The Wrong Stuff: Review of “The Purple Decades”

Christopher Hitchens, London Review of Books, April 1983.

“Wolfe had the excellent idea, way back when, of being in the Sixties but not quite of them. His idea of participation was to appear, but to appear detached. The formula caught and held a whole imitative school of lycanthropic scribblers, who could mock and jeer at the antics of the period without being so square as to be left out of the party altogether. The summit of this style – its glass of fashion and its mould of form – was attained by Wolfe himself when he attended Leonard Bernstein’s never-to-be-forgotten cocktail party for the Black Panthers. ‘Radical Chic’ has passed so far into the Anglo-American argot that it may be futile, 13 years later, to attempt to expose it. For one thing, it was so nearly right. Everybody knew somebody who answered or fitted the description. For another, the older and cleverer phrase – limousine liberal – had gone out with Adlai Stevenson and needed a retread. To take up Radical Chic now (excerpted in this volume) and to turn its pages is to undergo a disturbing experience compounded of déjà vu and disappointment. Was there really a time when Park Avenue bled for the American black – even for his most egregious and posturing spokesmen? And did Wolfe really finish off ‘the Sixties’ by holding up the Bernsteins to ridicule and contempt? Finally, was he just having fun? The answers to these questions supply the key to the Wolfe code.”

London Review of Books