Fifteen Minutes: The Wolfe in Chic Clothing: FM Examines Tom Wolfe's Dubious Masculinity

Manliness runs a deep course through American life, but it is hard to find at Harvard, says Tom Wolfe. The
By James Y. Stern

Manliness runs a deep course through American life, but it is hard to find at Harvard, says Tom Wolfe. The celebrated author explains the contemporary male. FM returns the favor and examines Wolfe's own dubious masculinity.

Bill Buckely wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951. Kelly Monroe finally answered the first half of Buckley's proposition two years ago with her Finding God at Harvard. Still unaccounted for, of course, is the state of contemporary Harvard manhood. The prolific Tom Wolfe, himself a Yale Ph.D., came to town last month just long enough to pronounce Harvard manhood dead.

He is a sly Virginian with a deadly gift for describing human, or at least American, types. He has written about counterculture, astronauts, Wall Street and race in the New South. But the underlying theme is always manliness. Spending some 10 years writing each of his novels Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998) are decade-defining classics. They take a lot of work: Wolfe has long practiced "The New Journalism," which means, simply, that his 800-page tomes are exceptionally well-researched and appear--since most of us have no idea what life is like in, to take a recent example, a federal penitentiary--accurate.

In what will likely be the septuagenarian's last major undertaking, Wolfe has decided to hone in on the college experience. Perhaps peaking a little late he is intrigued by "hooking up," the title of a forthcoming collection of his essays. Already this year, Wolfe has visited Harvard twice. Is the acclaimed author in the custom-made $5,000 suits planning to use Harvard as a model for his next masterpiece?


Wolfe has no interest in Harvard, but not for the reasons one might think. It's not because Harvard students score too high on their SATs or bubble with abnormal ambition; Wolfe has already spent a month researching at Stanford, certainly a Harvard competitor. The reason for his Harvard aversion, Wolfe confided to FM over champagne at the home of Kenan Government Prof. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53, is that Harvard has no Division I sports teams. (Apparently lacrosse and swimming don't factor into his equation. Hockey, at least, merits a brief mention: "I'm so glad that so many of these Canadian semi-pro hockey players can all score the median 1480 SAT to get into Harvard," Wolfe chided a Kennedy School gathering). More specifically Harvard was not groomed with the state school charm where Division I basketball players and footballers strut like kings, secure in the knowledge that the university holds them in even higher esteem than its president.

Athletics have caught Wolfe's eye because he believes that they are a fundamental expression of manliness, with all its implicit virtue and detriment. Tom Wolfe to Judith Butler: the sexes are intrinsically different. Though women might fiddle with a lacrosse stick, to Wolfe, the athletic realm is one that is not yet tainted by femininity. Like his opponents in this nurture-nature debate, Wolfe alludes to the bogus scientific findings of his own experience and concludes that "genetic memory" keeps men men, despite the influences of a culture that increasingly tries to erase or ignore the possibility that men and women might be different in more than the obvious physiological sense. "Manliness," Wolfe ominously declares, "never changes its form."

This is why Harvard cannot serve as his model: without Division I basketball or football, there is no culture of manliness at Harvard. This should not come as news to Harvard women, caught between the devil of final clubs and the deep blue sea of Lamont Library. Elsewhere--think Mississippi--campus society puts its finest specimens of testosterone at the top of the pecking order. They are kings of their respective castles, showered with all the attention that would have been appropriate for a victorious army of yore. This phenomenon has its reasons: manliness, according to Tom Wolfe, developed from the "culture of the warrior." The qualities of ferocity, tenacity and foolish pride that served mercenary men in days of the very yore still run thick, if unacknowledged, in male veins. Women can fight, sure, but they will never be as pig-headed as men. They will never sport the male ego. They will never be as obnoxious--presumably Wolfe believes women will indeed ask for directions--and they will never embody the same kind of honor that, in Wolfe's example, gave James Stockdale (the admiral who was humiliated as Ross Perot's '92 running-mate) the strength to persevere through eight years of Vietnamese torture, including four years of solitary confinement. The warrior mentality grew into the manliness that is both heroic and foolish.

