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A Wolfe in Gentlemen's Clothing

Class Day Speaker

By Shari Rudavsky

And now the novel...The blockbuster, the apogee of any writing career--putting together words, glorious words and making a veritable film of prose. The novel has been a long-time coming, more than 20 years of flirting with fiction, taking the truth and transforming it into social fairy tales, but always publishing under the realistically lucid umbrella of fact. The result of years with a notebook out there in the jungles of real life, this novel--Bonfire of the Vanities--purports to lend everything a purpose and win the writer a one-way ticket through the annals of literary history. Tom Wolfe has published his first Novel.

Flash back, though, flash back more than 20 years ago to the start of the 1960s, when America stood teetering over an edge. When change was not just in the air--it was the air, a viscous entity seeping through every hip person's brain. Wolfe, then in his early 30s, could not get enough of this potent elixir--something new, something different--and so his first essays were published. Sure, writing like it had been seen before, but never with such punch, such pizazz, such daring. Wolfe arrived on the crest of a wave, a wave that never fell but just kept going up and up and up. He was New Journalism, and New Journalism was rapidly replacing The Novel.

Listen to what Wolfe himself writes about that heady time, when clever skill was the writer's champagne. A writer could break all rules, make up words that had never been heard before and get away with it--yes, even get praised for it! Take grammar and fly in the face of tradition. Everything's new in society, but this stuff, this journalism, this is New. Then, The Novel was receding into the novel, and journalism was becoming New Journalism.

Here was the way things were: "The scene was strictly for novelists, people who were writing novels and people who were paying court to The Novel. There was no room for a journalist, unless he was there in the role of would-be novelist or simple courtier of the great. There was no such thing as a literary journalist working for popular magazines or newspapers," writes Wolfe in the 1973 book, The New Journalism.

And here was the way things were becoming: "This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course. Not even the journalists who pioneered in this direction doubted for a moment that the novelist was the reigning literary artist, now and forever," Wolfe continues in his introduction to the anthology. "They never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next 10 years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature's main event."

So, here he is back in the 1980s, doing what? Writing a what? Not just any novel but a work that has grabbed the attention of New York literati. "It [Bonfire of the Vanities] is the first novel that I can remember since Catcher in the Rye that you can assume everybody has read. It is a common denominator among literary people," says Clay Felker, who edited Wolfe two decades ago back at The New York Herald Tribune and is now editor of Manhattan, Inc.

In the few months since its winter publication, the novel has insinuated itself into the literature of the 1980s. His cadence, his language, his rhythm--all executed with seeming ease, no need for artistry here, everything is natural--seduce the reader. There is no difference, though, from his earlier works, Wolfe's acclaimers say.

Speaking broadly, Tom Wolfe is capable of writing virtually any form of non-fiction and writing it, in a way that is usually very original and provocative and sometimes controversial," says Lee Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of Esquire, where Wolfe is a contributing editor. "He is especially gifted at making sense of cultural phenomena. He can see into something going on today in a way that few journalists can. My only regret is that there aren't 100 Tom Wolfes around."

But praise from one part of the quirky, mixed-up world of publishing often means scorn in another. Wolfe's detractors--and he has more than his share--decry his attention to frivolous details, such as clothing, while others comment on Wolfe's habit of stereotyping certain sectors of society. Wolfe admits in an interview with New York magazine that he parallels his own writing on that of Blazac and Zola, and Bonfire is his attempt to do with New York what the two 19th-century authors did with Paris.

"I take great solace in the fact that Balzac, who is my idol, was constantly criticized for the enumeration of status details," Wolfe says in the March issue of New York. "There was a great debate in the 19th century between observation and imagination. Observation was seen as tainted, and Balzac was dismissed as a mere observer," he says, referring to the fact that Balzac was never elected to the elite literary organization, the French Academy, while most of his contemporaries were.

French Academies of yesteryear have transformed into the harsh scrutiny of academics in today's literati scene. To be truly accepted, a writer must be intelligent, as well as amusing. What a writer needs for inclusion in the haughty ranks of literature is substance, not style. Otherwise, it's mere journalism for you--and the "j" is said with a spitting noise, a guttural indictment of inferiority. Wolfe's critics call him a mere chronicler of the times whose attention to detail has caught our fancy, but maybe not for long.

"I don't think of him as a serious figure," says Briggs-Copeland Assistant Professor of English Christopher T. Leland. "I think he has a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He opts for sparkling repartee rather than a serious and considered remark."

