The Origins Of Tom Wolfe’s Journalistic Voice

Matthew Ricketson writes:

What characterizes Wolfe’s journalistic voice, then, are: exaggeration, energy, inventiveness, playfulness, a keen sense of performance, and a wickedly satiric eye. His voice has won glowing praise and sharp detractors. William McKeen, author of the one of only two book-length studies of Wolfe’s work, calls him the Great Emancipator of Journalism for his contribution to expanding the possibilities of nonfiction writing.16 Norman Sims, author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism, recalls how Wolfe’s voice astonished and captured him as a student in the 1960s, not least because Wolfe appeared to have access to interior lives of the people he reported on.17 John Hartsock, author of a respected history of literary journalism in the United States, notes that what “most attracted readers to Wolfe and created a critical furor around him were his linguistic pyrotechnics that seemed to pose a taunt to advocates of standard English usage.”18 On the other hand, James Wood, the literary critic, has frequently lambasted Wolfe’s work, especially his fiction, but also mocked his “screeching italics and arrow-showers of exclamation points, and ellipses like hysterical Morse code.”19 Whatever Wolfe’s critics might say, his journalistic voice is instantly recognizable, widely copied, and has been so influential over the past four decades that it is hard to recapture its sheer freshness when Wolfe burst onto the scene back in the mid-1960s.

Despite Wolfe’s standing as a leading figure in the loose group known as the New Journalists and the attention from scholars his work has attracted, little work has been done on the origins of his journalistic voice. What attention there has been has accepted Wolfe’s own version of how he discovered his journalistic voice, partly because Wolfe is as good at telling stories about himself as he is at telling others’, partly because he has told it so often in interviews,20 and partly because to date much of the primary source material has been unavailable.

Wolfe laid down what Tom Junod called “his own origin story, his own creation myth”21 in the introduction to his first collection of journalistic pieces, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.22 By the time the book was published in 1965, Wolfe was thirty-five years old and had been in journalism for nearly a decade. He described his growing frustration with the totem newspaper’s way of reporting the lives of anyone outside officialdom, which is to say, “the totem story usually makes what is known as ‘gentle fun’ of this.”23 Wolfe was fascinated by the minutiae of people’s lives and the meaning they invested in their interests, such as hot rod and custom cars. Taking an assignment from Esquire magazine, he trekked to California and collected a welter of material. After returning to New York, he found himself blocked for a week, whereupon his editor, Byron Dobell, with a photo of an exotic car already laid out and deadline looming, told him to type up his notes and Dobell would knock them into shape. Wolfe takes up the story:

“So about 8 o’clock that night I started typing the notes out in the form of a memorandum that began, “Dear Byron.” I started typing away, starting right with the first time I saw any custom cars in California. I just started recording it all, and inside of a couple of hours, typing along like a madman, I could tell that something was beginning to happen. By midnight this memorandum to Byron was twenty pages long and I was still typing like a maniac. About 2 A.M. or something like that I turned on WABC, a radio station that plays rock and roll music all night long, and got a little more manic. I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 A.M, and by this time it was 49 pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 A.M. About 4 P.M. I got a call from Byron Dobell. He told me they were striking out the “Dear Byron” at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine.”24

It is a story that is at once neatly shaped—the only editorial change required was deleting “Dear Byron”—and evocative of Romantic-era myths surrounding writers with a capital W. Wolfe recycles it in his introductory essay in The New Journalism.

Other than noting Wolfe’s penchant for self-promotion, most of those who have written about Wolfe’s work have repeated this story uncritically, including McKeen, Brian Ragen, author of Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion, and Marc Weingarten, who, in From Hipsters to Gonzo: How New Journalism Rewrote the World, added little more than that Dobell had cut Wolfe’s repeated use of the phrase “for Christ sakes” and written the “throat-clearing headline.”26

New knowledge about the origins of Wolfe’s voice became available in 2014 when a rich source of primary material, Wolfe’s papers, was deposited in the New York Public Library.

