The Right Stuff
Class has always been Tom Wolfe’s subject, and I suspect the reason for much of the disfavor in which he is held. In what purports to be an egalitarian society, the existence of class is the secret about which no one speaks. Class indeed was the unacknowledged secret of the Vietnam war, the first conflict in the nation’s history—although I doubt the last—fought by the American version of a Hessian class, a constituency of the dispossessed from the skid rows of the national dream, from the Appalachian hollows and the exhausted farms and the red-lined areas on the urban maps. What is astonishing about the social history of the Vietnam war is not how many people avoided it, but how many could not and did not.
For the past fifteen years, Tom Wolfe has focused his attention on the people who did not fight for the American empire. His special interest has been the aristocracies of the self-made, of surfers and dopers and car customizers, of Felicia and Leonard Bernstein, whom he seemed to see as the first moonwalkers of radical chic. For all his talk about journalism and New Journalism, much of it self-serving, Wolfe has never really been a journalist. Nor is it meaningful to call him, as Dwight Macdonald did, a “para-journalist.” Reporting to him has always been a means to a very personal, even unique end. The novelists he admires—Balzac, Zola, Dickens—were writers who went out and reported—a socially correct funeral, say, for Balzac, the infamous Yorkshire boarding schools for Dickens—and distilled their findings into fiction. Theirs was the method Wolfe adopted, but not as a novelist. It is perhaps closest to call him an anthropologist who writes, using reported fact to contemplate the culture and its classes, to note marginal differences in station and distinction.
To Wolfe’s detractors, this is a frivolous enterprise in a world under siege from forces, natural and otherwise, gone out of control. This is the same set of mind that derogates the soft sections of The New York Times—“Living” and “Home” and “Weekend”—as frivolous, entirely overlooking the possibility that the mere presence of these sections suggests at least as much about the society as all those endless column inches on the energy crisis or the opinions on Teddy punched out three times a week by the grandees on the Op-Ed page. The clues to a culture are in its style, and Wolfe has always been a creature of style.
As if to make this point unavoidable, he took unto himself a style. There were the white suit and the white socks with clocks and the hat that looked as if it had been lifted from the head of a Marseille gangster. There was the complexion as pale as a loaf of stale Wonder bread. In fact he looked like nothing so much as a male Edith Sit-well. He used language not to explain but to distort, to create an …