Tom Wolfe at Work, Or, Care to Take a Break for Gorgeous Prose?

 

Tom Wolfe DeskOn the website of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation (yes, I know, but we take good material where we can find it) there’s a fascinating interview with Tom Wolfe about his classic 1970 article, “Radical Chic.” The story of a party Leonard Bernstein threw for a bunch of rich liberals on the Upper West Side at which the guests of honor were Black Panthers, “Radical Chic” may be both one of the must gorgeously written and completely devastating pieces of work of the twentieth century.

In the interview, the questions and answers appear in the text, questions in blue, Wolfe’s answers in red, in the form of extended annotations. A truly great writer at work. An excerpt:

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 1.20.22 PM

Glorious, no?

Read it all.

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  1. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    By odd coincidence, just this past weekend, I watched a Firing Line interview between WFBuckley and a much younger Tom Wolfe. (I subscribe to Amazon Prime and Firing Line is one of the treasure troves.) 

    “Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail?”

    I flash back to the scene in the movie Network where Faye Dunaway is negotiating with a gang of radicals, while they’re going through the pages of the contract. I’m almost positive that Paddy Chayevsky stole that scene verbatim from Radical Chic.

    • #1
  2. user_140544 Inactive
    user_140544
    @MattBlankenship

    I have often found starting a piece of Tom Wolfe’s writing jarring and off-putting.  This goes for the short works as well as the long.  However, I have also found that, when I stick with it for more than a few pages, I can’t stop reading it. 

    Now, if asked to give my favorite modern book, I say without hesitation that it is The Right Stuff.  My favorite long essay is Radical Chic.  I bought I Am Charlotte Simmons the day it came out and subsequently made numerous abortive attempts to read it, never getting past the first few pages.  Then one day last fall I read the whole prologue–and kept going.  Nearly 800 pages knocked out in less than a week.  I couldn’t stop.  Where next? Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, or Back to Blood? I think Bonfire.  It is one of those books I am embarrassed not to have read.

    • #2
  3. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Thank you for this.  It’s been years since I read Radical Chic.  I noticed the reference to the two articles Wolfe wrote about The New Yorker and William Shawn, Tiny Mummies and Lost in the Whichy Thickets.  They’re simply hilarious and are anthologized in Wolfe’s Hooking Up.

    • #3
  4. george.tobin@yahoo.com Moderator
    george.tobin@yahoo.com
    @OldBathos

    Radical Chic should be read in conjunction with Bauhaus and Painted Word. Wolfe clearly exposes the fatuous narcissism at the core of liberal being and makes us laugh, the most devasting thing he can do.  I sometimes feel like the sheer pomposity of Barrack Obama and his apologists is a kind of last hurrah from an ideology that knows how silly it is and wants to deny and defer the laughter as long as it can.

    • #4
  5. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Matt Blankenship: Where next? Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, or Back to Blood? I think Bonfire. It is one of those books I am embarrassed not to have read.

     Bonfire is flawless. Read that one.

    • #5
  6. Rhoda at the Door Inactive
    Rhoda at the Door
    @RhodaattheDoor

    I think A Man in Full is my favorite of his magnificent collection of mounted-bug-display of US culture; Bonfire right up next to it.   Chapters 1 and 2 of Charlotte Simmons made it clear I wouldn’t have the stomach to see what would happen to his heroine–so like my own dearies in her home life.  I gleefully came home with Back to Blood whose title idea is bloodcurdling.  I pushed away at it for some time, seeing what he’s doing but not where he’s going.  I found the writing simply awful, almost unreadable, and then, to my mind, it descended almost to pornography and I shelved it.  Should I try again?

    • #6
  7. user_961 Member
    user_961
    @DuaneOyen

    The first Wolfe I ever read (including Nero) was in high school, and it was Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

    • #7
  8. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    Rhoda at the Door:

    . . .  Should I try again?

    Yes. Charlotte Simmons, too. Your stomach will be fine. 

    • #8
  9. kmtanner Inactive
    kmtanner
    @kmtanner

    Radical Chic is good book

    • #9
  10. Foxman Inactive
    Foxman
    @Foxman

    Do not forget Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.

    Rhoda at the Door:

    I think A Man in Full is my favorite of his magnificent collection of mounted-bug-display of US culture; Bonfire right up next to it. Chapters 1 and 2 of Charlotte Simmons made it clear I wouldn’t have the stomach to see what would happen to his heroine–so like my own dearies in her home life. I gleefully came home with Back to Blood whose title idea is bloodcurdling. I pushed away at it for some time, seeing what he’s doing but not where he’s going. I found the writing simply awful, almost unreadable, and then, to my mind, it descended almost to pornography and I shelved it. Should I try again?

     As much as I like Wolfe, I was disapointed by Back to Blood.  I was about twenty pages from the end when I though “There are not enough pages left for him to wind this book up properly”.  I was right; he just ended it.


    • #10
  11. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    Matt Blankenship:

    I have often found starting a piece of Tom Wolfe’s writing jarring and off-putting. This goes for the short works as well as the long. However, I have also found that, when I stick with it for more than a few pages, I can’t stop reading it.

    Now, if asked to give my favorite modern book, I say without hesitation that it is The Right Stuff. My favorite long essay is Radical Chic. I bought I Am Charlotte Simmons the day it came out and subsequently made numerous abortive attempts to read it, never getting past the first few pages. Then one day last fall I read the whole prologue–and kept going. Nearly 800 pages knocked out in less than a week. I couldn’t stop. Where next? Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, or Back to Blood? I think Bonfire. It is one of those books I am embarrassed not to have read.

    Read Bonfire.  Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish (particularly for someone like me who experienced the New York City of the 1980s firsthand).

    • #11
  12. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    Old Bathos:

    Radical Chic should be read in conjunction with Bauhaus and Painted Word. Wolfe clearly exposes the fatuous narcissism at the core of liberal being and makes us laugh, the most devasting thing he can do….

    Radical Chic was key in cementing my rightward tilt in young adulthood.  How interesting it is that today we are discussing celebrities (Ed Begley, Jr., Mariel Hemingway, and the Tingells) who are working in concert with forces arrayed against American interests and security.  They are the Leonard Bernsteins of the present day.

    I later read From Bauhaus To Our House and The Painted Word, and how thrilling it was to see a prominent intellectual so masterfully reveal the nakedness of the twin emperors known as modern architecture and modern art!  Those two Wolfe books said, “It is OK to feel as you do.  You are correct.  Almost all the practictioners in these fields are frauds.”

    • #12

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