Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, leading figure in the New Journalism scene, has died
One of my friends who wrote for a college newspaper years ago remarked that it seemed like every 20-something guy who wrote for a college paper had a fantasy of being the next Hunter S. Thompson. My rejoinder was, "Not me, I'd rather be the next Joan Didion."
Among the leading figures of what has sometimes been called the New Journalism I never got into Thompson. The two writers I did get into were Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, in mostly equal measures. I admired Didion's icy reserve and I admired Wolfe's effervescent and effusive writing style. I have reread The Right Stuff more times than many other books I've read in my life. Some of those paragraphs describing crash sites brought tears to my eyes, they were so vividly written. And having at one point wanted to be in the military and then concluded I'd never fit into such a culture, it was nonetheless fascinating reading Wolfe's account of the dread and Cold War context within which the early space race was inextricably woven. We had to not just be number 1 but to show the whole world we were number 1.
Wolfe's best writing managed to simultaneously skewer and demonstrate, even distill and embody American braggadocio. I remember that his flamboyant description could abruptly stop for a dryly underplayed quip about how a fighter jet jock would rather punch a multi-million dollar hole in the ground than admit that he made a dumb-ass mistake. Or how the early astronauts did not want that much, really, just to be led out on to a platform where tens of thousands of people could seem them and receive as much adulation as the Pope because that, really, was not too much to ask. Wolfe managed to chronicle American people as capable of valor and mind-numbing egotism. Especially in The Right Stuff Wolfe chronicled an America that was valorous and paranoid in equal measure, a story full of a people and a nation able to accomplish great things and simultaneously be obscenely and absurdly proud about it, insisting that basically the entire world know how awesome we are.
Even if I have a certain amount of affection for some avant garde stuff The Painted Word was very, very funny as a send-up of arts criticism. It was a send-up of modernist art, too, but I think Wolfe was more right than the modern art world would admit he was when he declared that art theory ascended up its own fundamental aperture and came down to us as if from the heavens as literature. The punchline seemed obvious enough, that modern art had become so theory laden that you found artists needing to write literary treatises to explain why a Frank Stella canvas was daring and revolutionary when an ordinary person would ask why a framed canvas that apparently had nothing more on it than white paint was even in a museum.
From Bauhaus to Our House, of course, continued the critique of theory with an aim taken at architecture.
Wolfe at his best formulated the satirical jabs that founder just about any and every time attempts at satire show up at a couple of websites I don't feel a need to mention by name.
Still, I gave up on his novels swiftly. What makes for bracing journalism does not necessarily make for bracing fiction. Wolfe was a fantastic writer when his ebullient and detailed style described real flesh and blood people. He was masterful at observing everything about the surface. He was a bit less convincing in a more Dostoevskian mode in which the idea was to convey the thought lives and emotional arcs of imagined characters. Not that I didn't read Bonfire of the Vanities. I remember it being ... okay.
In a way Wolfe's prose reminds me of Whit Stillman, in the sense that Wolfe's subject could be construed as a bright and not altogether flattering light on the American aristocracy that imagined it was more respectable and ethical than it really was. He wasn't exactly anti-American and as others have noted, Wolfe's prose doesn't exactly seethe with scarcely concealed contempt the way Mencken's does. The likes of Wolfe and Stillman can be thought of as having played a role in chronicling a kind of WASP meltdown where a semi-formal American aristocratic class begins to lose its prestige and role and isn't quite sure what to do about that, and along the way is full of people who say and do kind of stupid things.
But I can't say I think a whole lot about his novels, Yeah, I read Bonfire and only dimly remember it. His journalism is justifiably what the bulk of his reputation is built on.
he was also a formative influence for me in my twenties. I wanted to write way more like Wolfe and Didion than I wanted to write like Thompson and as has been noted in obituaries and commentaries thereon, Wolfe had an identifiable style but he did not make himself a character in the same way Thompson did. If there's a common mistake among fans of New Journalism it is forgetting that in the end if you're a journalist people want to know what the news is. They want to find out what the facts about the world are. There can be a type of narcissism and solipsism that can breed in New Jouralism that I feel is a net negative influence on features writing over the last thirty years. I didn't detect this so much in Wolfe as I'd find it in post New Journalism exponents of the style. I don't feel like naming names there because it'd be pointless. There are too many people who write articles and reviews who find it almost impossible to separate themselves from the topic of review. It's great to love or hate stuff and articulate that in a personal way ... but there's a kind of personal is the political to arts commentary and it seems to span the spectrum.
In the sense that Wolfe and other New Journalists introduced techniques that broke the "fourth wall" of journalistic distancing through the use of fictional narrative techniques that is something that we could consider bad as well as good. Compared to a kind of faux-omniscient Establishment approach to journalism that got lured in byMcCarthy era paranoia maybe the New Journalism needed to happen to remind Americans that our journalists and chroniclers of American life and culture are also mortals with feet of clay and points of view. Now that that whole approach from the New Journalism legacy has been assimilated thoroughly and is staring us down from every blog on the internet, including this one, now that I think about it, it has seemed that a direction to go is in a different direction from the one Wolfe took. It's why I ultimately chose to emulate Didion rather than Wolfe.
But I can't deny how formative and significant Wolfe's whole approach was. His best work shows a journalist who could put you in the middle of an entire culture and its rules and aspirations, its ambitions and double standards, and see how people might navigate those. He managed to demonstrate how inextricable heroism and egotism can be in the American psyche. Sometimes he did that via demonstration and sometimes he did it by way of chronicle.
While I suppose it might be said that Wolfe was a stylist who was so brilliant as a stylist he didn't turn to ideas of substance there's something Manfred Bukofzer wrote about the Baroque era that comes to mind, that the early Baroque era was a revolution in style before there were any revolutions in forms. In the arts a change of style does not always lead to a consolidation of new forms. From Palestrina to Sweelinck some major changes happened. Too many people think of Bach as the summation of the Baroque era. There were many, many average, good and great composers from that century and a half of musical change. By extension, if Wolfe's entire literary output an be thought of as "just" style that is not insignificant. Sometimes styles have to change before new forms can be developed that make full use of those styles. The last century and a half has been very tumultuous. It's how it's tended to be. I write all this as a Haydn fan--somebody had to consolidate what's known as the high Classic style before Mozart and Beethoven could be seen as raising it to "the next level". Wolfe may never be the Mozart of journalism in American letters but he might be its haydn, a jovial joker with eloquence and wit who might, depending on who you asked, seem a bit too shallow for "real" thought. That's as may be, but on the day of his passing I am taking some time to remember how much I have enjoyed his journalism over the years.