Iannone: What was your dissertation on?
Wolfe: It was on the League of American Writers, which was a Communist front. That was a very hazardous subject for a dissertation at that time. We are talking about the 1950s, when the debate over McCarthyism was still going strong. Most of the major writers in the country belonged to the League from 1935 to 1939. On the surface it was merely one of many anti-Fascist organizations and had nothing to do with the Communist Party directly.
Iannone: Or it said that it didn’t or you believed that it didn’t?
Wolfe: Oh, no, a Communist fraction ran it. The party used the word “fraction,” not “faction.” I did a lot of reporting for that dissertation. I interviewed the principals, Communist and non-Communist, and they told me exactly how it was done. You should read it—or maybe you shouldn’t. Talk about a dry piece of sociology. It dealt with political issues only insofar as they affected how the fraction ran the front. That dissertation is so diligently dull and puritanically objective, it’ll dry up your skin and make your teeth fall out. But I got my Ph.D. My sole interest was in how the Party could turn writers, people who pride themselves on their independence, into what they called “a manipulable mass.” I combed through census figures, biographical yearbooks, newspaper files, and found out that—this was no surprise—most lived in New York and Los Angeles but came from other places all over the country. They were adrift socially. Their whole social life depended on friendships with other people in the same line of work. [emphasis added] Offer them an organization devoted to a cause they believe in, namely anti-Fascism, and it wasn’t all that hard to manipulate them…in behalf of Soviet foreign policy.
See that part jumps out at me, as a former member and attender of Mars Hill. I could write more than I already have about that bolded segment but in this case mere allusion suffices.
Wolfe: MFA programs are subject to the influences of what I call “the charming aristocracy.” That was a term coined by a French poet in the 1880s, Catulle Mendès. He said “All this business of naturalism”—Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, and the rest—“is really finished. Today, no real writer wants to write for the masses. Today, one writes for a charming aristocracy.” Of course, that means an aristocracy of higher taste. To prove you have it, you have to praise things the masses wouldn’t understand or would consider too boring or weird for words: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, the early Faulkner, on up to Beckett, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet.
Wolfe: It becomes removed in a lot of ways. To the charming aristocracy, writing about the muck of everyday life is considered vulgar, which is another way of saying it’s too easy to understand and appeals to ordinary readers. Psychological sensitivities should be what it’s all about. Whereas, I think if you look back at the novelists who are remembered from ages past, practically every one of them wrote about his own time in a thoroughgoing way. Fielding, Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy… And they are so “accessible,” that being the charming aristocratic euphemism for readable. Anna Karenina is clear as a raindrop, but in no time you find yourself out in some very deep water. You feel the agony of an adulterous affair in the nineteenth century, even though today Anna and Vronsky would be nothing more than a Page Six item.
I was tempted to read a book called The Program Era about writing programs and I started into it but couldn't get far enough into it before having to return it to the city library. What Wolfe is getting at that I have noticed when I reflect back on my musical education and what some of my professors told me is that there's a kind of academic canon, stuff you're supposed to like to prove you're educated. Then there's the "repertoire canon" as Richard Taruskin has put it, the music people voluntarily part with their own money to go hear. Wolfe is laying out this class divide in literature but it's the kind of class divide he spent a lot of his career charting.
And then, since it seems in some circles people want to talk about Jordan Peterson, it's almost quaint to consider that Tom Wolfe had some stuff to say about the distinction between work that conferred status verses work that confirmed dignity.
Wolfe: I think that started before feminism. I think that started in the era—I don’t know if you ever read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Then, because of bureaucracy, a word that was in the air constantly, men were filling jobs that made them feel like replaceable parts in a machine, jobs they could hardly even explain to their children. They were feeling emasculated thanks to lack of authority. It was one thing to be the blacksmith who runs the shop, and maybe that’s not considered a job of high status, but it has authority, and you know you’re a man. What are you if you are working for Morgan Stanley? I don’t know. [emphasis added]
Wolfe's description seems plain enough--a lot of men had jobs in bureaucratic contexts where they didn't have a lot of authority and while Wolfe uses that word I think another, better, word for this might be dignity. The town blacksmith didn't have a job with a high social status but anyone and everyone in the town knew what he was good at. It's a useful example of what Wolfe could say when he was "on". Take that statement about how men felt like they were filling jobs that made them feel like cogs in a machine. That part is pretty rote, boilerplate. But the part that comes at the end is about how the men who had these jobs could hardly explain what they did or a living to their own children. When the subject is, "What do you do, dad?" the real hits-you-where-you-live anomie about the job you have is when your child asks you what you do and you're not sure how to explain what it is you do for which you get paid.
Theres a line like that in Whit Stillman's film Metropolitan where the lizard von Slanaker confesses that the thing he most dreads is that someone will ask him "what do you do?" He's just idle rich, that's it. that's all. He doesn't do anything. That's a brief light Stillman's film sheds on this Amerian aristocrat who has money and no sense and a dubious moral compass. So my comparison of Wolfe to Stillman was strategic. It was part of a wind-up for something later, which has arrived.
So, seeing as I've read Tom Wolfe semi-regularly over the last twenty years it is kind of another reason why when I read some guys going on about how fantastic Jordan Peterson is and how he "gets it", what men of this age have to face I still say, so what? It's not like Tom Wolfe didn't broach thee subject of how contemporary office and finance life can seem enervating and emasculating to guys who struggle to think of how to explain their day jobs to their own children.
When Wolfe riffed decades ago about how you could buy all the Windsor and Newton paint you wanted in Akron, Ohio but that "every" artist "had" to go to New York to go get "the loft" he wasn't ripping on artists or art in themselves. He was ripping on the status game with a certain bemused scorn mingled with sympathy. After all, he made himself a notorious journalist it wasn't like he couldn't understand the appeal of having a reputation for being good at something. But pertinent to his own comments about men and meaningful work, he made a point at being recognizably good at something. What Sean Nelson alluded to in his encomium to Tom Wolfe was that writers like Tom Wolfe seemed to have vivid writerly personalities on the page but they did not make themselves more central to what they wrote than what and who they were writing about. I like that about Wolfe and I like that about Didion. It's been a guide to my own approach writing about stuff here, most obviously things to do with mars Hill.
My journalism professor once said in a class lecture that one of the grave misunderstandings about editorial writing is to forget that it must always, finally, still be journalism--nobody cares what you think, people want to know what the facts are. Writers like Wolfe had narrative voices that could be so vivid that inattentive readers could forget that Wolfe was writing about astronauts or art world status seeking and, along the way, had a vivid, memorable literary style. The style at its best highlighted rather than distracted from substance. What so many lesser imitators of Wolfe and Thompson and Didion and others imitated was the style. In that sense Wolfe can be blamed as well as praised for having such a dynamic and frenetic style it came to permeate whole fields of writing that, maybe, it shouldn't have influenced as much as it did.