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The Wolfe of Wild Democracy
We need a new poet of manliness. In whatever form storytelling takes, Americans uniquely demand it—so it’s been since Mark Twain told us that, in this country, you’re a Tom Sawyer or, more likely, looking up to one. And so it was with John Wayne in the westerns, Hemingway and the European wars. New departures, new frontiers, new challenges require new champions. Whether one is rich or poor, manliness is a requirement of our self-understanding because it focuses the human drama from the point of view of nobility, or striving to live up to the highest expectations placed on us.
Tom Wolfe, born ninety years back in 1930, was the last man fit for the job—a man who found his theme in manliness, the core of the American desire for individual freedom, for novelty or change that would fulfill the deep longings of the heart. The desire to acquire something for oneself that’s worth having, something admirable, won through efforts that prove worth by difficulty. He showed in all his writings how Americans react to our birthright, the uncertainty of American life, the pace of change, the unfolding of freedom and democracy: these all favor, indeed demand, manliness.
Wolfe was a conservative, and therefore he thought of manliness primarily in its defensive aspect, precisely because in his lifetime postwar America became dangerously aggressive in every endeavor, attempting new things recklessly—which seldom succeeded as desired, however eagerly pursued or accepted by the people, so that endeavors soon commenced were soon abandoned. Conservatism requires standards of judgment, especially in face of such astonishing changes in the life of a community, and Wolfe took it as his task to prove what it means to judge prudently, without losing one’s head, but also without looking away from all the many strange things happening.
America went from the Depression to winning World War II before he came of age. In his time, America turned to worldwide ambitions in foreign policy, a vast expansion of government in domestic affairs (with the resulting centralization of administration in Washington, D.C.), and continuous democratic revolutions in society, whether with respect to young people, urban life, or the self-understanding of elites. So Wolfe chronicled with great interest the changes that kept changing. The year that gave birth to him seemed the end of a staid and stable age, but when once its principle of order was questioned, it was already conquered. He always looked out of place, as a Southern gentleman but especially as a man of wit rather than indignation or enthusiasm.
The Birth of the New
The books that made him famous, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), were accordingly explorations of American freedom, reporting from the scene of startling social phenomena he never tired of discovering and studying. From hot rods to LSD, the counterculture offered him any number of portraits of unruly Americans in action and in agony, reliving the national drama of striving and failure. These new enterprises of urban youth revealed a generation that had escaped education or habituation in the pursuit of happiness and offered the education necessary for a student of America.
The very fact that America is full of new enterprises—which don’t last long, start with enthusiasm, and often end in depression—led Wolfe to what is called New Journalism, the telling of moral tales that happen to be true. People attempt in their delusion to become protagonists in the American drama, not infrequently imitating some ideal, and fail—in the process revealing something we should seriously think about. What people are deluded about is important; that they are deluded is less important; the protagonists are not at all important. This way, particular problems very quickly generalize to American problems in New Journalism. The form and purpose of the writing are by themselves an education, and they prepared Wolfe for his crowning achievements as a novelist.
Of course, people who love novelty were impressed more with the mechanics of writing and the writer’s tricks and devices. Wolfe was not of interest to himself—America was of interest to him. He did not chase celebrity—he chased interesting stories, that we might come to understand ourselves. He meant to write the first and second drafts of history through his reporting, essays, and novels. This is both patriotism and piety, since it depends on the hope that we could come to understand ourselves, and thus become more moderate.
The vastness of America and the unleashing of energy in democratic revolutions in which young people wanted to destroy old institutions, habits, and beliefs made it impossible for Americans to know by direct experience what goes on in the country. Not classes, but regions, generations, and pursuits separated and threatened to tear the nation apart: law breaking and crime suddenly became ways of achieving national fame. The authorities failed to enforce the laws. It became imperative to have adequate reporters who substitute by their art and judgment for the experience of the public. Democracy needed New Journalism, lest the confusions of freedom descend into chaos and instill the primal fear that the world is moving in magical, arbitrary ways we can neither predict nor understand.
