The Purple Decades: A Reader
Not since Garry Wills uncorked his rather fanciful notions on the origins of the cold war in the opening pages of Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time has a book been so fatefully torpedoed by its own introduction. Subtitled “A Reader,” The Purple Decades presents an ample selection of Tom Wolfe’s writings from the Sixties and Seventies—a bewilderingly familiar selection, considering how many of Wolfe’s fugitive pieces on fashion and pop remain uncollected. Rather than spruce up the book with some of Wolfe’s lesser-known sorties (such as his tribute to the photographer Marie Cosindas, which appeared in American Photographer, or his meditation on schlock movie violence in the July 1967 Esquire, which in many ways anticipated the current rage in “splatter” films), The Purple Decades safely sticks to what one might call Tom Wolfe’s Greatest Hits: his famous profiles of Baby Jane Holzer and racecar driver Junior Johnson, his explorations of radical chic, the right stuff, and the Me Decade, and highlights from his recent sprees on the absurd excesses of art-think, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House.
Since all of Wolfe’s books are still in print, it can hardly be argued that The Purple Decades is needed to rescue Wolfe’s work from the murks of neglect. Nor has the book been assembled merely as a sampler. No, the book’s ambitious title suggests that this collection provides an overview of a rambunctious era in the dandyish, frisking manner’ of Thomas Beer’s The Mauve Decade. Inside, the book gives off deeper rumbles of ambition: The Purple Decades is intended to be a plinth on which Tom Wolfe’s reputation will forever rest. For a suitable inscription, someone commissioned the services of Joe David Bellamy, an editor and teacher from St. Lawrence University who evidently believes that Tom Wolfe’s writing is the dishiest thing since sherbet. His enthusiasm proves to be dire.
Bellamy, who had an entertaining chat with Wolfe in his 1974 anthology The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, uses his introduction to The Purple Decades as an occasion to induct his hero into the ranks of the almighty. Not content to celebrate Wolfe as a flash genius, Bellamy drapes the author in the robes of a classic and shoos away all pigeons from his path. “All these years,” argues Bellamy, “Tom Wolfe has been writing Comedy with a capital C, Comedy like that of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen and Joseph Addison, like that of Thackeray and Shaw and Mark Twain. Like these writers, Tom Wolfe might be described as a brooding humanistic presence.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of unsuspecting sentences so bulging with weird, insupportable claims. Leaving aside the ineffable distinction between comedy with a capital C and comedy with a small c (where does this leave Ronald Firbank? Milton Berle?), the truth is that the flicking banter of Jane Austen is a very different affair from the haystack romps of Henry Fielding, and that neither writer was much given to humanistic…
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