Wolfe’s Witness

Tom Wolfe died last week. His works will live on for a long time.

There is a scene in Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that, once read, is never forgotten. He’s on assignment for New York Magazine, riding in a 1939 school bus painted in wild colors and packed with Bay Area characters. Ken Kesey is the leader, accompanied by the Merry Pranksters and Neil Cassidy at the wheel, while Wolfe records their adventure in the New Journalism mode of creative non-fiction. (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been published two years earlier; Cassidy, Kerouac’s inspiration in On the Road, would be found in a fatal coma on the train tracks in San Miguel de Allende four years later.) Everyone’s whacked out on LSD or some other kick as they travel cross-country, skirmish with cops, and hang out with Hell’s Angels, the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, and a hundred other characters caught up in the counterculture. Wolfe is right there the whole time.

At one point, they enter the Houston suburbs and stop at the house of Larry McMurtry, known by then as the author of Horseman, Pass By, the basis for the movie “Hud.” On the bus is a young woman whom Wolfe calls “Stark Naked” because the only thing she ever wears is a look of “total acid understanding.” She huddles under a blanket in the back except when she jumps up, goes face to face with another passenger, and says with a tremulous laugh, “Ooooooooh, you really think that, I know what you mean, but do you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

Now, after 2,000 miles of travel, the bus stops at the curb, Cassidy opens the bus door, and the riders amble outside. McMurtry emerges from the house with his son. Suddenly, Wolfe writes,

Stark Naked shrieks out: “Frankie! Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!”—this being the name of her own divorced-off little boy—and she whips off the blanket and leaps off the bus and out into the suburbs of  Houston, Texas, stark naked, and rushes up to McMurtry’s little boy and scoops him up and presses him to her skinny breast, crying and shrieking, “Frankie! oh Frankie! my little Frankie! oh! oh! oh!”—while McMurtry doesn’t know what in hell to do, reaching tentatively toward her stark-naked shoulder and saying, “Ma’am! Ma’am! Just a minute, ma’am!

The others go silent and motionless. No Dylan blasting on the speakers, no roaring engine (Cassidy drives fast), no chattering and playing and pranking.  Everything stops except man, woman, and child. Nobody quite knows what to do. Even in their wigged-out state, the Pranksters are awed by the twisted desolation of their companion who’s lost her child and her grip.

It would be easy for a writer to rely on the action alone, which has enough pathos and weirdness to capture the antic desperation of the trip. McMurtry is the perfect foil, too, a force of normalcy—“a slight, slightly wan, kindly-looking shy-looking guy”—that highlights the insanity that has invaded his front yard. You’re not sure whether you should chuckle or frown.

But Wolfe goes further. Stark Naked isn’t just a delusional, drug-addled creature. She is, Wolfe says, the very fulfilment of the whole endeavor. Kesey’s program is an experiment in consciousness, a “risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown.” That’s what the riders signed up for, and life inside the bus hurtling through New Mexico and Texas has intensified the “freakiness” and hastened the result. Stark Naked is a pioneer. The chapter concludes:

And there, amid the peaceful Houston elms on Quenby Road, it dawned on them all that this woman—which one of us even knows her?—had completed the trip.  She had gone with the flow. She had gone stark raving mad.

I read those lines 20 years ago, and the image sticks. More than that, every time I hear the 1960s hailed as an age of liberation, Stark Naked comes to mind. She is a testament to the victims of the Sexual Revolution, all the young women who said goodbye to chastity and motherhood and ended up miserable and wasted. The sanguine remembrances of consciousness-expansion and goodbye-to-hang-ups collapse in light of a young woman who needs a family and a home, not sex and drugs. The people on the bus talk about love and understanding, but here is how they take care of one of their own after her crack-up: “Stark Naked had done her thing. She roared off into the void and was picked up by the cops by and by, and the doors closed in the County psychiatric ward, and that was that, for the Pranksters were long gone.” There you see, Wolfe implies, a full expression of the Sexual Revolution.

With Wolfe’s passing, one of the great witnesses of the Sixties, the Me Decade, America right up to last month . . . is gone. His corpus contains more scenes of socio-political revelation than any other writer of the day, from radical chic in Lenny Bernstein’s apartment to the thugs in court early on in Bonfire of the Vanities to the stud session in A Man in Full to a hilarious moment in the offices of New York Magazine back in the 1960s when Wolfe and editor Clay Felker conceived a profile of the furtive New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn that eventually bore the title “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead” (the remembrance appeared in 2008).   

While young writers in MFA programs and on creative writing faculties were steadily disengaging from the experience of most Americans, Wolfe revived the old idea of the creative writer as a mirror of society, as he argued in Harper’s in 1989.

He understood that one scene dramatized well can reveal and persuade more effectively than a social science tome or an ideological polemic. Many years ago, in a 2008 interview with the National Association of Scholars, Wolfe found himself addressing the Larry Summers affair. Summers had been hounded out of the Harvard presidency because he’d suggested intelligence differences as one possible reason why so few women were found in STEM departments at the very top universities. The academic mob rallied immediately, and Summers’ repeated apologies didn’t save him. In recounting the case, though, Wolfe dropped the moral argument mode and went straight into dialogue. Instead of apologizing, according to Wolfe,

All he had to say was, “I cannot . . . believe . . . what I am now witnessing . . . members of the Harvard faculty taking a grossly anti-intellectual stance, violating their implicit vow to cherish the free exchange of ideas, going mad because a hypothesis that has been openly discussed for almost half a century offends some ideological passion of the moment, acting like the most benighted of Puritans from three centuries ago ransacking all that is decent and rational in search of witches, causing this great university to become the laughingstock of the academic world here and abroad, sacrificing your very integrity in the name of some smelly little orthodoxy, as Orwell called beliefs like the ones you profess. I’m more than disappointed in you. I’m ashamed of you. Is that really how you see your mission here? If so, you should resign . . . now! . . . forthwith! . . . and take to the streets under your own names, not Harvard’s, and forbear being so small-minded and egotistical as to try to drag Harvard down to your level. Ladies, gentlemen . . . kindly do not display your ignorance . . . on these hallowed premises . . . while holding aloft the flags, the standards, of this university. Be honest with yourselves, even if you can’t be honest with Harvard. Look . . . think . . . and see . . . what you have become.” That would have taken care of the whole thing. 

I quote the whole thing because it’s the most satisfying comment on the whole sorry episode.  

Soon after Wolfe earned his doctorate in American Studies at Yale in 1957, he decided not to become an academic. Too bad for him. He could have entered the profession in the Golden Age of faculty employment, when GIs and Baby Boomers were flooding higher education in the greatest expansion of it in history. An Ivy League Ph.D. in 1962 could expect five offers from top schools. In some places, you could earn tenure just by filing your dissertation. Life would have been comfortable and dignified for Wolfe.

But then, of course, the sensibility that gave us Radical Chic and The Right Stuff would have been destroyed. And, we can be sure, the satirical skepticism he directed at liberal pieties and myths would have caused endless tensions with colleagues, not least because they would know how much talent he possessed. Young progressives won’t like him, humorless souls they are, but all other young Americans must read. They need to know where 21st-century identity politics and sexuality theory came from.

Photo credit: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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