Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe; drawing by David Levine

The Vietnam war returns in these books, not to haunt us but to amuse. Everyone who touches that war gets tarbabyized by it. Gloria Emerson manages to trivialize by her very concern. She feels it her duty to be outraged that a perfume is now called Charlie—once the Americans’ nickname for the Viet Cong. Wolfe celebrates America’s flyers over Vietnam in a long piece on “Jousting with Sam and Charlie.” The “Sam” of that title, a snaky missile seeking out the airplanes’ animal heat, makes dramatic appearances in Wolfe’s prose. But “Charlie” never does show up. These books are unconsciously aimed at each other; and both miss the target. They remind me of a “Doonesbury” strip from the war days. Phred the Terrorist is screaming up at the bomber pilots, calling them vicious monsters. Mean-while, in the clouds, Americans rehash the latest Knicks game.

Emerson’s book crawls along with Phred, from splutter to splutter, attributing every kind of malice to the colonizers, unable to understand that the war machine worked automatically, without malice, with a dutiful attention to technique. Wolfe’s prose soars with appropriate skill and moral obtuseness. You would never know from this chronicle of battle with the SAMS that his flyers risked death in order to deal it.

Wolfe made his mark by celebrating the wacky styles of the Sixties. Some who admired that aspect of his work were dismayed when they found, late in the game, that this stylistic radical was also a right-winger. They felt much as admirers of early Waugh or Eliot did, when they learned that Vile Bodies and The Waste Land were meant to speak not for this century but against it. Yet Wolfe is no Waugh or Eliot. They were recognizably “conservative” by almost any thoughtful definition. Wolfe is that American kind of “conservative” who is in love with change and all the explosive powers of capitalism. He does not resemble the Waugh who pictured modern life as a speeding race car out of control, but the William Buckley who established God’s existence, in a recent essay, from the intricate gadgetry on his yacht. Wolfe’s love of style is like Goldwater’s love of gadgets as the ornaments and trophies of capitalism.

Wolfe celebrated the Sixties as “a happiness explosion” caused by an economy that “has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history.” The poor are as invisible to Wolfe as Charlie was to the pilots. When Michael Harrington reminds us that there still are poor people, Wolfe uses his customary tactic of dismissal, the invention of a spurious new category—in this case the Adjectival Catch Up: “We have relative poverty (Michael Harrington’s great Adjectival Catch Up of 1963).” Wolfe is always discovering some new social phenomenon for which he must invent, on the spot, a new social law. He likes to predict what “historians will say” about us. Flying so high and at such great speed, he spots only the outsize and exotic. He tells us blacks split from whites on the left because the blacks wanted Superfly clothes and the whites insisted on dungarees. He misdates as well as misplaces the split, which was precipitated by the resolutely dungareed SNCC kids.

Wolfe’s most famous “new” category was Radical Chic, which was as old as the Abolitionists of the nineteenth century. Radicalism has always had an elitist set of sponsors (if not originators) in America. He makes the Big Insight operate almost like the Big Lie. Call it something new and no one will notice that what is true is old, while only the new is false. Another technique for his sleight-of-hand is the flourishing of odd bits of learning, like distracting hankies of perfumed lace. He likes to explain behavior in linguistic metaphors, drawing heavily on rhetorical devices. But he defines epanadiplosis incorrectly as the equivalent of chiasmus. He supplies us with the etymology for charismatic (“Literally: God-imbued”), unaware that he has confused charismatic with enthusiastic. His love of catchy slogans makes him invent one category (“serial immortality”) which could not possibly mean what he wants it to.

His history is slapdash—usually irrelevant, and often wrong: St. Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians does not establish (as he thinks) that “the early Christians used wine for ecstatic purposes.” In arguing that the Jesus Freaks have inaugurated America’s third Great Awakening, he ignores evidence that the religious “revival” of recent years has been a recognition that religion was always alive and well out there in the real world, so little visited by Death-of-God faddists or by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe is so sloppy he even says things that work against his own ideological drift, as when he includes Marx in the handful of men whose thoughts have influenced history “unaided by any political apparatus.”


