Tom Wolfe is dead. He lived long enough to be a celebrated icon, emulated across the political spectrum. Wolfe affected the old-fashioned American pose of a chronicler, an H.L. Mencken or Horace Greeley, yet Mencken was a sincere Nietzchean misanthropist while Greeley, a friend of Marx, was a sincere liberal. Wolfe, on the other hand, was a reactionary poseur who dressed up in slave-owner’s garb nearly every day. While readable in the way one chortles at an Alex Jones video, Wolfe contributed more to the American intelligentsia’s self-mystification than just about any other writer of the last hundred years. By combining a first person “subjective” style replete with device-mongering (onomatopoeia, punch-down sarcasm, individualist rebellion against the tyranny of grammar, Trump-like derisive nicknames), he turned American journalism away from the ‘chronicling’ style of the great journals and magazines of the 30s-50s period, towards a surface level expressionism. Mysteriously reporting from Cuba during the revolutionary years after writing his doctoral dissertation denouncing left-wing American writers, Wolfe delighted in redbaiting, focusing particular ire on C. Wright Mills, while poking fun at Castro and Khrushchev. The fun he poked was not based on some type of principled opposition to what passed for “really existing socialism”. It was usually predicated, in his early reports in the Washington Post, on how they were funny looking, or Khrushchev being fat and egotistical. A vulgarian, Wolfe delighted in provincial dismissals of everything from pop art to Italian cinema, always predictably in place to make a joke about sex workers, Jews or black people.
Indeed, the very style, the “originality” of Wolfe as a writer, is structurally reactionary. So much so that those who attempt to emulate his style will, consciously or not, allow themselves to make use of tropes that have a near iron-clad path dependency towards reaction. Take the penchant for ‘punching down’ with nicknames and nonsense, like Dennis Miller or Milo Yianopolous, the ‘shadowing’ journalism that constructed narrative out of what can only be described as surveilling his subject matter, the replacement of contextual analysis with sarcasm, wordplay and even bad grammar. All these are now what is thought of as Wolfe’s contribution to something called "the new journalism". The casual smiling racism of actually being feted for writing an essay about African American social movements that refers to their mobilization as “Mau-Mauing”. That’s Tom Wolfe thought.
Perhaps the most important and terrible legacy of Wolfe’s prose style is rooted in his obsession with status, not in a critical or Veblenite sense, but in the sense of his lifelong belief that in the proverbial last instance, all human behaviour could be rooted in a desire for status. Even when one completely attempts to abandon the gaudy flourishes of Wolfean “new journalism” (his own huckster move in which he attached himself to genuinely innovative, original, and progressive writers like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson), one is in Tom Wolfe territory when one attempts to get at the truth of a given phenomenon by trying to find something for your reader to laugh at.
Thus, Wolfe is able to turn trivialities of consumptive habit or design, aesthetic style or political commitment, and reduce it all to seeking out status. It is this trope, the surveillance of subject matters to “cut them down” in the Vanity Fair/New York magazine style, that even at its best, deliberately does not look beneath the surface as the surface “says it all”. Thus everyone can laugh at Courtney Love or Lindsay Lohan, marvel at Obama’s love for Jay Z and The Wire, get sucked into a “take down” article like this one… Yet surfaces are misleading and even how they are situated and seen is dependent on the conscious political choices of a given writer. Thus, even a writer of the Left who makes use of Wolfean tropes will miss the forest for the trees, as Wolfe’s entire technique denies the existence of the forest. Or perhaps, the acknowledgement of the forest – or the totality – is something that Wolfe has spent his career opposing, even picking fights late in life with Noam Chomsky, John Irving and others, and usually making an ass of himself. Yet his trolling of left luminaries, going back to the beginning of his career prefigures the cult of Jordan Peterson, who may well be called a Wolfean public figure.
