Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

What matters, of course, is that by 1962 Wolfe had reached The Herald Tribune in New York City. And in New York, Wolfe soon married traditional notebook reporting with the style, structure and flair of fiction. They called it the New Journalism, but in a way it was a hip brand of old-school, advocacy, Dickensian journalism. The Times notes:

In an author’s statement for the reference work World Authors, Mr. Wolfe wrote that to him the term “meant writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”
He added, “In nonfiction I could combine two loves: reporting and the sociological concepts American Studies had introduced me to, especially status theory as first developed by the German sociologist Max Weber.”

The key words there are "status theory." Wolfe truly began to raise eyebrows when he aimed that intellectual tool -- aided, of course, by his truly radical prose -- at the enlightened elites of the ultimate elite city.

For many, the turning point came right here:

In June 1970, New York magazine devoted an entire issue to “These Radical Chic Evenings,” Mr. Wolfe’s 20,000-word sendup of a fund-raiser given for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, in their 13-room Park Avenue penthouse duplex -- an affair attended by scores of the Bernsteins’ liberal, rich and mostly famous friends.
“Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at the very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?,” Mr. Wolfe wrote, outraging liberals and Panthers alike.
When a Time reporter asked a minister for the Black Panthers to comment on the accuracy of Mr. Wolfe’s account, he said, “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”

At that point, opinions about Wolfe began to divide. For example, there was this point of view about the turning-point novels. 

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great -- his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”
“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

So that's Mailer's point of view. Then there is this, care of William F. Buckley, writing, of course, in National Review:

 “He is probably the most skillful writer in America -- I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

What was going on here?

Well, Wolfe was applying "status theory" to the powerful people and powerful ideas in the culture in which he lived and moved and had his being.

Here's a crucial point. The filmmaker Jody Hassett Sanchez, a colleague of mine at The Media Project, has written a tribute in which she noted this important quote from the collection of Wolfe pieces entitled, "Hooking Up: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American's World."

The reigning doctrine was deconstruction, a hyper dilation of a pronouncement of Nietzsche’s’ to the effect there was no absolute truth, merely many ‘truths’ which were the tools of various groups, classes or forces. From this, the deconstructionists proceed to the doctrine that language was the most insidious tool of all. The philosopher’s duty was to deconstruct the language, expose its hidden agendas and help save the victims of the American ‘Establishment’: women, the poor, non-whites, homosexuals and hardwood trees.

In the end, it was clear that some of the powers that be had to bow in honor of Wolfe's talent, but not some of the conclusions that he reached, as a cultural critic.

That's fine. However, note this interesting conclusion of the obituary/tribute by Christopher Bonanos at New York magazine, where Wolfe did much of his most important work. The headline: "Tom Wolfe, New York and New Journalism Legend, Dies at 88."

At the very end, there is this:

Wolfe spent most of the remainder of his life as a novelist, with only occasional bits of pure journalistic writing. His final book, Back to Blood, was published in 2012. My colleague Boris Kachka wrote about him, superbly, on that occasion. But New York did coax Wolfe himself out of semiretirement last year to write about the photographer Marie Cosindas, an old friend who had just died at 93.

 

 

Wait a minute. What happened to Wolfe's searing journalistic takedown of Darwinian orthodoxy, "The Kingdom of Speech," a book that was published in 2016? Does this book even exist, in the world of New York magazine?

Perhaps the omission was a mistake, as opposed to a judgement on Wolfe and the ideas in his head. If so, it's also interesting to note that this controversial, to say the least, book is missing from the Times obituary, as well.

Perhaps its existence is just too painful to acknowledge?

Here is another way to summarize this final stage of Wolfe's career, offered at Forbes.com by journalist Paul Glader, my journalism faculty colleague at The King's College in New York City.

Especially in his later years, Wolfe drew deeper from his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University, thinking about American society and American thought. He became a critic of modern and post-modernism ways, a defender of traditional manners and a proponent of a moral universe. Through novels and essays and public comments, he took aim at targets as varied as binge drinking and casual sex culture on college campuses, attacked the popularity of Bauhaus architecture and challenged both the orthodoxy of Charles Darwin’s evolution theories and the heterodoxy of Noam Chomsky’s theories on language.
In a review of his 2016 book, The Kingdom of Speech, New York Times critic Dwight Garner concluded Wolfe’s final book “is meant to be a provocation rather than a dissertation. The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time, and enjoying the scent of its own cold-brewed napalm in the morning.”

Now that wasn't hard, was it?

But let me end on a more positive note, with this truly delightful passage in the magisterial Times obit. Here is a glimpse of Wolfe the man.

For many years Mr. Wolfe lived a relatively private life in his 12-room apartment on the Upper East Side with his wife, Sheila (Berger) Wolfe, a graphic designer and former art director of Harper’s Magazine, whom he married when he was 48 years old. She and their two children, Alexandra Wolfe, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Tommy Wolfe, a sculptor and furniture designer, survive him.
Every morning he dressed in one of his signature outfits -- a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.
“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

What to offer Wolfe? Maybe a splash of punctuation: Memory eternal! Memory eternal!! Memory!!! Memory eternal!!!! Memory eternal!!!!!

Also, I have this question: Will there be a funeral rite? Where?

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