Tom Wolfe’s Status Update

Michael Lewis writes:

Eighteen months! That’s what it took for Wolfe, once he’d found his voice, to go from worrying about whether or not to go on the dole to a cult figure. By early 1965, literary agents are writing him, begging to let them sell a book; publishers are writing to him, begging him to write one. Hollywood people are writing to ask if they might turn his magazine pieces into movies—though really all they want is to rub up against him. Two years earlier his fan letters had come mainly from his mother. Soon they came from Cybill Shepherd. He’s booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He’s now as likely to use the margins of his notebooks to tally his lecture fees as to accommodate drawings of nude skydivers. He has a stalker….

Wolfe’s response to his new status—like Hunter Thompson’s—is to create a public persona as particular and distinctive as the sounds he’s making on the page. Once he becomes famous, people start to notice and remark upon his white suit, in a way they don’t seem to have done before: they take it as one of those eccentricities that are a natural by-product of genius. He bought the thing because it was just what you wore in Richmond in the summer and kept on wearing it because it kept him warm in winter. Now it becomes this sensational affectation. He buys an entire wardrobe of white suits, and the hats and canes and shoes and gloves to accessorize them. His handwriting changes in a similar way—once a neat but workman-like script, it becomes spectacularly rococo, with great swoops and curlicues. In his reporter notebooks he tries out various new signatures and eventually settles on one with so many flourishes that the letters look as if they are under attack by a squadron of flying saucers. The tone of his correspondence becomes more courtly and mannered, and, well, like it is coming from someone who isn’t like other people. Nine years after he bursts onto the scene he receives an honorary doctorate from Washington and Lee. “While a feature writer for New York magazine he, like Lord Byron before him, awoke one morning to find himself famous,” said the college president. And, like Lord Byron before him, Wolfe had a pretty good sense of what the public wanted from its geniuses.

Yet the elaborate presentation of self never really interferes with the work or the effort he puts into it—at least not in the way it would do with Hunter Thompson. It doesn’t even seem to interfere with his ability to report on the world. Wolfe gets himself on the psychedelic school bus Ken Kesey and his acolytes are taking cross-country to proselytize for LSD. There, in his white suit, he sits and watches Kesey and his groupies more or less invent the idea of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. No one who reads Wolfe’s take on it all, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—at least no one whose letters or reviews are preserved—asks the obvious question: How the hell did he do that? How did he get them to let him in, almost as one of them? Why do all these people keep letting this oddly dressed man into their lives, to observe them as they have never before been observed?

* The marketplace will encourage Wolfe to write nothing but novels. And a funny thing happens. The moment he abandons it, the movement he shaped will lose its head of steam. The New Journalism: Born 1963, Died 1979. R.I.P. What was that all about? It was mainly about Tom Wolfe, I think.

* Fame, to him, didn’t come naturally. The world expected him to be a character he wasn’t. “I was so used to interviewing other people,” he says. “I had never been interviewed by anyone. People were expecting me to be a ball of fire. They felt so let down!” His gaze had been relentlessly outward-looking—one reason he saw so much, so well—and he didn’t respond well when he was required to respond to the gaze of others. He wasn’t like Hunter Thompson or even Norman Mailer or George Plimpton, all of whom seemed to enjoy playing themselves, maybe even more than they enjoyed writing about it. Hunter Thompson played his character so well and so relentlessly that he eventually became his character.

* The Great White Males of that moment had decided that rather than be bus-tour guides they’d become stops on the bus tour. George Plimpton set himself up as New York City’s fireworks commissioner, Norman Mailer ran for mayor, and Truman Capote hosted masked balls at the Plaza hotel.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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