The Write Stuff: Remembering Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe tailored his sentences like he wore his suits. Each was a bespoke piece in a seemingly endless wardrobe of exclamation points and onomatopoeia, the literary equivalent of Jay Gatsby’s shirts, a pyrotechnic display of stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.

Wolfe’s sartorial taste was more singular than sensational, the moonlight to Gatsby’s fireworks; the eggshell-colored jacket and trousers for this would-be chronicler of the class conflict between East Egg and West Egg; the homburg hat, with shades of ivory, to the tusks-as-trophies in the libraries and sitting rooms of the Old World; the peaked lapels, with a hint of champagne, to the empty bottles of bathtub gin and shattered glasses.

He was a New Yorker with a Southern pedigree and a graduate degree from Yale, whose doctorate in American Studies was the prologue to his reinvention of the field, whose death is the coda to a career in arts and letters.

His oeuvre includes wicked critiques of modern architecture and contemporary art, an altogether fitting arrangement for a dandy to have exposed the intellectual nakedness of his contemporaries. He dubbed them “Masters of the Universe,” not emperors, as he recorded the ascent of the arrivistes at the expense of the aristocracy of Wall Street.

He skewered Jews and Gentiles, and blacks and whites, not with malice but with the magnanimity of an equal opportunity offender.

He gave us Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too. He gave us a cauldron, instead of a melting pot, filled with conflict, corruption, and graft. It boiled with incendiary rhetoric and incitements to riot, sometimes softening from shouting to simmering, but never silent in its demands for justice and its threats of no peace.

He gave us what Simon & Garfunkel looked for but never found: America.

He was a man in full.

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