Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey (Kino Lorber, 76 minutes)
Long before the rest of us were talking about blue and red America, Tom Wolfe not only recognized the cultural divide; he bridged it. When he began his career in the 1960s, the liberal establishment was more dominant and even smugger than it is today. There were no pesky voices on cable television or the web to challenge the Eastern elites’ hold on the national media. Then along came Wolfe, a lone voice celebrating the hinterland’s culture, mercilessly skewering the pretensions and dogmas of New York’s intelligentsia—and somehow triumphing.
How did he get away with it? The most entertaining analysis opens in theaters this weekend in New York and next weekend in Los Angeles and Toronto. The documentary, Radical Wolfe, is a superb chronicle of his life and career, told through footage of Wolfe (who died in 2018 at the age of 88) expounding in his famous white suits. It features the Jon Hamm reading from Wolfe’s work along with interviews with his friends and enemies, his daughter, Alexandra Wolfe, and his fans, including Christopher Buckley, Niall Ferguson, Gay Talese, and Peter Thiel. Director Richard Dewey draws on the insights and research of Michael Lewis, who pored through the archive of Wolfe’s letters and papers for a 2015 article in Vanity Fair, “How Tom Wolfe Became . . . Tom Wolfe.”
Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and remained true to his roots when he went north. In private, he remained the quiet, courtly Southern gentleman, the perpetual outsider gently bemused by the Yankees’ tribal beliefs and customs. “He was a contradictory character,” Talese observes in the film. “Such a polite person, such a well-mannered person. With a pen in his hand, he could be a terrorist.”
After getting a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale, Wolfe worked as a fairly conventional reporter and feature writer at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, the Washington Post, and the New York Herald Tribune. His breakthrough came during the New York newspaper strike of 1962–63. Needing money to pay his bills, he took an assignment from Esquire to write about custom-car culture in southern California, which fascinated him but left him with a severe case of writer’s block, as related in the film by Wolfe and Byron Dobell, his editor at Esquire.
With the deadline looming and a color photo spread already printed for the upcoming issue, Wolfe told his editor that he just couldn’t write the piece. Dobell told him to type up his notes so another writer could put some words next to the photo spread. Wolfe began typing that evening, stayed up all night, and delivered a 49-page letter to Dobell the next morning. The editor’s reaction: “It’s a masterpiece. This is unbelievable. We’d never seen anything like this. I struck out the ‘Dear Byron’ and struck out the parting words, and we ran it.” The headline was appropriately Wolfean: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .”
Wolfe went on writing in his inimitable voice for the Herald Tribune Sunday supplement, which would be reincarnated as the independent New York magazine. His prose style—exclamation points, ellipses, long sentences, and streams of consciousness—appalled the high priests of the literary world, particularly when he applied it against their temple, the New Yorker. Other writers in the 1960s dreamed of being published in the magazine, but Wolfe wrote a two-part series savaging it as a moribund institution. The first piece in the series was titled “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” The second article, “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” mocked its plodding articles, with their cluttered subordinate clauses and understated pseudo-British tone. He dismissed its fiction as a “laughingstock” that kept the magazine in business by serving as filler between pages of luxury ads aimed at suburban women:
Usually the stories are by women, and they recall their childhoods or domestic animals they have owned. Often they are by men, however, and they meditate over their wives and their little children with what used to be called “inchoate longings” for something else. The scene is some vague exurb or country place or summer place, something of the sort, cast in the mental atmosphere of tea cozies, fringe shawls, Morris chairs, glowing coals, wooden porches, frost on the pump handle, Papa out back in the wood bin, leaves falling, buds opening, bird-watcher types of birds, tufted grackles and things, singing, hearts rising and falling, but not far—in short, a great lily-of the-valley vat full of what Lenin called “bourgeois sentimentality.”
The empire struck back. The novelist J.D. Salinger emerged from seclusion to declare that the Herald Tribune would “likely never again stand for anything either respect-worthy or honorable” after Wolfe’s “inaccurate and sub-collegiate and gleeful and unrelievedly poisonous” attack on the New Yorker. There were more denunciations from the writers E.B. White, Ved Mehta, Muriel Spark, Murray Kempton, and from the syndicated columnists Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann.
Wolfe reveled at the attention—“You’re nobody until somebody hates you,” he told his daughter—and went right on slaying sacred cows. He sneaked into Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers to produce “Radical Chic,” and exposed the corrupt tactics of anti-poverty activists in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” He lampooned the modern art world in The Painted Word and modern architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House. In his novels, he challenged dogmas about race, immigration, and sexual morality, violating one left-wing taboo after another.
Literary critics sneered at his work, but his nonfiction books and novels were best-sellers that changed the national conversation. His coinages entered the common usage—the astronauts’ “Right Stuff,” Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe,” Park Avenue’s “Social X-Rays.” He identified lowbrow “statuspheres” across America and made heroes out of the stock-car racer Junior Johnson and the fighter ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager. While doomsaying journalists and intellectuals were decrying American culture and modern technology, he declared that we were experiencing a “happiness explosion” and explained, “It’s only really Eng. Lit. intellectuals and Krishna groovies who try to despise the machine in America. The idea that we’re trapped by machines is a 19th-century romanticism invented by marvelous old frauds like Thoreau and William Morris.”
So how did he prevail? One answer in the film is that it was a different era. The national media weren’t so polarized. Newspapers and television networks still depended on advertising to Republicans; magazine editors and book publishers weren’t terrified of their woke staffs. Talk-show hosts still aimed for a bipartisan audience and invited authors to sit on their couches, as shown in the footage of Wolfe doing star turns as Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, and David Letterman sang his praises.
Another answer is that Wolfe was politically deft. He championed conservative notions of patriotism and morality, but avoided partisan politics, which he considered a boring backwater. (His editor at the Washington Post was amazed that, unlike the other reporters, he had no ambition to cover the White House and Capitol Hill.) In footage from “Firing Line,” when William F. Buckley Jr. asked him to describe his political views, Wolfe quoted Balzac’s description of the politics in his novels: “I belong to the party of the opposition.”
The ultimate explanation for his success, though, comes down to Wolfe’s unique talents, as both his fans and his critics acknowledge in the film. Nobody else combined his fearless contrarianism and erudition with his eye for spotting just the right absurdities and status details. Nobody else had those gifts—and, most important, nobody else could turn out such glorious prose. Agree with him or not, you couldn’t stop reading.
Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images