Jewish World Review May 1, 2003 / 29 Nissan, 5763
Dinning with Tom Wolfe: More lessons in nusual aspects of American life,
What was it that Tom Wolfe once called the
American press? If memory serves, he called it the "Courtly Gentleman." That
was the synecdoche Wolfe created for the standard-issue journalist, who, he
said, always strikes "the seemly sentiment." The perceptive Wolfe was once
again having fun with pomposity and getting it right.
Breakfast with him at the Carlyle Hotel in New York's swank
Upper East 70s is always a merry and informative time, as it was just the
other day. Al Regnery, the new publisher of The American Spectator, and I
wanted Tom's advice on magazine design. Tom knows vast amounts about design
and art in general, as he made clear at the expense of the poseurs of the
Art World in his impious book "The Painted Word."
While spooning a modest bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and
what looked like an entire orchard of fruit on the side, he discoursed over
a vast range of matters. Soft-spoken, eloquent and urbane, dressed in his
characteristic white ensemble -- is it a Victorian style? -- he put me in
mind of nothing so much as a "courtly gentleman," but a genuinely courtly
Tom is a Virginian, educated at Washington & Lee and Yale, where
he earned a Ph.D. in American studies. Without any hint of "seemly
sentiment" or artifice of any kind, Wolfe really is the courtly gent; and he
is finishing up a novel that, given the raw material he is working with,
ought to be stupendous. It is on the American university. How can Wolfe miss
In conversation, Wolfe always brings up unusual aspects of
American life, hitherto ignored. At some point years ago, some reviewer of
his work called him, I believe, a sociologist of sorts. The appraisal is not
far off the mark. Social behavior is forever a target in his writing.
During breakfast on this occasion, he notes that none of the
billionaires of Silicon Valley ever was involved in financial fraud either
on the way up or on the way down. Wolfe sees an endemic integrity among the
genius entrepreneurs of the Computer Civilization. They did not "cash out"
during the heady days. And there was something very genuine that he observed
in their personal lives while he was lecturing in the Valley. Though they
might live expensively, they did not live ostentatiously. Moreover, "they
always drove their own cars and flew their own planes." They might have very
expensive cars, but they drove them. They rarely had Boeing jetliners
"because one man cannot fly" a Boeing jet.
I only know one of the fabled Silicon Valley billionaires,
Charles Simonyi, the developer of "what you see is what you get" for
Microsoft. He is just as Wolfe pronounced, an unostentatious engineer, of
huge accomplishment, who flies his own planes and drives his own cars.
Perhaps it is Wolfe's enormous learning -- worn lightly -- that
provoked that reviewer to describe him as a sociologist, but a better job
description would be a reporter. Seth Lipsky, the editor of the newly
founded New York Sun, calls him "the greatest reporter of his generation."
"Why does his writing ring true?" Lipsky asks. "Because despite
the white suits, the glamour and the wealth," Wolfe is the same clear-eyed
reporter today who set out 47 years ago to report for the Springfield Union,
in Springfield, Mass. Through the years, he has reported on limousine
liberals, radicals working cons, druggies, rockers, art frauds, and
wheeler-dealers in finance and real estate. Every time, he writes only after
going out with a reporter's pad in hand and observing his subjects.
For his book on university life, he traveled across the country
peering in on that fantastic scene that is the American college campus. The
students, the faculty, the alums, the coaches, the sports fans and, of
course, the state politicians caught his eye. His research is indefatigable.
Recently, he called a writer with experience in political scandals and asked
him where he might get first-hand information about how a randy governor
would cover up his dangerous liaisons. Wolfe leaves very little to his own
imagination, though that wondrous faculty of Wolfe's is always available to
radiate a scene in one of his novels.
I never probe too deeply when Tom is at work on a novel. It just
does not seem like the right thing to do. But from what he has let slip
about this latest work, I suspect the American university is about to suffer
a staggering expose. Wolfe will leave his readers not only outraged but
laughing -- that is the cruelest cut of all.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Bob Tyrrell is editor in chief of The American Spectator. Comment by clicking here.
04/28/03: Ambuscade at scholarly frontier
04/21/03: Stars in search of a galaxy
04/10/03: Baghdad Bob and Tom Daschle
03/31/03: When the media itself becomes the story
03/20/03: Revealed! Estrada is a gifted linguist -- a Japanese-American fluent in Spanish
03/14/03: Genuinely in charge
03/10/03: Stalin and Saddam
03/05/03: They just cannot stomach a protracted alliance with the Bushies
02/25/03: Identity gridlock
02/18/03: People calling Dean a fruitcake are underestimating his political savvy
02/13/03: The new political establishment
01/30/03: The time is now
01/27/03: Witnessing self-love by people completely incapable of self-criticism
01/21/03: Of course our kiddies are depressed
01/13/03: Why is it that Official Washington still believes that a tax reduction means a revenue reduction?
