storm of publicity that greeted him immediately upon his arrival here.


From the moment he touched down at Hartsfield International Airport, Wolfe was surrounded by a battalion of TV cameras and reporters from news organizations across the country. The most ubiquitous were those representing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gossip column “Peach Buzz,” which ran a weeklong segment called The Wolfe Watch, illustrated at the top with a Mr. Peanut-like caricature of the author, to track his travels about town and contretemps with reviewers and local politicians. Eyebrows rose when former mayor Sam Massel rescinded an offer to have Wolfe speak at a meeting of leading businessmen, and when the current mayor, Bill Campbell, who is black, boycotted all of Wolfe's appearances. Which of the self-made Atlanta real estate moguls is Croker supposed to be? (Wolfe calls him a composite.) Is the fictional mayor's effort to “pass” as a darker skinned man based on a very real controversy surrounding Atlanta's last mayoral campaign?

According to FSG marketing v-p Laurie Brown, the fast-breaking, true-to-life elements of the book fundamentally shaped the marketing campaign, from the decision to publish after the November elections, a strategy that paid huge dividends when the novel hit a news vacuum in its first week of publication (“You can always lose a Time cover to an Israeli peace agreement,” says Brown in jest), to the house's decision not to release advance galleys. Indeed, the news angle is what influenced Time to put Wolfe on the cover a week before pub date, despite the fact that authors don't generally sell well on newsstands. Sales of the Tom Wolfe issue “weren't great,” according to Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, but featuring Wolfe on the cover was important to Isaacson because “it helps push a form of fiction that is engaged in the world.”

Talk about engaged! In Atlanta, Wolfe had so many commitments that he barely paused to eat or sleep. Although the novel painstakingly chronicles Atlanta's diverse and polarized social strata, Wolfe zeroed in on consumers more likely to afford his $28.95 hardcover. For three days, he crisscrossed the city's wealthier enclaves, from a black-tie benefit for the Margaret Mitchell House at the Atlanta History Center to private lectures and readings at the Four Seasons and at the Piedmont Riding Club in Buckhead, the city's most affluent district. At the Borders store there, a carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed, as roughly 1100 customers, waiting in line for hours, found diversion from an “electric kool-aid” stand (minus the LSD), a large screen TV running a videotape of The Right Stuff and a bookseller in an astronaut suit. At the Hartsfield Airport Water-stones, Wolfe signed 200 copies of the novel in just over 30 minutes.

Some may find it surprising that Atlantans opened their arms to welcome an author who has aired so much of their city's dirty laundry. More surprising perhaps is how Wolfe, who has made a hobby of skewering sacred cows and bloated egos, continues to find subjects who will let their guard down in front of him. But finessing his way into strange and often exclusive milieux has long been his trademark. Asked how he does it, Wolfe explains, “Usually, I just start with one person. In effect what I try to do when I go somewhere is say, ‘I'm going to be your chronicler. If you're interested, tell me a story.’ And this is my one contribution to psychology, what I call informational Compulsion. Most people have a story to tell and they're delighted when somebody arrives and wants to listen to it.” As he says this, one sees how quickly Wolfe could disarm almost any adversary with his easygoing, soft-spoken demeanor and impeccable Southern manners. ‘There's a lot more everyday casual courtesy in the South than in other places’ he observes. “There is such a thing as Southern hypocrisy. But it's always couched in courteous terms and that makes life a lot smoother:’

Wolfe says that he made dozens of visits to Atlanta to research the novel, and traveled to quail plantations in the company of his friends Mack and Mary Rose Taylor, who are among the book's dedicatees (Mack is a leading Atlanta real estate developer and, coincidentally, the father of publishing PR guru Camille McDuffy). At the Atlanta History Center, when one wag in the audience stood up and asked whether, on one of these trips, Wolfe shot a bird, he puckishly replied. “I'm not sure which kind you mean. They were too smart to let me shoot a gun.” What Wolfe shot instead was a lurid snapshot of conspicuous consumption, South Georgia-style. Turpmtine is eerily suggestive of the ante-bellum South-“29,000 acres of fields, woods, and swamp, plus the Big House, the Jook House, the overseer's house” and a landing strip for Croker's Gulfstream Five, all maintained by an extensive African-American staff dressed in yellow overalls.

