There ought to be a statute of limitations on critical remarks about living, breathing writers. Lacking that, it must simply be good manners that keeps Joe David Bellamy, in his introduction to this sampler of nearly two decades of Tom Wolfe’s work, from mentioning the late Dwight Macdonald’s celebrated attack on Wolfe as a practitioner of a specious new form called parajournalism. Macdonald’s remarks came in a 1965 review of Wolfe’s first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, setting out most of the lines of criticism subsequently directed at Wolfe and a piece still to be reckoned with if Wolfe is taken seriously as a journalist or literary figure. But looking back from the vantage point offered by The Purple Decades, one is struck by how much Macdonald got wrong.
It was probably wishful thinking that caused Macdonald to write off Wolfe as just another glittering fad. “I don’t think,” he predicted, “Wolfe will be read with pleasure, or at all, years from now, and perhaps not even next year.” Wolfe’s subjects, he thought, “will prove of ephemeral interest” and his hyperactive writing style “will not wear well because its eccentricities, while novel, are monotonous.” One of the few incontestable things to say about Wolfe is that he has endured and prospered. He continues to be read, apparently with great pleasure; and he has shown surprising ability to broaden the range of his subjects, shifting from the “celebs” and “personalities” that so irritated Macdonald to the end of the Beat Generation and the emergence of the drug culture, the beginnings of the American space program, and the rarefied worlds of modern art and architecture. The style, though toned down over the years, still seems to strike many readers as fresh and engaging, a noisy though effective vehicle for bringing character and situation to sudden life. Whatever else might be said about Wolfe’s prose, it’s distinctive, as few writing styles are these days.
To give Macdonald his due, one was bound to wonder how Wolfe’s early work would look in the sober light of a new day. Not bad at all, actually. The pieces about high-style figures like Robert and Ethel Scull (“Bob & Spike”) and Jane Holzer (“The Girl of the Year”) appear a bit faded, but the down-home world of Junior Johnson and Southern dirt-track racing (“The Last American Hero”) still seems richly evoked, as does the languid subculture of adolescent surfers (“The Pump House Gang”). The Wolfian tags (flak catchers, radical chic, me decade, the right stuff) may appear shopworn now, partly because they have become common currency, but they still serve as useful catchalls for a broad range of contemporary activity and character types. In his moments of close attention to detail, Wolfe still seems as penetrating as a good novelist, as when, in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” he notes the different ways white bureaucrats and their black antagonists cross their legs during a confrontation over poverty grants, or in almost all of “The Mid-Atlantic Man” when he dissects the business styles of New York and London. The selections from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff are reminders of the ambitious scope of both works. If Wolfe is read in another 20 years—and he seems as likely to be read, read seriously, as any other contemporary writer—it largely will be due to the staying power of his two most important books.
Another Macdonald complaint was that Wolfe’s own views about his subjects were hard to pin down. They kept shifting, boosting one moment and knocking the next, with the result that readers were left in confusion. As Macdonald saw, some confusion or ambivalence is a byproduct of one of Wolfe’s favored devices: the narrowing of the ordinary distance between journalist and subject, even merging the journalist’s voice with the subject’s, so that the subject seems portrayed from within (or as Wolfe likes to say, portrayed in his own subjective reality). Such blurring of distinctions between writer and subject may still appear troubling if one persists in thinking of Wolfe primarily as a journalist. But even on this level his use of the device has become so familiar over the years that most readers ought to be able to separate Wolfe’s views from those of his subjects.
Indeed, Wolfe’s views have become increasingly apparent—possibly too apparent. He repeatedly celebrates the raw courage of racing drivers and test pilots and (in one of his finest pieces, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie”) Navy pilots in combat over North Vietnam. But it isn’t simply the courage that draws Wolfe’s applause but the active involvement in life it implies as against lives touched only by secondhand experience and received opinions. In “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America,” a gleeful attack on the anti-Americanism of liberal intellectuals, Wolfe looks forward (paraphrasing an argument attributed to Lionel Trilling) to a “generation of intelligent people who had experienced American life directly and “earned” their opinions.” No matter how gritty or unfashionable, the direct experience of life gets Wolfe’s seal of approval (it’s always the right stuff) whereas its opposite number—whether a misty radical chic evening with the Black Panthers or well-heeled intellectuals writing about police-state America or the groveling of architects before the imported gods of the Bauhaus—is snickered into contempt.
