Thomas Wolfe is considered to be one of the foremost analysts of America’s social and cultural milieu, from the 1960s until the present day. His clear, subtle, and amused understanding is in thrall neither to political correctness nor to political ideology. His work is significant for comprehending the changes in sexual mores, social expectations, and class behavior during this period, but also in tracing what has not changed. His work is presented in many forms, and he is credited especially with restoring the place of the realistic novel, in the spirit of Steinbeck and Dickens, and in championing a new form of journalistic reporting. To understand the themes of Wolfe’s writings it is useful to begin by first understanding their form.
Wolfe considered himself above all to be a reporter, a trade at which he worked for some thirty years before writing his first novel. The heart of writing, he insists, is its “material,” or “what to write about.” A writer has two basic options: use whatever material is at hand, or find more. The old saw “write what you know” highlights rather than resolves this difficulty. Few people—and very few writers—have led interesting enough lives to have gathered, from their personal experience alone, sufficient material for even one book, much less several.
For Wolfe, prose and especially fiction lost its way in the mid-twentieth century when writers came to believe that material—“the damnable beast”—comprised at most 5% of literary genius while the other 95% consisted of “unique talent that is secure inside some sort of sacred crucible in the skull.” For Wolfe, the true ratio is “more on the order of 65% material and 35% talent.”
The way to secure material is to find it by going to new places, talking to new people, observing events, and surveying the scene. One must research what one does not know and then write about that. This sometimes requires risk. Wolfe recounts with a combination of sympathy, terror and awe the famous last scene of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels—in which the author is stomped half to death by the outlaw bikers about whom he was writing. Mostly, however, the dangers of reporting are more on the order of drudgery or discomfort. Wolfe has described the eight weeks he spent with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, while researching The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as the antithesis of “fun.” But that experience, however unpleasant, was necessary to get the story. Too many writers, in Wolfe’s judgment, shrink from this indispensable drudgery.
The minor character Silverstein in The Bonfire of the Vanities represents this ethos. A photographer who goes to great lengths to get the shot, he is described by his editor as one of “the farmers of journalism. They love the good rich soil itself, for itself…they like to plunge their hands into the dirt.” This is a good description of Wolfe himself.
Wolfe is perhaps most famous stylistically for pioneering the so-called “New Journalism” that emerged in the early 1960s. No one has established the precise origin of the term, or even of the thing itself. But Wolfe is the writer most associated with New Journalism, in part because he made the most exhaustive attempt to define and explain it.
The New Journalism is, first and foremost, journalism—that is, heavily reported nonfiction prose. What distinguishes New Journalism from old, Wolfe believes, are four literary devices that had long been the heart of the novel. First, the story is told scene-by-scene rather than using monochrome, past-tense descriptors. Second, those scenes are filled with dialogue, and there is minimal reliance on paraphrase, summaries, and isolated quotes. Third, the story is advanced through the personal point-of-view of one of the protagonists, and omniscient narration is avoided. And fourth, the narrative is salted with telling details that convey the life of the story’s participants.
The New Journalism thus mimics the realistic novel by making the reader a direct observer of what are, in journalism’s case, actual events as they unfold.
The New Journalism flowered from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s and had enormous impact on subsequent nonfiction writing: the use of the four core literary devices is now so common that it is part of journalism’s mainstream.
Wolfe’s great ambition was to write a novel—which he achieved finally in 1987 with the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities. A heavily reported book, Bonfire was intended to hearken back to the social realism of Dickens, Balzac, Steinbeck, and scores of other writers who flourished before fiction’s inward turn. The older fiction sought to present the whole panoply of society—high, low, and middle, in all its complexity. Just as Trollope in The Way We Live Now tried to present to the reader as much of contemporary London as he could, so Wolfe’s ambition for Bonfire was to cram “as much of New York City between the covers as you could”—to return to the days when novelists “brought the news.”
“Realism is not merely another literary approach or attitude,” Wolfe once wrote. “The introduction of detailed realism into English literature in the eighteenth century was like the introduction of electricity into machine technology. It raised the state of the art to an entirely new magnitude.” Realism, in Wolfe’s view, enabled the novel in the eighteenth century to displace the epic poem and the stage play as the premier literary art form. Via the New Journalism, it even briefly overshadowed the novel. Wolfe eventually issued a call to American novelists to return to realism and, quoting Sinclair Lewis’ Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “give America a literature worthy of her vastness.”