As difficult as it may be to envision Wolfe in his cream suits, spats and speckled socks, prowling for quail in the moist Georgia sedge, it's clear that his wardrobe is, in effect, a form of camouflage deflecting attention from the inner man to his exterior. “Early in the game’ Wolfe says, “when I was writing articles about all sorts of new social phenomena, I realized I was not going to blend in no matter what I wore. When I was covering Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, they were always astounded that I would show up in a jacket and necktie.” The product of a small Richmond boy's school where a strict dress code was enforced, Wolfe was still a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s when he upped the sartorial ante considerably, adapting the style of an insouciant planter that he maintains to this day.

His wardrobe has also helped make him a pop icon, instantly recognizable from across the room or on the page of a magazine. “Tom is a star in a way that writers usually are not,” says his editor, Jonathan Galassi. As FSG's Brown puts it, Wolfe “lives a life outside of the spotlight, but when he's ready to step back into the spotlight, it's ready for him.”


In this millennial year, the desire for books that define our times has grown intense, and Wolfe doesn't shrink from the task. Making an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, which was televised on C-Span, Wolfe declared that the “money fever” of the 1980s has been replaced by the “moral fever” of the 1990s. Such proclamations have become as much a hallmark of Wolfe's as his clothing. On stage or on TV, Wolfe can be a magnetic showman, a deadpan raconteur with stark features and dark, expressive eyes.

Lynn Nesbit, who has represented Wolfe since his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was issued by FSG in 1965, insists that the author's star power has little to do with his present success. “Maybe he has a persona but I don't think that should be emphasized.” It's the quality of this book and that alone that has made it so popular, she says. That may be, but FSG has certainly capitalized on Wolfe's celebrity status by setting his name on the dust jacket in type that's roughly 10 times larger than the title of the book.

The cult of personality surrounding Wolfe's work also helped keep the hype engine revved during his long years of silence. Until recently, few people knew what his new novel would be about. Though never catalogued before this year, FSG hoped it would be ready earlier. It was to be called The Mayflies, then Red Dog, then Cracker Heaven. But as word spread that Wolfe had undergone quintuple bypass surgery and was suffering from depression, its imminent release seemed unlikely. As it turned out, the delay had more to do with Wolfe's uncertain plans for the book than anything else. “We all know that Tom is his most severe critic as well as his most exacting editors’ says Nesbit. “It's not that he wasn't writing. He was cutting, revising, taking certain things out.” In retrospect, Wolfe says he “wasted colossal amounts of time trying to put this book in New York’ Six years into it, he sent Galassi an 830-page manuscript and met him for lunch shortly thereafter. “I found myself telling stories about Atlanta,” Wolfe recalls. “And I said, ‘I should have written about Atlanta.’ Without skipping a beat, Jonathan said, ‘That would be a good idea

That was his very subtle way of saying this book wasn't panning out.”

It was a gamble for FSG to indefinitely absorb the cost of a long-unfinished book contract with an advance reported to be roughly $6 million. But their forbearance was crucial, says Wolfe. “I was so glad, when this played out the way that it did, that I was with Farrar, Straus. They never put any kind of pressure on me. I don't think that a lot of the publishers that were interested in me after Bonfire of the Vanities would have had the faith or the patience to wait for this thing.”

Wolfe finished the novel in August (he works on a manual typewriter and the complete, triple-space manuscript came in at 2100 pages). In order to meet the November release date, says Galassi, FSG had to “turn on a dime.” One of the unorthodox production measures they devised was to divide the book into two sets of proofs. The two halves of the manuscript were read in shifts (which “drove the copyeditors crazy!” says Galassi). Even Time's Paul Grey says that he received the manuscript in two installments, one in July and one in August. Notorious for making enormous changes at the last minute, Wolfe was tightening the book until the very end.

The publicity campaign was to prove just as unorthodox. Though sources at FSG insist that no title on the fall list was sacrificed to the Man in Full juggernaut, FSG's Brown says, “There's no question this book was discussed every day for months, and fretted over, as we tried to get the right number of books shipped.”

From the start, the marketing campaign was designed to strike at an elusive segment of the market: male readers of literary fiction. The sheer heft of the book, combined with an ultra-sleek book design, in which a hulking businessman gazes Rasputin-like through a dust jacket window, telegraphs that the author of The Right Stuff remains resolutely interested in the question of what defines the late 20th-century male.

