Religion & Liberty Online

Tom Wolfe and the Strangeness of America

(Image credit: Associated Press)

A new documentary about the incomparable novelist and social critic demonstrates, however unintentionally, why we’ll probably never see the likes of Wolfe again.

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Conservatism doesn’t really produce or nurture writers nowadays. The notable exception in the past couple of generations is Tom Wolfe, who died in 2018. Wolfe was universally beloved. He sold millions of copies of his various writings. Wolfe had a distinctive Southern-gentleman look, complete with “trademark white suit and vest, a high-necked blue-and-white-striped shirt complemented by a creamy silk necktie” as Time magazine once put it; a distinctive reportorial style of writing that borrowed from the wild and flamboyant habits of his subjects; and an ironic view of liberal pieties, which liberals couldn’t help but admire.

His novels, journalism, and essays have, furthermore, a kind of unity as an exploration of the crazy and wonderful uses Americans make of their freedom, as best he was able to document. Wolfe took from his Southern upbringing an interest in Stoicism as the defining feature of American manliness, which may be connected to his willingness to look at the various revolutionary goings on in America since the ’60s without hysteria or enthusiasm. Yet it is hard to say if he will have a legacy because, as I noted, conservatism today is largely uninterested in such eccentric figures, and Wolfe nevertheless was a conservative.

Five years after his death, we begin to reckon with this question. We now have our first Wolfe documentary, Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey and distributed by Kino Lorber. It’s based on Michael Lewis’ long Vanity Fair profile of Wolfe back in 2015. Lewis might be the only famous writer to imitate Wolfe in trying to find exorbitant or shocking American adventures to chronicle in bestselling nonfiction accounts like Moneyball and The Big Short, which have since become famous Hollywood movies. He guides us through the documentary competently, he exudes admiration for Wolfe, and he makes us wonder—Why is no one imitating Wolfe in our times?

The documentary follows Wolfe’s career chronologically, from his first success, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1963), to his last, the novel A Man in Full (1998). It largely respects his privacy, which he always guarded, and proceeds instead to talk about his writing on the reasonable presumption that audiences don’t really know him, so they need an introduction in the manner of Wolfe’s greatest hits. This is safe, since, if you already know Wolfe, you’ll no doubt want him celebrated, and if you don’t, you’re likely only to care if he was a big success. Wolfe was a success, a big success, and so Radical Wolfe is a success as well.

About halfway through the film, we get to the most important of Wolfe’s stories, Radical Chic, about a fundraiser that composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers. The book, composed of two long essays, was a remarkable hit in 1968 and is the only time Wolfe satirized the liberal elites on a political issue. Here, the documentary makes a most predictable and unwittingly comic choice—it gets a Black Panther to applaud Bernstein and moralize. After all, liberalism must be above satire and race questions must be sacred. This is the documentary’s only real defect: it demonstrates not only that the people behind the documentary, though they may applaud it, do not share Wolfe’s daring, but also that, since the turbulent ’60s, we’ve gradually grown very timid. That’s in part why we cannot have anyone like Wolfe anymore.

The documentary shares some quotes from Radical Chic, adds photos, and tells some of the stories about its inception and reception. One brief clip is of a Bernstein daughter complaining about hurt feelings. That struck me as silly but very revealing. We cannot have Wolfe nowadays because no public figure can stand hurt feelings, and there are lots of ways for celebrities to protect themselves when it comes to such matters. Celebrity worship is the order of the day; our endless PR includes occasional scandals and some moralistic crusades, but satire is intolerable and talent is accordingly warned off.

But there’s a deeper meaning to satire. The Bernsteins were obviously very vain people who knew next to nothing about American politics but believed they could improve it and be celebrated for it. A silly utopianism may be imputed to them, as to many rich liberals today; ordinary people would say that it’s easy to be liberal when you don’t live with the consequences of your beliefs. Wolfe humiliated rich liberals and thus briefly restored the order of political rank in which the American consensus regarding law counts more than celebrity and the elites don’t get to defy the people with impunity. Obviously, this is impossible today because the consequences are dire. We might remember therefore that the function of satire is something not far from crying to God about the injustice of the world. Moralism helps our elites hide from themselves their iniquity; the ruin of freedom of speech also helps them hide from popular disapproval. So it really is up to God to chastise them at this point. I think you’re likelier to understand Wolfe and appreciate his writing if you keep this in mind.

As for the documentary itself, it comes well recommended, in a way. Wolfe’s daughter, Alexandra, a writer herself, makes a few appearances. Celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, too. Then there are some of Wolfe’s longtime collaborators in journalism and publishing. Finally, angel investor and public intellectual Peter Thiel. In this way, the documentary allows some of Wolfe’s conservatism a hearing. But Radical Wolfe is too short at 73 minutes and suffers from not allowing these guests much more than blurbs. It does let Wolfe speak for himself, however, but it fails to consider what he might have wanted to achieve or how America would be different if Wolfe had more imitators.

Our understanding of Wolfe hasn’t really begun. We still live with the aftereffects of liberal ideals we don’t really believe anymore. Wolfe seems to fit a lot of them: local boy made good, hero against the establishment, stylistic revolutionary, youth worshipper, iconoclast, part of the mad rush of events whose art of writing a flattery made us believe we experienced Progress not merely questionable novelties. Radical Wolfe recaptures all these clichés and serves them at the same time as standards by which we should remember and admire Wolfe. That’s why it will gain countless viewers as soon as it hits streaming.

Wolfe is something else, though: he’s a writer who wanted Americans to face up to the radical conflict between science and morality embodied in his time, especially in men. But one of his novels, I Am Charlotte Simmons, shows that the future of America is women—manly women who insist on themselves and their pronouns, if you allow the remark. It’s not an accident that it’s a college novel, since that’s how women have come to dominate so much of America. Maybe now, with this accomplished, we can finally see how strange Wolfe’s male protagonists are, and how strange and delightful America is.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.