Tom Wolfe

The people in the psychedelic world had been religious but had always covered it up.  There was such a bad odor about being frankly religious. I mean Kesey would refer to Cosmo, meaning God; someone in the group used the word manager.  Hugh Romney [a.k.a. Wavy Gravy] used to say, “I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager.”

On unusual style / carrying yourself as a reporter:

When I first started at Esquire, I made the mistake of trying to fit in.  And given the kind of things I was sent to cover – stock car racing, the Peppermint Lounge, topless restaurants in San Francisco – not only did I not fit in no matter how hard I tried, but I would deprive myself of the opportunity to ask very basic questions that the outsider can ask.  You just discover after awhile that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.

Elsewhere:

be an odd, eccentric character… people will volunteer information to you

On American literature:

In France they discovered Faulkner – not as we would, as a very complex and somewhat arty writer, but as a primitive who had barely emerged from the ooze, somehow, to write.

At the same time they were admiring the energetic, classless and low-rent, rude, animal side of American art, our artists were striving like mad to shed all of that and to stop being hicks and rustics.

re: The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House

I want people to pay attention to what I think is my sole contribution in these areas – showing how certain fashions, certain styles, certain trends come about.  They’re not like the weather.  Most of our critics and historians seem to think that styles are like Bermuda highs.  That it’s the spirit of the age and so cosmic in nature that you don’t have to think about how it happened.  You just note that it happened, and if the weather is serious enough, you bow down.  What I keep saying is that styles are created by people.  And the task of a historian – which is all I picture myself as in these books – is to find out who these people are and what the competitions were that brought the styles out.

On advice to young journalists:

You should get up your courage and approach the biggest magazine you can think of that might be interested in the subject.  Approach a junior editor rather than the man at the top, because the junior editors are in competition with one another to discover new writers.  Even if you’ve already written it, present the story idea to the editor, because editors like to feel that they’re part of the creative process. Wait a decent interval of about two weeks and then send them a manuscript.  Magazines will be in a receptive mood if you have approached them ahead of time.  They’ll want it to be good, they’ll want to buy it, and they’ll want it to be a success.  There’s a continual shortage of good writers and good journalists.  It’s really not an overcrowded field because there’s not that much talent to go around.  A lot of it is having the determination and perseverance to do the reporting.

There are several references to an article I’m not sure I’d read before, about carrier pilots operating off the USS Coral Sea, dodging missiles over North Vietnam, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which you can read here on Esquire’s website.

Status competition, that’s what interests Wolfe.

Making writing appear spontaneous:

I wanted the writing to appear buoyant, free and easy, spontaneous.  Creating the effect of spontaneity in writing is one of the most difficult and artificial things you can do.  I was much relieved to learn that Celine used to spend four or five years rewriting his novels in order to achieve the effect of someone just sitting down across the table from you, spouting up the story of his life.  Writing is an extremely artificial business: it’s artificial by its very nature – you’re taking sounds and converting them into symbols on a page.  To make that transference from one sense to another and reinvest the words with vigor and rhythm and spontaneity is quite a feat.

more:

my intention, my hope, was always to get inside of these people, inside their central nervous systems, and present their experience in print from the inside.

[after he wrote an attack on The New Yorker, and everybody came after him]

I suddenly found myself denounced by the likes of Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippman (he called me an ass in print), Murray Kempton, a distinguished columnist for the New York Post.  Richard Goodwin called up from the White House to denounce me; E. B. White; even J. D. Salinger, whom the press hadn’t heard from for years, sent in a telegram denouncing me as a yellow journalist.  I really felt that perhaps the world was coming to an end. All these eminent people descended upon me, and I felt the sky was falling in.  Then a few days later I woke up, and nothing had happened.  It dawned on m that it’s very difficult to get hurt in a literary fight. In a strange way, all the shouting and shooting and the explosion were part of the literary excitement.

(funny that one of the criticisms, J.D. Salinger’s term, was that Wolfe’s attack was “gleeful.”

The next two are from an interview with Ron Reagan in “GEO, 1983.  The prompt here is about Pol Pot and the then rampant Khmer Rouge:

So much of the political thought and fashion among writers and other commentators in the United States is based on the idea that liberty has always existed in a kind of mist over the left.  In this country there have been very few ideologues, but there has often been a Marxist mist, the idea that there is something wonderful about socialism that if pursued correctly will lead to liberty, peace, harmony and the betterment of man in a way that nothing going on in modern industrial nation can.  In the past ten years it’s been discovered that socialism, when put into effect by experts, leads only to extermination camps.  This has been a terrible blow to a very fashionable idea.  That’s why it’s embarrassing to dwell on Pol Pot.  Pol Pot is not a maniac.  He’s a man who studied the future for his country for years starting in France, and the whole Khmer Rouge movement was probably as rational an undertaking under a Marxist ruler as has ever occurred.  Everywhere the experts have put socialism into effect, the result has been the gulag.  Now to point this out is to be regarded as right wing.  I regard it only as obvious – so obvious, in fact, that you have to be crazy to avert your eyes from it.