The book has been carefully positioned in places where business travelers, and men in particular, are likely to see it. The marketing budget, said to be $500,000 (an unprecedented sum for FSG), will be used during the frantic book-buying weeks ahead for full-color ads in newspapers, on the sides of buses in midtown Manhattan and in lightboxes at airports in Atlanta, New York, Washington and Boston.

It's hard to say how much the stellar sales of A Man in Full should be attributed not to the engaging narrative that Wolfe has written, but to the fact that it was published and marketed so well. Nor is it easy to predict how the circumstances surrounding this publishing event will align themselves around future novels that ambitiously take as their subject the whole breadth of contemporary American life. But it's worth remembering that what eventually undoes Wolfe's protagonist, Charlie Croker, is the hubris that leads him to think that he controls the real estate market rather than the other way around. “A real-estate developer is a one-man band and the band is called Me, Myself and I,” says Wolfe. “They have the gambling instinct and always want to roll the dice.” In the case of A Man in Full, an ad-hoc coalition of publishers, booksellers and arbiters of popular taste rolled the dice simultaneously. And they've rolled a winner.

John O'Sullivan (review date January 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4132

SOURCE: “Honor Amid the Ruins,” in American Spectator, Vol. 32, No. 1, January, 1999, pp. 64–68.

[In the following review of A Man in Full, O'Sullivan compliments Wolfe's comic set-pieces and looks at the novel's general critical reception in an attempt to identify the basic theme of the work.]

“Nothing has been lost save honor,” said the great nineteenth-century swindler Jay Gould about one of his failed enterprises. And the remark has not lost its power to shock and amuse. It derives its hard cynical charge from the fact that most people in most ages feel a natural concern about their reputation both in their own eyes and in those of the world. It inspires them to perform decent, even heroic, acts and restrains them from selfish or ignoble ones. And if we should act ignobly, then conscience rebukes us. We are, so to speak, honor-bound.

For that reason the man who rises above honor by sinking below it, like Gould, has an advantage over the rest of us. He can exploit our virtues as well as our vices. With the best will in the world, he is almost destined to regard honorable men and women as so many sheep waiting to be sheared. Social rules and customs are traditionally supposed to protect us from these human wolves. But what happens when such rules decay? Or when there is such a multicultural proliferation of them that no one feels confident in asserting any particular set as binding on all? In such circumstances, the accusation of dishonorable conduct inevitably loses its sting and the dishonorable prosper. The president of the United States, surfing along on great waves of personal shamelessness and public indulgence, comes to mind.

It is curious that so much of modern literature, which traditionally has had moral as well as aesthetic purposes, has embraced the viewpoint of the man without honor. But that is in line with other great social trends of the century. The carnage of the First World War supposedly discredited honor and such related virtues as patriotism and manliness; modern and post-modern relativist philosophies went on to deconstruct them; and feminism completed the job by exposing their role in upholding an oppressive patriarchy.

But even before 1914, novels and plays had begun to be written in which a rational, self-conscious, and essentially selfish hero mocks the noble pretensions of a subordinate character who himself would have been the hero of plays written twenty years before. Shaw even went to the extreme of making the hero of Arms and the Man a Swiss. The anti-hero had been born, though he would not be christened for some time. And so it has continued. As this century limps to its end, honor has migrated to the outer limits of genre writing or the great parables of anti-totalitarian dissident literature, Anglo-American literature graduating meanwhile from assaulting the heroic to cultivating the suburban.

Hence the significance when Tom Wolfe, the American Trollope, a writer both realistic and satirical, who paints on the vast panoramic canvas of American society, devotes a major new novel [A Man in Full] to the theme of honor in multicultural America. Wolfe takes characters of different backgrounds and social standing and traces how each of them pursues (and sometimes radically alters) his own concept of honor in a society that no longer offers them either compass or stars to steer by. What makes this An Event as much as a novel is that Wolfe is the major American writer least constrained by liberal etiquette on sensitive questions. Indeed, since that etiquette is an obstacle to describing the American scene in all its extravagant racial, ethnic, and sexual heterogeneity, it is a target of Wolfe's writing rather than an influence upon it.

