May 15, 2018


How Tom Wolfe Became ... Tom Wolfe : .Michael Lewis delves deep into the archives of the legendary reporter turned novelist to discover what made the man in the white suit the voice of a journalistic generation. (MICHAEL LEWIS, November 2015, Vanity Fair)

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born on March 2, 1930, and grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a conservative, God-respectful southern editor of an agricultural trade magazine. Home was never something he was looking to get away from; it was never even something he was looking to pretend he was looking to get away from. He was accepted at Princeton but chose to attend Washington and Lee, to remain close to home. Every now and then one of his teachers would note that he had a way with words, and some artistic talent, but artistic ambition, for a conservative southern male in the 1950s or really any other time, was too vague and impractical to indulge. After college, he took the advice of his professor and went to Yale, for a doctorate in American studies--and right up to this point in his life there isn't a trace of institutional rebellion in him. He pitches for the baseball team, pleases his teachers, has an ordinary, not artistic, group of pals, and is devoted to his mother and father.

The moment he leaves the South, something comes over him. Whatever it is, the feeling seems to be heightened by the sight of a blank sheet of paper. For instance, he creates (while he's meant to be writing a Yale dissertation) an elaborate parody of a Beat poet, "Jocko Thor," complete with a small book of poems and a short biography. Jocko Thor has given birth to a "new poetic genre called Bonkism." In his preface he explains: "Most of these poems were composed beneath a Coca-Cola sign in the town of Accident, Maryland, in February of 1956. They are dedicated to my childe bride whom I first met on that very spot." There follows what is essentially a book of short poems written, it seems, purely for Wolfe's own amusement--he never mentions them to anyone.

"Regular Fellows 
We walk the sidewalk brick by brick 
We climb the brass-clapped stairs 
We spit into each other's faces 
And never put on airs."

"The Martyr 
... A Freudian Poem 
In a moment I'll resume my martyrdom 
In a moment, ready to trick myself, 
Goad myself, to vex myself 
With expert taunts, 
I'll exhale and open my eyes. 
Small designs will writhe 
Behind my eyelids 
Like bullwhips."

And so on. For the first time in his life, it appears, Tom Wolfe has been provoked. He has left home and found, on the East Coast, the perpetual revolt of High Culture against God, Country, and Tradition. He happens to have landed in a time and place in which art--like the economy that supports it--is essentially patricidal. It's all about tearing up and replacing what came before. The young Tom Wolfe is intellectually equipped to join some fashionable creative movement and set himself in opposition to God, Country, and Tradition; emotionally, not so much. He doesn't use his new experience of East Coast sophisticates to distance himself from his southern conservative upbringing; instead he uses his upbringing to distance himself from the new experience. He picks for his Ph.D. dissertation topic the Communist influences on American writers, 1928-1942. From their response to it, the Yale professors, who would have approved the topic in advance, had no idea of the spirit in which Wolfe intended to approach it:

"Dear Mr. Wolfe:

I am personally acutely sorry to have to write you this letter but I want to inform you in advance that all of your readers reports have come in, and ... I am sorry to say I anticipate that the thesis will not be recommended for the degree.... The tone was not objective but was consistently slanted to disparage the writers under consideration and to present them in a bad light even when the evidence did not warrant this." [Letter from Yale dean to T.W., May 19, 1956.]

To this comes appended the genuinely shocked reviews of three Yale professors. It's as if they can't quite believe this seemingly sweet-natured and well-mannered southern boy has gone off half cocked and ridiculed some of the biggest names in American literature. The Yale grad student had treated the deeply held political conviction of these great American artists as--well, as a ploy in a game of status seeking. This student seemed to have gone out of his way to turn these serious American intellectuals into figures of fun. "The result is more journalistically tendentious than scholarly.... Wolfe's polemical rhetoric is ... a chief consideration of my decision to fail the dissertation." To top it all off ... he'd taken some license with the details. One outraged reviewer compared Wolfe's text with his cited sources and attached the comparison. Sample Wolfe passage: "At one point 'the Cuban delegation' tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. 'This is where our literature is being built,' exclaimed she, 'on the barricades!' " Huffed the reviewer: "There is no description of her in the source, and the quotations do not appear in the reference."

Which is to say that, as a 26-year-old graduate student, just as a 12-year-old letter writer, Tom Wolfe was already recognizably himself. He'd also found a lens through which he might view, freshly, all human behavior. He'd gone to Yale with the thought he would study his country by reading its literature and history and economics. He wound up discovering sociology--and especially Max Weber's writings about the power of status seeking. The lust for status, it seemed to him, explained why otherwise intelligent American writers lost their minds and competed with one another to see just how devoted to the Communist cause they could be. In a funny way, Yale served him extremely well: it gave him a chance to roam and read and bump into new ideas. But he didn't immediately see that:

"These stupid fucks have turned down namely my dissertation, meaning I will have to stay here about a month longer to delete all the offensive passages and retype the sumitch. They called my brilliant manuscript 'journalistic' and 'reactionary,' which means I must go through with a blue pencil and strike out all the laughs and anti-Red passages and slip in a little liberal merde, so to speak, just to sweeten it. I'll discuss with you how stupid all these stupid fucks are when I see you." [T.W., aged 26, letter to a friend, June 9, 1956.]

He re-writes his thesis. He lards it up with academic jargon and creates a phony emotional distance from his material (he refers to "an American writer E. Hemingway"), and it is accepted. Then he flees Yale as fast as he can. He's entering his late 20s with only the faintest idea of what he might do to earn a living. But he's ambitious, eager to find his place in the world. His father introduces him to business associates. Wolfe writes to the head of a sales institute and sends "excerpts from work I have done on the subject of Communist activity among American writers and other 'intellectuals.' " He applies for jobs in public relations. He writes to American Airlines to inquire about a post. He even considers, briefly, a position teaching economics.

In short, he doesn't have any clear idea of what to do, although he has long liked the notion of being a writer or an artist. In May of 1955 he had written to the dean of Washington and Lee University, "I am thinking very seriously of going into journalism or a related field," but he was slow to pursue it, as he was sure it would disappoint his parents. He writes to one of his father's friends and confesses what he really wants to be is a sportswriter. Finally, he sends letters and curricula vitae to newspapers, offering his services as either a journalist or a graphic artist. (As a child he had enjoyed drawing and still seems at this point in his life as interested in drawing as in writing.) Only one newspaper writes back to express interest: the Springfield Union, in eastern Massachusetts. In 1956, at the age of 26, he takes the job.

[originally posted: 10/18/15]
Posted by at May 15, 2018 9:20 PM