Tom Wolfe 1930–2018 by Mark Seliger
As you might already know, Famous Author ™ Tom Wolfe has died. Encomia proliferate.
David Douglas of Newsweek called him "more of a celebrity than the celebrities he describes," which was true at least when I was young. I don't know about the later big thick square novels—I once manfully tried to make it through Bonfire of the Vanities but fetched up against the rocky shores of my own inadequacies, and it was ugly. So will have to leave those discussions to others.
But there are a few of his slighter, lighter books that everyone, or maybe every American, should read. That list would include the early collection of magazine articles that helped make his reputation, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which in my opinion is treasurable for the title alone. That essay was about George Barris and the Kustom Kulture movement, which treated hot rods primarily as pop art.
Another must-read for those in these environs is The Painted Word. Although it's primarily a send-up, and has certainly been accused of being reactionary—it inspired almost hysterical criticism when it appeared—the central thesis was dead serious and oh-by-the-way correct: that modern art had moved away from being primarily a visual experience. I'll often ask of a photograph, "but is it good to look at?" And the antecedent there is probably Wolfe.
The virtual "part two" of that line of cultural criticism was From Bauhaus to Our House, a similar but less controversial look at modern architecture. It's a less famous book—the modernist establishment had learned fast to contain and compartmentalize its outrage—but one that's even more entertaining to read. Having grown up summering in northern Michigan, I love these sentences from the book's opening: "Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all."
I know just the house he's talking about it. (And that "insecticide refinery" is a small but pure note of his genius—still makes me chuckle.) For entertaining reading, From Bauhaus to Our House is tough to beat.
And of course everybody should read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, because it's the single book of Wolfe's that, well, everybody should read. But then, you already knew that. All of these are entertaining reads, still. Wolfe was sui generis.
"Open Mike" is the often off-topic, anything-goes editorial page of TOP. Theoretically it appears on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jack: "My wife was once a dinner party seat mate with Tom. His ice-breaker was 'What are you reading?' Fortunately she had just finished a book he was looking forward to reading himself. So she was the one recommending books. He was an excellent dinner partner as one would expect. And yes, he was all in white. But a photo of Tom must be in color."
Luis Aribe: "There is an essay by Tom Wolfe in Marie Cosindas's book, Color Photographs, on her images and on photography and photographers in general. It's a book well worth having just for her photographs, with the added bonus of Wolfe's essay."
John Camp: "I was sad to hear about Wolfe's death—he was a major part of the journalism I read when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, and for my decision to become a journalist, although I was never his kind of journalist.
"About The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House: There is a strain of what I consider to be fairly serious writing on visual art done by journalists. John Updike wrote three nice books of essays on art, all available at Amazon: Just Looking: Essays on Art, Always Looking: Essays on Art and Still Looking: Essays on Art. Robert Hughes was the Time art critic, but he was really a journalist who wrote on art (and other things) and looked with a skeptical eye upon the antics of the art world: 'The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.' His books The Spectacle of Skill, The Shock of the New, and American Visions are all important and available at Amazon and are good and fun reading.
"I make a distinction between these guys and 'serious' art critics who are really theorists of modernity and post-whatever. These guys actually went out and looked at art and reported back on what they encountered. Too many serious critics, and particularly those who would get in an uproar and denigrate the work of Wolfe, Updike and Hughes (and they did), might look at some art, but what they reported on were usually artifacts of their own imagination...which was not nearly as rich as they thought it was."
Stephen Scharf: "What the hey, no mention of The Right Stuff? Now, that is a good read."
Rick Denney: "I still love Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. It's probably more controversial than the essays you mentioned, though it resonates with my own flak-catching experience. But it follows the notion that the shorter he wrote, the more taut he became. About The Right Stuff, Neil Armstrong opined that a guy who never left his apartment in Manhattan was unlikely to know what really happened. So, sometimes we read for style more than substance. Wolfe was loaded with it. R.I.P."
Bruce Rubenstein: "I can understand having a rough time with Gravity's Rainbow, but Bonfire of the Vanities? Really? Maybe one had to have lived in NYC. I'm also a little surprised by a child of the '60s not mentioning The Right Stuff."