Charlie Croker is the Man in Full of the title, or at least he thinks he is when the book opens. Charlie is a wealthy Atlanta property developer and a former sports star (“the Sixty Minute Man”) still recognized at airports. He has all the trappings of worldly honor—a young trophy second wife, Serena, a corporate jet for a chariot, and a large plantation-estate, Turpmtine, where he shoots quail, impresses guests with the Old Southern splendor of his hospitality, and has the black servants address him as “Cap'm Charlie.” Charlie also has a strong Southern sense of personal honor: he prides himself on his physique (“a back as strong as a Jersey Bull at nearly sixty”), his personal bravery, and his loyalty to friends. Taken together, these qualities amount to a pagan aristocratic sort of honor. He is a man who will fight for himself, his possessions and his standing in the world, meet his obligations, and succor friends.

Beneath these trappings, however, the skids are under him. He is heavily mortgaged, individually and corporately, to PlannersBanc for loans it made to finance a vast white elephant office development on the edge of Atlanta, hubristically named Croker Concourse. This is now hemorrhaging money, and the bank is demanding that Charlie should liquidate some of his assets to meet their bills. But there is more to this than mere money. The bankers propose that Charlie sell the treasured symbols of his worldly honor, in particular his corporate jet and the Turpmtine estate. As both sides know, that would publicly drag Charlie down from his social peak to the less than human status of a loan defaulter (in the brutal language of the bankers, “s—thead”). He refuses, and instead staves off the bank for a while by cutting the workforce at his national chain of refrigerated food warehouses by fifteen percent.

One of the bankers harassing Charlie, Raymond Peepgas, is a man beneath honor, an intelligent but essentially passive executive whose career prospects have ground to a halt. Although billions are moved around at his say-so, he is paid a mere $130,000 a year. That sum would be inadequate in itself, but it shrinks still further when much of it is siphoned off to pay the legal bills and extra rent required since his wife threw him out because of an affair with a Finnish popsie. And what little shreds of personal dignity he has left will shortly be torn away when the sordid details of this liaison emerge in open court in the paternity suit brought by this former girlfriend (whom he now hates but for whom he still lusts). What really irks Peepgas, however, is his own timidity. Unlike Charlie, he has never shown the boldness in commerce that might win him the honor of success and would be a sort of honor in itself. He has never “released the red dog” that is in him and every man.

Driven on by his own predicament, he is now given the opportunity by Charlie's predicament to release the red dog. If Charlie could be persuaded to hand over Croker Concourse to PlannersBanc in settlement of his debts, Peepgas might be able to steer its subsequent sale to a favored buyer at a knock-down price. He increases the pressure on Charlie by seizing his jet, and he sets about recruiting a secret consortium of purchasers, including himself. But his plan, of course, requires that Charlie's plight continue to worsen.

Suddenly, however, Charlie is offered a lifeline by an unlikely ally. Roger Too White is a successful black lawyer who, on our first introduction to him, is watching with mixed feelings as a group of black rich kids on Spring Break proceed to halt the Atlanta traffic with an impromptu dance display to the tune of “Ram Yo’ Booty” under the scandalized eyes of the white establishment. As his nickname implies—Roger Too White is Roger White II inverted by his classmates in Morehouse College, the forcing-house of Atlanta's black elite—he is “a half-beige brother” with a sense of honor that is acute but uncertain. He has a European soul: He wears impeccably tailored English suits; his favorite composer is Stravinsky; he is half-amused, half-shocked to discover Yoruba carvings in the office of the mayor of Atlanta (whom he knows to have at best an ironic regard for “Roots” causes); and he dislikes the manufactured term “African-American.” Yet, despite himself, he admires the defiance of white establishment opinion that the “Ram Yo’ Booty” scene represents. Has he cut himself off, perhaps, from his own people? Has he elevated a concept of honor as personal cultural refinement above the honor of tribe?

With these thoughts still in his head, he arrives at a meeting where he is asked to embrace tribal honor in its least attractive form. Fareek “the Cannon” Fanon is Georgia Tech's all-American football star. Aloof, monosyllabic, and dripping with jewelry, Fareek combines the wary social hostility of someone who has climbed out of a crack ghetto with the cold arrogant condescension of the football hero who is denied nothing. As a result, he hardly seems to realize that he is facing ruin, having been accused of (though not formally charged with) the rape of the daughter of Inman Armholster, one of the first five names in anyone's list of the Atlanta white business establishment (and, not coincidentally, a close friend of Charlie Croker).

