To the Editor:
It is saddening that Kenneth S. Lynn and COMMENTARY saw fit to give Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities a review devoted chiefly to a discussion of the novel’s failure to live up to its admittedly enormous ambitions and not of the book’s rather considerable achievements [Books in Review, February].
To criticize a novel for failing to succeed to the mantle of Honoré de Balzac is, I think, both niggling and ungenerous. As is, The Bonfire of the Vanities is the first American novel in many a year that leads both readers and reviewers to invoke the name of Balzac (not to mention Thackeray and Trollope and other great social satirists) to describe what Tom Wolfe is trying to get at. In turning his back on what Mr. Lynn brilliantly calls the “solipsistic” self-absorption of so many modern American novels and instead finding his model in writers like Balzac, Wolfe has earned the passionate thanks of America’s serious readers. Until now, we have been driven relentlessly back into the 19th century to find novels whose characters and situations bear some relation to our own.
Wolfe’s novel, which is the first book I can remember that is being swallowed whole by an entire class of literate people, is galvanizing because it captures the way we live now in a fashion that does justice to the moral complexity and specific social circumstances of our time.
That is not to say it is as signal an accomplishment as Theodore Dreiser’s indelible An American Tragedy, with which Mr. Lynn compares it unfavorably. Is Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy as memorable a character as Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths? Certainly not; although some of his minor characters have the vivid texture of the great caricatures in Thackeray’s novels. But he is quite good enough, and the sympathy Wolfe manages to evoke for his increasingly piteous circumstances is all the more remarkable given the sketchy nature of our introduction to McCoy. Somehow, Wolfe manages to turn this fantastically wealthy bond trader into an Everyman, which is at the very least a novelistic gambit worthy of discussion instead of being dismissed on the basis of whether McCoy would or would not have called the cops at a central moment in the plot.
In Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux, Phineas Finn is nearly executed for supposedly committing a murder, and the construction of the ridiculously flimsy case against him is hardly Trollope’s finest performance. But that does not make all that much of a difference; the experience of sharing Phineas’s cell with him is a powerful one for the reader. Mr. Lynn is insisting on a peculiar standard of novelistic accuracy that few of the great novelists could meet except in their very finest moments.
Mr. Lynn, as reviewer, has demonstrated on many occasions his brilliance on the attack. That critical faculty has been indispensable during these lean and bitter years for American literature. But his discussion of Tom Wolfe’s novel raises the interesting question of whether those of us who have been wrestling with the problem of how to write about modern fiction can really know when to leave good enough alone. At the very least, Wolfe’s book is a terrifically hopeful performance, the kind that might well start a trend back toward the social novel. Mr. Lynn’s refusal to treat the book with the respect it really does deserve suggests an almost reflexive need to find fault.
Usually I am in sympathy with that approach, but on this occasion I find it doubly saddening. It seems to me that Mr. Lynn also seriously undervalues Tom Wolfe’s political courage. In his unflinching portrayal of the political and social poisoning of relations between the races, Wolfe demonstrates a kind of novelistic courage that ought to be celebrated by those neoconservatives who have been arguing through these questions for a decade or more and have been greeted with scorn by those who do not wish to hear their inconvenient messages.
Mr. Lynn’s dismissal of the novel’s apocalyptic depiction of racial strife is interesting in light of the fact that many of Wolfe’s novelistic inventions are coming to pass these days in New York City. Those who doubt this fact need only substitute the name of the real-life Reverend Al Sharpton for Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon and the real-life “days of outrage” for Wolfe’s media-inspired demonstrations in front of the Edgar Allen Poe housing projects in the South Bronx.
All in all, The Bonfire of the Vanities deserved better from Mr. Lynn and COMMENTARY—or if not better, then at least a treatment that comprehended the book’s importance even as it challenged its foundations.
Kenneth S. Lynn writes:
A generation ago, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah was saluted by most critics in much the same way that they have now greeted The Bonfire of the Vanities. Not only was O’Connor’s novel a splendid entertainment, but it represented a truly important contribution to American literature.
Today, “the last hurrah” endures as a phrase in our political discourse, but the novel itself no longer lives in our minds. In my judgment, The Bonfire of the Vanities will suffer a similar fate. The brilliance of Tom Wolfe—and no “reflexive need to find fault” blocks me from employing such a laudatory word—is largely to be found in his journalism.
As for the relations between the races in this country, I find them as troubling today as I did twenty years ago when, in the same month that Martin Luther King was assassinated, I resigned a full professorship at Harvard in order to help launch a predominantly black university in Washington, D.C., called Federal City College. Yet there is an enormous discrepancy between racial tension and racial revolution, between Howard Beach and the latter-day version of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” that Tom Wolfe urges upon us in his novel. Apocalypticism is not a means of doing justice to “the moral complexity and specific social circumstances of our time.” Nor is it a sign of “novelistic courage.” Nor is it a position with which neoconservatives have been associated, or ought to be. To the contrary, the elevation of the racial issue to such portentous heights is reductionistic and sentimental, and some of its most enthusiastic adherents, revealingly enough, are rich and fashionable Upper East Side liberals, whose guilt-stricken politics Tom Wolfe used to know were silly, before he himself became a millionaire.