Monday, June 18, 2018

the work and legacy of Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was a great writer of both non-fiction and fiction. His work in both genres was informed by his passion and ability to understand his subjects. Aside from excellent writing and an eye for detail, what made him particularly amazing was the breadth of those subjects-- from 1960s beatniks and astronauts to 1980s yuppies and a turn-of-the-century college campus. 

Wolfe dressed the part of a genteel writer but was able to transcend that look to work with people of amazing diversity. He was at the heart of Rolling Stone in his early years, but routinely skewered liberals. He was a member of the vanguard that became "new journalism", along with others such as Hunter Thompson and George Plimpton. He was the height of "social" conservatism, but a liberal-in-outlook enigma. He was a visionary, perhaps a genius, and certainly a hard worker at the art and science of writing.

If you haven't read Wolfe, I'd start with whatever subject most interests you: astronauts and the space program in the heady days of the 1960s (The Right Stuff); the beatnik liberals and establishment largely-faux-liberal elites from the 1960s (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic / Mau-Mauing); the travails and peer pressures of higher society-- from career to higher education, from lifestyle to peer pressure in the 1980s and beyond (Bonfire of the Vanities, Man in Full, Charlotte Simmons, Kingdom of Speech).

In order of value-added for me, here are the articles I've compiled on Wolfe from his passing...

An excellent insider piece by David Browne in Rolling Stone-- where the magazine was a key part of Wolfe's early work (and Wolfe was a key to the success of RS.

A terrific piece in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis (of Moneyball, The Big Short, etc. fame). Lewis credits Wolfe as a key inspiration-- and is a sorta of poor man's Wolfe, really. Lewis' opening is a hilarious intro to Wolfe's funniest book, Radical Chic/Mau-Mauing

Another excellent piece by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion. Kimball closes by describing Wolfe as "a literary treasure and a sly if undeclared culture warrior on the side of civilization". But Kimball focuses on Wolfe as satirist and argues that he would have found it more difficult to be successful today, since the gap between satire and truth is neither clear nor as-agreed-upon as decades ago.

In World, Lynde Langdon notes how Wolfe trashed the failure of Darwinian evolution to explain language in The Kingdom of Speech-- a book ignored by his eulogists.

Bob Tyrell reminisces about Wolfe and identifies him as our "greatest social critic" and one of our greatest novelists: "His artistic gift was multifaceted. He had the eye of a great reporter, the tenacity of a great researcher, the sense of language of a poet." And then a great last line: "He died while I was on vacation in Italy. I wonder what he meant by that."

Here's video of Wolfe receiving an honor from the Manhattan Institute in 2006, with various luminaries singing his praises and Wolfe giving a short speech.

Among other things, Lawrence Mone gives Wolfe credit for getting New Yorkers to consider the need for social change in New York and Giuliani's reference to Wolfe as "the Charles Dickens of our era". 
 
Here's Monica Showalter on Wolfe's repeated skewering of the cultural Left elites. She asks how he didn't receive a Nobel Prize and sees it as cultural bias by the same elites.

Leonard Madia with a brief review of The Right Stuff...
Steve Sailer focuses on his late-in-life first-efforts at novels-- the difficulties and his weaknesses as a writer of fiction...

Finally, a longer reflection piece by Michael Anton in City Journal: "Reading Wolfe [is]...like a combination of ice cream, champagne, laughing gas, and the most intellectually satisfying brain teaser you’ve ever solved." FWIW, he recommends Radical Chic as the first taste of Wolfe.

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