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.

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov

12 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Did Lewis Lapham start the Lapham …. something? Quarterly? If so, is it still being published?

  2. andrei navrozov says:

    Dot: Yes, Lapham’s Quarterly, and here’s the link:

  3. Dot says:

    Mr. Navrozov,: Very interesting! Thanks.

  4. Ken Rosenberger says:

    A fine remembrance, Mr Navrozov, and I can’t wait to read your correspondence with Mr Wolfe. Tom Wolfe’s journalism and fiction was a gateway for me, drawing me away from bad genre novels and on the path leading eventually to what Faulkner called the eternal verities. A key stop along that path, by the way, was a little cultural journal published in a small city in Northwest Illinois.

    Bonfire is as good as you describe, and I keep meaning to find time to reread it. Glad to know how loathed it was/is in the House of Sulzberger. Though not as well-remembered, A Man in Full is near and dear to my heart, and probably the best novel Atlanta can ever hope to have written (sorry, Miss Mitchell) about it. Twenty years later, it is still the definitive send up /take down of the messy panorama of life and pretensions in my adopted hometown. As I recall, the city embraced and toasted Tom Wolfe at the time of its publication, happy as always for any publicity its boosterish city leaders could get, that put it in the national spotlight, for good or ill, for another 15 minutes.

  5. andrei navrozov says:

    Mr. Rosenberger: Thank you very much for this response. The truth is, I thought A Man in Full immeasurably weaker than Bonfire, but immeasurably weaker in a very particular way. I recognized the signs. It was a deterioration identical to that in the Russian writers of the 1920’s, when, by the end of that decade, independent publishers and magazines, one by one, were shut down and finally, in 1934, all writers were made to join the Union of Soviet Writers. Similarly, New York Magazine, the last oasis, dried up in 1976, when Wolfe was already working on Bonfire. He began publishing the draft in 1984. By the 1990’s even the residual freedom of thought, creativity, opinion, caprice, and prejudice which he had enjoyed until the 1970’s had vanished. He wrote his next novel while entombed, as it were, in deafness, and the difference between the two novels is like the difference between Sholokhov’s Tales of the Don (1925) and Virgin Soil Upturned (1935).

  6. Dan Hayes says:

    With his recent demise I’ve read a lot about Wolfe and his work. But until today I’ve not read about nor realized Wolfe’s underlying animus towards the New York Times and all its works. Thanks.

    BTW, I’ve often been reminded of William Pierce’s amazement with what Wolfe got away with!

  7. andrei navrozov says:

    Mr. Hayes: Is there a link to this you can give us? All I know for sure about Pierce is that he only married Hungarians, evidence a somewhat unusual cast of mind.

  8. Sam Dickson says:

    Mr. Navrozov: The New York Times ran a 2.5 page article on Wolfe that accompanied his obituary. Wolfe wrote so much that was offensive to the Head Table (The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House being demo jobs on modern art and modern architecture) but perhaps Bonfire of the Vanities was the most offensive, dealing as it did with the radioactive issue of race. But never count The New York Times as down and out! I read the long article on Wolfe carefully with my eye peeled to see how America’s “newspaper of record” would deal with Bonfire. When I finally came to their treatment of the hateful, racist novel, I learned….THAT IT WAS A NOVEL ABOUT INCOME INEQUALITY IN AMERICA! The 4-letter word “r-a-c-e” was never mentioned! The novel was transformed into something supporting of the Sulzberger agenda!
    I read Bonfire in wonderment. I could not imagine how he got away with it. The System would like to drone people who write things like that and eventually will get its way.
    Not so “Man In Full” which you correctly size up as being far below Wolfe’s Bonfire. I live in Atlanta. Unlike most people I was born here and lived here all my life despite always feeling myself to be a member of the South Carolina diaspora, since until my idiot parents moved to Atlanta our family had lived in South Carolina since the 1600s.
    Regardless of my State identity crisis, I know Atlanta very, very well. My business has put me into close connection to every class and category of Atlantan…from representing the widow of the President of the Piedmont Driving Club (Georgia’s #1 pinnacle of money, power and social status) through every other category down to and including to murders, rapists, prostitutes and public housing dwellers and everything in between.
    Wolfe had no grasp of Atlanta. In geography alone his novel was painfully ridiculous. I marveled that he had not had someone who actually knew the local turf read over his text and enable him to correct the egregious errors.
    Then I found our that Wolfe indeed DID have a local consultant.
    Who was that? A silly, shrill woman who had moved to Atlanta from the North and spent a handful of years here during which she acquired a run down apartment building in which Margaret Mitchell had once rented a unit. She opened this apartment building as a supposed shrine to Margaret Mitchell.
    On the day of the Museum’s opening ceremony some people showed up wearing Confederate uniforms. Wolfe’s consultant immediately ordered them off the premises and told them if they did not clear out and clear out fast, she would have them arrested.
    All Fleming Fans understand what all this means without having to go into the details.
    Thanks for remembering Wolfe.
    We must be eternally grateful for those rare few in the real elites who do not betray us.

  9. Dan Hayes says:

    Mr Navrozov,

    In response to your query, Robert S Griffin has written in “Afterward” from Sam Francis, editor, Race and the American Prospect (Mt Airy, MD: The Occidental Press, 2006) p 425-432:

    I remember William Pierce when I was writing a book about him asking me…
    How does Tom Wolfe get away with it?
    Don’t they see what’s in his books?
    How does he get published and get all that favorable attention and everything?

  10. andrei navrozov says:

    Mr. Dickson: What an interesting comment. Thank you. The choice of that woman as the “Atlanta consultant” is a Deafness Classic. I can almost imagine Wolfe at that point in, say, 1932, as a Russian writer who’s never left Moscow “interviewing” a White Sea Canal “construction worker” – who is, of course, a secret-police stooge, rather than one of the 250,000 prisoners who died building it – for a cautiously optimistic book about the First Five-Year Plan.

  11. andrei navrozov says:

    Mr. Hayes: Timing in these matters is everything. We need to know when Pierce was asking those questions, I mean, in what year. Whatever the answer, I can confidently argue that if Wolfe had been born in 1945 instead of 1930, being 21 rather than 36 at Trubine’s demise and having missed out on the last days of jornalistic freedom in the early 1970s, he would have been as obscure a figure as Pierce himself.

  12. Vince Cornell says:

    I was inspired by this column to grab the audio book of Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m only halfway through. I am amazed not only at how accurate the book is in portraying the insanity of “race relations” in our modern American world, but also that it was ever allowed to be printed, let alone acclaimed. And surely there’s no coincidence that the southern Thomas Wolfe named his idiot of a protagonist Sherman!