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The Decay of Letters: Leg-Humping with Tom Wolfe

Someone made the odd, maybe malicious, certainly rash decision to put Tom Wolfe on the right hand side of Harper’s 150th anniversary cover, facing Mark Twain, a leonine, earthy, dignified old devil, sitting in alert repose, apparently listening. A man to whose energetic image the white suit is incidental. Over on the right hand side, Wolfe’s white suit is dominant, looking just a shade too big for its shriveled occupant, who gazes nowhere in particular with a smirk of wooden self-satisfaction, looking like some second-rank official from the British foreign office, retired to Bermuda, out of the closet at last and squawking at Basil in the kitchen.

Why Wolfe should want to look like an old-line fairy, handkerchief far too carefully arranged in his breast pocket, escapes me, but then why Lewis Lapham, Harper’s editor, should want to set Wolfe alongside Mark Twain escapes me too, though perhaps Wolfe’s wife, for whom Lapham apparently has entertained a regard, bent the great editor’s ear. Perhaps there should have been a disclosure-of-interest statement in Harper’s about this, right next to the letter from Bill Clinton congratulating the mag.

These anniversary editions are usually promoted by publishers as a way of garnering extra ad pages. By this standard Harper’s 188-pager looks to me like a commercial flop, though the beautiful back-cover black model touting Virginia Slims comes as pleasant refreshment after the shock of seeing Wolfe set alongside Twain. As usual a goodly slab of the editorial content consists of out-of-copyright freebies or “readings” coaxed out of authors or their agents for a song. But this is appropriate, since Harper’s began as a literary Napster, pirating Dickens and other English materials with shameless abandon, as Lapham readily concedes in his essay on the magazine’s history, positioned right before Wolfe’s essay, with the juxtaposition reminding one that both men have far higher estimates of their prose styles than the evidence warrants.

In person or on the phone I’ve always found Lapham to be a jolly fellow, light-hearted and caustic. But somewhere along the line as a writer he decided to be a gent, lounging around on plump cushions of urbanity and graceful phrase-making. Since he’s the boss no one at Harper’s has ever dared tell him to get out of his easy chair, read a little Twain and crank some zizz into his sentences.

Here’s a chunk of Lapham’s history of Harper’s, about which his assistant editors and fact checkers could have usefully had a few quiet words with the great man: “The travelers making their way west on the Oregon Trail… looked for a garden in a landscape that was mostly desert, for something glimpsed but not yet seen in a play of sunlight on a canyon wall or through a drift of rain in tall trees. The Indians in the Great Plains were still peaceable enough in the spring of 1850, more curious than belligerent, watching, in silence and from a distance, as the white man moved what they assumed were his villages to hunting grounds unknown.”

What is that stuff about “play of sunlight” or “drift of rain” meant to mean? What precisely is that “something”?

As for Lapham’s historical kitsch about the watchful silent Red Man and those “hunting grounds unknown,” by the time Lewis and Clark mounted their expedition in 1804 the Assiniboins and Crees were trading with the English of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies. The Crow were trading with the Shoshoni who in turn were exchanging commodities through the Utes with the Spanish settlements in the South West. To the Indians, the hunting grounds were known. “Watching in silence and from a distance”? By the early 1830s the Plains Indians were constant visitors to trading posts like Fort Clark and Fort McKenzie and often settled their villages nearby. Inter-marriage was common and Indian art already reflected close study of the work of George Caitlin and Karl Bodmer who traveled to the Upper Missouri at that time. Allesandre Bartolla’s glass factory in Venice was taking Plains Indian orders for specialized beadwork, the American glass beadwork being rejected by Mandans, Crees and Ojibways as of inferior quality. Lapham’s ignorance here is entirely appropriate to his anniversary edition since a prime function of Harper’s in its early years was to misrepresent the West.

The bizarre juxtaposition of Wolfe with Twain consummates thirty years’ inflation of the former’s modest talents. To read his breathless prose, shrill with yaps and self-importance, is like having a small dog attack one’s leg. Kick it off, and then five minutes later there it is again, paws locked round one’s calf.

Wolfe’s anniversary essay is called “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists. Why no one is celebrating the Second American Century.” As January l, 2000 arrived, Wolfe asks, “did a single solitary savant note that the First American Century had just come to an end and the Second American Century had begun?” To which of course the answer is that Americans saw the millennial chronology as mostly hype, hooked loosely to the Christian calendar, but excitingly dressed up in the vestments of a modern Apocalypse or Second Coming, the Y2K circus.

Wolfe’s habitual technique is to say something and then repeat it at accelerating degrees of shrill enthusiasm for his own insight. In this case, paragraph one announces popular indifference at the millennial turnover to America’s imperial triumphs. Paragraph two belabors the same thought again: “Did a single historian mention that America now dominates the world to an extent that would have made Alexander the Great, who thought there were no more worlds to conquer, get down on all fours and beat his fists on the ground in despair because he was merely a warrior and had never heard of international mergers and acquisitions, rock and rap, fireball movies, TV, the NBA, the World Wide Web, and the ‘globalization’ game?”

More of the same in paragraph three. “Was a single bard bestirred to write a mighty anthem..” Kick the little dog off and he’s back in paragraph four: “Did anybody high or low look for a Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to create a new tribute on the order of the Statue of Liberty.”

Down boy! Down!

But no. Doggie’s back in paragraph five: “Did any of the America-at-century’s-end network tv specials…” Finally off goes doggie, only to return in paragraph six with a fresh bone. Wolf says he contacted the University of Michigan’s “fabled public-opinion survey resources.” From four U of M studies Wolfe extracts the tidings that 73 per cent of Americans don’t want the United States to intervene abroad unless in cooperation with other nations” and have “no strong feelings about their country’s supremacy one way or the other.”

