I wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at the age of 88. Then I followed up with a piece on his style for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a mashup of the two pieces, with some additional thoughts.
One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (1979), starts out:
Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [. . .]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .
The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
Like Yeager, Wolfe had an infectious voice. He revived or introduced into mainstream prose style the use of italics, ellipses, exclamation points, apostrophe (or direct address), the historical present tense, onomatopoeia, kooky spelling and repeated capitalized portentous phrases (“the Right Stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “Masters of the Universe”). More generally, he wrote with by a verve and playfulness and wit that rammed a virtual alarm clock in the ear of what he once called the country’s “somnambulistic totem newspapers.” His style was pretty much the opposite of Ernest Hemingway’s, but the two men—who both were reporters in their youth—were the most influential American stylists of the 20th century. Every journalist with literary ambitions who came of age from the late 1960s through the ’80s either imitated Wolfe, imitated his imitators or had to make the deliberate decision to reject the Wolfean approach and find another way.
Take it from me; I was one of them.
Wolfe’s style was as original as it was influential, but innovations always have some ancestor or ancestors, however indirect. The Wolfean literary forebears that come to mind, with one exception, were novelists—not surprising, considering that Wolfe championed journalism as a literary form.
John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was published to a great deal of attention in 1960, just as Wolfe was embarking on his experimentation and innovation. He surely noted that it was composed in the present tense—in recent times a commonplace, in 1960 a novelty. Wolfe also had to have been intimately familiar with the work of J.D. Salinger, a near-Hemingway-level influence on young American writers in the ’50s. Salinger was very big on italics, especially in dialogue, where he characteristically applied them to just one syllable of a word. An exchange from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:
“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”
“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and leave.”
Next, Norman Mailer, who ventured into non-fiction in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. His coverage of the 1960 presidential conventions for Esquire not only had some of the stylistic much-ness of Wolfe but also—as in this bit from the piece on the Democrats’ Los Angeles—dealt with the same West Coast hot-rod ethos he would explore just a couple of years later:
And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.
It may or may not have been a matter of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but four decades later, Wolfe fomented a public feud with Updike, Mailer, and a third “literary” novelist, John Irving, whom he dubbed “My Three Stooges.”
The one nonliterary influence I’ll mention is advertising, which was probably the main bastion of enthusiasm in 1950s and early-’60s America; its characteristic utterance was the shout, juiced with real or implied exclamation points and italics. Raid Kills Bugs Dead! and all that. Mainstream culture had nothing but disdain for it. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in painting and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in architecture, Wolfe appropriated a debased discourse and used it for his own ironic devices. Come to think of it, the Right Stuff and other Wolfean catchphrases may also have been influenced by Madison Avenue, which loves a good slogan.
Moving on, here’s the opening to Wolfe’s 1964 piece “The Girl of the Year”:
Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast, old, moldering, cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!
Now tell me that Wolfe could have come up with that sentence if James Joyce — the most original literary stylist of the century? — hadn’t written Ulysses.
Finally, here’s another passage from “The Girl of the Year,” which was a profile of “It Girl” Baby Jane Holzer:
That girl on the aisle, Baby Jane, is a fabulous girl. She comprehends what the Rolling Stones mean. Any columnist in New York could tell them who she is … a celebrity of New York’s new era of Wog Hip … Baby Jane Holzer. Jane Holzer in Vogue, Jane Holzer in Life, Jane Holzer in Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Jane Holzer in the world of High Camp, Jane Holzer at the rock and roll, Jane Holzer is … well, how can you put it into words? Jane Holzer is This Year’s Girl, at least, the New Celebrity, none of your old idea of sexpots, prima donnas, romantic tragediennes, she is the girl who knows … The Stones. …
In the deliberate repetition (the Greeks’ word for it was anaphora), in the rhetorical question, in the laser-eyed view of money and its baleful effects, in the long sentences and the voice dripping with irony, I spy the influence of the master of such set pieces, Charles Dickens. From Our Mutual Friend:
Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.