Vietnam, as a matter-of-fact, was a turning point in Americana as far as manhood was concerned. According to Wolfe, this stomp across the sea initiated the widespread suppression of manliness. "We have the example of the elite young men dodging the draft," Wolfe observes. The efforts of America's top warriors went into avoiding combat rather than embracing it. These men and their apologists had to destroy the ideal of the male fighter to justify saving their own skin. Manliness never disappeared, but popular culture stopped celebrating it, says the author of A Man in Full. Warrior images--the army sergeant, the astronaut--became "feminized" as women joined the ranks. And all the while, the male ego percolated.

Athletics, and maybe investment banking and real-estate speculation, have emerged as manhood's final frontiers, even as the WNBA comes knocking. After all, says Wolfe, "there is something a little [pause] luxurious about women commanding in the army. I mean, when you've got these big strapping men with deltoids and pects [and they aren't commanding], I guess you don't really need them." Modern feminists, cringe now.

Harvard women are ambitious. At other colleges, where women study teaching or nursing, Wolfe told his surprisingly docile Harvard audience, they don't actually major in those subjects: "They major in their boyfriends; they minor in nursing." Not so, he says, for the men. At Harvard, however, it would be foolish to say the women major in their boyfriends. Success comes first for both sexes, and if ever it was doubted whether women have the capacity to compete with men--pay attention, Pat Buchanan--Harvard explodes the myth. But every Harvard man, and woman for that matter, will have to decide how womanly such ambitious females are. After all, wasn't it the Hillary Clinton who proclaimed, "Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here?" Look where it got her.

With Harvard women striving to shatter the glass ceiling, it follows that superb examples of manliness, like DI athletes, won't find an audience at the fair University. Note: the football stadium is crowded with alums only. At Harvard, we infer from Wolfe, the men are not men. Citing, of all sources, The Crimson, Wolfe notes that 80 percent of undergraduates here would only fight an American war whose cause they supported. Warrior culture, even in fantasy battles at the line of scrimmage, have no place at America's most elite college.

And so Wolfe spends his nights at Stanford fraternities; he knocks on their doors to find perplexed students in the middle of a good time. "They look confused," Wolfe told FM, "but they're drunk and they don't care. We have fun." That fun evades Harvard, where, given the latent aggressiveness within males, the College's seeming emasculation is utterly misguided. With a narrowed brow and an exaggerated backwoods drawl, Wolfe warns Harvard, "You better let your boys go hunting."

Harvard, however, deserves something of a defense. Wolfe's A Man in Full makes extensive reference to stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, whose writings emboldened James Stockdale during his imprisonment. Given the choice between humiliation and death, which should one choose? Humiliation for you, death for me, responds the stoic, because you would even consider the question. The stoics--the ultimate men--never allow their wills to be affected by the world around them. They do as they please, regardless of consequences. This obviously constitutes not only strength of character but also insanity.

Wolfe backs himself up with more than just the stoics. Thomas Hobbes based his entire philosophy on the question of manliness. Men, Hobbes teaches, are motivated by pride, by the desire to protect their own, to make something of themselves, and by the general esteem in which they hold themselves. In its natural state, life is (to name a few) "solitary" and "brutish," Hobbes says. At the mention of Hobbes, Harvard manliness expert Harvey Mansfield could not contain his smile. Estranged Harvard political theorist Peter Berkowitz went on point, edging to the front of his seat and whispering to his neighbors. Hobbes is a shrewd interpreter of human nature, and the professorial set was glad to see his name invoked in support of their program.

Unfortunately, Wolfe misread Hobbes' essential point. Manliness--as displayed in the brutal life of pre-civil society--is not an unmitigated good. In fact, it is the enemy of society, order, peace and of our own well-being. No one wants a brutish life. Hobbes writes that we all must give up our natural manly tendencies in order to attain some remnant of civilization. Pride is an obstacle to our own safety. In short, he recognizes that our boys may want to go hunting, but we need to trick them into self-restraint.