On why writers like Hemingway and Mailer are interested in fighters and “people who got their hands dirty”:

For this analysis, I go to Sigmund Freud.  He said that writers and artists are people who discovered as youngsters that they lost out in the hurly-burly of the playground.  They discovered, however, that they had the power to fantasize about such things, about the fruits of power, such as money, glory and beautiful lovers.  In a way, that resonated with the fantasies and dreams of other people who were not so talented.  When they are successful in presenting these fantasies to the public, they end up achieving through fantasy that which they were previously able to achieve only in fantasy.  But somehow it’s not enough to be known as someone who is a skilled fantasist.  That is second best; it would have been much better to have ruled the playground.  So they constantly try to prove to themselves that they can rule the playground if they really try.  But only rarely do you run into an obsession like that.

Wolfe later mentions he things handguns should be banned:

I think if manufacture and sale stopped, the price of the ones remaining would go up on the black market.  If it became a felony nationally to possess a handgun and there was a public call to turn them in , I think you’d be surprised at how many would be turned in.

Wolfe had really done his homework to develop his styles.

I really made a concentrated effort to get in the game.  I adapted a lot of things I had run across in graduate school.  For example, there were these early experimental Soviet writers like Aleksei Remizov, Boris Pilniak, Andrei Sobel and the Serapion Brothers.  One of them, Yevegeni Zamyatin, was best known for We, the book that Orwell’s 1984 was based on.  From Zamyatin, I got the idea of oddly punctuated inner thoughts.  I began using a lot of exclamation points and dashes and multiple colons.  The idea was, that’s the way people think.

The four basic techniques of novels Wolfe tried to introduce to nonfiction:

The first is scene-by-scene construction.  In other words, telling the entire story through a sequence of scenes rather than simple historical narration.  Second is the use of real dialogue – the more the better.  The third, which is the least understood of the techniques, is the use of status details.  That is, noting articles of clothing, manners, the way people treat children, the way they treat servants.  All the things that indicate where a person thinks he fits in society and where he hopes to go socially.  The fourth is the use of point of view, which is depicting the scenes through a particular pair of eyes.

Re: psychedelia and mus:

Without that world, without Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, there would have been no serious music by the Beatles.  They take off from the Grateful Dead, starting with that album Revolver.  Everything from Revolver on comes out of the American psychedelic world, to which they were turned on by Bob Dylan – in person, in private.  Not by listening to his records, but by getting involved with him personally.

One more:

Here’s another thing that’s now like a foreign notion.  The seven deadly sins are all sins against the self.  And this is an idea that’s vanished pretty much.  Lust for example.  The reason that lust in Christian religion was – particularly in the form of Catholicism that originated the seven deadly sins – was considered a sin was not that some man would be leading some nice girl from Akron into white slavery, or the pages of pornographic magazines, but that he would be hurting himself by wasting his spirit on this shallow and pointless, base passion.

I hope editor Dorothy Scura doesn’t mind me quoting so extensively from her book, which is itself a roundup of other interviews.  My goal is simply to share some of these wonderful insights with likeminded readers.

True Wolfeheads can find more content here.

 


Tom Wolfe observation

There are, of course, all sorts of gradations of status, of power, of wealth, influence and comfort, but it is impossible to break America down into classes in the old European sense. “But there is a … dividing line, and above that line are those who have bachelor degrees or better from a four-year college or university. Below that are the people who don’t. That line is becoming a gulf that grows wider and wider. “Like the rest of the West, we live in a highly bureaucratic world and it’s impossible today to advance to the heights of ambition without that bachelor’s degree, without being a part of what Vance Packard used to call ‘the diploma elite.'”

Had to go looking for the source of that one, it was in a 2005 Duke commencement speech.  How about this?:

For the last four years, you have been trained to be the leaders of an extraordinary nation. There has never been anything like it. … It is the only country I know of in which immigrants with a totally different culture, a totally different language, can in one-half of a generation, if they have the numbers and a modicum of organization, take over politically a metropolis as large as, say, Miami.

