Michael Anton, City Journal, Autumn 2012.
Tom Wolfe is most identified with New York City, for good reason. He has lived and worked in Manhattan since the early 1960s, and New York dominates his writing the way London looms for Dickens. But Wolfe has never been afraid to venture from his home turf—this fall’s Back to Blood, an exploration of Miami, is a case in point—and his true literary second home is California. Over the course of his career, Wolfe has devoted more pages to the Golden State than to any setting other than Gotham. In his early years, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the ratio was almost one-to-one. More to the point, the core insights on which he built his career—the devolution of style to the masses, status as a replacement for social class, the “happiness explosion” in postwar America—all first came to him in California. Even books in which the state figures not at all are informed by Wolfe’s observations of the West. Without California, there would be no Wolfe as we know him—no Bonfire, no Right Stuff, no Radical Chic or Me Decade, none of the blockbuster titles or era-defining phrases that made him world-famous.
And without Wolfe, we would not understand California—or the California-ized modern world. At the time of his most frequent visits, the state was undergoing a profound change, one that affects it to this day and whose every aspect has been exported throughout the country and the globe. Both have become much more like California over the last 40 years, even as California has drifted away from its old self, and Wolfe has chronicled and explained it all.