He is not only wrong to begin with, but cheerfully incorrigible. A piece written before the revelations of CIA and FBI and IRS misdoings mocked the idea that our police might be spying on us in secret. He reprints the piece in 1976, unaware that the laugh is now on him. His proof that we could not have a police state was the fact that “the only major Western country that allowed [my emphasis] public showings of Macbird—a play that had Lyndon Johnson murdering John F. Kennedy in order to become President—was the United States (Lyndon Johnson, President).” It is hard to know exactly which con that verb “allowed” is trying to work—does he mean to imply that Macbird was suppressed in France and England, or that it should have been suppressed here, or both? Those who, like Wolfe and McLuhan and Eric Hoffer, go for the Big Insight, are not allowed to test, alter, or develop any line of thought. The Insights have to be thrown out, formed and disjunct, to lie there, separate pearls, almost all fake, too many new ones arriving for us to search out the few that are genuine.

Wolfe’s act, like Eric Hoffer’s, depends on a spoofing of the experts, on posing as the anti-intellectuals’ intellectual. Sometimes Wolfe has to make up a group of intellectuals for the sole purpose of attacking them. He finds that masters of “the conventional Grim Slide concepts” are calling his third Great Awakening “fascist.” He does not name these Grim Sliders, because he is making the group up out of a few small and antagonistic voices—those of his own allies from the Commentary set who called the hippies fascistic, and the very different investigators who are probing the connections of Sun Myung Moon with the Korean CIA.

Why bother with a writer who has been so spectacularly and consistently wrong about American life? For the brio of his performance? I suppose. He benefits from the freak effect of literacy on the right. But there is more to it than that. Wolfe is sometimes right almost by accident. He only sees exotics, but sometimes he sees through them. There was no “new journalism” in any serious way, but Wolfe tried to make his case for putting a new label on old things by remarking that fiction had ceased to play its traditional role of reaching character through exquisitely observed milieu. Ten years after he started saying that, Gore Vidal was proclaiming the sterility of experimental writing in this journal, John Leonard and Wilfrid Sheed were calling fiction a higher gossip, and there was renewed interest in “realistic” novels. They were repeating Wolfe’s thesis, without noticing the fact.

Wolfe talked nonsense about McLuhan as a neural recircuiter; but that leads, in this collection, to a brilliant attack on Freud’s concept of repression. Don’t count Wolfe out, either, in his attack on postwar painting. The howls of reaction to The Painted Word resemble the treatment given his comments on fiction in the Sixties. It adds to the enjoyment of the performance that Wolfe’s own gifts for observation and reportage are not very good. He boasts that his journalism is more accurate than the conventional kind, even by conventional norms—yet he called me, once, for a set of dates and facts to include in his anthology of journalism, and he got almost every one of the items wrong. In the same way, it is fascinating to watch him attack Pop Art with the comic-book tricks and “Pow!” techniques of a Pop sensibility.

He is a walking clash of style with content, like all capitalist “conservatives”—he is a puritan dandy. Yet dandyism often reflects a moment when self-indulgence reaches a pitch that is almost self-denying; and the right-wing devotion to capitalist goods—to growth and change and expansion—involves a kind of discipline by materialism. You have to use all the gadgets cranked out by the system to prove that the system works, that the “happiness explosion” will reach “every class level” if we just keep feeding it.

We even have to use the bombers. Wolfe’s essay on Yalie aristocrats of the air, our aces over Vietnam, is written with the contagious enthusiasm of a Thirties biplane movie. It is absolutely certain that no one who could write so lovingly of that air war would do so now—no one but Wolfe. Though the Vietnamese never show up in his article, there is a comic Oriental straight out of the Thirties—the aircraft carrier’s Filipino steward, who gets things off to a quaint start by waking flyers with his chimes and the cry of “Bye borty-bibe” (5:45). The rest is all air heroics, with only one dim glimpse—down through the clouds—of the real enemy, who is not Vietnamese. Just when a transport site has been knocked out, the Vietnamese come up with an even greater weapon against Americans:


On the third day they massed the bomb strike itself. They tore the place apart. They ripped open its gullet. They put it out of the transport business. It had been a model operation. But the North Vietnamese now are blessed with a weapon that no military device known to America could ever get a lock on. As if by magic…in Hanoi…appears…Harrison Salisbury! Harrison Salisbury—writing in The New York Times about the atrocious American bombing of the hardscrabble folk of North Vietnam in the Iron Triangle! If you had real sporting blood in you, you had to hand it to the North Vietnamese. They were champions at this sort of thing. It was beautiful to watch. To Americans who knew the air war in the north firsthand, it seemed as if the North Vietnamese were playing Mr. Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.

