Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Farewell, Tom Wolfe: dandyish Southern gentleman journalist and embodiment of hip conseravtism

Drawing by Tom Wolfe from In Our Time
The great American journalist and author Tom Wolfe has died at the age of 88. I'm ashamed to admit that I've only mentioned him once on this blog despite having read and thoroughly enjoyed the eight books he produced between 1965 and 1980...

...  The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965); The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); The Pump House Gang (1968); Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970); The Painted Word (1975); Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976); The Right Stuff (1979); and In Our Time (1980). I've read more of Tom Wolfe's books than those of any other non-fiction writer (with the possible exception of Colin Wilson) - something I only realised while reading his obituary in the Telegraph this morning. 

Let me rectify that oversight. It took me a long time to realise it, but Tom Wolfe somehow made it easier to be a long-haired, rock-loving, Rolling Stone-reading, non-drug-taking, politically conservative young man in the late '60s and early '70s. His cool, unconventional "New Journalism" writing style - lots of captalised words, lots of emphatic punctuation, grammatical quirks, wild flights of fancy - suggested a drug-fuelled, incoherent, angry, iconoclastic leftist view of the world. But the icons Wolfe chose to smash (or, more accurately, to mock) were almost invariably counter-cultural - Ken Kesey and his busload of LSD-guzzling Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ; silly cultural establishment grandees like Lenny Bernstein trying to identify with the revolutionary zeitgeist and hilariously angry Black Panthers monstering low-grade white liberal bureaucrats in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers; and the politically babyish, technically inept and morally insane nihilistic charlatans of the modern art world in The Painted Word. It was always a surprise - and a relief - to discover just how silly, funny, pompous, pretentious or insane Wolfe considered these people to be.

If anyone was still had doubts about Wolfe's belief in traditional values by the end of the '70s, they were laid to rest by The Right Stuff, a celebration of American technical know-how and the crazy courage and skill of the country's astronauts and test pilots (his depiction of pilot Chuck Yeager - who's still alive and tweeting - is moving and unforgettable). It's hard to remember now how surprising his celebration of good old-fashioned American manliness was in the pre-Reagan era, when the real heroes were supposed to be outlaws, violent revolutionaries, and shouty, self-righteous political activists (like the one caricatured at the top of this page).

I stopped reading Wolfe's stuff around the time he started producing vast, slab-like, bestselling novels - I just wasn't in the mood. Over time, I gradually forgot how much easier his non-fiction had made it for my younger self to enjoy the music, magazines and fashions of the "counter-culture" without feeling the slightest need to accept the ridiculous, ruinous social and political philosophy which lay behind them.

You can read the whole of Wolfe's hilarious 1970 New York Magazine article, "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's", here.  I'll leave you with an extract:
Cheray tells her: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!” . . . never dreaming that within 48 hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States ...
This is a first for me. But she is not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny’s house, Robert Bay, Don Cox the Panthers’ Field Marshal from Oakland, Henry Miller the Harlem Panther defense captain, the Panther women—Christ, if the Panthers don’t know how to get it all together, as they say, the tight pants, the tight black turtlenecks, the leather coats, Cuban shades, Afros. But real Afros, not the ones that have been shaped and trimmed like a topiary hedge and sprayed until they have a sheen like acrylic wall-to-wall—but like funky, natural, scraggly . . . wild . . .
These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—
—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads —
these are real men!


  1. I've only read Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) which was hugely enjoyable.
    I'll keep a lookout for his earlier work.

  2. You might start with The Right Stuff, which is every bit as good as the Blogmeister says.

  3. Was struck by your phrase about good old-fashioned American manliness in the pre-Reagan era when it came to casting the excellent film version of "The Right Stuff" [1983] - Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris and the craggy Fred Ward. A far cry from Tom Cruise and his towel flicking bum chums in "Top Gun".

    The Americans pioneered big-screen docu/bio-dramas based on the work of famous journalists like the Wolf film, but they never really took off for some reason [ie the teen market was not interested?]. I remember films like "In Cold Blood" [Capote 1967], "Medium Cool" [Haskell Wexler 1976], "The Executioner's Song" [Norman Mailer 1982]. A much underdeveloped film category in spite of the valiant efforts of people like Wolf. We must skate over the film version of "Bonfire of the Vanities" - a true stinker!

    1. And "Patton", starring the distinctly manly George C. Scott. Nowadays, the best way of winding up as the subject of a biographical film seems to be being gay or black.