Thursday, October 29, 2015

Michael Lewis on Tom Wolfe in Vanity Fair, or, "What??? Who's that??? It's the Writing Wizard in the White Suit-It's Tom Wolfe!!!"

Tom Wolfe in his study, 2015. He looks pretty sharp for 85.

Tom Wolfe, photo by Annie Leibovitz, 1980.

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, The Big Short, and other books.
Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, among other books, has a very nice profile of Tom Wolfe in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. Lewis wrote that at the age of 11 or 12, while he was reading Wolfe’s 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, “At some point came a thought that struck with the force of revelation: this book had been written by someone.” It was indeed written by someone, a man who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University, who had a tryout as a pitcher with the New York Giants in 1952, a man who started wearing a white suit all year round instead of just in the summer, who began his career in daily journalism but expanded the subject matter of long-form journalism, a man who abandoned journalism in favor of the novel, a man whose first novel sold more than 3 million copies, who coined the terms “radical chic,” “the Me Decade,” “masters of the universe,” and “the right stuff.” 

In his essay, Lewis chronicles Wolfe’s life through a visit to his papers at the New York Public Library, which recently became available for study. Lewis’ judicious selection of artifacts gives us a portrait of the more private Wolfe, like a letter written to his parents when he was 12 years old, which shows that he already had a distinctive writing voice and a keen eye for detail. 

One of the luckiest things that happened to Tom Wolfe was the New York City newspaper strike, which started on December 8, 1962, and lasted until March 31, 1963. Wolfe was then employed by The New York Herald Tribune, and he found himself out of work, without a plan for his future. Wolfe was hired by Esquire magazine to write an article about custom cars in California. Encountering a severe case of writer’s block, Wolfe was told by his editor to just write up his notes and he would help Wolfe assemble them into some kind of order. The letter that Wolfe wrote assembling his notes became the article, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the first of the long articles that made Wolfe famous. 

Lewis understands the duality of Tom Wolfe, that he is both an insider and an outsider at the same time. Lewis writes, “He moves back and forth like a bridge player, ruffing the city and the country against each other. He occupies a place in between. He dresses exotically and is talented and intellectually powerful, like the sophisticates in the bubble. But he isn’t really one of them. To an extent that shocks the people inside the bubble, when they learn of it, he shares the values of the hinterland. He believes in God, Country, and even, up to a point, Republican Presidents.” This echoes the point I made in my review of Wolfe’s book about architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, that despite Wolfe’s hip, cool writing style, he’s actually a square. Because Wolfe did not indulge himself in the excesses customary to famous authors, he was able to capture the spirit of the times without letting that spirit consume him. 

In his essay, Lewis wonders exactly how Wolfe was able to do what he did. He writes, “Why do all these people keep letting this oddly dressed man into their lives, to observe them as they have never before been observed?” Sometimes they let him in by accident, which is what happened when Wolfe attended the fundraiser that Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia held for members of the Black Panthers, which became the subject of the essay “Radical Chic.” Wolfe revealed to Lewis that he was never actually invited to the party. When Wolfe was visiting the offices of Harper’s magazine, he was wandering around and stepped into journalist David Halberstam’s office. Halberstam wasn’t in, and the invitation to the party was on his desk. Wolfe knew that it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, and RSVP’d to the party. 

In January, the novelist Thomas Mallon wrote an essay in The New York Times in which he argued that Tom Wolfe is overdue for a biography. I strongly agree, and hopefully Lewis’ excellent essay will encourage other writers to explore Wolfe’s work and legacy.

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