Yet for Wolfe, surface – or status – was all important, and he constructed his own public persona as a man with nothing beyond it. With his white suit and tails, Wolfe may have appeared to his many liberal and even Leftist admirers as somewhat of an ironic bon-vivant. Perish the thought. Wolfe’s cane-sporting get up was not high camp, it was his reactionary self-expression as a self-consciously Southern-planter aristocratic writer and enemy of socialist politics, the white suit itself being an emblem of his childhood in Richmond, Virginia. As opposed to the irony of a twee mustache or so-called normcore, Wolfe’s white suit and celebratory aw-shucks-gee-whiz manner is his performative aristocratic gaze at a wide manner of countercultural and political figures. With the exception of astronauts and racecar drivers, who are arguably turned into ubermenschen, acid-eaters and Black Panthers, Leonard Bernstien and Andy Warhol, art collectors and popular front novelists, all were looked down upon by the wry confederate know-it-all. While it may seem a triviality, he never “drank the kool-aid”, that is to say, took the LSD that he wrote about in his (highly fictionalized) Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Viscerally hated by its subjects, especially Jerry Garcia, he was seen by those he chronicled in that book as a huckster who climbed his way into a very eclectic social milieu in the Bay Area, only to cash-in and decontextualize and depoliticize a key moment in American cultural history. Instead of seriously engaging with why a drug that had been mainly only used by intelligence services in “mind control” experiments and was suddenly being used within a broadly left-wing/romantic-anarchist and Bohemian/literary milieu attempting to develop a Popular Avant-Garde, Wolfe just invited his reader to laugh along, to say “only in America”, spirit-of-freedom, something something.
The aww-shucks style was what marked Wolfe as a prime candidate as a mover and a shaker in the long sixties, an exemplar of what he decided to call “the new journalism”, explicitly marking himself off from traditions that he (rightfully) saw as left of centre (as we will see, Wolfe spent a lifetime fighting the Left). Instead of people’s journalism, instead of engagement that one could actually find before the Wolfean deviation in American prose, that from the likes of Capote, Vidal, Halberstram and the like, Wolfe painted mean-spirited miniatures. In a move that could be called inverse-Brechtian, instead of fictionalizing examplars of non-fiction everyday life, he fetishized real complex and contradictory human beings into one-dimensionality. Instead of drawing the reader in with analysis and style, he dazzled them with brilliance and baffled them with bullshit, like the fake Johnnie Cochran character on South Park riffing about Chewbacca until jury members’ brains explode in Michael Bay style.
The egomaniacal Wolfe, a self-proclaimed southern gentleman first showed itself in his doctoral dissertation on the Popular Front affiliated League of American Writers. He slammed them for their left politics. Yet he didn’t really touch on politics. Reportedly, he claimed that their politics was all a show, a way to travel in hifalutin circles – the types of circles he himself wanted to travel in, but certainly not with these fellow travelers. His committee rejected his dissertation, making the point that “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." He eventually felt himself, a vulgarian with a passing knowledge of Weber and Parsons, to be above academia, submitted the dissertation in more “academic” prose and likely spent the rest of his life thinking he was better than any and all academics, even the Cold Warrior American Studies program at Yale. This bears emphasis, given his later output – he was at a pro-NATO, pro-Cold War institution, in a discipline that was newly invented, more or less in the “Cultural Cold War” years to highlight American exceptionalism in the world of aesthetics, and he was still too much of a troglodyte. It would be one thing to redbait these writers, but Wolfe was had to impugn their integrity, call them names and attempt to render them ridiculous, a prefiguration of his silly and embarrassing denunciations of the likes of Noam Chomsky, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow and so on.
Leaving academia to become a reporter, Wolfe, according to his own acolytes, implanted himself in journalism to develop his “style”. At best, his work from the sixties, on automobile design or pop art, are dated and don’t age well, at worst, they are snooty and paternalistic sneers at mass culture. Unlike, for example, Theodor Adorno or Dwight MacDonald who while critical of cultural industries, displayed compassion, at least to a certain degree, Wolfe empties his subjects of their own subjectivity, he is the subject. And thus we have The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The historic significance of the Acid Tests and their role in constituting the American counterculture is something I’ve written about elsewhere, but suffice to say, Wolfe didn’t get it. To use a Prankster expression, he was not on the bus. He cannot fathom a decentralized cultural milieu, so he paints Ken Kesey, who was nothing more than a charismatic organizer, as opposed to a “leader” as such, as some type of cult leader and vastly overstates the “spiritual” or “new age” style thought around the use of LSD. In turn, he buries the context of the development of the Bay Area counterculture, the connections wit the Left and the trade unions (most of the Acid Tests were held at Longshoreman union halls). He takes moments at which stoned, Kesey or Babb or Garcia say something that could be interpreted as anti-Left and focuses upon them. It seems deliberately structured to be an an ideological project to sever the organic link in the American imaginary between the new antiwar movement and the the new hippy movement – indeed, this is precisely how the New York Times reviewed the book. For the antiwar movement, there was the (classic, if limited) The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, for the hippies, there was Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And thus there could not be an encounter between the two, the short-haired and stern looking Chomsky, Mailer and Dwight MacDonald on the cover of Armies, a stark contrast to the dayglo longhairs.
