The passing of Tom Wolfe last month at eighty-eight was met, as was appropriate, by an outpouring of affectionate commemoration. True, the praise, the enthusiasm, the fondness was here and there punctuated by some sniffy (though generally envious) boorishness about how Wolfe, despite his zaniness, was a reactionary, merely a journalist pretending to be a novelist, or about how he perpetuated class distinctions by exacerbating status anxiety. The Nation, which, like Dewar’s Scotch, never varies, described him as a “reactionary dandy of late capitalism,” which pleased us if for no other reason than that, since we have not been infesting the halls of academia much these days, it had been ages since we had encountered anyone who deployed the term “late capitalism” straight. As for the epithet “journalist” (which is never complete when uttered by academics without at least an implied prefatory “mere”), we like to think that Tom Wolfe would have smiled on the observation made by the English music critic Ernest Newman that “ ‘Journalist’ is a term of abuse employed by writers who are not read about writers who are.”
As the author of a shelf of bestsellers, Tom Wolfe was certainly widely read. It would be difficult to assess the quantum of pleasure his masterly exercises in social description afforded people. From exuberantly titled early writings like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)—his first collection—and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) through magisterial works of sociological documentary like The Right Stuff (1979)—Wolfe’s extended description of the early space program—and on to classic books like Radical Chic (1970), The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Wolfe fully lived up to Horace’s injunction to delight as well as instruct. The same can be said for his novels, beginning with his most famous and successful, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wolfe’s homage to (and emulation of) Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
One thing that Wolfe’s extravagant style at first obscured was the deep conservatism of his world view, moral and political as well as aesthetic. All those exclamation points and eye-popping agglomerations of adjectives—to say nothing of his Beau Brummell–like taste in haberdashery (the inevitable white suits, the spats)—distracted early observers from his commitment to the canons of realism, on the one hand, and, on the other, his firm endorsement of the traditional social, political, and economic order—“middle-class values,” in fact—that had made the United States such a conspicuous oasis of prosperity and freedom.
Wolfe’s chief subject, in his novels as well as his essays and documentary efforts, was the baneful effects that regularly follow upon the transformation of moral ideas into imperative fashion accessories. In one sense, fashion inhabits a fluctuating and ephemeral realm. But its diktats can be tyrannical as well as peremptory. Counterpoised against the ground of traditional moral and aesthetic practice, the expostulations of fashion absolutized amount to what Wolfe once called “pernicious enlightenment,” which is to say the fake enlightenment of what we today call political correctness: that intoxicating emotion of virtue that follows on the conviction that one is traveling in the vanguard of history. The result is often comic, but also often appalling, not to say malicious. Wolfe was expert at rendering the tout ensemble.
In his core, Tom Wolfe was a satirist. And like other notable practitioners of that art—from Juvenal through Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh—his satire unfolded against a horizon of values that contrasted sharply with the thing satirized and that gave the satire its bite.
When Wolfe guyed the vacuous pretensions of various schools of modernist art, for example, he implicitly contrasted them with the fullness of traditional artistic practice. At the end of The Painted Word, Wolfe imagines “the great retrospective exhibition of American Art 1945–75” to be held in the future at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the seminal figures will be not Pollock, de Kooning, and Johns (that’s Jasper Johns, in case you were wondering) but three prominent critics, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg. “Up on the walls,” Wolfe wrote, “will be huge copy blocks, eight and a half by eleven feet each, presenting the protean passages of the period . . . a little ‘fuliginous flatness’ here . . . a little ‘action painting’ there . . . and some of that ‘all great art is about art’ just beyond.” Next to them will be tiny reproductions of the work those passages comment on or, rather, take flight from.
In one respect, Wolfe’s book was upbeat, for he believed—or at least he wrote—that the subjugation of art to “theory” would be but a transitory phenomenon. In years to come, he concluded,
Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word. They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: “That’s how it was then!”
There are a few hints that Wolfe was right about this, not—not yet—in the art world as a whole, but among the fructifying fringes, those quiet purlieus where the practice of art thrives in ghettos adjacent to the snobbish, fashionable, money-soaked neighborhoods demarcating the upper-case Art World.
Were Tom Wolfe starting out today, we suspect that he might find the path to success more arduous. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, effective satire depends upon a clear and generally agreed-upon distance between satire and reality. As the moral and aesthetic pretensions of nihilism gobble up greater and greater precincts of cultural life, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish reliably the one from the other. The line was already getting blurry in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, when Wolfe was at his satirical apogee. Progress towards terminal fatuousness has continued apace and has made the satirist’s job more difficult. What common values, after all, can he confidently appeal to in framing his gibes? But pretensions can still be punctured. An aspiring young Tom Wolfe would find plenty of fodder among academics, whose preening makes them perennial targets. “Intellectuals,” as Wolfe noted, “aren’t used to being written about. When they aren’t taken seriously and become part of the human comedy, they have a tendency to squeal like weenies over an open fire.”
But satire’s larger purpose—ultimately, the moral purpose of reform—is more difficult at a time when shared values are in a state of disarray and indeed dissolution. There is also the issue of truth. Satire depends upon being able to speak truth both to power and to whatever the coercions of fashion ought to be called. One of the chief, if unspoken, tenets of political correctness is that truth must be subordinated to the dictates of this season’s roster of approved attitudes and sentiments.
Finally, there is the related issue of reverence. Tom Wolfe’s whole procedure as an essayist and as a novelist proceeded with studied irreverence towards the reigning pieties of his time. Consider his rhetoric in Radical Chic, his delicious but also deadly description of the fancy dinner party (though we later were instructed to call it a “meeting”) that the “egregio maestro”Leonard Bernstein and his wife threw for the Black Panthers in their thirteen-room penthouse on Park Avenue. Everything about that essay—from its very title on down—was calculated to assault the delicate consensus of the beautiful people who attended the gathering in order to experience a frisson of with-it self-satisfaction. The essay opens with Bernstein having a vision in which “a Negro rises up from out of the curve of the grand piano and starts saying things like, ‘The audience is curiously embarrassed.’ ” Then there’s the “huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy-Wuzzy-scale, in fact.” At a moment when college students throw tantrums because some of their teachers refuse to police Halloween costumes, and everything can be castigated as “racist,” such rhetoric is a prescription not for accolades but ostracism.
Tom Wolfe was a literary treasure and a sly if undeclared culture warrior on the side of civilization. There might be a place for him still as a writer of genius. As a polemicist, alas, he is too high-octane to pass muster in our timid, querulous, and self-asphyxiating age.
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