A Word on Wolfe’s Style
Wolfe is well known for his eccentric, exuberant—some would say manic—writing style. He employs several eye-catching devices, including onomatopoeia (phonetic spelling of accents and non-verbal sounds), run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness, free association, and untraditional punctuation (above all the liberal use of exclamation points). Wolfe also pioneered certain devices that he himself named, the “hectoring narrator,” for example, in which Wolfe (and by extension the reader) make sport of figures in the story, or the “downstage narrator,” in which Wolfe adopts the speech patterns of his subjects—anything to avoid the “beige tones of New York journalese.”
This much-imitated style can serve as, but is not identical with, the four techniques that constitute New Journalism. Indeed, Wolfe employs these stylistic trademarks in his intellectual and art histories as well as in his fiction writing.
Wolfe’s key themes
The Postwar Boom
The principle thread in nearly all of Wolfe’s writing is the impact of the post-World War II economic boom, “a development so stupendous, so long in the making, and so obvious that, like the Big Dipper or the curvature of the earth, it is barely noticed any longer.” The boom put unprecedented money into the hands of all classes and levels of society, giving people especially in the “lower orders” the ability to indulge their own tastes and desires. These take a myriad of forms. Custom cars, motorcycles, surfing, rock & roll, skin magazines, and Las Vegas are just some of the “prole styles” that Wolfe examines in his early nonfiction.
Getting and Spending
As both journalist and novelist, Wolfe is keenly interested in how people—and particularly the newly affluent masses—earn and spend their money. While not a “business writer” in any conventional sense, he nonetheless writes extensively about his subjects’ professional lives, as a means to take readers into unfamiliar milieus and to illuminate peoples’ tastes, morals, and motivations. How, why, and on what people spend is, for Wolfe, revelatory of character and identity—and a subject not often explored by modern writers. Wolfe points out the important role that money plays in the writing of Trollope and Balzac and, following their example, sometimes gives detailed ledgers of his subjects’ spending habits. This theme characterizes both his nonfiction and fiction, in particular The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.
Status is another prominent theme in all of Wolfe’s writing, fiction and nonfiction alike. His thesis is that while rapid cultural change and mass affluence have shattered the older class hierarchy, it was replaced not by a new age of equality but rather by new, unofficial but elaborate status hierarchies. People still measure themselves against their peers, but no longer according to a widely recognized order such as the old English class system. They are more likely, instead, to focus their attention on where they stand within a particular group of their own choosing or even creation.
Wolfe found such “statuspheres” almost wherever he looked. For instance, in the post-war Air Force, when most pilots never saw combat, they compensated by creating a new status pyramid with test pilots at the top, because they had the most difficult and dangerous job (The Right Stuff). Surfers would classify themselves according to who could ride the biggest wave, bond traders by who made the most money, and so on. Particularly in his fiction, Wolfe portrays the inner lives of his characters through their thoughts on where they sit within their own statuspheres: is their status rising or falling, and what they can do to improve it?
The erosion of more formal social classes only served to highlight most people’s status consciousness. Perhaps most interesting to Wolfe is the creation of new “statuspheres,” as it were ex nihilo, a theme explored in-depth in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The Sixties are crucial to Wolfe’s work, and not merely because this was his most prolific period. Wolfe has described this era as “the decade when manners and morals, styles of living, attitudes toward the world changed the country more crucially than any political events.” This claim is now old hat. But Wolfe deserves considerable credit for making it so. Few of his journalist contemporaries chose to focus on so-called “lifestyle” questions—in part, Wolfe argues, because such material was seen as the proper subject for “feature writers,” then the lowest in rank among journalists. As a result, Wolfe recalls feeling amazed that “as a writer, I had it practically all to myself.” Wolfe describes the changes in manners and mores wrought by the 1960s, to society high, low, and middle, recounting in immersive detail the broad forms and gritty specifics of that great cultural change. Wolfe’s first three books—two of them collections of previously published essays—treat this theme exhaustively.