Andrew Lamb: "Bonfire of the Vanities falters towards the end. Not sure that it has aged well. Surely, the one to read is The Right Stuff?"
Chuck Albertson: "The Right Stuff is brilliant and hilarious, about 20 percent of it made it into the (excellent) movie. If you can find it, a draft of the book first ran in Rolling Stone, with photos by Annie Leibowitz. I also like Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter & Vine, a collection of essays from the '70s that is a rollicking takedown of the Me Generation."
Geoff Wittig: "I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Wolfe, despite his writings' tendency to degenerate into self-parody, because of his sincere appreciation for the place of technical skill, of craft, in the visual arts. He wrote a brilliant and heartfelt eulogy for sculptor Frederick Hart exploring this concept; and was predictably criticized for his retrograde philistinism by the gatekeepers of 'contemporary art.' And it's hard not to have a bit of admiration for his ability to pull off the 'dandy' role in an age when it has become largely passé."
Mani Sitaraman: "More than four decades ago, when I was 14, I read Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the very first of his books that I was to read. Suddenly, everything my English teacher told me about writing prose didn't matter anymore. What a blast!
"Googling reveals numerous excellent, mannered portraits of Tom Wolfe, who was photogenic. There seem to be two schools of thought regarding images that accompany obituaries of notable public figures who die in old age. The first seems prefer the use of a very recent portrait, to reveal the person as they were in the times just before their passing. The other, like the use of a picture of the person when they first achieved fame. That's my preference, too. Here is a picture of Tom Wolfe in 1968, a couple of years after The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was published. A perfect New York City environmental portrait by Sam Falk for the New York Times.
"Rest in peace, Tom Wolfe."
Carsten Bockermann: "Back in early 1999 I had the good fortune of meeting Tom Wolfe in New York City, where he was reading out of his then-new novel A Man in Full (great book, in my humble opinion).
"Of course, he was dressed in a white suit, just as one would expect."
D. Hufford: "I must get over my laziness about writing to write just a bit about Tom Wolfe. After all, as a native West Virginian, I owe him for his portrayal of another native West Virginian, Chuck Yeager, in The Right Stuff. Compare that with what we get nowadays with simplistic, shallow stereotyping stuff as Hillbilly Elegy.
"I am not an expert on his work, but that which I have read I have thoroughly enjoyed. I love his ability to gore sacred cows and to irritate those who need to be irritated: "Radical Chic: That party at Lenny’s" [the article in the June 8, 1970 issue of New York magazine —Ed.] is still relevant, today, methinks. And I had started reading Bonfire of the Vanities just a few days ago. I have never watched the movie and although I have only begun the book, I already know the movie would be a disappointment. The scene where the husband who says he is going out to walk the dog and while out mistakenly calls his wife and asks if his girlfriend is there. The surprise and humor and the knowledge that this is the sort of stupid thing real people do would never be shown as well on film. Later, couple living in a small, rather shabby apartment but with pretensions and a British maid are relieved to find that she is racist. Relieved because they had been worried that with her British accent and her past experience of working for wealthier people, she was judging them and looking down on them. Finding her a racist restored their sense of superiority. This seems so real to me. Yeah, that’s the way some of our 'betters' are.
"I am sorry to see him go."
Jack: "Tom wrote The Right Stuff in book form in 1979. It made a hero of Chuck Yeager to the people who hadn’t followed flying by explaining how he first broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane. To me, I didn’t need to read the book for him to be my hero. Months before the book was published, I was with General Yeager on the Bonneville Salt Flats with a small group attempting to break the sound barrier on land in the Budweiser Rocket Car. So naturally we brought the General in for the effort. The test run at 400 miles an hour was scary as the nose raised up off the ground and the nose wheel was how the driver steered. The telemetry was analyzed to determine how much adjustment would be required in the forward fin to keep the front from lifting off without also pushing it into the salt flats. In 1979 things were slow to compute and it took six hours to calculate. Five hours before that, Chuck told me he estimated it would require 6 degrees angle down. After much calculating over the hours, the computer declared a recommended angle of down 5.9 degrees. Chuck looked at me and said, 'See, I’ve still got it.'"