Tom Wolfe, who died Monday, was one of the central creators of modern American prose, as were those of us who did not share his policies and often complained of his tastes and even doubted the fashion secrets of all white suits. His style, when he came in the mid-sixties, was really breathtakingly exciting and remains amazingly original. His superficial affect – all these "Zowies!" And ellipses and broken sentences – like the sound of AM radio broadcasts at the same time, was a collage of attention-seeking cries.
But among the affected-no, in them, for, as with any good writer, the mannerisms were the bearers of morality ̵
He had, in the best sense of the word, an ad man's gift for the pregnant phrase. "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" – like Allen Ginsberg's "Hydrogen Jukebox" – was the kind of unforgettable slogan every Mad man dreamed of. "The right stuff," even though it has penetrated the language, as astronauts said, was as much an invention of Wolfe as of the people he studied, an expression he brought to her courage. His prose sparkles and flashes with these creations. To say that Wolfe has written the poetic refinement of the art of advertising of the sixties is only a good thing – Wolfe took the taste for the strong phrase, the charged short sentence, the surprising intervention, even the wild punctuation of the Sixties commercial, and turned it into a kind of art.
But even within Wolf's wildest undertakings, there was always a quiet inner beat of reflective intelligence. He understood, for example, that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, far from being carriers of a sixties' psychedelia, actually formed a kind of break line between two times, representatives of the hippie culture of the fifties, who faced the newly emerging hippies. The moment in the book in which the Kesey gang sees the Beatles, carriers of the new flood, from far away in the cheap seats of an arena, has more pathos than triumph in it.
Wolfe's conservative policies, as she over the years, had a certain logic, though it was easy to resist, and they filled his books on art and architecture as well as on pure political writing – as in the case of infamous "Radical Chic" attack on the well-being Leonard Bernstein and his wife, who organized a party for Black Panthers. His politics, like every dandy, was basically a politics of style. His view was that there was a core of the authentic popular American style elite or over-valued Americans were always ashamed of. This right, or whatever, stuff included everything from the signs on the Las Vegas Strip, Phil Spector's Soundwall, to the Hotel Fontainebleau in Miami to the madness of a BBQ for the astronauts in the Houston Coliseum
The Ashamed of the unruly energy of these things, New York intellectuals had replaced the sparse, impoverished, slimmed-down dogmas of modernist abstraction and, meaningless, Bauhaus's sparse barracks, architecture and design. That it was controversial claims – his criticism of the art world, "The Painted Word", showed a much greater sense of words than the actual and often wonderfully sensual painting that the words should produce – did not change their potency. If its cultural policies at times had a repulsive stain on xenophobia, with the implication that European immigrant invaders had corrupted American demotic energies, they would have their own undeniable truths. Surely, anyone who observes the Trump era must admit that in the battle between the piety of elite taste and the magnetism of American overload, one should always bet on overcharge. That this can be regrettable makes it no less true.
Although Wolfe sometimes believed it would be worthwhile to play the primitive, he was a man of profound, if specific, scholarship. He described himself as a student of the great Thorstein Veblen, the student of the late nineteenth century of status and prestige, as it was played in American life, and that was so. If his novels are of varying degrees – "The Fire of Vanities" is surely the best of them – because his natural gifts as a Veblenian cartoonist were not often suited to a comprehensive, three-dimensional narrative. He was in top form at his best. He liked or desired comparisons with Dickens, but a better one is for Disraeli as a novelist who shared his dandyish taste, his conservative politics, and his love for the wide-screen and light caricatural gesture. And if Wolfe, as a novelist, was sometimes engulfed in caricature, it was caricature in the American model, boldly toned and beautifully memorable. With perhaps the best eye and ear for American manners, Sinclair Lewis has certainly been described in one way: in the last half of the twentieth century, no account of American letters credible to Tom Wolfe can be credibly written