Sometimes you have a column all finished up and ready to go, and then you set it aside at the last minute and start over. Because there's suddenly something else you have to write about.
So it was when I heard the news that Tom Wolfe had died.
I've been told that I'm something of a contrarian, but if I am it was because Wolfe was. As a contrarian, I have few heroes, but that means Wolfe was one of them.
I first encountered Wolfe, probably like so many others, when I read The Right Stuff for an undergrad journalism class, after which I devoured just about everything he wrote. Because he punctured pretense with such delight; stood aside from the insecure, status-seeking herd of independent minds; and energetically skewered smelly orthodoxy after smelly orthodoxy.
I wanted to be like Wolfe, to have the courage and intellect and self-confidence to mock that which everyone else solemnly nodded their heads to like sheep in their desire for social acceptance and career advancement. Wolfe saw through them and understood their motives better than they understood themselves.
Wolfe was thus the ultimate antidote to the plague of political correctness, someone possessed of such a natural intellectual curiosity and courage that he provoked fear in and outraged the drones who embrace the trendy and fashionable and the verdict of the mob while telling themselves it's all for high-minded reasons.
Their type, so common, will always be with us. Wolfe's won't.
He took on everything, even subjects he wasn't expert in, even to sometimes ill effect, in large part because the idea of expertise in his view all too often served as a cover for cowering before received wisdom; he played the skunk at the picnic of the self-absorbed on everything from silly forms of art and ugly architecture to poisonous campus sexual relations. Nothing was off-limits; nothing was safe from his "New Journalism," which, all things considered, and despite the "New" appellation, really only consisted of allowing idiots, the pompous and the strange to present themselves as such.
I believe that Wolfe's first try at the novel format, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is the closest thing we have to that long elusive "great American novel," and if it isn't, then his second, A Man in Full, is.
Who, after all, could take race pimps like Al Sharpton seriously after Wolfe's Reverend Bacon? Or forget Bernstein and the Panthers in "That Party at Lenny's"? Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area know what the term "gold coast liberal" means, and there was Wolfe presenting us with pitch-perfect morally obtuse specimens of the creature.
My favorite Wolfe essay, however, is an obscure one he published about 30 years ago in the American Spectator magazine called "The Great Relearning," the essential thesis of which was that stupid ideas come back around about every generation or so and can only be overcome, after having wreaked their inevitable damage, by returning, in good Burkean fashion, to the common-sense beliefs of previous generations, the wisdom of our grandparents contained in a historically validated understanding of the nature of human nature and evidence of what works and what doesn't.
Wolfe thus almost certainly agreed with William F. Buckley's observation that it was better to be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty, and with the companion proposition that there are certain ideas so stupid only intellectuals could believe in them.
The initial Wolfe obituary in the New York Times, a media organ that has come over time to exhibit so many of the tendencies he ridiculed, had quotes to the effect that Wolfe was, in Buckley's view, "probably the most skillful writer in America" and for Joseph Epstein a "titlist of flamboyance ... without peer in the Western world;" which is analogous to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald saying someone other than either of them was the finest singer ever.
Wolfe's last novel, Back to Blood, was by far his weakest, and it seemed that his "pyrotechnical" and "staccato" writing style had degenerated into mere gimmick; it was in certain passages even painful to read. But then it would also be hard, in our age of identity politics, to say that Wolfe hadn't again hit the mark; if tribalism is our new religion he, like usual, had got onto it before the rest of us.
For the next couple of weeks I'm going to be reading nothing but Wolfe. Not his novels, which I've already re-read, but the Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and his journalism on Junior Johnson and stock car racing. And the spot-on critiques of art in The Painted Word and architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House.
I expect after that submersion that I'll feel better about all the crazy things that seem to be happening around us these days, because Wolfe will have reminded that it has always been so, that beneath all the virtue signaling and indignation and spewing of vitriol is nothing more than the enduring quest for social status and tribal acceptance.
And I am so looking forward to it.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 05/21/2018
Print Headline: The great contrarian