Dandyish southern gent

Chronicler of consumer culture

Tom Wolfe, March 2 1930 - May 14 2018

Tom Wolfe’s trademark was his white suits - no profile of him failed to mention them. He said he wore them to disarm people, to appear like “a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know”. Wolfe was interested in getting to know the new ‘scenes’ of the 1960s and 70s, and writing attention-grabbing reportage about them. These were little worlds from youth groups to stockbrokers, but in amongst the exclamation marks and italics that decorated his style, this reader often got a flash of a dandyish southern gent - cane and hat too - up from the plantation to inspect the wild metropolitan north.

Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia - the capital of the Confederacy during the US civil war. He played baseball for an Episcopal all-boys school in Richmond, and then at Washington and Lee University. He also became sports editor of the college paper, as well as founding a literary magazine. He majored in English and came under the influence of professor Marshall Fishwick, who emphasised an anthropological approach to art - he encouraged students to look at the whole of a culture, including those aspects considered profane and degraded.

When he did not get very far in baseball or as a cartoonist, Wolfe became a reporter in 1956 for a local newspaper. He went on to write features and profiles for Sunday magazines in New York. This was the time - late 50s-early 60s - when rock ’n’ roll and much of movies and TV were aimed at the better-off teen and young professionals. In the post-1945 economic boom, leisure markets were expanding, but the uptight paranoid politics of the cold war, post-Korea, had also led to a more rebellious attitude - beatnik, satirical comedy and folk music - though these were more cultural than political.

In 1962, during a New York newspaper strike Wolfe proposed to the magazine Esquire that he do a more in-depth article on hot-rod, custom-car culture. Trying to penetrate the mysteries of ‘customising’ - making over cars so they could be driven impractically fast - Wolfe despaired of ever putting what he had found into words. He wrote a long letter to his editor, the text unfurling like On the road by Jack Kerouac, which mixed desperation and evocation of the tarmac-screeching intensity. The editor promptly took the “Dear …” off the beginning and published the piece, with frantic punctuation and all.

Wolfe had found his urgent style and his subject - the new leisure, the lifestyles, swingers, groovers and obsessives, along with celebrities like Hugh Hefner, the recluse Playboy publisher - all topics that novelists had ignored and journalists had generalised about. He dived into various milieus, doing profiles, sometimes of the famous like Natalie Wood, or topless dancer Carol Doda, only famous for her cosmetic surgery: it was all about how people pleased themselves and others. He interviewed and read up on research like the usual press pack, but he also hung out with his subjects over extended periods, waiting for some moment to happen that would be revealing and startling.

Later in his introduction to The new journalism (1973), he explained the methods he had adopted from fiction to make his writing more exciting and immediate - multi-viewpoint narration, dialogue and the observation of the little style differences between people - slang, clothes, décor, which he argued made for “realism”. He called his approach “saturation reporting”. His resulting articles would then be harvested from magazines to fill collections with teasing titles like The kandy-kolored tangerine flake streamline baby (1965) and Mauve gloves and madman, clutter and vine (1976). His interest in ‘the new social scene’ extended to mentioning theories about how humans worked. These were mainly physiological, locating answers in the nervous system and echoing fashionable ideas at the time about defending territory like animals.

He was fascinated by status, especially, amongst the socially mobile - not only teenagers with a bit more cash, but modern art collectors like Bob Scull, a New York taxi-cab magnate. Wolfe told of Scull walking into a Savile Row tailor’s in London and ordering a sports jacket to be made in a pink material - unheard of - and getting it (“Bob and Spike”). Scull’s motto, according to Wolfe, was “Enjoy!”

No politics, thanks

Wolfe was indeed often ironic - but mainly about subcultures, not the powerful. He did not go near grand politics, big corporations or even universities. Even his rising socialites were New Money like Lenny Bernstein, the composer of West Side story and presenter of music on TV. In Radical chic (1970) Wolfe attended a party by Bernstein in his plush city apartment, where members of the Black Panther Party did a bit of fundraising. But was this soirée only a ‘status symbol’ to impress the oiks, or proof that the composer still considered himself liberal and ‘anti-Nixon’, even if rich? Wolfe’s style meant he presumed what people were thinking rather than what they would say in answer to a direct question. He did not risk rebuff by debate.

