On Fightin’ Words, Conflicting Narratives, and Culture Wars

Perhaps because his recent death was on my mind already, the verbal fireworks that erupted like Mt. Kilauea lava bombs last week between deep state schemers like former CIA director John Brennan and President Trump on Twitter over #Spygate reminded me of another brutal war of words: the one between certain leftist literati types and the late Tom Wolfe.

Beyond the Pale
Our generation must contend with the sad fact that Twitter smackdowns, even with the aid of rant un-rolling technology as enlightened as ThreadReader, are hardly as heady or engaging as the exquisite banter exchanged the old-fashioned way back in the day between, for example, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving, here in the Blue Corner, and Tom Wolfe, over there in the Red.

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Norman Mailer once opined (note the word owned). “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) . . . He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.” John Updike and John Irving also chimed in with similar disparaging (and in Irving’s case, vulgarity-laced) sentiments when Wolfe penned A Man in Full, and it became an almost instant mega-bestseller.

Wolfe replied in arguably Trumpian fashion directly to their rejection in his essay “My Three Stooges,” that “It must gall them a bit that everyone—even them—is talking about me, and nobody is talking about them.”

The same surreal Las Vegas fear and loathing with which our Blue State Betters regarded the supposed “sell out” success of Wolfe seems to animate their hatred of the supposed “sell out” success of Trump. And for the same reason: Wolfe fought back, often aggressively, and despite his famous in-person cordiality he never pulled his rhetorical punches nor apologized for his enviable successes, ever.

For example, in his blistering response to their critique of A Man in Full, Wolfe elaborated on the reason why he thought Mailer, Updike and Irving disparaged his success:

Updike had said: Look, we’re not dealing with literature here, not even “literature in a modest aspirant form,” but, rather, “entertainment.” Irving had said: Look, we’re not even dealing with a novel here, much less literature, we’re dealing with “journalistic hyperbole,” with “yak,” with bleep. Mailer had said: Look, we’re not dealing with any sort of legitimate creature here, but with a bastard, a “Mega-bestseller” whose dissolute creator “no longer belongs to us (if indeed he ever did!).” Us. And who was us? Why, us was we who belong to “the literary world,” in Mailer’s terminology. A Man in Full and its author inhabited another place entirely, “the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers.” In other words, Wolfe and his accursed book were . . . beyond the pale (originally synecdoche for fence) being an area of permissible conduct with definite boundaries. That which is beyond the pale does not count . . .  and us members of the literary world do not have to be measured by it.

Sounds a bit like the attitude of our three lawless stooges—Comey, Clapper, and Brennan—or is that Obama, Clinton, and Bush? Or Holder, Lynch, and Yates? Or McCabe, Strzok, and Page? Or McCain, Flake, and Corker? Or Kristol, Boot, and Will?—and their elitist rejection of Trump’s triumphant campaign, doesn’t it? It was beyond the pale and therefore invalid because he never “belonged to them.”

Thus Penned Zarathustra
Wolfe with his colorfully, almost cartoonishly contrarian take on post-’60s pop culture was out to MANGA—to “Make the American Novel Great Again,” you might say.

Not after the method of our current self-appointed cultural elite, mind you. Overtly “political” artists are content to shine an overbright spotlight on their own righteousness as third-person omniscient outsiders of the American experience. They produce scathing post-modern, yet strangely moralizing narratives of the world that they believe ought to replace America (because the America that actually exists is supposedly so bitter, clingy, racist and just plain gawdawful).

Wolfe, like Trump, instead accepts the American Zeitgeist as-is, with genuine Nietzschean amor fati and its attendant, full-throated Dionysian :::::: chug! chug! chug! ::::: endorsement of a gleefully locked-and-loaded, first-person straight-shooting protagonist.

I’m not exaggerating; this is right out of “My Three Stooges”:

Instead of going out into the world, instead of plunging into the (to me) irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today in the here and now, instead of striding out with Dionysian yea-saying, as Nietzsche would have put it, into the raw, raucous, lust-soaked rout that throbs with amped-up octophonic tympanum all around them, our old lions had withdrawn, retreated, shielding their eyes against the light, and turned inward to such subject matter as their own little crevice, i.e., the “literary world,” or such wholly ghostly stuff as the presumed thoughts of Jesus.

Twisting the knife in a bit, Wolfe predicted that the new path for the American novel he was charting would make many artists, “such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.” Not to mention impotent.

Anyone who thinks the animus between the establishment politicians and Trump is something new would do well to learn more about the animosity Wolfe earned from the literary equivalent of the establishment merely by succeeding wildly and with his irreverent style where they had utterly failed in all their self-seriousness.

Make America America Again
Wolfe’s mission as an artist and “new journalist,” therefore, was not to change America so much as to describe the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of it all. He sought to do this in the fullest, loudest, brightest techno-colors that a manual typewriter banging away on letter-sized sheets of plain stock paper could project. His technique was to imbue the lost art of the journalistic realism (so lost its all-too-brief reappearance was considered “new”) into unputdownable fiction and social satire with a distinctly American joie de vivre, in affirmation, not rejection, of America’s unique (and often exceptional) virtues, achievements, vices and darker moments.

Trump seeks neither to apologize for America, nor to “fundamentally transform” her into something else, something more desirable, but rather to restore the status she indisputably had before our intellectuals decided, at the height of her success after the Cold War, to pull the plug on the whole American enterprise.

One last Wolfe quote from “My Three Stooges” drives this point home better than I could:

What happened reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridge’s marvelous conceit, in another context, of an army that wins a great victory and then, at the very moment of triumph, inexplicably runs up a white flag and surrenders to the enemy. No sooner does the American version of the naturalistic novel emerge triumphant on the world stage than American intellectuals begin pronouncing it dead, finished, exhausted, impossible any longer.

Sound familiar?

Nor am I the only one to notice. In “Jonathan Swift in a White Suit,” Matthew Continetti at National Review similarly observed:

Tom Wolfe has been celebrated for his literary innovations and output, his sartorial panache, his gimlet eye, his unfailing gentility. But his reputation as a Grand Old Man of Letters should not obscure one of his most important themes: the inability of American intellectuals to understand and appreciate their country.

Maybe someday our Blue State Betters will catch on that Trump’s destiny is quite possibly to have the same reinvigorating impact on our politics that Wolfe had on our letters, over the strained objections of so-called “real” (read: boring) novelists and “professional” (read: bought) politicians alike.

More likely they will never grasp why their constant heaping of self-congratulatory establishmentarian scorn on Trump and their Hollywood hob-snobbery with regard to his voters falls on deaf ears among the flyover hoi-polloi and we educated Les Deplorables. Many of us who guffaw out loud while reading Wolfe voted with Mencken-esque mirth for Twitter-happy Donald J. Trump precisely because our “elite” have so clearly—and, in light of validating post-election revelations of the Obama administration’s gratuitous spying on Trump’s campaign, so dangerously—lost the plot of America’s true greatness.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

About Bob Calco

Bob Calco is a verified Deplorable who lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife, two sons, and four cats. A successful software architect by trade, and an inveterate polyglot and world traveler at heart, he studied political philosophy until it was clear that to pay bills he needed a marketable skill. His passion on issues related to trade and economics go back to his formative college days, when he learned to distrust, and independently verify, literally everything he was taught.

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