Our Classless Elites
Wolfe had to start by showing people the shocking news—things they were curious about because they were gaudy. But as soon as he became famous, he began showing his loyal audience what he thought they should see: he turned from reporting to satire, and from his flamboyant use of the vernacular to a language fit for political history, offering events and ways of judging them that matched up beliefs, actions, and circumstances in order to reveal character. As soon as he acquired influence, he began his attack on liberal elites with Radical Chic (1968), the funniest revelation of the moral and intellectual vices of those very elites who had promoted him to fame. Throughout his life, the Southern gentleman Wolfe proved the same point every time it needed proving, in every genre available to him: our elites are not classy. They have no concept of noblesse oblige, that is. Whim rather than duty leads them even in their moral crusades. They are in this crucial respect no different from vulgar cult leaders. That a Southerner should show contempt for New York liberals is not entirely surprising, but the view from the defeated, tragic side of America is not less insightful for its partisanship. It may be a needed corrective to postwar America’s addiction to victory and change.
Wolfe’s political passion drove him at Yale in the 1950s to write a dissertation denouncing communist operations to influence good liberal American writers in the previous generation. Despite the deep displeasure of Yale liberals, he showed both how these attempts failed as organizations and how they succeeded in indirect ways, given liberalism’s quasi-religious weakness for communism. He never stopped criticizing liberal elites thereafter: he hoped to prove that they are un-American. Elites do not like the American people, avoid them in person, want to change them through policy and culture, and would rather destroy them than let them rule themselves.
Done with liberal writers, Wolfe started criticizing modern art, in The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), as a form of elite perversion. His argument is Aristotelian: elites give the form of the regime, and their virtues or vices have remarkable repercussions, despite our claims to democratic freedom that incline us to think we’re immune to influence. This is not journalism or mere polemics, much less art criticism as conventionally understood: Wolfe’s essays are a shocking departure from his usual reporting, since he’s trading storytelling for argument and events for opinions, hoping to show our fundamental problem. Wolfe looked directly at the foreign things our elites admire, at love of the beautiful as their fundamental education, at what forms their souls. From transforming American architecture to the visual imagination, an unmitigated disaster came about, which was inevitable—wherever the artistic revolution failed, it was the usual catastrophe of a great endeavor, but wherever it succeeded, it enslaved Americans to foreign inventions.
Throughout his writing, Wolfe recurred to the American obsession with status as a replacement for class, on which European nations had been built. Status is more given to change, more addicted to novelty, more eager to prove itself since it is more uncertain of its evidence or acceptability than class is. This makes it fickle and made American elites uniquely dependent on foreign ideas. What Tocqueville called our social condition, equality, the generating fact of our way of life, induces status anxiety—we need to find ways to distinguish ourselves because we fear we’re all the same. Hot rods or radical chic, LSD or modern art, rich or poor, we’re rather desperate to build identities we hope will withstand the unpredictable changes America invites, or demands. Sniffing out all this, Wolfe’s nose was unerring because he acted not by chance or on advice, but guided by the necessities of American life.
Stories Trump Arguments
Wolfe’s shift from poor to rich, from reporting curiosities to reporting how curious what we accept as admirable really is, was only a precursor to a shift from fact to fiction, from the ephemeral to the grand. He was a born novelist in a country that didn’t care about the men who try to tell the people the truth about the country. In France, he would have been a minister of foreign affairs—in America, he had to settle for fame and fortune. But he was no less a champion of America’s nobility, the implied standard in his criticism of elites, and he made that criticism his unceasing work, so that he would always be prepared for quarrel.
