Tom Wolfe, who died on Monday at age 88, will be remembered for … so many things. A pioneer of the New Journalism, he helped turn reporting into literature! by applying novelistic techniques to deeply reported works of nonfiction.
Every one of those ellipses and exclamation points had a purpose, not the least of which was conveying Wolfe’s manic belief in the importance of the story he was telling, not just an episode or an event but an experience (yes, that was it) that almost couldn’t be conveyed by unaided words.
He pulled off that rarest of feats, writing journalism (and later, novels) that have endured because his over-the-top prose always aimed to expose the fundamental human desires that drive most action.
At heart he was an investigator of the social order -- status -- and his tool, or weapon, was virtuosic language wielded with subjective acuity, sarcasm and humor. One of his classics is the 1970 piece in New York Magazine, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” which recounts a fundraiser for the revolutionary Black Panthers Party held at the Park Avenue duplex of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein (above, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1972).
Wolfe’s hilarious third paragraph captured the contradiction he would explore:
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .
Much of Wolfe’s piece – which gives a brief history of status in New York society and the fracturing alliance between blacks and Jewish civil libertarians – details the “double-track mental atmosphere ” of Bernstein and his liberal friends who want to support the Maoist Panthers and maintain their privilege. He captures this brilliantly in his description of the servant problem:
In the era of Radical Chic, then, what a collision course was set between the absolute need for servants—and the fact that the servant was the absolute symbol of what the new movements, black or brown, were struggling against! How absolutely urgent, then, became the search for the only way out: white servants!
Although the Panthers and Radical Chic crowd may not seem like natural allies – things could get messy for the latter when the revolution comes – Wolfe explains the appeal through the 19th century French concept of nostalgie de la boue, which means nostalgia for the mud and involves the romanticizing of primitive souls. He writes:
One rule is that nostalgie de la boue—i.e., the styles of romantic, raw-vital, Low Rent primitives—are good; and middle class, whether black or white, is bad. Therefore, Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and “of the soil,” but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic and romantic. At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: they were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan, in places like Delano (the grape workers), Oakland (the Panthers) and Arizona and New Mexico (the Indians). They weren’t likely to become too much ... underfoot, as it were. Exotic, Romantic, Far Off.
Bernstein gives voice in a discussion with Don Cox the Panthers’ Field Marshal from Oakland.
Lenny looks up at Cox and says, “When you walk into this house, into this building”—and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front —“when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!”
Cox looks embarrassed. “No, man . . . I manage to overcome that . . . That’s a personal thing . . . I used to get very uptight about things like that, but—”
“Don’t you get bitter? Doesn’t that make you mad?”
“Noooo, man . . . That’s a personal thing . . . see . . . and I don’t get mad about that personally. I’m over that.”
“Well,” says Lenny,” it makes me mad!”
And Cox stares at him, and the Plexiglas lowers over his eyes once more . . . These cats—if I wasn’t here to see it—