Wolfe, in addition to a fascination with hooking-up, where hunters mascarade in Brooks Brothers, he is also drawn to the cultural phenomenon of "dissing." Dissing can take on a particularly male flavor, as in the story of Howard "Pappy" Mason, a small-time New York criminal who ordered the assassination of a random NYPD officer after being "disrespected" by another member of the blue. Mason had been strolling with his amigos, flashing an open bottle of liquor. An officer approached and told him to put away his liquor or come downtown. The officer faced Pappy down, giving him a ten-count to take the liquor inside. With great consternation, Pappy obeyed. But, says Wolfe, "because he is a man, this so wrankled his soul" that he and his manly pride felt compelled to order a police hit.

Manliness motivates not only Braveheart, but the terrorists of Northern Ireland. And Wolfe, without any concern for the excess for his extreme stance, ends up spewing a kind of cheap Nietzsche, worshipping his own ubermensch, the stoic philosopher. One such character, a la Charlie Croker, the hero of A Man in Full, may be colorful, but a society of such rambunctious souls is anarchy.

The American left prides itself on its alliance with blacks, but often enough the ties between the two groups are strained. Black America tends to be religious, opposed to gay rights, for example. And for Wolfe, Black culture provides a far more realistic understanding of manliness. Rap music of LL and DMX celebrates male prowess in a way that terrifies post-feminist whites. Indeed, Roger Too White, the Uncle Tom-style lawyer in A Man in Full, loses his blackness by allowing white society to emasculate him. Sexual temptation is the urge within him to return to his own race. In his 1970 essay on "Radical Chic," Wolfe described a fundraiser for the Black Panthers at the Park Avenue digs of composer Leonard Bernstein '39, a congregation of "white liberals nibbling caviar while signing checks for the revolution with their free hand". he wrote. For Wolfe, it is clear that guilt-ridden whites have gone soft. Black culture has not caved.

Wolfe's allegory for masculinity seems a strange choice, however. White, after all, is his signature. At Mansfield's, Wolfe showed up in his sartorial trademark: a white jacket with a white vest, white-striped shirt, white tie, white handkerchief, white slacks and black-trimmed white shoes. His reading glasses, with thick white frames, resembled two Chinese soupspoons with holes in the center, fused together. He looked as though he had raided the closet of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote or maybe Elton John. They are, after all, empty closets these days. One could hardly help asking onesself, "What is up with this guy?"

Though Virginian by birth, Wolfe has made Manhattan his home for decades, and while he still uses his drawl for dramatic effect, it usually lies dormant. On the one hand, Wolfe casts an ironic eye on modern culture and preaches a return to more brutal instincts. On the other, he lives the life of a foppish Manhattan novelist. Like Pappy Mason, Wolfe says his soul has been wrankled by challenges to his manliness. Wolfe's example: once in New York, during a snowstorm, another man took a cab from him and he had to wait a long time for another. Poor thing.

Tom Wolfe's white dress is accompanied by a slight frame, a body that most alpha-males would have flung against the lockers in junior high. In his talk of masculinity, surely there is some envy of more manly types. John Wayne, or even Norman Mailer, would surely pashaw at Wolfe's own practice of manliness. Wolfe is not Truman Capote, however. He was once an athlete, pitching semi-pro baseball. Despite his age, he shows off his virility in his young children. His manliness is of a particularly southern variety, the flamboyance of an aristocrat, albeit affected in Wolfe's case.

Wolfe's philosophy overextends to make it rather ridiculous--Howard "Pappy" Mason should be a hero to no one--but Wolfe's own style points to the possibility of a more subtle rendering of the American male. Perhaps it is one that could even exist at Harvard. With a little bit of 94.5, a smattering of sex and some chewing tobacco, maybe we can convince Wolfe to spend some time at the A.D.