Friday, May 18, 2018
Educated at Washington and Lee University and Yale, Wolfe held a doctorate in American studies and could reference Weber, Veblen, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and Darwin with the best of them. But he resisted membership in the "herd of independent minds," choosing instead to join the ranks of counter-intellectuals who problematized not middle-class society but its critics on campus, in media, and along the radical frontier of the Democratic Party. Wolfe is often overlooked as a counter-intellectual because his method was not polemic but devastating, irresistible satire. He was Jonathan Swift in a white suit.
Wolfe brought low those figures, institutions, and movements intellectuals hold in esteem, while elevating the factors in society that intellectuals typically condescend to or denigrate outright. Radical chic, the Community Action Plan, modern art and architecture, the New Yorker, literary fiction, the Victorian Gents of the press, well-meaning politicians, the modern university, and Noam Chomsky were his targets. The Good Old Boys, stock-car racers, naval aviators, astronauts, and Cuban-American cops with machismo were his heroes.
Tom Wolfe was a very good novelist and a great public intellectual. His novel A Man in Full was sometimes awkwardly written, but it told a compelling story or stories about people's moral and financial struggles in contemporary America. The Bonfire of the Vanities perfectly captured the 1980's in unforgettable detail. I will never forget some scenes in it, like the grizzled old judge hocking a lugie at the prisoners who were shouting abuse at him. He'll be missed.