Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Rest in Peace, Tom Wolfe

The world is a little colder as Tom Wolfe has died.

I'm pretty sure I read him first in my teen-age "car phase" somewhere around 1965, when The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first collection of essays came out in book form. I think that some of his style might have rubbed off on writers at Car and Driver during those heady days. On me, too. Just as some aspiring writers copied Hemingway's style, I strove to emulate Wolfe. Most of my high school English teachers seemed to have missed the level of my success in accomplishing my goal. On the other hand, my mother was a professional writer whose short stories had sold in various major magazines of the day, and she both read and enjoyed Wolfe and, I came to understand, she didn't find my adoptions of his style to be too . . . outre'.

When studying sociology, I found his Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, to pretty much cover the area of what we now call "political correctness" as well as make "peer pressure,"  "in crowds," and similar ideas come to life. In short, I still laugh at those people he skewered (and at those who have followed them in kind). As written about in Commentary magazine by  Joseph Epstein in 1971 here:
For the essence of Radical Chic is precisely that it is devoid of content. At the moment in America it runs much lower down the social scale than the Leonard Bernsteins of Park Avenue. At least in part, it is behind such phenomena as the radical professors (those guerrillas with tenure, in Irving Howe’s phrase), closet revolutionists working at high salaries for large corporations, and upper-middle-class students in search of a political high. What the Bernsteins’ evening accomplished, with the indispensable aid of Tom Wolfe, was, by exaggerating an already bizarre phenomenon, to show it up for the foolish, misguided, and ultimately self-destructive tendency it really is.

I was fortunate that in my senior year in college, Mr. Wolfe came to my English class and spoke with us about writing and life. I have never forgotten his polite kindness to us.

Rest in peace.

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