…what is striking in light of Wolfe’s famous listing of narrative devices in “The New Journalism,”34 is how he deployed two of them—scenes and dialogue—decades beforehand as a teenager for a school newspaper column. His response to the world around him, even in the narrow confines of student journalism, is to construct and dramatize what he sees. At university and then at graduate school while studying for a doctorate, Wolfe tried his hand at fiction, poetry, and journalism…

…The examiners of the [Tom Wolfe PhD] thesis [at Yale] did not exactly warm to Wolfe’s approach. Michael Lewis thinks that is because they were a bunch of stuffed shirts.42 Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. A fidelity to factual accuracy is a bedrock of both long-form journalism, or literary journalism, as it is also known, and scholarly research. As Norman Sims has noted, many literary journalists research their topics as intensively as a doctoral student.43 University faculty who have both professional journalism and scholarly research experience are able to see many continuities as points of contrast between the two activities, especially in research and the practice of long-form journalism, or literary journalism as it is known in this journal. If that is the continuity, then yes, the contrast is in the prose. For anyone with literary aspirations, the form of the conventional PhD dissertation can be frustratingly rigid.

It is easy to see why Wolfe would have chafed against it. But if Wolfe had simply engaged in hijinks for his PhD dissertation, that is not what most concerned the examiners. They all actually believed that he wrote “very skilfully.”44 Further, they found his argument convincing: “The literati were indeed manipulated by the communists,” wrote the American studies graduate supervisor, David Potter, on May 19, 1956, summarizing the three examiners’ reports in a letter to Wolfe. What the examiners also found, though, and it is worth quoting at length, was that the thesis was:

“Not objective but was consistently slanted to disparage the writers under consideration and to present them in a bad light even when the evidence did not warrant this; second, that you had relied on a one-factor explanation, which, in the opinion of the readers, may be valid but has not been proved and probably cannot be proved as a single operative factor. There was a third criticism which I had not anticipated, and which seems to me more damaging than either of the other two: this was the criticism that you misused your sources, giving incorrect quotations, misstating evidence, etc. All three readers checked various sources (a routine duty of readers) and all three made this criticism.”45

They had indeed; the three examiners’ reports make scarifying reading. One examiner wrote that Wolfe’s polemical rhetoric colors every page. “His use of pejorative and biased qualifiers and terminology seems at times to be little better than what he properly critiques on the part of others.”46 Another provided two pages of notes unfavorably comparing Wolfe’s descriptions with the primary source material. For example, Wolfe wrote: “At one point ‘the Cuban delegation’ tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. ‘This is where our literature is being built,’ exclaimed she, ‘on the barricades!’ ”47 There was no description of her in the sources and the quotations did not appear in the references, the examiner found.

The reports presciently lay out evidence of later criticism—and praise—of Wolfe’s work. He does, of course, write “very skilfully.” He had an uncanny ability to pluck out an essential kernel about an issue or trend: identifying the self-expressive impulse behind the creators of custom cars, or the quasi-religious nature of the Merry Pranksters’ acid experiments, or the pretentiousness of many liberals’ identification with the Black Panthers, or the special bonds forged among the early astronauts in The Right Stuff.

Wolfe does tend to try to stretch his brilliant insights into an entire argument, though. Throughout his work, status is portrayed as not only the most important, but almost as the only source of motivation in people’s lives. That is, he relies too heavily on a “one factor explanation.” James Wood has consistently criticized Wolfe’s fiction, and one of his main points applies equally to Wolfe’s journalism: “The kind of ‘realism’ called for by Wolfe, and by writers Clay, saying, “In a voice you could mulch the hollyhocks with: ‘Here you are, boy, put your name right there’.” Asked if he has a pen for the autograph, the man says he doesn’t but is sure some of Clay’s people would. Clay has been staring at the piece of paper without looking up. After about ten seconds, his face still turned down, he says: “Man, there’s one thing you gotta learn. You don’t ever come around and ask a man for an autograph if you ain’t got no pen.”54 Why would Wolfe not choose this piece for his “origin story,” especially as by 1965 when he told the story in the introduction for his first
collection of articles, Clay had become heavyweight champion, defeating the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston, and shedding his “slave name” to become known as Muhammad Ali? Perhaps that had something to do with it; Ali was an extraordinarily popular (and unpopular) figure whose fame would have overshadowed that of the just-emerging young journalist. Ali was also an extraordinary individual whose approach to everything from race to self-publicizing to boxing challenged conventions and U.S. society55 and was less susceptible to Wolfe’s sociological approach. Perhaps, too, Wolfe knew this. In a 1966 interview with Vogue on the back of his first collection of journalism, Wolfe told Elaine Dundy that he never felt he had connected with Ali and admits that “I missed the important story about him: that he was getting involved with the Black Muslims at the time I was seeing him.”56 That he was still insisting on calling Ali “Clay” in 1966, two years after the boxer had changed his name, may offer a clue as to why he missed that particular story.

