Tom Wolfe

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American Studies expert and author, Tom Wolfe, has died at an appropriate ripe old age. If you have not read The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is one of his fiction books that is essentially, pure non-fiction, then you must. Never mind that a mediocre movie was made out of it. Bonfire is one of the key books of modern history, documenting in a fictional story about fear and loathing among the ultra-privileged, about racism and class, about Masters of the Universe and social bouquets. It is the quintessential novel of the 1980s, and since the 1980s is the most important decade ever, you must read it. I personally missed the 1980s, I was either underground, literally, under a huge pile of graduate work, literally, or in a remote jungle, literally. But when I got back from all of that I read the book and learned what had happened.

Wolfe also wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff.

His book The Kingdom of Speech critiques both Darwin and Chomsky, for reasons that seem pretty legit to me, though I hasten to add I’ve not read it, only summaries of it (and maybe an article somewhere by Wolfe).

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12 thoughts on “Tom Wolfe

  1. Bonfire might have signaled his peak. Fiction or not, it is an amazing read. I have to say the last thing of his I read was “A Man in Full” — long and stilted.

    I’d also suggest “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis. Violence aside, I think it represents the Reagan segment of the 80s perfectly: style over substance, illusion over reality, and blatant contempt, dismissal, and hatred of “others” as the central message. (Sounds like the current Republican philosophy as well.)

  2. Wolfe’s contributions to the English language go far beyond the most obvious catchphrases that he popularized. The Oxford English Dictionary includes about 150 quotations from Wolfe’s writings, and in many cases, he is the earliest known source for words and phrases that have worked their way into the lexicon. Tom molded the English language to fit his needs every bit as much as [PG] Wodehouse did. In his hands, it came alive in a way it never had before.

  3. Bonfire of the Vanities is going on my list. Don’t know when I’ll get to it.

    I’ve also read A Man in Full. It’s a long book, but I enjoyed it — especially the part about the stoic in prison. I think the parts about the rich real-estate guy must have resembled elements of Bonfire, and that character probably was patterned on someone we know too well today.

    1. As noted, I thought “Man in Full” was not his best work, but it did keep me reading to the end. I just couldn’t get interested in either of the two main characters.

      He did have an amazing way with words though. I find it interesting that Wolfe was a supporter of the second President Bush, and that Bush was a big fan of his, claiming to have read all of Wolfe’s books (a claim I have no reason to doubt).

    1. I’ve not read Wolfe’s evolution/Chomsky book, but it seems like it was the very superficial “get off my lawn” ranting of an old man.

      Some have taken that book as evidence that his prior work must be bad as well. That idea, held by some otherwise respectable people, is of course bullshit.

      He was a brilliant observer of modern American culture. I say this with a certain expertise as a trained anthropologist. He apparently went off the rails in his later life, or perhaps he simply never should have engaged in fields that far outside his own.

      Having said that, don’t worship Chomsky. Certain aspects of his work are very worthy of criticism. But, it may be that if Wolfe got some of that right, he may have done so as a proverbial stopped clock.

  4. People going off the rails late in life is nothing new, of course. Michael Crichton did it with State of Fear (but he had cancer); Heinlein did it with Time Enough for Love (but he had some disease that he called “the brain eater” and subsequently recovered to some degree.) I could name a few scientists that have done the same.

    While I’m on the subject of language and evolution, I’d like to throw out the name of Derek Bickerton. His theses was that language evolved due to pressures for cooperation in group hunting. Adam’s Tongue is the book that sets it forth.'s_Tongue.html


    1. Interesting, things keep popping up on PBS (wish I could remember the titles). One of the last ones was that, rather than cooperation with hunting, language arose with cooperation among women with child rearing and daily activities. It involved biological evidence which I don’t remember (of course) but it makes sense. Male chimps hunt cooperatively. If you think about it, success in a hunt rather relies on not running your mouth…

      Another program suggested something along the lines of group singing.

      Personally, it seems to me that we don’t really know if some animals have a kind of protolanguage.

      Anyway, I’m finding it difficult to type with my flippers today, so I’m outta here, you animals! As we say in the bay, So long and thanks for all the fish!

  5. There is the theory however that throwing stones affected how the brain evolved… something or other about how genetics sometimes requires morphologic changes to different systems in tandem. Or something. I’d Google it, but I’m mad at Google just now.

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