Roger Too White is reluctant to take on the case. He does so only in response to a personal plea by Atlanta's shrewd black mayor, his old Morehouse friend Wes Jordan, that he represent Fareek in a way that will preserve Atlanta's racial harmony. As RTW proceeds with it, however, he discovers a growing racial disharmony within and about himself. When he makes an unintended (and instantly regretted) racebaiting gibe about the white business establishment at a press conference called to defend Fareek, he finds himself not only applauded by black neighbors and politicians, but also discreetly thanked by his white-shoe law partners for rescuing their firm from terminal respectability. Being Roger Less White, it seems, has its rewards. Tribal honor, when satisfied, can be surprisingly satisfying.

As RTW re-assesses his own honor, however, he is setting about subverting Charlie's. Acting as Fareek's attorney (but in reality as the mayor's political agent), he approaches Charlie with an offer: PlannersBanc will reschedule Charlie's loans on a favorable basis if he will attend a press conference and say, merely, that as a former sportsman himself, he understands the pressures on young athletes, and it is important that Fareek be given a fair hearing if accused of anything (not that he is accused of anything in particular, of course). Charlie senses at once that he can never accept the deal. He dislikes Fareek, seeing in him a cruder version of his own young self made more arrogant by the collapse of such light social restraints as good manners, and thinks he is probably guilty. More to the point, he has already assured Armholster of his loyalty and support. But he cannot bring himself to reject out of hand an offer that would save Croker Global. So he agrees to consider it.

It is a fatal error. From that point on, Charlie is torn between two concepts of honor that he has run in tandem until now. Wealth and social position urge him to go through with the deal; loyalty to friends to reject it. With the stakes so high on both sides, he is understandably—but uncharacteristically—indecisive. He seeks to compensate for his dithering here with boldness elsewhere, and inevitably makes a series of social blunders. He expresses Good Ol’ Boy opinions on art and homosexuality within unsympathetic liberal hearing and he deals out an anti-Semitic slip of the tongue to a Jewish businessman whom he had hoped to entice into renting Croker Concourse. As the fateful press conference draws near, he falls into a passive despair. He tries to escape from his plight by retreating to the hospital for a knee operation, avoiding RTW's phone calls, and hoping absurdly that death will deliver him from dishonor.

Charlie's predicament is made worse by the absence of a helpmeet. He cannot confide in his second wife, Serena, from whom he grows increasingly remote as his troubles worsen. And when Serena does tender dramatic information that would justify Charlie testifying for Fareek, it is sufficiently in her interest to make Charlie (and the reader) doubt it. Charlie begins to realize that he had relied on his first wife, Martha, more than he knew.

She, meanwhile, has troubles of her own. Without a male arm to lean on, she has become socially invisible. She is no longer invited to parties, and old friends pass her by without noticing her presence. She tries to establish an independent existence in the currently approved ways—joining an Amazonian feminist group and attending exercise class in the hope of better approaching the new feminine fashion icon: “perfect boys with breasts.” All to no avail. She continues to experience the unbearable lightness of being a former wife with no present social role and responsibilities, thus socially invisible. Finally, in an act of existential defiance, she hosts (at colossal expense) a table at the major annual Social Arts dinner—a wonderfully Wolfish set-piece in which Atlanta's conservative social elite honor a pre-war artist whose homoerotic paintings of men in prison have recently been unearthed. But her guests talk blithely past her. Worse, when Charlie and Serena pass by, they cluster around them. Of course, they are drawn by rumors of Charlie's impending doom. But this serves only to confirm Martha's fear that a ruined man is still a more substantial social presence than a comfortably-off single woman. Marriage is an honorable estate—the only available honorable estate for a woman like her.

But partial deliverance is at hand. At the dinner she is approached by Raymond Peepgas who hopes to recruit her for his consortium. Peepgas is presentable enough, and when they meet at a restaurant to discuss Charlie's bankruptcy and the threat it represents to Martha's alimony, friends finally concede her presence and come over to chat. Peepgas himself is less attracted to Martha than to her lifestyle; he sees that she might be insurance against the collapse of his scheme. And soon they are holding hands at a charity concert.