It is with his twin essays of 1970 that Wolfe most reveals himself to be not just a reactionary but someone who at the very least had a dalliance with white supremacy, unsurprising from an admitted Southern Gentleman. In Radical Chic he constructs a narrative out of being able to finagle himself into various parties and fundraisers held by well off New York liberals, likely former denizens of the Popular Front, notably Leonard Bernstien, who Wolfe thinks it is very funny that he uses the word “dig”, for the Black Panther Party. An encounter between the New York intelligentsia, composers, art collectors, playwrights and so on, largely Jewish, and with more than a few queer folks, and the black Left is reduced to “chic” as, we have seen, everyone is in it for status. The Black Panthers are con artists, they aren’t really looking for liberation, and the assembled intelligentsia feels an erotic “chic” sensation at their presence in their townhouses and penthouse suites. Wolfe was able to gather all of the material for this essay that takes up half a book of punching down merely out of attending parties.
Even more disturbing, and less talked-about is Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers in which he really wears his confederate white suit to a cross-burning T. His material could constitute a study of social movement pressure politics or the contradictions of the welfare state, given that it is about black and Samoan activists pushing against the limitations of the welfare state and attempting to leverage community pressure for redistributive anti-poverty programs. Instead, it is both a right wing critique of any and all social welfare provisioning alongside a frankly racist depiction of activists, even in its title, taken from Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. He seems sympathetic to those staffing the bureaucracies who are shown as being bullied or “mau maued” by activists, many of whom he doesn’t even name, instead referring to them as “Daishiki Chief” or other such derisive names. He continuously repeats a refrain, sometimes for entire paragraphs, of listing off the litany of junk food eaten by the poor and working class communities of colour that he is punching down at, as if to wryly, and even in “edgy” prose, prefigure Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” line.
All things told, in his essays about the sixties, everything is reduced to caricature or cult. Likewise his portrayal of the art world in the seventies. In the eighties, he wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel that was actually a touch more readable than his journalism, no doubt thanks to the editing of Jann Wenner. Perhaps it is readable because of his portrayal of Peter Fallow, the journalist modelled upon a genuine status seeker, albeit one who at the time had solid politics, Christopher Hitchens as a status-seeking social climber is on the mark, and he seems to exhibit prosaic contempt for the murderers of a young black man. Yet the story hinges upon a hapless Jewish district Attorney and a stalwart black preacher, modelled on Al Sharpton being hindrances to the delivery of justice. And there is always some doubt as to whether the young black man who is killed was threatening Sherman McCoy, both in the book and the film adaptation.
Wolfe spent the rest of his career writing “big novels” every few years and the odd right wing polemic for Rolling Stone where he was kept on board. Like Heidegger, he was an acceptable reactionary for this crowd to have in their midst, as the degeneracy set in. He supported George W. Bush, attacked Charles Darwin(!!) and Noam Chomsky, giving implicit intellectual cover to intelligent design. It is quite fortunate that his final book and the Harpers essay out of which it sprang was widely panned for being scientifically illiterate, basically a polemic against Noam Chomsky because, well, Wolfe doesn’t like him. He always disliked Chomsky. Just like he disliked his doctoral committee. He really seemed to dislike intellectuals, especially when they were Jewish or black. He really hated the Left, they were just status seekers. He loved his writing. He loved his white suit. And he probably believed his own bullshit.
Tom Wolfe will not be missed, and it will take years to undo his legacy.
1. Hunter S. Thompson also used a ‘first person’ style and was also published in Rolling Stone and, thus, is often associated with Wolfe in narratives of the period. But Thompson was genuinely original – his book on biker gangs had the first person device used as part of his morality play – he had to be in the story as the Hells Angels beat the shit out of him. In turn, his “Fear and Loathing” books and later featuring himself and his addled persona in his columns all were subjective in the sense of being written in the first person. Yet this is where the similarities end. Thompson was a progressive, someone on the McGovern wing of the Democratic party who gradually moved Left, calling for systemic change if not revolution towards the end of his life. More to the point, his persona was explicitly meant to evoke the chaos of the Nixon years and onward, the absolute opposite of mystification.
Special thanks to Megan Kinch for her comments on a draft for this article.
Jordy Cummings has a PhD from York University. He is a writer, cultural critic and labor activist living in Toronto. He used to want to be Tom Wolfe when he grew up, but came to his senses at the age of 14.