Tom Wolfe, Sage of Status Anxiety |


Tom Wolfe, Sage of Status Anxiety |

A great magazine writer is a writer who sells magazines. Tom Wolfe sold
magazines. People bought magazines on the newsstand in order to read the
pieces in them written by Tom Wolfe.

Behind every great magazine writer is a great magazine editor, and the
editor behind Wolfe was Clay Felker. Felker and Wolfe began working
together, in 1962, at the New York Herald Tribune, where Felker was the
editor of the paper’s Sunday supplement. That’s where Wolfe wrote his
famous profile of the New Yorker editor William Shawn, and where he
was working when he published his first piece in the style of New
Journalism, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” That
piece appeared in Esquire, because a newspaper strike had shut the
Herald Tribune down. When the Trib folded, soon after, Felker
founded New York magazine, and Wolfe followed him. That is where he
serialized his book on LSD, Ken Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters’ bus
tour, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Felker and Wolfe believed that what New York City is all about, what
every New Yorker is obsessed with, is status, and status, or status
anxiety, is the theme of most of Wolfe’s writing. Wolfe’s own famous
sartorial look, the three-piece white suit, was really a disguise. He
called it “neo-pretentious,” but who was he pretending to be? No one
wears three-piece white suits in New York City. The suit made him
socially unplaceable. It was an escape from the problem of status.

Felker and Wolfe also understood that the people who like to read
magazine stories about status are the people who are insecure about
their status. Flush economic times produce people like this, people who
worry that their money is not buying them standing, and those times in
New York—the nineteen-sixties and the nineteen-eighties—were the best
times for Felker and Wolfe’s kind of journalism.

Wolfe was a satirist. Politically, satire is a conservative genre.
Satire is highbrow populism. (Hence Wolfe’s diatribes against modernist
art and architecture.) Satire is premised on the belief that, no matter
how much liberal enlightenment you introduce into human affairs, people
will still sort themselves into some kind of pecking order, in which all
the little birds are trying to get in with the big bird at the head of
the line.

Satire also associates aspiration with fatuousness and newness with
faddishness, and Wolfe was skilled at making those reductions. He was
predictable and he was mean, but he was also (in the beginning, anyway,
until he assumed the role of a cultural warrior) funny, and he was not
vicious. This may be because he was so maniacally focussed on
surfaces—dress, manners, styles of speech—that he left the person
underneath relatively unscathed. His piece on Leonard Bernstein’s party
for the Black Panthers, “Radical Chic,” is merciless on matters of
style and manners, but it is actually not as cruel or unfair as the
story on the party that ran in the Times.

It was a little odd that, after claiming, in the introduction to his
1973 anthology “The New Journalism,” that reporters were destined to
make novelists obsolete, Wolfe turned to novel writing. The novel for
which he will be remembered is “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” serialized
in Rolling Stone and published in 1987, at the peak of the Reagan
recovery. The title is an homage to the Victorian satirist William
Makepeace Thackeray. Wolfe’s novel is unpleasant, as a book that mocks
liberal pieties is bound to be. But it is not completely successful
satire. Wolfe had a soft spot for his hero, the young investment banker
Sherman McCoy, whose life is upended during an unplanned visit to the
South Bronx. He imagined Sherman could be redeemed; Thackeray would have
had no pity for him.

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. I saved, however, the letters.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here