The Right Wolfe
I was pulled up short the other day while reading an interview with Charles Portis, author of True Grit and other (equally splendid) novels. Portis worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in the early- to mid-60s, when it served as an incubator for the zippy, attention-getting style of nonfiction writing that became known, with minimal originality, as the “New Journalism.” Among his colleagues were Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Jimmy Breslin. Wolfe, says Portis, “was polite enough not to roll his eyes when I asked him if he was related to Thomas Wolfe. It must have been a tiresome question for him.”
Reading this, I thought suddenly: “Thomas Wolfe! Whatever happened to him?”
Though young in spirit, I am old enough to remember when Thomas Wolfe seemed secure in the pantheon of 20th-century American writers, the equal, nearly, of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He is gone from the pantheon today, and I doubt that Tom Wolfe gets asked about his kinship to Thomas Wolfe anymore. The obscurity of Thomas is an odd but impressive testament to the magnitude of Tom’s fame and, more important, the vastness of his literary achievement over a career spanning a half-century.
A half-century? Tom Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, appeared 25 years ago, and his fourth novel, Back to Blood, has just been published. I wonder, having heard casual conversation about the new book, whether younger readers even know about his earlier career as a journalist, maybe the most influential American nonfiction writer of the 1960s and 70s. Much of what we read today in newspapers and magazines bears his stamp, and that of lesser figures like Talese and Breslin. It’s a career worth being surprised by.
In late 1962, the New York Typographical Union called a strike, depriving New Yorkers of their seven daily newspapers for more than four months. The strike became famous for at least two of its long-lasting cultural consequences. A group of eggheads, suffering withdrawal pangs from their Sunday dose of the New York Times Book Review, founded the New York Review of Books; and Tom Wolfe temporarily lost his job at the Trib. He took a freelance assignment from Esquire to cover a car show in California. When he returned, he stumbled into a writer’s block, and his editor, with the deadline approaching, told him simply to type up his notes so a rewrite man could use them to make an article. In an all-night session at the typewriter, Wolfe described his California experiences in a freewheeling letter to his editor, who was so pleased with all 49 pages that he simply struck the salutation from the top and ran the notes as Wolfe wrote them.
This famous anecdote, first told by Wolfe and repeated in histories and anthologies ever since, became the creation myth of the New Journalism. The myth is not entirely benign, for it gave many of Wolfe’s imitators the idea that his work was improvisational, a spontaneous efflorescence of creativity. In fact his method was infinitely painstaking. It required “saturation reporting” (his phrase) that could take months, and careful attention to the effects created by his headlong prose style. One of his early editors at the Trib recalled Wolfe sneaking down to the printing room even as one of his articles went to press, fussing with word choices and sentence structure till the last possible moment.
The New Journalism, as Wolfe defined it, was misunderstood in other ways, too. He said he was deploying the techniques of fiction to tell the stories that his saturation reporting uncovered. Chief among these was the use of point of view, especially the point of view of the subjects he was writing about. This was forbidden territory for traditional reporters, and once the wall was breached Wolfe’s successors often failed to do the reporting necessary to fix the point of view plausibly or accurately. Worse, writers often took it as a license to tell their stories from their own, often quite uninteresting, point of view, forgetting that in his best stories Wolfe seldom made himself a character of any consequence. Anyone who reads first-person profiles of celebrities in the slick magazines—telling us lots about the writer, far less about the person being profiled—suffers the inadvertent effects of the journalistic revolution that Wolfe began.
Great men don’t leave successors; this one left only a line of sheep in Wolfe’s clothing. The flaw in Wolfe’s evangelization of New Journalism was that he failed to see that he was one of the few writers with the talent to pull it off. Sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, he is the most vivid stylist we have, with a gift for an unsettling physicality. “Her clavicle stuck out so far [he] had the feeling he could reach out and pick up the two big bones,” he wrote in The Bonfire of the Vanities. “He could see lamplight through her rib cage.”
And his own point of view, when he did employ it, proved to be unique among celebrated magazine writers, because he wasn’t a man of the left. This became increasingly clear as the Sixties puddled into the Seventies, until the then-leftist writer Christopher Hitchens was forced, in 1983, to sound the alarm in the pages of Mother Jones. Not only did Wolfe suffer penis envy and racist tendencies, Hitchens revealed, but he was a “consecrated conservative.” He accepted an invitation to the Reagan White House!
Like most writers with a wide range and a fine eye, Wolfe had no interest in cultivating an ideology. Instead he actually fit the image that so many other journalists maintain of themselves, in fantasy if not in fact: an unrutted, unconventional speaker of truth to power. Immune to liberal piety, Wolfe could see the cultural imbecilities that were hiding in plain sight; he could hear the background noise that his colleagues took for granted. Not many of them would have seen material in the party that Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers in his Upper East Side duplex: a celebrity raising money for a good cause—happens all the time! Wolfe saw that the moment encapsulated a particular corruption in American liberalism, which was substituting moral self-congratulation for an unblinkered view of the world. Wolfe got the story that others missed and wrote it up as the great Radical Chic, as funny and germane today as it was in 1970.
He followed it with still more inconvenient revelations: long essays on the self-hypnosis that leads culture mavens to ignore the absurdity of the contemporary art world (The Painted Word) or the ugliness of modernist architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House). He wrote a primer for college students, “The Intelligent Co-ed’s Guide to America,” imploring them to withstand academic ideology and believe “the heresy of your own eyes”—a nice phrase for Wolfe’s own approach. The mavens roared.
“All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, arts, and journalism and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else,” he once told an interviewer. “With exactly the same reverence that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all.”
It resulted in a catalogue of books and essays unrivaled in journalism for its prescience, humor, and fearlessness—an achievement that earned Wolfe a place in the pantheon before he wrote a word of novel. I’ll take my time reading Back to Blood, and I’m prepared to be dazzled, especially now that I’ve been informed by a critic in the New Yorker that this new book, like the others, is shot through with “conservative paranoia.” How the mavens roar!