5 views of Tom Wolfe: American Writer surveys the political/literary territory of the book review & obituary

The death of Mr. Wolfe has produced a great deal of praise for this literary capon in a white suit: a Dandy as imagined by Walt Disney:

Here is an excerpt from Janan Ganesh’s obituary , at The Financial Times, of Tom Wolfe that makes Wolfe look like a harbinger of the Trump Populism, although he clarifies/corrects any assumption the reader might have made, this in the latter part of his essay.

He exposed the credulity of the rich for artistic fads. He made fun of their recreational left-wingery, or, in that unimproveable phrase, their “radical chic”. Among the vanities that went into his bonfire was the idea of America as classless. At the risk of tainting him with politics, there was something Trumpian about his ability to define himself against Manhattan’s grandest burghers while living among them.

The mutation of these thoughts into a brute populism in western democracies cannot be pinned on Wolfe, who was civility incarnate. Like a good reporter, he wrote what he saw and left it to the world to interpret. What he saw were people who had wealth, refinement and so much of the wrong stuff.


Matt Purple at The American Conservative makes Mr. Ganesh’s essay look like faint praise, except for this bit of literary candor, tinctured by fulsome praise of a literary giant.

That lens may have proven distorted in New York, but position it over present-day America and it suddenly seems less smudged. Wolfe’s understanding of humanity was primarily tribal: people take on the customs and prejudices of the groups they belong to and clash with those they don’t. Hence why his characters are often accused of being universals rather than particulars. Hence, too, why his final (and weakest) novel, Back to Blood, was set in Miami and covered the tensions engendered by mass immigration. Contra Hitchens, what could be more prescient than that? In Back to Blood, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami tells the African-American police chief: “I mean we can’t mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they’re on the same level plane.” Is this our destiny, an America of subgroups that never quite melt into the pot? Are we doomed for more conflagration a la Charlottesville? Or is the liberal multicultural dream still possible, even desirable? That we’re even asking these questions suggests Wolfe has been vindicated more than his critics allow.

Ultimately, the only way we’ll get the answers is if we trouble to embark into this America of ours, sneakers laced, notebook paper crinkling in the breeze, lush phrases turning in our minds, determined to confront the weirdness in our backyard and chronicle it in a way that is—saints preserve us!—fun to read. Tom Wolfe’s work is ours now. May he rest in peace.

For another telling bit of information about Mr. Wolfe’s testiness, in regard to criticism of his work, from a writer who had actual contact with the Great Man, Louis Menand ,this short essay published by The New Yorker offers insight. The concluding paragraphs of Mr. Menand’s essay offer some clues as to who that Great Man was.

My brief Tom Wolfe moment—apart from coming across him one day waiting to cross Park Avenue; he was not an easy figure to miss—had to do with a piece I wrote on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had quoted Wolfe, along with other critics of the design, as calling it “a monument to Jane Fonda.” In due course, I received a fantastically high-handed letter from Wolfe, protesting that he had not been judging the design; he had only been repeating what someone else had said. This seemed to me beyond absurd. Of course Wolfe hated Lin’s memorial. Why would he pretend that that was not his view? I wrote him back to explain that he had, in fact, written those words as his own, and to ask why he was troubling to insist otherwise.

I received a second letter from Wolfe, this one even more fantastically high-handed, in which he deftly filleted every sentence in my letter to him and ended by putting it to me that my reportorial talents were beneath notice. No doubt they were, or are. Still, he had clearly devoted a lot of time to the composition of two longish letters concerning less than a single sentence in my piece. I concluded that he must be suffering from writer’s block on whatever novel he was working on, and did him the kindness of declining to continue the correspondence. However, I saved the letters.


Christopher Hitchens’ 1983 essay titled ‘A Wolfe in Chic Clothing’ , as recently re-published at Mother Jones site, is, to say the least, Mr. Hitchens at his most biting and insightful on this writer:


Here is Hitchens reviewing ‘A Man in Full’ in the London Review of Books of January 7,1999 (Behind a paywall). He first provides a devastating review of Bonfire of the Vanities and a view of New York of the period and ‘Bonfire’ as the literary paradigm that Wolfe used for his other novels.

Like every writer before him who has ever scored a triumph … Fallow was willing to give no credit to luck. Would he have any trouble repeating his triumph in a city he knew nothing about, in a country he looked upon as a stupendous joke? Well … why should he? His genius had only begun to flower. This was only journalism, after all, a cup of tea on the way to his eventual triumph as a novelist.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Take it for all in all, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a blockbuster. It rewrote the whole career description of commercial-cum-literary success. And it got people where they lived, if they lived on or near Park Avenue. These days, New York City is becoming a ramified variant of St Louis, Missouri or Des Moines, Iowa: a great big ‘thank you for not smoking’ town, with ‘buckle up’ messages played on automatic tapes in the yellow cabs, and the cheery, kitsch sovereignty of Walt Disney exerted over what was once Times Square and 42nd Street. The golden arches of McDonald’s are to be seen winking near the Bowery, and cops look out for jay-walkers as if patrolling some dire Jim Carrey utopia. The mayor of the city, and the governor of the state, are two mirthless white ethnic conservatives named Giuliani and Pataki. They have restored capital punishment, and encouraged franchising of all sorts while discouraging loitering and littering. Not long ago, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was grabbed outside a funky nightclub, roughed up in the police van, hurled into a cell at the station-house and held down while a guardian of the peace forced a rupturing lavatory plunger all the way up his ass. The foul object was then violently withdrawn, only to be shoved into his mouth (breaking many teeth) and down his throat. This was a hot case, for about ten days.

There has probably never been a less prescient journo-novel than The Bonfire of The Vanities, which subliminally heralded a New York that was given over to wild and feral African politics at one end (reading from north to south of Manhattan Island) and dubious market strategies at the other. The market strategies continue. Indeed, Wall Street has almost deposed the opinion polls as the index of national well-being. The ethnic spoils system, meanwhile, is manipulated by the same class as ever. If either of these elements ever undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, it won’t be Tom Wolfe who sounds the alarm.

Yet, even as he tries to move to another city, and to make the leap from former journalist to actual novelist, Wolfe keeps The Bonfire of the Vanities constantly at hand. It worked once. Why should it not work again?


The reader can look to Edward Copeland’s ‘The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform’ as a paradigmatic description of Status Anxiety in a British context. Where addresses mattered, where one went to eat,  for relaxation and the promenading of one’s self before the public gaze.  Not to mention one’s politics: Historical refraction aides in seeing Mr. Wolfe’s journo-novel’s as politics/morality by another means, in sum, Conservative Melodrama, in which brevity of exposition played not part: A Man in Full was almost as unwieldy as my copy of War and Peace.

Take note that Mr. Wolfe moved to New York city, with all the other Social Climbers, and shared in the Status Anxiety that he chronicles. Wolfe chose to make himself the center of attention, by his manner of dress. He was a Dixiecrat in the guise of a Dandy, as the in-order-too of establishing his pseudo-independence from the thrall of the Social Climber’s  existential malady of Status Anxiety.

American Writer





About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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