01/02/03: Missing Moi
12/27/02: The grizzled and menacing-looking senator in Confederate drag is … a Dem
12/24/02: Uprooting Christianity in the Holy Land
12/20/02: Under fire, Lott showed an ignobleness that is embarrassing
11/26/02: Bartley's enemies have been routed
11/14/02: Clarence Thomas and the segregationist Mississippi sheriff
11/07/02: I muffed up
10/31/02: Is the American university turning its back on change, on progress?
10/24/02: So why aren't the Dems buoyant?
10/17/02: Mourning the loss of the "yellow-belly"
10/10/02: American politics at its most ignominious
10/03/02: A man above the law, a bully
09/26/02: Is Bob Greene a victim of an anti-Clinton backlash?
09/19/02: I knew Mafiosi and …
09/12/02: Chickens and poseurs
09/05/02: Sympathizing with the Europols
08/29/02: 9-11 did not change us forever
08/22/02: Public persons frivoling with serious matters
08/15/02: Beachcombing among the fat of the land
08/08/02: They pave the way for corruption, not personal responsibility
08/01/02: Believing the unbelievable
07/25/02: The congressional posse comitatus
07/18/02: Cosmopolitan Arab fashion
07/11/02: What the prez actually knows
07/04/02: The vindication of a truly original thinker
06/27/02: The perfect book for Hillary
06/20/02: To say that they were ordinary is not to slight them
06/13/02: Daschle must begin to act like an adult
06/06/02: Lack of "intelligence" --- and sheer stupidity
05/30/02: Revealing a carefully guarded media secret
05/23/02: In these times, thank Heaven for Clinton!
05/16/02: Fast Times at the Church of the Nativity
05/09/02: "Name the Prettiest Suicide Bomber"
05/02/02: Vindication for the Boy Scouts
04/25/02: A topic almost no other columnist will touch
04/18/02: 'Conventional Wisdom' --- and those who defy it
04/11/02: Let the Sun shine in
04/05/02: Hooded men of color in sheets
04/01/02: A McCain-Feingold Act for Hollywood
03/21/02: Yakkin' on Yates
03/15/02: No role for Paul Volcker in Enron: the movie
03/07/02: My membership in the Communist Party U.S.A.
02/27/02: This award is bestowed by 'contrarians'
02/21/02: Mike Tyson: Made for Washington?
02/14/02: Enron as underdog?
02/07/02: Freed from the presence of money -- hard or soft -- most politicians would be just as bad
01/31/02: Needed: Bush to make a preemptive strike against his enemies …. Ones who'd like to see him fail even during war
01/24/02: Hucksters will move on to make their next marks
01/17/02: Debonair prez should begin to do the High Life
01/10/02: Move over Twinkies --- "the acne medicine made him do it!"
01/03/02: Leaving the Nazis looking comparatively humane
12/27/01: A "self-made journalist"
12/20/01: Calamities and unanticipated benefits
12/13/01: America's grief ought not to give comfort to those who caused it
12/06/01: Leahy, the strict civil libertarian!? A short-term exploiter of the Constitution is more like it
11/29/01: Welcome to Afghan, Maryland?
11/26/01: So, why don't more folks hate us?
11/15/01: America's quagmire and other certainties
11/09/01: No longer the smug statists, the prodigal Keynesians?
11/01/01: The New Seriousness
10/25/01: Bright lights and the Taliban
10/18/01: Is bin-Laden propaganda from Western intelligence?
10/12/01: No yellow ribbons
10/05/01: Bubba's back --- again!
09/28/01: Exposing peacetime's frauds
09/21/01: So protected, we're vulnerable
09/14/01: At Barbara Olson's home
09/11/01: Duh! All conservatives are racists
08/31/01: Arafat's terrorists have created their own hell
08/24/01: Time for some political prophecy
08/16/01: They claim to be doing so much good
08/10/01: Visiting the source of the White House braintrust
08/03/01: Morality and reality
07/31/01: Blinded by success?
07/24/01: The latest Kennedy capitulation in Massachusetts
07/13/01: Talk about tawdry
07/06/01: Delighting in the Dictator
06/29/01: The G-dphobes
06/21/01: Fashionable Washington is sempiternally in a stew
06/15/01: The limits of hypocrisy
06/08/01: Flagging our general apathy
© 2001, Creators Syndicate