READING TOM WOLFE
We will be reading two essays by Wolfe, RADICAL CHIC and MAU MAUING THE FLAK CATCHER, which are both wonderfully vicious snapshots of 1960s social history – and also very funny. This handout is intended to help you approach his particular writing style, and get the most out of the reading. To remind you, these works will be the subject of class discussion on Monday, November 12.
Wolfe is a classic example of what is known as the 1960s NEW JOURNALISM, a writing style also represented by people like Hunter Thompson, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, and Gay Talese. Though these are very different, they have certain things in common. In each case, the book or essay puts you in a particular situation, often a situation that is extreme, threatening, or bizarre, so you get an idea of (for instance) what it is like to ride with the Hell’s Angels, to get inside the mind of a mass murderer, to plunge into the LSD culture, to take part in a street riot. In each case, you see the situation through the eyes of the journalist who is your guide, something much more than a traditional narrator. A new journalism essay uses a lot of novelistic tricks, using elaborate and even over-written dialogue, description and characterization, and generally demonstrates great freedom with literary style and convention. If he (it is usually he) wants to launch a detailed academic lecture in the middle of a novelistic scene, then he will do it. If he wants to alternate high-flown philosophy with street language, he will. If he wants to use obscure words, then go buy a dictionary: he is in charge of this trip, and you, the reader, just go along for the ride. The goal is authenticity, the true novelistic voice: he lets you live through him, and you have to trust his voice and vision. These works are very novelistic – which may explain why there are not more great novels in the 1960s: all the great would-be novelists were off writing “non-fiction” and New Journalism.
New Journalism is often about “pulp fiction” themes like celebrity and notoriety, the cult of fame and the famous. And the main celebrity in these works is usually the journalist himself, who emerges as a kind of gutsy superstar: think of these as novels in which the journalist is both the narrator and the hero. And as in any such novel, how far can we trust what the narrator tells us? And arrogant? Sure they’re arrogant.
Both the Wolfe essays very much fit into this tradition. In Radical Chic especially, we are allowed to see inside this glitzy world of the ultra-rich through Wolfe’s eyes. Notice how massively he drops names and brand-names to make us think we should know them, as if we are part of this elite set: see how he takes us along with him. Also observe the high-velocity take-no-prisoners writing, the astonishing vocabulary choices, the use of the historic present tense, etc. And see how, as in any great novel, a single sustained scene, one single evening, serves to catch the issues and fears of a whole era. Work like this launched a thousand journalistic imitators.
Yet each of the articles deals with a major social and political theme of the era, far better than a conventional academic analysis would. In Radical Chic, the issue is upper-class liberalism, and its attempt to communicate with an idealized “people” at a New York party in late 1969. Wolfe sneakily allows you to believe that you are next to him observing this farce, and you too are there, in a snazzy white suit, clutching a perfect martini and scarfing Roquefort balls.
Some questions to think of when reading this:
*How would you characterize Wolfe’s own politics?
*What picture emerges of the “limousine liberals” he is describing?
*Note how he observes foibles of dress, décor, food and speech to make major social points, just as a novelist would – **give me some prime examples of this!**. This is a very important part of your reading of the book, so try hard to draw attention to illustrative examples.
*As in SOUL ON ICE, tell me about the theme of masculinity and gender, and how effectively this is used to manipulate the wealthy audience
*What are the real and substantial issues that blow up to spoil Leonard Bernstein’s soiree?
Why is there so much discussion of servants and the problems of finding them?
*How do Jewish and Israeli issues blow up in this evening? Why? What is happening in the world at this time to cause this dissension?
*How do his characters treat the theme of violence – how do Wolfe and his readers react to this?
*What does he think of the Panthers?
*Note how the book’s theme illustrates the issues we have discussed often in the class, the glorification of Third World cultures as purer, better and more authentic than the decadent West.
*How can what we read here be extrapolated to American liberalism of the mid-late 1960s? Is this viciously unfair parody, or (based on what we have read elsewhere) is there a core of truth to it?
*Another of Wolfe’s recent writings is BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. If you know this work, what else does this tell us about his political outlook? He also wrote THE RIGHT STUFF – same question.
*Does Wolfe succeed in taking us along with him on the ride – do we ever doubt his authority as narrator and guide?
**Pick a sentence or two in the book that you find stops you in its tracks, capturing a moment that summarizes all the themes and conflicts of this totally bizarre evening.* Why is it so effective?
*How does he make what should have been a deadly serious event into high farce?
*What political groups or causes are going to like or dislike this essay – or to be offended by it?
*Incidental note to illustrate Wolfe’s knack of defining an era in a brief phrase or sentence: he also coined the phrase “The Me Decade”, which is a standard definition of the 1970s.
Very much the same points emerge from MAU MAUING, which when you strip down the high farce, basically raises some very good points about federal social policy in the mid-late 1960s, during and after the Great Society. Just what had gone wrong to produce this ludicrous situation?
*As before, tell me about the politics of all this. What political groups or causes are going to like or dislike this essay – or to be offended by it?
*Who emerges as the chief villain(s) of the story?
*What does all this tell us about the assumptions of social policy in these years?
*We will be paying close attention to one scene in particular, namely th discussion of Eldridge Cleaver on pp 108-112. Read this carefully, and tell me how Wolfe makes his point. You know the Cleaver book now: what do you think of the points made here? Is this fair?
*In both essays – and this is a crucial question – what do we learn from this New Journalism format that we would not learn from a conventional piece of social history analysis? Why is this so much more effective than even the best and most perceptive historian’s account (and yes, there are some perceptive historians, though not many, I grant you).
*One additional point. Both these essays draw heavily on the literary tradition of satire, which brings them almost into the same category as STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. How similar and how different are Wolfe in their messages? How different or similar are they in the methods they use to convey these messages?
(For reference, I offer a definition of satire that I concocted, and which is probably as good as any other: “Satire is a literary genre in which wit and biting humor are used to comment critically on society and human institutions, or more specifically on particular individuals. The humor may often take the form of bizarre, inappropriate or obscene analogies between literary characters and the real individuals or institutions critiqued. One characteristic of satire is grotesque exaggeration or extrapolation, which may take the form of using fantastic conventions, such as the elimination of barriers of time and space, strange worlds and fictional planets, talking animals, etc. Any definition should take effect of these ideas of analogy and exaggeration”)