Once upon a time, there was this era in American life called the Sixties. As the old saying goes, if you remember the Sixties, then you really weren't part of them -- which kind of implies that the only people who remember the Sixties were Baptists, or something like that.
Anyway, lots of things in the Sixties were "cool." Some things were even "groovy," although I thought -- at the time -- that no one who was actually "cool" would have fallen so low as to use the word "groovy."
Whatever the word "cool" meant, journalist Tom Wolfe was "cool," while at the same time being "hot." If you dreamed of being a journalist in the late Sixties and early 1970s, then you knew about Wolfe and you looked at his writing and thought to yourself, "How does he DO that? That is so cool."
Revolutionaries were "cool" and traditionalists were "not cool."
So with that in mind (and as an introduction to the content of this week's "Crossroads" podcast), please read the following quotation from a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Wolfe. The key is to understand why, at one point, he calls himself a "heretic." This is long, but essential:
RS: I believe it was in the New Republic that Mitch Tuchman wrote that the reason you turned against liberals is that you were rejected by the white-shoe crowd at Yale.
WOLFE: Wait a minute! Is that one by Tuchman? Yeah, oh, that was great.
RS: He talked about your doctoral dissertation.
WOLFE: Yeah, he wrote that after The Painted Word. It went further than that. It was called "The Manchurian Candidate," and it said in all seriousness that I had some-how been prepared by the establishment, which he obviously thought existed at Yale, to be this kind of kamikaze like Laurence Harvey -- I think that's who was in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn't it? -- to go out and assassinate liberal culture. I loved that. And he's talking about Yale. When I was at Yale, William Buckley was writing God and Man at Yale, saying that it had been taken over by the Left and that the Left was pouring all this poison into the innocent vessels of the young. Tuchman's saying I turned on liberalism is amusing in itself, because it would indicate that I had either been or pretended to be a liberal and then had turned on my comrades for some devious reason. All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, with a capital C, and journalism and the arts and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else. With exactly the same reverence that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all, which is as it should be. And these days, if you mock the prevailing fashion in the world of the arts or journalism, you're called a conservative. Which is just another term for a heretic. I would much rather be called a conservative in that case than its opposite, I assure you.
Now, the Sixties were all about being cool, and radical, and a heretic -- in relationship to the surrounding orthodoxies of ordinary, humdrum, "conservative," middle-class American culture. In other words, "cool" was a variation on "liberal." It was only impossible to rebel in one direction -- to the left.
But what was Wolfe saying in the long quotation, in terms of how he defined his own chosen rebellion? And did he keep rebelling, as he matured as a writer and as a thinker?
Want to see a clue?
Well, please watch the first few minutes of the "Socrates In the City" event -- focusing on the book "Darwin's Doubt," by science philosopher Stephen C. Meyer. Hang on until host Eric Metaxas realizes that the man in the white suit seated several rows back in the audience is, indeed, The Man In The White Suit.
Eric points Wolfe out, of course. How does a New Yorker like Metaxas ignore the presence of one of the ultimate New Yorkers?
So what was Wolfe doing at this lecture?
Wolfe was rebelling, of course. He was rebelling against the ordinary, hum-drum, received orthodoxies of the mainstream culture surrounding him. He was also doing research for that -- at this moment in time -- appears to have been his final book (even if New York magazine continues to insist that the book does not exist).
I am referring to "The Kingdom of Speech," published in 2016. Here is an excerpt from a New Yorker interview -- "Tom Wolfe Looks Over His Notes" -- about that project:
A letter from John Glenn sits next to a book of notes that Wolfe took while reporting “The Right Stuff.” He leans in to decipher his penmanship but can make out only a few words: “synergistically to attain, uh, astronaut status.” He straightens up and groans. “The things you go through to write a book.”
Wolfe is currently working on his next book, a history of the theory of evolution from the nineteenth century to the present. He calls the big bang “the nuttiest theory I’ve ever heard” and invokes the Spanish Inquisition when discussing how academics have cast out proponents of intelligent design for “not believing in evolution the right way.” Writing has not gotten easier over the years, he says. “It’s always, to me, very hard. And the only thing that sustains me is the fact that I did it before, and there must be some way I can do it this time.”
Nearly all those previous successes are documented in the hundred and ninety boxes; he hardly ever threw anything away. But Wolfe says that he had nothing like this -- the archive -- in mind. He likes looking back at old notes, reliving his reporting and writing, though he shrugs off the suggestion that visitors might learn something about him from the notes, “unless they like some of the sketches.”
Hunter S. Thompson once said of Wolfe that “the people who seem to fascinate him as a writer are so weird they make him nervous.” Wolfe doesn’t so much reject this idea as seem baffled by it. He didn’t enjoy being around the Hells Angels, he admits, but Ken Kesey and his Pranksters, on the other hand, were nothing but interesting. While reporting “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” he says, he saw a man in the throes of a drug-fuelled religious experience sit in the middle of a street in San Francisco in the lotus position and yell, “I’m in the pudding, and I’ve met the manager!” Wolfe throws his arms to the sides and tosses his head back as he recounts the scene, revealing a finely turned pair of cuffs and Tiffany-blue suspenders beneath his suit.
That's where the short interview ends.
Now, am I alone in thinking that the New Yorker scribe sort of rushed past an interesting moment of countercultural rebellion in that interview? Maybe the magazine's editors thought it was best to look away, perhaps in embarrassment, knowing that Wolfe was just not being "cool."
Oh, there is a reason that Bob Dylan's "Jokerman," from the subversive disc "Infidels," is at the top of this post. Anyone want click "comment" and guess why?