Wolfe’s long career (his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016) had five overlapping but distinct stages. He started out on the academic track, entering the doctoral program in American Studies at Yale after graduating from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia. His dissertation was turned down; one reader’s report (preserved in the Tom Wolfe Papers at the New York Public Library) observed that Wolfe had “written a piece of polemical journalism, in which he offers too many assertions that are not supported by evidence.” His second try was accepted but by that time he had already taken the hint and become a reporter, finally fetching up at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s. The Trib was known as a writer’s paper, and while there Wolfe made forays beyond totemic somnambulism.
But he didn’t come into his own till the third phase of his career commenced, with a 1963 article for Esquire about the culture of custom cars. He called it “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” At the time there wasn’t a name for what he and other innovators, like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were doing. Wolfe found one in a long-forgotten phrase from 19th-century England: The New Journalism. Like so many of his other coinages, it stuck.
To me the best Wolfe was Wolfe the reporter, on display in several collections published in the ’60s and ’70s (the first had the foreshortened title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the book narrates a cross-country trip of writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters) and in The Right Stuff. Everything came together: his verbal skills, his satirical sensibility, his eye for what he called “status details,” his American Studies set pieces (he was big on applying the theories of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen to the go-go ’60s) and, maybe least recognized, his shoe-leather reporting rigor. Wolfe was able to construct amazing interior monologues from the points of view of his characters because he spent so much time listening to and just watching them.
The accuracy of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” was challenged pretty much from the day it came out in 1965. Wolfe, by contrast, rarely faced the charge of getting anything significant wrong.
(After my essay containing the previous paragraph was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a circulation of some 2.3 million people, I was contacted by two people who demurred. My first correspondent commented, “As a pilot, Yeager was nuthin’ compared to say Bob Hoover, or Barney Olds.” He went on: “But the drawl thing … that is just about right.” The second, more serious, charge was that the members of a group of surfers and beachcombers Wolfe wrote about in “The Pump House Gang,” originally published in 1965, “made up stories about their antics at the Pump House by Windansea Beach in La Jolla, which Wolfe assumed were true.” Here’s an article that gets into some of the whys and wherefores.)
Wolfe’s fourth act was as a polemical essayist, starting with The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about modern art and architecture, respectively. They got attention in their time, and they pricked some art-criticism balloons that were ripe for pricking. But today, over all, they have a bit of the feel of a cranky uncle’s Grand Theory rant.
In his final guise, Wolfe became a novelist, aiming—in the tradition of Balzac, Zola and Dickens—to write narratively propulsive works that peeked into all layers of society. His four works of fiction were all best-sellers, and copies of the thick mass-market paperback editions still abound at any book sale you might happen to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the novels sold 50 times as many copies, collectively, as his books of journalism.
But the public and I differ on this matter. While The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a tour de force—not coincidentally set in New York City, his adoptive home town, whose streets he had pounded for so many years—I wasn’t able to get through the three novels that followed it. The satire sometimes turned to meanness, and Wolfe’s racial perspective was an obstacle. He didn’t depict people of color (a term he surely loathed) as villains so much as irredeemably different and other. This myopia was apparent from the start of his career. His phrase “Wog Hip,” in the Baby Jane Holzer profile, uses a term as offensive in Britain as the n-word is in the U.S. In the same piece, he says Mick Jagger sings “with the voice of a bull Negro.” Describing the Playboy mansion in the introduction to an early collection, he said it had “huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase . . .” One of the blacks. I could go on. In a Facebook comment, the critic Gene Seymour, who is African-American, said, “Even when Wolfe did his own version of ‘bending over backwards’ to conceive African American characters who weren’t (in his view) annoying or over-the-top stereotypes, as in A Man In Full, they came across as stiff and blank.”
More generally, without the tennis net of fact, Wolfe had to rely on his imagination, which struck me as ever less Dickensian as the years went on.
The later Wolfe, it seems to me, became something of a comfortable prisoner of his early innovations. He had a bead on white Christian American men, but that, it became increasingly apparent, left out a lot of the world. Status, on which he was fixated, accounted for some human behavior, but it’s only one of many factors that account for how we think and behave. And his voice! So fresh and right for a certain time and place! But that time ended and, not unlike Hemingway, Wolfe was locked into a style that sometimes seemed like self-parody or—worse—old-fashioned.
But the journalism he wrote in his prime will last. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, someone who has never heard of Chuck Yeager, who only knows about airplanes from books, will read about that “little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right.” And give a chuckle of recognition.