This led Wolfe to embrace democracy as a plot structure, which became his defining statement: The Right Stuff (1979) and his four novels all pit natural American aristocrats, children and friends of the continental democracy, against corrupt elites, the rustic against the rotten, the Stoic against the Epicurean, nobility against celebrity, and the high aspirations of democracy against mob hysteria. This allowed him to embrace all of American society and all of poetry, from gossip and vulgarity to the sublime. One reads his remarkable stories and notices that their thoughtful implications go far deeper than the shock of the details his journalist’s habits unearthed and dared to publish—one sees a man happy to satirize, perhaps cured of his anger at elites by his power of comprehension and the power of the truths he uttered to change people’s minds.
Wolfe’s choice as a novelist of comedy over tragedy simply follows from his greater pleasure in storytelling than in argument. The latter costs you goodwill while making a target of you, whereas the former wins you goodwill since you spare the audience and offer it many other targets. His weakest books make arguments; his strongest books are arguments that interlock and offer, gratis, an education about the aspirations and the failures of American society. His criticism of American society is often silent, implied in story rather than explicit in accusation, presumably for the same reason that the prophet Nathan did not accuse King David but appealed to his love of poetry. Wolfe believed the novel is a public service because he thought we love only one thing more than money or the fantasies we think it will make real—justice.
Wolfe has no heirs, perhaps the surest sign of his greatness—he stands alone. Not all the millions of books he sold, not his status as a cultural icon, not the prizes he won have sufficed to attract imitators. Talent goes where it is rewarded, which is essentially reducible to flattery, and hardly acknowledges greatness. The enmity of the liberalism he satirized for more than half a century never hurt him, even when it prevented his receiving a Nobel or some other bauble, but conservative philistinism might kill his legacy. Wolfe is an educator of conservatism, a true poet—he shows human nature by starting from all the obvious parts of America we commonly neglect or despise. His praise of the realist novel of social observation has been ignored but not refuted: Wolfe knew and showed by his success that the price Americans must pay for their desire to be flattered is to come to know ourselves. If there’s any fault in his wonderful writing it’s that he trusted too much to popular love of his writing and not enough to the fear that, if people should fail to learn, they’d stand to lose much.
The Coming Democratic Revolution
Wolfe wanted to achieve three things in his American stories. First, to show the pre-liberal origins of American greatness. Appalachian hillbillies produced men like Chuck Yeager and Protestant fanatics in Iowa produced Bob Noyce. So also with acid-trip guru Ken Kesey or any number of other impressive characters of the age of celebrities—they may all, for better or worse, end up on TV, but their origins are in different parts of America, where different communities achieve the best they’re capable of in the freedom of American democracy. To understand the origins of his protagonists is to learn something about America, and perhaps about the conditions required for certain achievements, which may or may not be replicable. This plunges us from abstract liberal rhetoric into concrete reality, and subjects heroism to America and even America to political circumstances that cannot be wished in or out of existence. He thought it safest to give the audience characters and situations that are close at hand, and easier to judge therefore, rather than visions that require infinite painstaking consideration.
Second, he aimed to show just how perishable midcentury liberalism was. Wolfe always looked, whether at underclass countercultural figures or upper-class celebrities, for the signs of change and collapse. His portrayal of American love of freedom was aimed not as criticism of prewar America but against the liberal delusion that, once liberalism won, America would stay conquered, satisfied with the politics and culture liberals preferred or dreamed of. In Wolfe’s telling, consensus is the pious lie of oligarchy that blinds itself to the coming democratic revolution. This was not merely conservative resentment at liberal triumph, but a conservative insistence on the unpredictable character of change and an interest in the inevitable unraveling of liberal arrangements that are at once too imperial and too soft to endure once they arouse hatred.
Third, Wolfe thought that America is merely at the beginning of the democratic revolution. He looked for confirmation of this guess in strange places because he thought liberals were narrow-minded, shortsighted, and addicted to frivolities like modern art that, whatever the moral corruption they worked on Americans, had nothing interesting to say intellectually. He was accordingly a great admirer of Nietzsche’s prediction of the twentieth century as an age of planetary wars following the death of God. Nietzsche was a right-wing conservative atheist, which suited Wolfe almost down to his toes. He was interested in his friend Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media but was held at bay by the obfuscatory jargon and the Jesuitical manner. He looked to neuroscience, too, in fear of what the advance of modern knowledge would do to manliness and therefore citizenship and America. He knew well that a writer can trust only his audience, never other intellectuals, even allies, since they’d turn on him jealously were he to succeed in winning that audience over.