As a Tom Wolfe (Ph.d) superfan, kind of disappointed by the tributes and obituaries.  Most of them seemed pretty limp.  Maybe because so many journalists were so in awe of him, they seemed to sputter on about the same stuff and barely touch on the vastness of Wolfe’s interests and insights.

Best one imo was Louis Menand.  (Update: lol whoops hadn’t seen Friend of Helytimes’ Graeme Wood’s.)

Felt literary world scoffed at

but how many 74 year olds would take on a seven hundred page book about college, rap, hookup culture, basketball, and attempts to get in the head of (among others) a nineteen year old female virgin?  A little crazy but I thought it was cool!  Also came pretty close to predicting the Duke lacrosse scandal.

If you hunger for Wolfe at full Wolfeness might I recommend his 2006 Jefferson Lecture?:

According to Korean War lore, a Navy fighter pilot began shouting out over the combat radio network, “I’ve got a Mig at zero! A Mig at zero! I’ve got a Mig at zero!” A Mig at zero meant a Soviet supersonic fighter plane was squarely on his tail and could blow him out of the sky at any moment. Another voice, according to legend, broke in and said, “Shut up and die like an aviator.” Such “chatter,” such useless talk on the radio during combat, was forbidden. The term “aviator” was the final, exquisite touch of status sensitivity. Navy pilots always called themselves aviators. Marine and Air Force fliers were merely pilots. The reward for reaching the top of the ziggurat was not money, not power, not even military rank. The reward was status honor, the reputation of being a warrior with ultimate skill and courage–a word, by the way, strictly taboo among the pilots themselves. The same notion of status honor motivates virtually every police and fire fighting force in the world.

Wolfe wrote about what was amusing.  Even in say crime or war he found the amusement.  A serious writer who was also funny.  Not enough of those.

Gotta see if I can find this somewhere:


Wolfe on Status

T Wolfe

Reading this Jefferson Lecture from 2006, delivered by Tom Wolfe:

Within the ranks of the rich, including the “owners of the means of production,” there inevitably developed an inner circle known as Society. Such groups always believed themselves to be graced with “status honor,” as Weber called it. Status honor existed quite apart from such gross matters as raw wealth and power. Family background, education, manners, dress, cultivation, style of life–these, the ineffable things, were what granted you your exalted place in Society.

Military officer corps are rife with inner circles aloof from the official and all-too-political hierarchy of generals, admirals, and the rest. I went to work on a book called The Right Stuff thinking it would be a story of space exploration. In no time at all, I happened upon something far more fascinating. The astronauts were but part of an invisible, and deadly, competitive pyramid within an inner circle of American military fighter pilots and test pilots, and they were by no means at the apex. I characterized this pyramid as a ziggurat, because it consisted of innumerable and ever more deadly steps a fighter pilot had to climb to reach the top. The competition demanded an uncritical willingness to face danger, to face death, not once but daily, if required, not only in combat but also in the routine performance of his duties–without ever showing fear–in behalf of a noble cause, the protection of his nation. There were more ways to die in a routine takeoff of a supersonic jet fighter of the F-series than most mortals could possibly imagine. At the time, a Navy pilot flying for twenty years, an average career span, stood a 23 percent chance of dying in an accident and a 56 percent chance of having to eject at some point, which meant being shot out of the plane like a human rocket by a charge of dynamite under his seat, smashing into what was known as the “wall” of air outside, which could tear the flesh off your face, and descending by parachute. The figures did not include death or ejection in combat, since they were not considered accidental. According to Korean War lore, a Navy fighter pilot began shouting out over the combat radio network, “I’ve got a Mig at zero! A Mig at zero! I’ve got a Mig at zero!” A Mig at zero meant a Soviet supersonic fighter plane was squarely on his tail and could blow him out of the sky at any moment. Another voice, according to legend, broke in and said, “Shut up and die like an aviator.” Such “chatter,” such useless talk on the radio during combat, was forbidden. The term “aviator” was the final, exquisite touch of status sensitivity. Navy pilots always called themselves aviators. Marine and Air Force fliers were merely pilots. The reward for reaching the top of the ziggurat was not money, not power, not even military rank. The reward was status honor, the reputation of being a warrior with ultimate skill and courage–a word, by the way, strictly taboo among the pilots themselves. The same notion of status honor motivates virtually every police and fire fighting force in the world.

Badass.

In the related interview, Wolfe gets going on fashion:

Cole: Why is fashion important? What does it tell us?

Wolfe: Every man and every woman is equally fixated on fashion. Men who would bridle at that suggestion are usually men who want to fit in in whatever milieu they want to be in. They do not want to stand out in any way, shape, or form. That’s just as true in the stands at the stock car races as it might be at Sullivan and Cromwell, the law firm.