Across America in Oakland, Conrad Hensley is being forced to reevaluate his own hard-bought ideas of honor. The son of feckless hippie parents contemptuous of bourgeois values, Conrad saw at first hand what Samuel Butler merely theorized in Erewhon: that those who disparage respectability as a tepid imitation of virtue are the very people who cannot meet its unexacting standards. Disgusted by their example, Conrad embraced its opposite. He is the slave of respectability who has married his pregnant girlfriend, is saving for a mortgage on a modest suburban home, and supports his family by working long hours in the harsh conditions of a refrigerated food warehouse—until he is fired when Charlie cuts the workforce by 15 percent rather than lose his corporate jet and estate.

Conrad's rapid social descent thereafter soon lands him in the Santa Rita prison which, like many prisons, is run by the inmates—or, more precisely, by some of the inmates organized into racist gangs with names like the Nordic Bund, the Black Guerrilla Family, and Nuestra Familia. It is a terrifying Inferno of brutality, racial hatred, and homosexual rape, bearing little relation to the homoerotic prison art being celebrated in Atlanta. Respectability is no guide to Conrad here; besides, convicted of a felony even if unjustly, he has lost respectability for life and needs a more elemental basis for his sense of honor. Manliness cannot provide it since, in Santa Rita, that is a synonym for dog-eat-dog brutality. Then a mistake by a bookstore sends him a compilation of writings by the Stoics, notably Epictetus, a Greek philosopher in Roman Antiquity, who having been a prisoner himself, seems to speak directly to Conrad: “Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that.” A man even in prison is free, provided he gives assent to the injustices he suffers. Thus inspired, Conrad helps a wretched victim of rape and then, challenged, beats the boy's rapist, the leader of the Nordic Bund, to a bloody pulp. That makes him a marked man, the future victim of the Bund's revenge; then Zeus intervenes in the form of an earthquake, and Conrad escapes from Santa Rita.

Through the good offices of a friend from Charlie's refrigerated warehouse, Conrad now embarks on a long journey across America through the new immigrant railway—an Asian-Latino underworld with its own organizations, forged credentials, low-rent accommodations, and illegal networks—to Atlanta. And it is there, working as a male nurse, that he is hired to help Charlie convalesce after his knee operation. Sensing that there is a strength in Conrad that he himself now lacks, Charlie confides in him about the proposed Fareek-PlannersBanc swap and, after a long might of discussion, is converted to Stoicism. How Charlie then regains his honor, the perverse personal and political consequences of this, and what happens to him and all the other characters are mysteries I will leave concealed behind the arras of Mr. Wolfe's last chapter.

But the basic theme of the novel seems to have been a mystery to most of its reviewers. Mr. Wolfe is not, of course, as didactic as my interpretative summary may make him appear. And A Man in Full is rich in brilliant set-pieces, his usual scalpel-like social observation, fine parodies ranging from rap to foucault-speak, superb fictionalized reporting from the prison and the immigrant underworld, and the fizziest prose around. So an underlying theme might forgivably get mis-interpreted in all the glorious confusion.

This is what seems to have happened even in some of the more perceptive and interesting reviews. John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard, for instance, argues that the book is about manliness. Now, manliness is certainly one component in a man's honor; a desire to acquire it drives both Conrad and Peepgas in their very different ways; and Roger Too White's conversion to tribal loyalty from a Western Civ aestheticism is in part a conversion to a more masculine ideal of honor. But manliness as an ideal has no relevance to Martha and little to Charlie who has it in plenty but becomes preoccupied with different aspects of his honor. Michael Lewis in the New York Times thought that the novel was about “the decline of Old South agrarian values.” But does Charlie represent the Old South? (And if not Charlie, who else in the novel?) Surely his difficulties arise from the fact that he is both Old South and New South wrapped up together. His New South concern for possessions gets in the way of his Old South concerns for loyalty and friendship. Even his quail-hunting plantation is written off against taxes as an agricultural research farm. Honor is, of course, an Old South agrarian preoccupation, not to say obsession. But there are other visions of honor explored in the novel through the experiences of Conrad and Roger Too White. Finally, Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post thought that the novel's real theme was “humiliation”—the humiliation of Charlie by his bankers, of Martha by Charlie's re-marriage, etc. But humiliation is simply honor seen from outside in difficult circumstances. A man without honor cannot be humiliated almost by definition—see Bill Clinton passim. Mr. Yardley's interpretation is therefore the theory advanced here in negative.