What Wolfe doesn’t grasp is that his fellow Americans have better manners than he. Does a man boast about making his second billion? Most Americans know their nation is Numero Uno, and are less interested in boasting than in figuring out how to get a piece of the action that presumptively comes with Numero Uno status. As for attitudinal surveys of the sort conducted by the U of M, where has Wolfe been? Americans lie constantly to surveyors.

“Now that we’re number one, don’t you feel thrilled the way we can go into any country and kick butt?”

“Not really.”

“Have you had a personal encounter with Christ?”

“I think so.”

“Who’s Al Gore?”

“I’m not sure.”

And so on. It’s a national game, same as an Indian in the Amazon once told me he and his friends used to play on anthropologists, demanding five bucks an answer and then rolling around with laughter after the nosy fieldworker had gone on his way, notebook cluttered with nonsense. “Have you slept with your aunt?” “Of course.” They did the same thing to Margaret Mead, I’m sure.

So Wolfe’s premise is balderdash. Americans know they have an empire. It’s simply bad form to exult along the lines proposed by Wolfe. Indeed, until quite recently in the academies it’s still poor judgment for an academic on tenure track in the political science department to use the word “empire” at all. We were the leader of a democratic association called the “free world.” That was, still is, the tactful way of putting it.

But Wolfe isn’t attacking the American common man for being too purblind to acknowledge imperial glory for what it is. Wolfe, don’t forget, purports to speak for the common man against the intellectuals, the people he terms, in his latest retread of a stunt he’s been pulling since he unveiled “radical chic” all those years ago, “the rococo Marxists.” The RMs somehow in all their puissance have persuaded the American people that it’s wrong to be vainglorious.

Now, to put this in Wolfean argot, isn’t this a little late, a tad déjà vu. I mean, haven’t we been here before?

Of course we’ve been here before. Wolfe is flogging a horse so dead there’s neither hide nor flesh left on the bones, just a skeleton in one of those canyons Lapham was so eloquent about. Didn’t Harper’s research department nudge Wolfe’s elbow, direct his attention to the tempest over political correctness at the start of the Nineties when the PC crowd, aka the rococo Marxists, were sapping the nation’s virility with exhibitions like the Smithsonian’s 1991 “West as America,” where the heroic 19th century paintings were tricked out with beastly, knowing captions compromising America’s historical virtue? Didn’t they offer him a copy of D’Souza’s rantings, hint tactfully that it’s a little late in the day to discover the pernicious influence of Foucault or Derrida or to make jokes about PC profs getting their students to spell “women” as “womyn”? Didn’t they… but we must stay our hand. Wolfe’s prose is catching.

Wolfe knows very little about anything interesting. What he mostly knows is how to be knowing. Try this: “[Kipling] and many others had the uneasy feeling that the foundations of European civilization were already shifting beneath their feet, a feeling indicated by the much used adjectival compound fin de siecle. Literally, of course, it meant nothing more than ’end-of-the-century‚’ but it connoted something modern, baffling, and troubling in Europe. Both Nietzsche and Marx did their greatest work seeking to explain the mystery. The term both used was ’decadence’.”

This is the sort of stuff that is presumably meant to have the rubes and middle-brows, to whom Harper’s has always been aimed, agape at Wolfe’s learning. Except it’s all wrong, both about Nietzsche, at his greatest when undercutting the Enlightenment and Marx on top form when writing about the economy.

The undergrowth of Wolfe’s prose rustles with these absurdities. Here’s another passage, where Wolfe is grandly announcing that the operative definition of the intellectual is someone who has quit seemly specialization for larger fields: “The prime example was Noam Chomsky, a brilliant linguist… But Chomsky was not known as an intellectual until he denounced the war in Vietnam, something he knew next to nothing about — thereby qualifying for his new eminence.” In other words, assessment of the merits of killing off a couple of million Vietnamese was a specialized discipline, the purview of Samuel P. Huntington, Walt Rostow and other house intellectuals of Empire. Chomsky, who made Vietnam the object of close study for more than a decade and a half was somehow disqualified because he wasn’t a political scientist under contract to RAND or one of the war-strategizing university think-tanks or the Pentagon.

Back one more time into the rustling thicket of nonsense: “…structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, commodification theory. This will not be Vulgar Marxism; it will be… Rococo Marxism, elegant as a Fragonard, sly as a Watteau.” Elegant as a Fragonard ! What can Wolfe be talking about? Late Marxism and post-Marxism in all their myriad hues may have some redeeming qualities, but the elegance of Fragonard is certainly not among them. Wolfe doesn’t know anything about Marxism. His ignorance is so profound he doesn’t even know how to be knowing about it. Even within the terms of his act, he’s off in his timing, like an old vaudevillian well past his prime and ready to be shunted into the rest home.

It’s all so… dated.

Here he is making labored fun of Susan Sontag (“her prose style… had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review”) about twenty years too late. Here are little pillows of prose hurled at Stanley Fish or Judith Butler. Dated again. Poor Wolfe, someone should tell him the news. Those good soldiers in Seattle or in Washington raising their ruckus against Empire didn’t have Fish or Butler or even Foucault in their backpacks. They’re on different terrain altogether. Wolfe always was a follower of fashion, and there’s nothing so silly as a fashion-plate appearing in the intellectual and prose equivalent of periwig and ruffles, like some figure of the ancien regime when the rest of the world has moved on.

One Comment

  1. Pat Kittle September 18, 2018

    Even if Wolfe wrote nothing other than “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” I’d regard him much as I do Twain.

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