Somebody like myself, perhaps, stands out on purpose with just minor variations on the conventional. My suits are conventionally cut. They just happen to be white. The same with shoes, everything else.

I feel it’s to a writer’s advantage, since he sells a mass-produced product called a book, to catch attention any way he can. This is not shared by my fellow writers, you understand. But you’ll notice how few writers are willing to appear on the back of a book with a necktie on. That’s a bohemian fashion that’s supposed to show one way or another you’re thumbing your nose at convention. Then it becomes a convention itself. If I saw one more writer with an open shirt, the wind blowing through his hair, I was going to stop buying books. They’ve calmed down a little bit, but still the tie is anathema.

Ironically, if you read a book such as The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, about the arts in Czechoslovakia under a Communist regime, the writers in the Writers’ Union were dressed like businessmen. They were on top. If you were in the Writers’ Union, your books were published automatically, even if no one read them. And I’ve just been reading Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

Cole: That’s a very great book, I think.

Wolfe: The attention to status detail and dress is absolutely fascinating. I forget the French nobleman who was found guilty of a capital crime, who insisted on arriving in his full regalia–an ermine-trimmed coat and the works–for his beheading. He just wasn’t going to show up looking like a common, vulgar victim. I liked that.

To this day, I think it hasn’t changed. It’s just more covert now. Style is always a window into what a person thinks of his place in the world or what he wants his place to be in the world.

Balzac often would start off chapters with a description of a room and the types of furniture. He might point out that the curtains on the windows were not really damask. They were half cotton. He would give you a whole picture of the inhabitants just through his status details.

And Saint-Beuve, who I guess was the leading French critic of the day, said, if this man Balzac is so obsessed with furniture, why doesn’t he own a shop and spare us these tedious novels. [Laughter]

Tissot, who has become my favorite painter the more of his work that I see, is a great example of that. For a long time, Tissot was written off as a sort of fashionista. He was in love with the look of women’s clothes. But I think now he’s being perceived as a great painter.

Cole: He’s a much more nuanced painter, I think, than people give him credit for.

The Captain and the Mate, 1873 (oil on canvas) by Tissot.

The Captain and the Mate, 1873 (oil on canvas) by Tissot.

Later the interview turns to architecture, and Wolfe gives a shout to Edward Durell Stone’s US Embassy in New Delhi:

new dehli


What was up with Marshall McLuhan?

Culture Is Our Business (1970)

  • World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. (p.66)
  • The newspaper is a corporate symbolist poem, environmental and invisible, as poem.
  • Since Sputnik there is no Nature. Nature is an item contained in a man-made environment of satellites and information.

  • The only cool PR is provided by one’s enemies. They toil incessantly and for free.

(this video is part of some kind of presentation for a class?)

Take Today : The Executive as Dropout (1972)

  • Only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by public incredulity. You can actually dissipate a situation by giving it maximal coverage. As to alarming people, that’s done by rumours, not by coverage. (p. 92)

The fact that Marshall McLuhan is perhaps best known for a brief appearance in a movie would not surprise him at all, I don’t think.  What was this guy going on about?  I’ve never read an entire one of his books, but why I wouldn’t bother to read a Marshall McLuhan book is exactly the kind of thing he was getting at.

One of the things that happens at the speed of light is that people lose their goals in life. So what takes the place of goals and objectives? Well, role-playing is coming in very fast.

  • Interview between Californian Governor Jerry Brown and Marshall McLuhan, 1977

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • The medieval student had to be paleographer, editor, and publisher of the authors he read. (p. 109)
    • Scribal culture and Gothic architecture were both concerned with light through, not light on. (p. 120)
  • Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of “what the public wants” played over its own nerves. (p. 68)

From Cliché to Archetype (1970)

  • Since Sputnik and the satellites, the planet is enclosed in a manmade environment that ends “Nature” and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed. Shakespeare at the Globe mentioning “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7) has been justified by recent events in ways that would have struck him as entirely paradoxical. The results of living inside a proscenium arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas. Sensing this, they adopt costumes and roles and are ready to “do their thing” everywhere.” (p.9-10)

The longest thing I’ve read of McLuhan is this interview in a 1969 Playboy magazine:

Interviewer: If personal freedom will still exist—although restricted by certain consensual taboos— in this new tribal world, what about the political system most closely associated with individual freedom: democracy? Will it, too, survive the transition to your global village?

