Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Man in White

The death Monday of Tom Wolfe leaves only a few left of the writers who in the 1960s and 70s pioneered what came to be called "new journalism." It married reportage with literary techniques in long-form pieces that were anything but a bare recitation of who, what, when, where, why and how.

Wolfe may have had the largest impact of the list, exposing the emptiness of "radical chic" in the late 1960s, the pretentiousness of wide swaths of modern art and architecture a few years later and the steely core of test pilots and astronauts in the growing years of the Mercury space program and supersonic flight. Through fiction he showed late 1980s New York City a picture of itself warts and all and uncovered the color line that wasn't completely erased by the green cash flow of the New South. He lifted the lid on the creepy gumbo of hedonism, new Puritanism and shallowness of the modern university.

His novels rested on a journalist's reporting and his journalism had fiction's flair, perhaps because he did not simply write words the way we do when we're just communicating information. Wolfe used language -- every facet of it on which he could lay his hands. Funky punctuation? All of those literary devices we were supposed to memorize in English class like alliteration or onomatopoeia? Multiple voices in narration and dialogue? All of those and more. If Winston Churchill was supposed to have mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, Wolfe mobilized it and sent it out to help people understand an increasingly weird and troubling world. It may sound like a much lower goal, but all Churchill had to do was defeat the Nazis. Wolfe had to explain why people paid money for a Jackson Pollock painting.

In reflecting on this loss with a friend who used to work at the newspaper with me, we discovered that one of the most depressing things about Wolfe's passing is the way it highlights how few successors he and other new journalism wizards have working today. Wolfe's success was probably as much alchemical as it was anything else, but one of his secrets was his command of the linguistic and stylistic rules with which he played fast and loose. Knowing them, he could choose obedience, transgression or some mixture so that he could make his points. Imitators, raised on a diet of transgression alone, have little to no understanding of how to communicate anything other than their own self-worth.

In National Review's blog The Corner, Richard Brookhiser offers a brief appreciation for Wolfe and his gifts, closing it with what would serve as a fine epitaph: "He enriched American letters and life."


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