The only other villains of the piece are William Sloane Coffin and Kingman Brewster, whom the Yalies must get back at with their bombs—Mr. Chips never betrayed the boys in the trenches!

Ms. Emerson, in this book of reflections on her experience as a war correspondent, abroad and at home, wants us to look down through the clouds and see Phred’s people, bleeding. Unfortunately, every time the clouds part, the first sight we get is of Ms. Emerson. She musters her flock in a matronly way, and quotes the funny English of her favorite, Luong, in a manner that puts him dangerously close to Mr. Bye Borty-Bibe. One of the functions of the flock is to give us more sets of eyes through which to see Gloria and her agony:

Long after Tay Ninh, when I was living in Massachusetts, Luong wrote me a letter that put into words what the trouble was, what I had refused to admit. He said that whenever there was time, he and the reporters, the ones I knew and others who came after, would talk about me: “All have this remark about you: you are the only one who cannot overcome your Vietnam experience.”

It is all a little too obviously Ms. Emerson’s war. Everyone tells us that in the book. When she is insufficiently distressed that a tree is endangered, Richard Goodwin tells her, “You would care if the tree was in Vietnam.” Emerson describes an Ellsberg groupie who grabs his nameplate off a symposium table. But Emerson herself shows a groupie tendency for all those connected with the war. Sent, after her return from Vietnam, to cover a livestock auction, she finds she cannot concentrate on the cattlemen because she sees two veterans standing near—and black veterans at that: “One wore the canvas and leather boots, another his Army shirt with the sleeves cut off. I wanted to stay with them.” Emerson is a very nun of protest. She seeks community with “other women who knew what I knew,” and makes a pilgrimage to Lillian Hellman’s home.

I doubt that even someone less self-dramatizing than Emerson could make us care about the Vietnamese. The most evil aspect of the war was that we did not wage it either for or against them. They were not the issue. If they had been, we would have witnessed the deliberately inflamed racism of World War II. The fact that we were supposed to be supporting some Vietnamese made it hard to work up the blatant hatred for “Gooks” that we were obliged to feel for “Japs” and “Krauts.” Showing napalmed little girls did not sting the American conscience. The pictures were regarded as unpleasant, and that was held against those who displayed them—much as pictures of aborted fetuses are now. Neither set seems to make converts. After all her spluttering, Emerson must admit that the best thing written about the war preceded America’s entry into it—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. And that book was not really about Vietnam, but about the divisions within our colonizing West, the clash of Pyle with the narrator. (Ironically, it is Pyle who shows an interest in Vietnamese cultures.)

It is natural that Emerson should succeed a little better in reporting on war protest at home than on the war itself. That was where the battle had its origin. Hawks kept bombing the Vietnamese to get even with Bill Coffin, to show that America could not be wrong, to silence the critics. But Emerson sees malice where there was little, and saintliness where there was little, and has no mind at all for sorting out various kinds of mindlessness on both sides. In the rice fields, her kind of screaming did not affect the bombers. Outside the Pentagon, it may have helped the generals. Where the ironies are not attended to, the tragedy does not reach us. Instead we see a cartoon hermit figure carrying a doomsday placard—but one that does not read, in her case, THE END IS NEAR. Rather, THE END HAS ALREADY OCCURRED.

We do not know, yet, whether the nation learned anything from Vietnam. Public reaction to the Mayagüez incident seems to indicate that it did not. Ms. Emerson and Mr. Wolfe do not so much learn from the Sixties as keep reliving them—Emerson in ineffectual protest, and Wolfe in a brilliance of destructive technique.

This Issue

January 20, 1977