McLuhan: No, it will not. The day of political democracy as we know it today is finished. Let me stress again that individual freedom itself will not be submerged in the new tribal society, but it will certainly assume different and more complex dimensions. The ballot box, for example, is the product of literate Western culture—a hot box in a cool world—and thus obsolescent. The tribal will is consensually expressed through the simultaneous interplay of all members of a community that is deeply interrelated and involved, and would thus consider the casting of a “private” ballot in a shrouded polling booth a ludicrous anachronism. The TV networks’ computers, by “projecting” a victor in a Presidential race while the polls are still open, have already rendered the traditional electoral process obsolescent. In our software world of instant electric communications movement, politics is shifting from the old patterns of political representation by electoral delegation to a new form of spontaneous and instantaneous communal involvement in all areas of decision making. In a tribal all-at-once culture, the idea of the “public” as a differentiated agglomerate of fragmented individuals, all dissimilar but all capable of acting in basically the same way, like interchangeable mechanical cogs in a production line, is supplanted by a mass society in which personal diversity is encouraged while at the same time everybody reacts and interacts simultaneously to every stimulus. The election as we know it today will be meaningless in such a society.

Interviewer: How will the popular will be registered in the new tribal society if elections are pass?

McLuhan: The electric media open up totally new means of registering popular opinion. The old concept of the plebiscite, for example, may take on new relevance; TV could conduct daily plebiscites by presenting facts to 200,000,000 people and providing a computerized feedback of the popular will. But voting, in the traditional sense, is through as we leave the age of political parties, political issues and political goals, and enter an age where the collective tribal image and the iconic image of the tribal chieftain is the overriding political reality. But that’s only one of countless new realities we’ll be confronted with in the tribal village. We must understand that a totally new society is coming into being, one that rejects all our old values, conditioned responses, attitudes and institutions. If you have difficulty envisioning something as trivial as the imminent end of elections, you’ll be totally unprepared to cope with the prospect of the forthcoming demise of spoken language and its replacement by a global consciousness.

More:

Interviewer: How is television reshaping our political institutions?

McLuhan: TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the 11 Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making. Castro’s adroit blend of political education, propaganda and avuncular guidance is the pattern for tribal chieftains in other countries. The new political showman has to literally as well as figuratively put on his audience as he would a suit of clothes and become a corporate tribal image—like Mussolini, Hitler and F.D.R. in the days of radio, and Jack Kennedy in the television era. All these men were tribal emperors on a scale theretofore unknown in the world, because they all mastered their media. . . . The overhauling of our traditional political system is only one manifestation of the retribalizing process wrought by the electric media, which is turning the planet into a global village.

found that here, at a UC Davis class website.

McLuhan was so good at taxonomies — consider what Tom Wolfe recounts him telling IBM, at 47:00-48:00 below:

 

This is the coolest McLuhan quote, in my opinion:

I’ve always been careful never to predict anything that had not already happened.

  • Interview: Tom Wolfe, TVOntario, August 1970

His sporting blood turned to horsepiss

portis-eb-white

This interview with Charles Portis, on his days a young reporter, for an oral history project about the Arkansas Gazette newspaper is so wonderful.

Lady stringers:

lady-stringers

On Tom Wolfe and Malcolm X:

portis-on-tom-wolfe-andmalcom-x

They made movies out of several Portis books:

is one and

is another.

What does Charles Portis make of all this I wonder?

mofa

Click on this link for an amazing picture of William Woodruff sailing up the Mississippi with his printing presses.


O’Donoghue’s Opera (St. Patty’s Roundup, Finale)

In the 1960s, some impoverished Irish musicians and folk singers decided to put together an Irish musical.  Based on the balled “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” attributed to “Hurlfoot Bill,”* the film, “O’Donoghue’s Opera,” starred Ronnie Drew, later incredibly famous for his work with The Dubliners.  The film, left uncompleted when the makers ran out of money, was found in 1997 in a junk shop in Galway.

Now you can enjoy the entire film on YouTube.  I can’t encourage you to power through the whole thing.  But I think you’ll have some fun around 2:44 of Part 1, where some winning girls sing an old IRA recruiting song.  Then hop to 7:51 to see Larry’s cat burglar costume and the temptation that proves his undoing.

The stirring conclusion I have TubeChopped for you.

It is quite moving, really, to see Ronnie get hung.  This really happened to people all the time.

A great shame that I never had the chance to discuss this film with fellow cinephile/Hibernophile SDB, who was seemingly designed by the Almighty to enjoy this picture.

Elvis Costello recorded “TNBLWS” but I prefer the version by The Wolfe Tones:

* Wikipedia has some stern words on the subject of attribution for this song.