OPED: Wolfe gave us the best words about America

Will Bunch
Tribune News Service

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr., the bathed-in-white son of Virginia tradition who became a devilish rule-breaker of the so-called New Journalism, who indeed left us last week at age 88, was arguably the most influential American writer of post-World War II America. He was, without a doubt, the most imitated. And he was usually imitated quite badly. Let's face it, most writers are very lucky if they do one thing well, while Wolfe was out there breaking through boundaries right and left.

A trend-spotter extraordinaire, Wolfe defined our times with phrases like "the right stuff" and his keen power of observation (dubbing the 1970s, correctly, as "the Me Decade"). 

Look in the dictionary for "modern American zeitgeist" and you'll find a bookshelf of Wolfe's classics: 1968's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which introduced Middle America to the quasi-religious fervor of an LSD counterculture, 1979's "The Right Stuff," a quest for the essence of quiet, testosterone-soaked heroism that predicted the looming Ronald Reagan era, and 1987's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," lampooning New York's wife-cheating, egomaniacal "Masters of the Universe," tabloid journalism and warped justice that all foreshadowed, well, you know...

If it sounds like another time, it was. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Wolfe is that both the writer and his work are adored by an entire generation of Baby Boomer writers who are mostly liberal — even though this man who grew up in the shadow's of Richmond's Confederate monuments arrived first in Washington and later in Manhattan with a profoundly, and sometimes disturbingly, conservative worldview. As the best-selling writer Michael Lewis chronicles in a remarkable Wolfe bio piece for Vanity Fair, laced with insights from Wolfe's voluminous personal papers, the young future journalist went on something of a post-McCarthyism jihad against allegedly Communist novelists while in grad school.

More:Tom Wolfe, pioneering ‘New Journalist,’ dead at 88

Wolfe's world was ruled by adoration for a certain kind of middle-class white male hero — epitomized by bootlegger-turned-race-car-driver Junior Johnson and the stoic test pilot Chuck Yeager — but was also a place where others, like black people, were either invisible men or a big pain in the butt. His best-known end-of-the-'60s pieces were "Radical Chic," an uncomfortably edgy takedown of rich white liberals like Leonard Bernstein raising money for, and hobnobbing with, the Black Panthers.

So for the sake of colorful, insightful writing, the world is very lucky that Tom Wolfe wasn't born 60 years later, because if he'd graduated from college in 2015 it's not hard to picture him as a bomb-throwing right-wing blogger, or a star reporter for Breitbart News. But that world didn't exist at the dawn of the 1960s, and Wolfe got to channel his energy elsewhere.

He became the Great Observer, who took on the self-important and the status-obsessed not by being a polemicist but through richly drawn satire. Wolfe, in his heyday, took journalist detachment to an almost religious level, and his offbeat persona — defined by his ever-present white suits, which Lewis describes as initially an accident of a new dress code and low funds — helped make it happen. He once told an interviewer that his weird garb made it seem to his subjects that he was like a visitor from outer space, which made them more likely to open up.

Wolfe's "New Journalism" — in essence, bringing the freedom and tricks of the novelist to non-fiction — of the 1960s and '70s was so influential that many were stunned when he crossed over to fiction in the 1980s. He was still an ace reporter but now he was reporting on his own kind — "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" who were also his neighbors in Upper Manhattan, and so the names had to be changed.

It's only in hindsight that we understand how 1980s New York — from the runaway and sometimes coke-fueled greed on Wall Street to the political incorrectness of radio's Howard Stern — would shape our modern world, and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" is what revealed that primal place to millions of regular American readers. Its protagonist, Sherman McCoy, was trying to hide his affair with an attractive young woman when they accidentally run over a black youth in a bias-driven panic over getting lost in the Bronx, eventually sparking protests. It would be hard to read the book today without thinking about a certain other "Master of the Universe" who was active in Manhattan real estate during the 1980s on his way to bigger but not necessarily better things.

The publication of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was also a high-water mark for what cultural critics dubbed the Age of Irony. The New Journalism rose as any hopes of a true counter-cultural revolution faded away, and the idea seemed to be that while we couldn't seem to get rid of our fatuous and increasingly wealthy elites, at least we still had the freedom to ridicule them. On TV, the sarcasm of "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" ruled, while Spy magazine — with its non-stop mocking of a "short-fingered vulgarian" — jumped off the newsstands. The world shaped by the New Journalism wrought by Wolfe, and its View from Nowhere, was a deeply cynical place.

You can still taste it today. The excitement over the New Journalism of the 1970s faded but its implicit values — that the role of the journalist is to richly observe but not do much more — have remained, even after it turns out that while the rich and powerful don't much like being laughed at, satire poses no real threat to their wealth and power in a time of runway inequality. Sherman McCoy, "Master of the Universe," may be something of a fool, but not so much so that most everyday folks wouldn't want to live like him. It seems like the American jury offered its own verdict on Sherman McCoy on November 8, 2016, and the flavor was just as bitter as in the book.

The sorrow of Wolfe’s passing mingles with the desire for a New New Journalism that can somehow channel the exclamation-point beauty — ZAP!! — of Wolfe's glorious prose into the not-so-cynical poetry of a better America. I can't help but think that it's just on the other side of the bridge.