Racial and Ethnic Discord
The race riots that afflicted many major cities in the 1960s, Wolfe argues, only exposed fault lines long submerged and either ignored or denied. The government attempted to help through various anti-poverty programs that established offices and provided seed money to radicals to encourage them to protest (or worse) the government itself. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) is his first sustained exploration of this theme, which later became central to three of his novels. Bonfire shows how a flimsy issue can be elevated to a cause célèbre to satisfy various political and economic interests. A Man in Full shows the flipside, when an incident is downplayed or even suppressed in the interest of “peace.”
Wolfe writes extensively about the so-called “Sexual Revolution,” which he has called “a rather prim term for the lurid carnival that actually took place.” The speed at which sexual mores, in place for decades or even centuries, were swept aside is for Wolfe the single most remarkable event of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The revolution, once achieved, had profound and far-reaching effects that Wolfe chronicles throughout his works, especially in the essays “The Woman Who Has Everything,” “The Life & Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl,” “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” “Stiffened Giblets,” and “Hooking Up.” His analysis and description culminates in his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, a book about the modern university and, especially, the institutionalization and normalization of the sexual ethos of the 1960s. It describes what a perfectly free “sexual marketplace” looks like when all social, cultural, and religious restraints are removed.
Masculinity and Manhood
Wolfe’s concern with what constitutes manhood in the feminist and post-feminist eras is perhaps the least understood aspect of his work. Wolfe looks at both the high and the low aspects of masculinity: for all the muscle-bound, bravado-driven thugs in his writings, there is no shortage of strong men who try to do the right thing. Contrary to nearly all contemporary writers, Wolfe presents a sympathetic picture of what most modern intellectuals consider a retrograde masculinity, beginning with his study of stock car racer Junior Johnson (“The Last American Hero”).
The theme is especially crucial to Wolfe’s fiction. The protagonist of Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy is depicted as—despite his wealth, power, and workplace bravado—something less of a man, until he loses everything and learns to defend and assert himself in the teeth of a justice system determined to destroy him. Masculinity is the central theme of A Man in Full. Former football star Charlie Croker begins the novel as more of a conventional man than Sherman—for Wolfe, manhood necessarily includes a physical component—but only becomes “a man in full” in the novel through encountering Conrad Hensley and overcoming his obsession with worldly success at the expense of a well-ordered soul.
Courage, Loyalty and Patriotism
Unusual among acclaimed writers of the past several generations, Wolfe is admiringly sympathetic to the U.S. military, American life, and America itself. He once recalled the prayer he used to recite as a boy before going to bed every night:
First, I thanked God for having been born in America, which was obviously the greatest country on earth. I was pretty dead right on that. And in what was obviously the greatest state, because more presidents came from Virginia than anywhere else. And from the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest country, because it was the capital of Virginia. Just think of all the people not fortunate enough to be born in Richmond, Virginia. I also thought I lived in the best location in the greatest city because from my window, when the state fair was in town, I could see all the fireworks. How many children could say that?” He later added: “I can see now that I had—what’s the word?—literally an egocentric view of the world. But it wasn’t all that far from the truth.”
This outlook helps explain such pieces as “The Truest Sport: Jousting with SAM and Charlie,” a laudatory portrayal of a Navy fighter pilot, written during the peak of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War—a war that most of the intellectual class vehemently opposed and denounced. The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s account of the early space program, is his greatest exploration of the theme.
Wolfe notes the irony that capitalism has more or less fulfilled the Marxist dream of the non-needy or, indeed, affluent worker. The working class’s response to its newfound wealth, however, has not been as Marx or his intellectuals heirs hoped or predicted. Rather than consuming high culture, working people instead have chosen to express themselves in ways that intellectuals, artists and other elites find vulgar. This, in Wolfe’s account, explains the elite’s peculiar dissatisfaction with modern life during a time of unprecedented prosperity, peace and opportunity, at least in the West and certainly in America. Contrary to the intellectuals’ gloom, Wolfe claims the postwar era was characterized by a “happiness explosion.” The intellectuals’ persistent negativity is explored in many essays across the decades, from “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America” to “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists.”
Modern Art and Architecture
Perhaps Wolfe’s most controversial writings are his mediations on modernism. Part history, part critique, Wolfe mocks while explaining the pretensions of modern art (The Painted Word, 1973) and architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981), both in their theory and their practice. The corruption and vanity of the contemporary big-money art world is also skewered in Wolfe’s latest book, Back to Blood (2012).
–Essays by Michael Anton