His guesses about the American future almost always were based on the belief that liberalism was endangered by its own successes, too arrogant to see its downfall or to prevent it. This is the comic logic of his novels, which lead from social observation to remarkably absurd conclusions. To keep people surprised, you need a conflict that you bring to a wonderful end—Wolfe preferred to dramatize the core conflicts of liberalism without allowing for solutions or a reduction to psychological issues. He not only mocked elite pretension but showed the doom of elites: TV, the instrument of their popularity, reduces to reality TV and celebrity to scandal mongering, as we can now see only too clearly. In this way, Wolfe always seemed to head off events and predicted everything from the college campus sexual hysteria to the eclipse of black by Hispanic issues in Democrat politics. His brilliance in all these things was his shield.
His novels portray New York, Atlanta, and Miami as three stages of class and racial political conflict threatening liberalism—and, indeed, constitutional government. His American story starts with memories of America’s original sin, slavery, and ends with post-America: Hispanic Miami doesn’t have any interest in the theologico-political drama of the martyr Lincoln or MLK or anyone else. The business Republicans and radical chic Democrats are overcome precisely because they are too self-important and blind to what’s really happening in America—the march or perhaps stampede of democracy.
We may say therefore that Wolfe’s education of the public about society, politics, technology, and art comes down to one simple question: Is America the unsurpassable origin of democracy, or merely the first stage? Will we be able to recognize ourselves some way down the road? Patriotism notwithstanding, he saw this as a question. This makes him our best educator today—first, he talked only about things people had an interest in hearing; and, second, he never flattered, so he was trustworthy. Neither jargon nor theoretical presuppositions get in the way of his storytelling. Nobility and comedy, moreover, go together in his work because he went to American ideas by starting from the unusual deeds that attract our attention and stir our passions, and these he imitated in prose better than anyone else, because he focused on the varieties of freedom we are compelled to pursue, without concern for party, ideology, or, indeed, a sense of shame.
Everyone in his stories is part of the American drama of status seeking, which turns out to depend on fantasies provided by artists who are themselves deluded by fantasies of transforming popular beliefs. Meanwhile, the real changes in politics and technology go unnoticed until they encourage new fantasies for elites who never learn their lessons but who are weakened into irrelevance or simply overthrown by dangers they never prepared for. Everywhere, the price to pay is the certainties that one generation is brought up on but neglects, which are not available to the next. Manliness, a willingness to face death and oblivion, becomes the only plausible personal defense. Thus, paradoxically, the more that health and safety advance, the more prosperous America becomes, the more needful it is to have manliness, both in order to survive with wits intact and in order to reveal in drama the strange ongoing moral surrender of beliefs by those who claim the spoils of success.
Calling All Patriots
We have gone through decades of crisis in every domain of activity—politics, society, the economy, and the culture—and are more divided than we previously thought possible. We cannot let it go at saying America’s had some bad luck, much less that we hope our luck will soon turn. We need to make our luck by remaking our institutions, and that in turn requires making new elites that are fit for the new situation, since it’s proved almost impossible for old elites to change their nature. Consensus is over, the future will be full of drama and conflict, so we need to educate elites for that. We need Wolfe.
Wolfe’s writings should be understood as exhortations to patriots to throw off servitude to liberal pieties and restore America using the resources he always pointed to, which have been so long ridiculed and then forgotten that they might as well be ancient. His many reports about the state of the nation may now seem bracing, since none of the arrogance of liberal elites persuades anyone anymore. That consensus is broken; it’s time to forge another—and what more popular patriot do we have to turn to now?
Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.
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