Wolfe’s taste for plain old American reality takes, finally, a neoconservative political cast. Whimsically, he notes that in sex education classes we tell school children that sexual intercourse is natural and beautiful yet remain baffled by the rising number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Dead seriously, he takes up the case for Solzhenitsyn, arguing that the “bone heap” of modern history, “grisly beyond belief,” is an inescapable fact and that “socialism had created it.” This is the Wolfe who makes an appearance in The American Spectator or, in a foreword to Arnold Beichman’s Nine Lies about America, takes off again on the follies of liberal intellectuals. There is nothing wrong, of course, with Wolfe having intellectual convictions of the neoconservative sort—or, as Bellamy suggests, with a Wolfe who has become “more interested in reform,” meaning more interested in writing revisionist intellectual history. But there may be some threat that Wolfe the nimble comic satirist might fade into Wolfe the predictable moralist, locked into the same sort of mental box he inveighs against in the case of liberal types—hardly an ideal situation for one who presents himself as a journalist.
This brings up Wolfe’s identity as a journalist—an identity Macdonald rightly questioned in his review. He scoffed that Wolfe wasn’t a journalist of the regular stripe, since the aim of journalism ought to be information, but a parajournalist whose aim was entertainment. Bellamy reviews Wolfe’s exploits and technical aspirations as a New Journalist but points out that Wolfe “is, and always has been, more than a journalist.” What Bellamy has in mind isn’t Macdonald’s condescending crown of entertainer but the noble title of social critic. According to Bellamy, Wolfe is “the most astute and popular social observer and cultural chronicler of his generation,” the “spokesperson for this era in American life.” The natural hyperbole of the introducer aside, is this really the case? Is Wolfe best read for social observation and cultural chronicle—or, for that matter, best read simply for entertainment?
There is no pressing need to shove Wolfe into a critical pigeonhole—a writer so agile and ambitious will surely escape anyway—but there may be some use in pointing to the general nature of his work. Before he pursues Wolfe’s dimensions as a social critic, Bellamy remarks that Wolfe’s “antecendents are primarily literary.” That is also true of his work—it’s primarily literary. Wolfe may think of himself as a journalist or a journalist-as-social-critic, but his best work isn’t finally journalism or social commentary but literature— literature in the same sense that the work of Updike and Roth is literature: turned to character, to the play of language, to the development of meaning and implication. Wolfe’s real peers are exactly Updike and Roth and not Jimmy Breslin or Anthony Lewis or even John McPhee. This doesn’t mean that Wolfe’s work is factually inaccurate or devoid of social observation; no doubt Wolfe can be happily and fruitfully read as both journalist and social critic. But this isn’t what is best, or likely to be most lasting, about his work. The rightful place of Wolfe’s best work, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff as well as “The Last American Hero” and “The Truest Sport,” is among the better literary works of the past two decades.
Wilfrid Sheed observed that it may serve an artistic purpose for Wolfe to think of himself as a journalist because “he reminds his nose to stay down near the details where it works best.” It’s not finally the details that matter but the mind, imagination, and unfettered rhetoric imposed upon them, turning them into a Wolfian world as recognizable as the fictional world of a good novelist. Bellamy mentions Wolfe’s capacity for getting inside other lives and “speaking other people’s lines”; but those lines come out sounding mostly the same because they have been processed in Wolfe’s special blender, turned into what Sheed called “Wolfetruths.” This doesn’t make Wolfe’s work fiction, but it isn’t exactly fact writing either. It’s fact turned toward literature, reporting aimed at art. If that seems too pretentious, it can at least be said that Wolfe has been one of our most durable and interesting writers—whatever the sort—over the last 20 years. The Purple Decades makes that clear enough.