Friday, 18 May 2018


Although Tom Wolfe was in many ways the poster boy for 'The New Journalism', and appreciations of him focused on his revolutionary writing style, Wolfe's classic journalism, and indeed his fiction, was informed equally by the unlikely fact that he had earned a PhD at Yale University in the then-newish field of American Studies. During the war, Yale's American History department was the prime recruiting source for the OSS, and after the war the American Studies programme, concerned less with history than with American civilization, appears to have been no different for the CIA. Rather than go into academe, Wolfe went to work on the Springfield (Mass) Union, then straight to the Washington Post and reporting from revolutionary Cuba. Connect the dots.

American Studies would appeal to the CIA, who were funding all sorts of arts and literary projects, trying to establish the value of American life. Wolfe's doctoral thesis was on the CPUSA's Depression-era League Of American Writers, and in later years Wolfe would link the sociological concerns of his writing to his study of Max Weber's 'Status Theory', an interesting combination for a writer who was anything but leftish. But it's easy to see its fruits at the heart of a couple of the early pieces that made his name. The most famous are 'Radical Chic', about the conductor Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party for the Black Panthers, and 'Girl Of The Year', about society wild child Baby Jane Holzer. Were you to read only these, you might picture Wolfe, the Southern Dandy dressed in trademark planter couture, solely as a gadfly in the social scene, a reportorial version of Gore Vidal or even Truman Capote.

Where many of the so-called new journalists got involved with the people they wrote about, making the story about themselves as much as their subjects, Wolfe remained apart. Instead, he used his prose style to draw the reader in, as if in place of himself, recreating on the page that feeling of 'being there', as Jerzy Kosinsky would say.

But what gave Wolfe's work its muscle was not socio-economic analysis, nor typographic FLAMBOYANCE!!!,  but the mythic aspect of American literature which he gleaned in his studies: the way the American hero, 'hard, isolate, stoic and a killer' in D.H. Lawrence's words, was self-made, tested as an individual, and fleeing from the encroachments of avaricious society. In Wolfe's eyes, Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer who learned his trade evading Federal agents while carrying his father's bootleg whisky to market, was indeed 'The Last American Hero'.

Although not actually the last. For Wolfe he was the forerunner of Chuck Yeager, the test-pilot with the Right Stuff. Just as Johnson was subsumed by the growth of corporate NASCAR racing, so Yeager gave way to corporate NASA, who insisted on total control of their astronauts.

This vanishing American hero (to use Leslie Fiedler's phrase) recurs in variations even as Wolfe reports on America civilization becoming a more and more bizarre beacon for the rest of the world. I was still in my early teens when I devoured The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965), his first collection. The title story is about two car-customizers, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and George Barris 'King of the Kustomizers'. As a kid I knew nothing about Baby Jane Holzer, but despite having only slightly more interest in cars, I devoured the pictures of hot rods in Rod & Custom magazine, built plastic models of Big Daddy's cars like the Beatnik Bandit. Wolfe's story is about the way Kustom Kulture in Kalifornia seeks a freedom unavailable in, say, Detroit, or even New York. It's also about the battle between designers, one creating art without thought to functionality, the other building artistic works one could actually drive. It's a theme repeated in Wolfe's 1981 polemic against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

In 1965 I was already listening to the disc jockey Murray the K on 1010 WINS in New York. Wolfe's essay 'The Fifth Beatle' portrayed Murray less as a leader of the nascent counter culture than a frenzied self-promoter, the 'king of the hysterical disc jockies' , though those of us who listened knew the hysterical crown actually belonged to 'Cousin' Brucie Morrow, whom Murray replaced on WINS. Ironically, two decades later, after the publication of Bonfire, first serialised in Rolling Stone, Norman Mailer called Wolfe 'the hardest-working show-off in the literary world', in effect a novelistic Murray the K. The ensuing feud with what Wolfe called 'my Three Stooges', Mailer, John Updike and John Irving concerned the quality of his fiction, which Wolfe self-flatteringly described in terms of the social realism of Zola, Dickens, Balzac and Dreiser. In his riposte to the Stooges, 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' Wolfe argued writers should be focused on 'the material' of American life, not their own talent. Funnily, the two novelists he cited were Joseph Wambaugh and John LeCarre: early Wambaugh was everything Wolfe may have thought Bonfire to be, and a good counter to Updike, but LeCarre's spies moved in a world very much apart from the billion feet, especially the billion American feet.

Although Irving might be said to be the most self-consciously Dickensian of Wolfe's Stooges, and Updike the most obvious opposite of what Wolfe wanted to do, the feud with Mailer is paradoxical, if not in their fictions (though Mailer's mythic takes in, say, An American Dream or Why Are We In Vietnam? are as full of American Studies as Wolfe, and former originally was serialised in Esquire!) then in their non-fiction. We think of the New Journalism as being defined not only by flamboyant writing like Wolfe's, and by less flamboyant long-form, and by the insertion of the writer into the story, which was very much not Wolfe's MO. It was however, Mailer's, or did you miss the point of Advertisements For Myself? He did it in the third person (something he learned reading Henry Adams at Harvard, probably in American Studies!). Wolfe himself credited Gay Talese's 'Joe Louis At 50' as opening his eyes, while some of the new journalists, say, Jimmy Breslin, were working in the style of great columnists--bringing the freedom of the column to their reporting. The point is that, in non-fiction, this was very much a shared enterprise, without the back-biting. But when we entered into the realms of fiction, all bets were off. Could Wolfe have dug back into his own past and written anything like Mailer's vast novel about the OSS and early CIA, Harlot's Ghost (whose promised part II never appeared)? To do so might have required Wolfe's own presence; Mailer, in this case, was playing the observer.

But his critics felt the difference between Wolfe's material and his 'talent'. It goes back to Wolfe's writing his way out of the diffidence of being an observer. Perhaps there is his own element of class involved. His family had money; if he were not in the CIA he might possibly have been supported by them. In Bonfire he captured the sense of the greed-driven Eighties perfectly, his involvement with the characters almost matched the ones about which he'd reported. But that was because they were the Ivy League elite, the ones who had once gone into the CIA, and cover jobs in journalism, but now were busy being a different kind of Masters Of The Universe, by moving money and living large. But after Bonfire, away from the types he knew well, his three later novels revealed the limits of observation as opposed to creation, most famously in I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), in which Wolfe very much wasn't his black woman from a poor background who attends an elite university. He was expanding an observation about an issue in society into a framework he was unable to fill convincingly.

Wolfe's most famous book remains The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), chronicling his travels across America on an LSD-fuelled trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, including Neal Cassady and the Grateful Dead, a journey that also spawned parts of Hunter Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels. Kesey of course is best-remembered today for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) a moving novel about an issue of sorts, but more tellingly a daringly-constructed and written study of an individual hero's battle with society. That was also, more obviously, the theme of Kesey's now-neglected second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964), the tale of the Stamper logging family's battle against unionzed loggers in Oregon. Although it is very much rooted in realism, the characters often speak in first-person monologues, like a new journalist's patter. I think of Paul Newman, as Hank Stamper in the final scene of the film adaptation, riding down the river like Huck Finn, straight out of your American studies class, flipping a middle finger at the world.

Wolfe of course remained aloof from the merriest of the Pranksters' pranking. But it's hard not to think that in Kesey and his rebellion against the norms of Sixties society, and his return from the West to the East on his bus, Wolfe saw his most crucial themes laid out for him, in one psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern. That he could never reproduce this in his fiction should not come as a surprise. After all, after the Magic Bus, neither could Kesey.

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