Wolfeman Tom


TomWolfe.jpgYou know, Tom Wolfe really seems like he'd be a really interesting guy to have over for dinner.

On the origin of the legendary white suits: when young Mr. Wolfe first moved to New York City, he was working at the New York Herald-Tribune. This was during an era when reporters working for reputable daily newspapers were expected to wear a jacket and tie every day. Wolfe had two suits, and he wasn't going to be buying out Macy's on a junior reporter's salary. As summer approached, he purchased a white silk tweed suit -- something that he didn't think was entirely out of line, as he was born and raised in Richmond, VA, where men wore either seersucker suits or white linen during the summer. Unfortunately, the silk tweed was too hot to wear in the heat of the summer, so he reluctantly put it away until the fall. One day in November, he pulled it out of the closet, and the rest, as they say, is history. The fact that pretty much everyone hated it sealed the deal for young Tom.

For all his historical success as an intellectual revolutionary, Wolfe comes across, somewhat paradoxically, as a fairly conservative thinker. Not conservative in the political sense -- he is a self-described "Jeffersonian Democrat" -- but intellectually conservative. His one-man campaign to save American literature from itself (primarily by urging a return to Zola-esque naturalism: fiction that comes from reportage, a view that ironically has its roots in New Journalism, or the treatment of reportage in a literary fashion) has earned him Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving as enemies. Agree with him or not, but he must be doing something right (it probably didn't hurt -- or help, depending on how you look at it -- that his second novel, A Man In Full, was a colossal success).

His mid-seventies broadside on the art establishment, The Painted Word, was somewhat less successful; his observation that the current exhibitions at the Guggenheim served as an indication of how (un)successful that book was immediately followed by a caustic aside about the motivations of artists who produce 'collector-proof' art.

He remains a tall, thin, gentleman in an impeccable white suit and necktie; from my seat in the auditorium, he looks far younger than his years. It looks like his only concession to age is that his hair has turned the same color as his suits.

I'm afraid that no-one had thought to ask him about Hunter S. Thompson or his opinion of the internet (this of a man who writes 10 pages a day (triple-spaced, so that works out to about 1,300 words) on a manual typewriter). Perhaps I'll ask him when he's over for dinner.


Y'know, I remember thinking back in the day, when I first read Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," that his argument basically boiled down to "write like I write, because what I write is good." I took particular offense to this because his most recent novel at that time was "Bonfire of the Vanities," which I thought was very much Not So Good.

On the other hand, I found "From Bauhaus to Our House" to be right on target. It amazes me that so many new buildings were so awful for so long.


-- Joe M.

I think that the phrase I was thinking of and couldn't come up with at the time was "conservative iconoclast".

If that makes sense...

Can I steal that "conservative iconoclast" bit? I like the sound of that, and it fits the cut of my jib.

Wolfe is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think his novels don't stand up to the test of time, which is unfortunate, because they were dead-solid perfect for the time they were published. Maybe that's a result of New Journalism novel writing. The three enemies you name are all heartily disliked here at TFG Command Central, too. Maybe it's a south thing.

PS I thought you NooYawkers ran into these luminaries in the deli every other day. Ask him about the innernut while he's polishing off a sangwich.

I have a very long rant about how A Man in Full is neither (a) a very good book nor (b) a very good Tom Wolfe book. I've never put it online since I'm still hoping that someday I'll be able to publish it offline, but if you really want to hear it, PF, email me.

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