Wednesday’s Child: Crying Wolfe
If one were to cut open, the way one saws through a tree trunk, the literary career of Tom Wolfe, in the circles revealed therein one could read the entire history – or, more to the point, the whole tragedy – of what happened to the press in America in the twentieth century. As the writer passed away last month, I want to say a couple of things about him which the gentle reader is unlikely to find in the numerous obituaries.
In 1966, after a lengthy struggle, New York’s Herald Tribune – by then the only remaining highbrow competitor of the painstakingly highbrow New York Times – folded, with the mischievous victor using its scalp as a wig to launch a joke newspaper called the International Herald Tribune, since renamed the New York Times International Edition. For better or for worse (for worse, of course, but I’m pretending to be fair), New York was then and remains now the cultural capital of the United States, and the disappearance of the Tribune essentially left American journalism in the private hands of a single unchallenged monopoly.
A small raft of resistance remained, however. This was New York Magazine, launched in 1963 by the Tribune as a Sunday supplement and after its demise run as an autonomous entity. Naturally, it would be folly to suppose that a magazine – even one originally intended to edge out The New Yorker – could challenge the daily and Sunday behemoth of the New York Times, but for writers like Tom Wolfe or Lewis Lapham it was a niche where they could escape the increasingly total intellectual control of the new monopoly, promoting as this did the private tastes, political anxieties, and cultural taboos of the Sulzberger family. And not only to escape to relative financial safety, but to snipe at the giant predator, as from the enclosure of a machan, whenever they saw an opportunity.
Wolfe was one of the snipers. To a 1965 issue of New York, still published by the Tribune, he had contributed “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43d Street's Land of the Walking Dead,” a two-part evisceration of The New Yorker. Five years on the stakes had been raised, and in 1970 he came out with “Radical Chic: The Party at Lenny’s.” That was when Bobby Seale was still the apple of the Sulzbergers’ eye and laughing at Leonard Bernstein was already anti-Semitic.
A Southerner laughing at New York! The monopoly never forgave him, and when Wolfe’s masterwork, Bonfire of the Vanities– something very close to the Great American Novel – was ready, the Times editors and reviewers pulled every string they could to stop its publication or, failing that, to allow it to become a success. Apart from old scores – apart, moreover, from the image of a man impeccably dressed in a white suit stirring their worst forebodings and phobias – the reason behind their hostility lay in the fact that the New York Times was the chief villain of Wolfe’s novel, playing Goldfinger to the Fort Knox of American heritage. And so, as late as 1998, Wolfe was gleefully rejected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a vipers’ nest harboring such vaudeville hacks as John Hollander and Toni Morrison.
I have it straight from the horse’s mouth that the villainy of cultural monopolization of America was paramount for Wolfe when he was writing the book – which would never have seen publication, to say nothing of acclaim, had it not been for Rolling Stone having taken the risk to bring out a draft version in instalments. When Bonfire came out in England in 1986, I reviewed it, writing pretty much what I’ve written here today. Some weeks later I received a long letter from the author in his beautifully calligraphic hand, thanking me for the notice and Britain for the freedom to say what I had, a freedom by then long denied to writers in the New York of the New York Times. A correspondence ensued, which one day I may publish here.
“Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it.” A suitable epitaph for American journalism, which died during Wolfe’s lifetime despite his best efforts to save it.