The most common criticism, however, was that (in the words of Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times) “the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, of all people, is introduced as a crude deus ex machina cum self-help guru to provide this thick Dickensian novel with an abrupt unsatisfying ending.” But Epictetus is in fact far more central to the novel than this criticism allows. If this really were a Dickensian novel, it would not be Epictetus but Christ who served to inspire Conrad and save Charlie. Mr. Wolfe's choice of Stoicism as the means to salvation indicates that the modern America he describes here is closer in spirit to pre-Christian Rome than to any period between now and then. And indeed, the society that emerges from A Man in Full is extraordinarily like Rome after Augustus—rich, extravagant, diverse, multicultural, open to talent, and cruel. There is no longer any unifying set of religious or philosophical ideals to hold people together. Tribal loyalties are the only ties to be relied on. Wealth and position are all. Poverty and powerlessness are contemptible. Human dignity is trampled on at all levels. And the softening effect of Christianity on Western civilization is gradually fading into history. The result is that, as a significant minor character tells Conrad: “Life's about cruelty and intimidation.”

In scene after scene Wolfe depicts a post-Christian America sloughing off the civilized restraints we have until recently taken for granted. In the first PlannersBanc session, Peepgas and his colleagues strive not merely to persuade Charlie to arrange the sensible repayment of his loan, but to strip him of all dignity in front of his own aides. Is this necessary? Since the bank has the rights to Charlie's properties if he defaults, presumably not. But a business culture, freed from the restraints of Christian charity, has adopted techniques that owe more to gladiatorial combat than to profit-maximization. And the bankers look forward to breaking down the will and self-respect of those whom they earlier flattered and wheedled to take the money.

The prison house of Santa Rita might almost be a description of a gladiators’ training school in Antiquity or a Roman galley full of slaves. It is an environment utterly lacking in humanity, fellow-feeling, mercy, or kindness. The nearest things to virtue there are crude parodies of manliness and loyalty—a macho brutality and racist gang warfare. John Updike, in an interesting New Yorker review, praised Roger Too White as Wolfe's most sympathetic character because he “manages in the end to unbutton his prim shell and reclaim solidarity with his own people.” But the prim shell is Western civilization and the final destination of the racial solidarity that Roger embraces is the Santa Rita prison writ large. (Besides, any general sympathy for Roger must be qualified by the fact that the only positive action he performs in the novel is a vigorous attempt to bribe Charlie to lie in a rape case.)

It is, however, the comic set-piece at the Atlanta Museum banquet which best captures the end of civilization theme. Here are Atlanta's wealthiest and most conservative citizens, all table-hopping frenetically, under two vast paintings of naked male prisoners yearning romantically for each other. Drilled with the notion that art is confrontational, and that bigotry is a breach of etiquette, they seem not to notice the homoeroticism. And when the museum's new director, Jonathan Myrer, delivers a speech, laced with clichés from Foucault, denouncing the conventions of Western civilization as akin to the walls of prison, the audience takes it all in with the same bland complacency with which it had ignored the paintings. Charlie, whom trouble has made alert, hisses, but no one notices except a socialite woman who is affronted by such bigotry. It is a picture of a civilization so bored and confident of its own invulnerability that it invites the Nordic Bund and the Black Guerrilla Family inside to ask for lessons in freedom.

It was to such a post-civilized world that Epictetus preached Stoicism two millennia ago, and Wolfe may well judge by comparison that today's post-Christian America is about in line for a revival of Stoicism. This conclusion must be qualified: There are hints that Mr. Wolfe does not regard Epictetus and Stoicism as the last word—merely the next word. Conrad helps the wretched prison rape victim even though Epictetus seems to suggest that there is no point in helping people who have brought ill-fortune down upon themselves. And there is a fatalistic and austere self-interest in Stoicism which, however suitable as a response to the post-Christian cruelties described here, does not travel well sub specie aeternitatis.

If there is to be honor in the multicultural ruins of Christian civilization, it will be based on a number of conflicting ideals. Some like Conrad and Charlie may root it in a philosophy like Stoicism; others like Martha will base it on their station; yet others will seek it in possessions and social status like Serena, or even modest success like Raymond Peepgas; very many will have recourse to it in the collective loyalties of tribe and race; and a few—including, I suspect, Mr. Wolfe—will be huddled down in the Catacombs, praying over the standards of a better time and waiting patiently for the Goths and Vandals to move on, as they have always done before, when the money runs out.


Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 1)


Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 15)