Yet, Wolfe has experienced the serious and the considered, even if his more famous works seem on the flippant side to some. Wolfe earned a B.A. cum laude from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. After Yale, he started climbing a traditional journalism ladder, moving rapidly from The Springfield Union to The Washington Post and then on to The New York Herald Tribune in 1962.

While at The Tribune, Wolfe made his first foray into the style that has now become his trademark. As Wolfe writes in the introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, he travelled to California at the behest of Esquire magazine, researching a story on custom-made automobiles. When it came time for Wolfe to write the piece, he found that he could not capture the flavor of his experiences in traditionally antiseptic journalistic prose.

Wolfe explained this to his editors at Esquire, and they asked him to type up his notes so that they could assign the piece to another writer. As he retells it, he began this historic task at 8 p.m.--writing a stream of consciousness, as he rethought and reexperienced his reporting, including every picayune detail that caught his eye. At 6:15 the following morning, he had typed 49 pages which he left at the Esquire offices.

Wolfe's editors read over his ping-pong language, his "be-here-now!" style and decided not to reassign the piece. They figured all Wolfe's work needed was a little editing before publishing. They ended up simply striking the greeting to the editor at the beginning of the memo and published the story otherwise unchanged.

"He's the greatest journalist in America in my mind in terms of his ability to report and write and to think--to come up with insights," says Felker, Wolfe's editor at the Herald-Tribune at the time his freelance Esquire piece introduced a new brand of journalism.

Hone and sharpen, play around with the possibilities--that was how Wolfe spent the greater part of the mid- and late sixties, trying almost every literary trick to discover how far one can go--and still be a journalist. Then the books came, books which reflected Wolfe's earlier essays and his knowledge about every and anything.

"He's a great reader of things that other people don't read," Esquire's Eisenberg says, adding that Wolfe periodically peruses a variety of trade journals. "As a result, he knows many arcane things."

Shade-pulls, that's what Eisenberg associates with Wolfe's writing. In a piece written for Esquire's 50th Anniversary issue about a Silicon Valley mogul, Wolfe returned to his subject's hometown of Grinnell, Iowa. "Wolfe wrote very vividly about the streets of Grinnell, right down to the little details, the shade-pulls," Eisenberg says. "I was amazed he knew so much about the shade-pulls."

The Esquire editor adds that he asked Wolfe how closely he had investigated the little tugs at the ends of shades, and Wolfe said that he had not really looked at them, but he just remembered them when it came time to write. He thought they would be a nice touch, and so he used them in the piece again and again, until they were a recurring refrain in the article, Eisenberg says.

"One of Wolfe's great gifts is that he is able to seize on details that other writers are not able to see. His eye is not only sharp to such details, but then fanciful and clever to the detail," Eisenberg says. "Most writers would probably not notice it and notice it in a witty way."

Such devotion to meticulous detail does not mix well with deadlines. Felker recalls, Wolfe "takes a lot more time [to write than other writers]. He endlessly rewrites, keeps rewriting, and as he rewrites, it deepens his insights. He sometimes pushed his deadlines to the limits."

The Southerner in Wolfe manifests itself in other ways and meshes well with the savvy New York mores he acquired in later life. While his writing seems the epitome of Northeast cynicism and satire--leading Harvard's Leland to compare Wolfe to an H.L. Mencken of the 1980s--in person, he has a luxurious style unique to South and to Southerners. "He is a wonderful companion and is a kind of a modern-day embodiment of a Virginia gentleman," Felker says. "He has very courtly manners combined with modern-day sensitivities."

His token white suit--according to New York magazine, he has seven of them--embodies the Southern gentleman in Wolfe, as well as his inherent contradictions. While many point to his representative outfit as indicative of his elitist attitudes, he says he wears the white suit as a mockery of the life he leads.

He told New York magazine in March, "When you start off with the idea that you're going to write, you think of yourself as some kind of rebel. Then you get to New York and you see there is as much conformism within the literary world as there is in the military world or business world. The rebel in a free country is the rebel within the status group.[Clothes] are a way of treating the literary-status world as cavalierly as I or any other writer would treat the outside world."

Forget the suit, though; forget the Southampton and Upper East Side homes; forget all inklings that a conformation has taken place in Wolfe since the time he pulled an all-nighter to complete a memo for Esquire. The Novel is the proof that Wolfe--fiction or non-fiction--has not lost much of his original punch. As he wrote in the introduction to New Journalism, "A writer needs at least enough ego to believe that what he is doing as a writer is as important as what anyone he is writing about is doing and that therefore he shouldn't compromise his own work."

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