“Fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.” — Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe, dead at 88, after a big life; a very big life. And a career in which he became the most significant American writer of fiction and non-fiction in the last century; an America he described without fear or favor or taint of political correctness.
When his Yale professors rejected the topic of his thesis – Communist influences on American writers, 1928–1942 – Wolfe showed his versatility in a letter to a friend dated June 9, 1956.
“These stupid fucks have turned down namely my dissertation, meaning I will have to stay here about a month longer to delete all the offensive passages and retype the sumitch. They called my brilliant manuscript ‘journalistic’ and ‘reactionary,’ which means I must go through with a blue pencil and strike out all the laughs and anti-Red passages and slip in a little liberal merde, so to speak, just to sweeten it. I’ll discuss with you how stupid all these stupid fucks are when I see you.”
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born on March 2, 1931, and grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a conservative, God-respectful southern editor of an agricultural trade magazine. Home was never something he was looking to get away from; it was never even something he was looking to pretend he was looking to get away from. He was accepted at Princeton but chose to attend Washington and Lee, to remain close to home. Every now and then one of his teachers would note that he had a way with words, and some artistic talent, but artistic ambition, for a conservative southern male in the 1950s or really any other time, was too vague and impractical to indulge. After college, he took the advice of his professor and went to Yale, for a doctorate in American studies—and right up to this point in his life there isn’t a trace of institutional rebellion in him. He pitches for the baseball team, pleases his teachers, has an ordinary, not artistic, group of pals, and is devoted to his mother and father.
The moment he leaves the South, something comes over him.
One of Tom Wolfe’s favorite restaurants in New York City is the Isle of Capri on the East Side, specializing, as one might expect, in Italian cuisine; indeed, the menu does not condescend to non-Italian speaking customers: an extensive list of choices is not identified in English. The table set aside for Wolfe is in a corner of a patiolike glassed-in enclosure facing Third Avenue. Clusters of potted plants hang from its rafters. The author arrived wearing the white ensemble he is noted for—a white modified homburg, a chalk-white overcoat—but to the surprise of regular customers looking up from their tables, he removed the coat to disclose a light-brown suit set off by a pale lilac tie. Questioned about the light-brown suit, he replied: “Shows that I’m versatile.” He went on to point out that his overcoat only had one button—rare in overcoats, quite impractical, obviously, in a stiff wind. “One must occasionally suffer for style.” At the table he ordered bottled water and calamari. Squid. His accent is more cosmopolitan than Southern, though he grew up in the South (Richmond, Virginia) and went to school there (Washington and Lee). His face is pale, fine-featured. During the interview a young woman nervously approached the table for an autograph. She announced that she hoped to become a writer and that he had been her idol from the first. Wolfe thanked her and asked where she was from. North Carolina. While he worked the pen across the paper (Wolfe’s autograph is a decorative scrawl that if stretched out straight would measure a foot), the two chatted about her home state, which he knows well—his mother and sister live there. The young woman went on to say that she found New York City wonderful and looked forward to moving. Wolfe nodded, and afterwards remarked how pleasing it was to hear from someone not swayed by the bad publicity, least of all by reading his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.
INTERVIEWER: When did you first realize that you had a knack for writing?
TOM WOLFE: Very early. When I was six or seven years old. My father was the editor of an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn’t think of himself as a writer. He was a scientist, an agronomist, but I thought of him as a writer because I’d seen him working at his desk. I just assumed that I was going to do that, that I was going to be a writer. There’s an enormous advantage in having (mistakenly or not) the impression that you have a vocation very early because from that time forward you begin to focus all of your energies towards this goal. The only other thing I ever considered from six on was to become an artist, something my mother had encouraged me to do.
INTERVIEWER: Regarding writing, was there any particular book that influenced you?
WOLFE: I was greatly struck by Emil Ludwig’s biography of Napoleon, which is written in the historical present. It begins as the mother sits suckling her babe in a tent.
INTERVIEWER: And that impressed you?
WOLFE: It impressed me so enormously that I began to write the biography of Napoleon myself, though heavily cribbed from Emil Ludwig. I was eight at the time.
INTERVIEWER: Did it start the same way, with a babe being suckled in . . .
WOLFE: It did, though no one would tell me what suckled meant. I only knew that that was what Napoleon did at the start. I always liked Napoleon from when I was six on because he was small and had ruled the world and at the time I was small. I liked Mozart for the same reason.
In November 2013 the New York Public Library paid $2.15 million for Wolfe’s papers. He was a hoarder, saving anything on paper in 190 boxes – “tailor’s bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (“Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls”), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of 17 pages of red lip prints…He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards. A saved invitation harks:
Mrs. Leonard Bernstein
requests the pleasure of your company
at 895 Park Avenue
on Wednesday January 14 at 5 o’clock
To meet and hear from the leaders of the Black Panther….
Tom Wolfe had the right stuff to write The Right Stuff: “Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot … coming over the intercom … with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) … the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ … the voice that tells you (on a flight from Phoenix preparing for its final approach into Kennedy Airport, New York, just after dawn): ‘Now, folks, uh … this is the captain … ummmm … We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin gears’re not … uh … lockin into position when we lower ‘em … Now … I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ … faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into—still, it may amuse you … ‘But … I guess to play it by the rules, we oughta humor that little ol’ light … so we’re gonna take her down to about, oh, two or three hundred feet over the runway at Kennedy, and the folks down there on the ground are gonna see if they caint give us a visual inspection of those ol’ landin’ gears’—with which he is obviously on intimate ol’-buddy terms, as with every other working part of this mighty ship—’and if I’m right … they’re gonna tell us everything is copacetic all the way aroun’ an’ we’ll jes take her on in’ … and, after a couple of low passes over the field, the voice returns: ‘Well, folks, those folks down there on the ground—it must be too early for ‘em or somethin’—I ‘spect they still got the sleepers in their eyes … ‘cause they say they caint tell if those ol’ landin’ gears are all the way down or not … But, you know, up here in the cockpit we’re convinced they’re all the way down, so we’re jes gonna take her on in … And oh’ … (I almost forgot) … ‘while we take a little swing out over the ocean an’ empty some of that surplus fuel we’re not gonna be needin’ anymore—that’s what you might be seein’ comin’ out of the wings—our lovely little ladies … if they’ll be so kind … they’re gonna go up and down the aisles and show you how we do what we call “assumin’ the position” ‘ … another faint chuckle (We do this so often, and it’s so much fun, we even have a funny little name for it) … and the stewardesses, a bit grimmer, by the looks of them, than that voice, start telling the passengers to take their glasses off and take the ballpoint pens and other sharp objects out of their pockets, and they show them the position, with the head lowered … while down on the field at Kennedy the little yellow emergency trucks start roaring across the field—and even though in your pounding heart and your sweating palms and your broiling brainpan you know this is a critical moment in your life, you still can’t quite bring yourself to believe it, because if it were … how could the captain, the man who knows the actual situation most intimately … how could he keep on drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ in that particular voice of his—
Well!—who doesn’t know that voice! And who can forget it!—even after he is proved right and the emergency is over.
That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin…. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s this up-hollow voice drifted down from on high, from over the high desert of California, down, down, down, from the upper reaches of the Brotherhood into all phases of American aviation…. Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.” [From Chapter 3, The Right Stuff.]
Tom Wolfe, ‘New Journalist’ With Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies at 88 An unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”