Tom Wolfe

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

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.

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Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

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Tom Wolfe, foe of pompous elites, targets Darwinian evolution, so where are the religious responses?

Tom Wolfe, foe of pompous elites, targets Darwinian evolution, so where are the religious responses?

Perpetually white-suited Tom Wolfe is a both a novelist and “new journalism” pioneer who applies fictional techniques to non-fiction with trademark florid verbiage. He gladly punctures elitist pomposity, as in the famed “Radical Chic” satire from long-ago 1970 or later take-downs of modern art and architecture.

At age 85, he’s again rousing the rabble with “The Kingdom of Speech” (Little, Brown). The Religion Guy confesses he has not yet read the book so the following relies on media coverage. There’ve been vigorous responses over recent weeks but, oddly,  little from religious commentators.

Whatever the odds that “natural selection” of advantageous physical mutations produced countless new species across eons of time, religious thinkers often contend that Charles Darwin’s evolution theory cannot explain the origins of humanity’s self-consciousness, love, moral sense, creativity, artistry, or even Darwin’s own mind. So, does the origin of species ultimately and logically require a  Creator?  Are humans unique divine creations or mere mammals with special tricks, “trousered apes,” in Duncan Williams’ memorable phrase? Obviously, hot theological stuff.

Wolfe, a professed atheist, takes aim at Darwinism, also a target of many religious conservatives, because it fails to explain the origin of human language. One Wolfe hero is linguistics professor Daniel Everett, who theorized about the origin of language years ago as a Bible translator in the Amazon jungles. The book also champions the oft-forgotten Alfred Russel Wallace, who simultaneously came up with the natural selection concept while the upper-crust Darwin won the celebrity sweepstakes.

Wallace later broke with Darwin, figuring that evolution explains much, but not human attributes like language, which implies some higher power beyond  nature. 

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Mau-mauing The Times of London

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated the Church of England was  moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools, The Times of London reported last week.

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