Later he started to identify with military subjects, honouring American fighters, especially pilots. In ‘The truest sport: jousting with Sam and Charlie’, he took the viewpoint of flyers who were bombing North Vietnam and dodging anti-aircraft fire. What frustrated them, Wolfe proposed, was having to make sure they did not give “the enemy” propaganda victories by hitting schools and churches and harbours. He mocked those reporters on the ground who saw things from a different angle and posed them as contributors to the “collapse of willpower taking place back in the United States”.

Not much multi-viewpoint there. In fact Wolfe went on the write a book - The right stuff (1979) - about the pilots who staffed the Apollo space programme. They “pushed the envelope” in their jets while training, taking risks with speed. ‘Pushing the envelope’ later became a phrase adopted generally by those promoting innovations in entertainment and consumer products.

Unlike Thackeray he dealt with no milords or mistresses, nor like Dickens, with industrialists or urchins. Unlike his hero, Emile Zola, he did not treat any coal miners or prostitutes.

He is famous for the expression, the ‘me decade’, and in the essay that is the source of the phrase he muses on a change greater than hot-rod cultures or sex guides. In ‘The me decade and the third great awakening’, Wolfe mentions what he calls the “greatest age of individualism in American history” and likens it to a religious revival. Only this time the search was for personal development. The money awash in the years of the boom had led in the 70s to the rise of groups and ‘institutes’ not devoted to cars and breast implants, but self-exploration. Status was acquired not just with things (though they helped), but by becoming new and better selves, either in new beliefs, a fitter body or a happier psychology.

This, according to Wolfe, broke with a very ancient idea that you are part of the “stream” of history, grateful to your ancestors, concerned with your descendants, preserving traditions of belief and practice. Now you were forced to improvise, find your own path, along with everyone else - whether it be free love or feminism, primal scream or Buddhism. Each individual is threatened with being enclosed, he wrote, quoting de Tocqueville, “in the solitude of their own heart”. This he partly applauded as a revolt by the affluent masses against plans projected on them by ‘new dealers’, Stalinists and other ‘engineers of the soul’ who seemed to think there was some solution in collective living. Points against the cultural elite he reiterated in his meditations on modern art and architecture in The painted word and From Bauhaus to our house.

He was at his funniest in The painted word (1975), prodding at art critics and artists in New York, retelling the scene’s progress from Pollock’s spacey canvases to smooth minimalism as an obsession with getting away from perspective painting and achieving the ultimate reduction to the flat canvas and beyond - “Flat, flatter, flattest”.

But, though he seemed to appreciate greatly how the hotdoggers and householders had taken the money and built their own small worlds, there was some ambivalence in his delight. Wolfe enjoyed the parade, identified with the individualists, but he could not hide his contempt for liberals funding the Black Panthers, others devoting themselves to sexual ‘swinging’ or individuals competing like mad to be relevant and egalitarian. He rarely covered the new social movements (like feminism) directly - the ones who melded cultural style and politics (after all, what is the archetypal bra-burning?) - or more currently the battle of ideas over the wealth gap. He would splendidly mark the difference between a defensive benefit official, a ‘flak catcher’ and a militant claimant, but not between a liberal feminist and a radical one, nor a New Democrat like Clinton and a Lenny Bernstein. He was more interested in architecture than economics. In the end, like Zola, his position was that most people are just animals really.

By the 90s he was suffering from writer’s block and entered into a partnership to serialise a novel in the magazine Rolling Stone in order to have a deadline.This became his most famous work - The bonfire of the vanities (1987), where he became the Thackeray, or at least the Waugh, of the finance boom, calling his protagonist, a New York bond trader, one of the “masters of the universe”. After that, Wolfe devoted himself to novel writing. Then in his last book, The kingdom of speech (2016), he took on Darwinism and Noam Chomsky.

His position was satirical rather than dialectical, he recorded change, but asserted biological stereotypes. However, as the boom has declined, there is not much room for chroniclers of the ‘happiness explosion’ that once was. The stakes are higher, the issues more fundamental. Do we need to be told what T-shirt the bosses of Google or Facebook are wearing or how many people wore Gucci and how many Prada at the royal wedding? Now the battle of ideas is not about new things or even attitudes, but about how the world can be organised, so that we all live better.

Tom Wolfe was and will be praised for his cheek, his research, his wit and for styles and the telling detail. He was an influential phrase-maker, but it may take a bit more time before future digital commentators can decide whether he was much more than the recorder of a particular period of consumer capitalism.

Mike Belbin