To understand the second point of importance requires knowing Wolfe’s response to the examiners’ reports on his PhD thesis. And before that, requires knowing that Wolfe was brought up in a genteel, well-to-do family in Richmond, Virginia. Even well into his thirties he would address his letters home to “Dear Mother and Daddy” and sign them “Tommy.” The tone and vocabulary of the letters, indeed, vary little from adolescence right through to when he was making his name as a journalist in New York. His letters home, many of which are in the archive, are unfailingly polite, solicitous, and bland.
They carry so few traces of Wolfe’s public voice that a reader begins to wonder what on earth his parents made of his journalism. Writing to them on November 4, 1963, that Las Vegas is “a monument to all that is grossest and flashiest in modern American taste,” is just about the strongest opinion he expresses in letters to his parents.57 It is a long way from “Hernia, hernia, hernia.”

In the archive’s holdings of letters to friends, Wolfe’s language is more colloquial and forthright, as might be expected, but his letter to “Chaz,” on June 9, 1956, almost three weeks after he received the letter from Yale, fairly jumps off the page: “These stupid fucks have turned down namely my dissertation, meaning I will have to stay here about a month longer to delete all the offensive passages and retype the sumitch. They called my brilliant manuscript ‘journalistic’ and ‘reactionary’, which means that I must go through with a blue pencil and strike out all the laughs and anti-Red passages and slip in a little liberal merde, so to speak, just to sweeten it. I’ll discuss with you how stupid all these stupid fucks are when I see you.”58

Wolfe is enraged; he doesn’t see, or want to see, what, if any, were the merits of the examiners’ findings, but he did revise the thesis and it duly passed so that he was graduated in 1957. From that point on, there appears to be no time when Wolfe publicly discusses the humiliating experience of initially failing his dissertation submission. In “The New Journalism,” he compares graduate school to being imprisoned. So “morbid” and “poisonous” was the atmosphere that it defied the many student inmates who promised to satirize it in a novel, Wolfe writes.59 Similarly, in the many interviews Wolfe has given over the years, a generous selection of which have been gathered by Dorothy Scura in Conversations with Tom Wolfe, he has little positive to say about the Yale experience other than it was where he was introduced to the work of social theorist Max Weber. In one interview, with Toby Thompson for Vanity Fair in 1987, when Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published, Wolfe again recalled graduate school as “tedium of an exquisite sort,” while a friend of his, the novelist Bill Hoffman, was quoted saying, “The professors didn’t know what to make of him. . . . He was supposed to present scholarly papers, and he would write them in this fireworks style of his and just drive them crazy.”60

It is true that some find graduate school a stultifying experience, just as it is true that others find it liberating or energizing. What is curious is that Wolfe has not publicly discussed the criticism made of his PhD dissertation even though he clearly disputed it. It is one of the few episodes in his life where he has refrained from a public fight; usually he relishes them. Wolfe’s father held a PhD from Cornell University.61 In his letters home that are held in the archive, Wolfe does not mention what happened at Yale other than to say the PhD was a “horrible experience.”62 When Michael Lewis asks Wolfe in 2015 what he thinks about initially failing the thesis he submitted for the PhD, Wolfe says he harbors no ill will towards his examiners and thinks, in retrospect, that “Yale was really important for me.”63 It was 60 years later but it appears to be at least a tacit acknowledgement that the Yale professors may have had a point.

About Luke Ford

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