The Wrong Stuff

Christopher Hitchens

  • The Purple Decades by Tom Wolfe
    Cape, 396 pp, £8.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 224 02944 4

Here, for a start, are some nuggets of the old and the new New Journalism. What do they have in common?

By now, 1967, with more than a hundred combat missions behind him, Dowd existed in a mental atmosphere that was very nearly mystical. Pilots who had survived that many games of high-low over North Vietnam were like the preacher in Moby Dick who ascends to the pulpit on a rope ladder and then pulls the ladder up behind him.

            ‘The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie’

It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi-military gear and guerrilla talk.

                       ‘The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening’

The reception of Gropius and his confrères was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that period. Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie and Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses – who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.

   The White Gods!

   Come from the skies at last!

              From Bauhaus to Our House

In the margin of the first extract, one might simply write: no they weren’t. In the margin of the second: no it isn’t. After the third: no it wasn’t. But that would be much too literal. What those three paragraphs have in common are the three things that go to make up the Tom Wolfe effect. One, a glibness that is designed for speed-reading. Two, a facility with rapidly cross-cut images and references: a show of learning. Three, a strongly marked conservatism. It is the third of these features, Wolfe’s subliminal advertising for the New Right, that has had the least attention. But in this collection of his favourite journalism the artifice and the foppery are not sufficient to conceal it.

Wolfe had the excellent idea, way back when, of being in the Sixties but not quite of them. His idea of participation was to appear, but to appear detached. The formula caught and held a whole imitative school of lycanthropic scribblers, who could mock and jeer at the antics of the period without being so square as to be left out of the party altogether. The summit of this style – its glass of fashion and its mould of form – was attained by Wolfe himself when he attended Leonard Bernstein’s never-to-be-forgotten cocktail party for the Black Panthers. ‘Radical Chic’ has passed so far into the Anglo-American argot that it may be futile, 13 years later, to attempt to expose it. For one thing, it was so nearly right. Everybody knew somebody who answered or fitted the description. For another, the older and cleverer phrase – limousine liberal – had gone out with Adlai Stevenson and needed a retread. To take up Radical Chic now (excerpted in this volume) and to turn its pages is to undergo a disturbing experience compounded of déjà vu and disappointment. Was there really a time when Park Avenue bled for the American black – even for his most egregious and posturing spokesmen? And did Wolfe really finish off ‘the Sixties’ by holding up the Bernsteins to ridicule and contempt? Finally, was he just having fun? The answers to these questions supply the key to the Wolfe code.

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[*] Confessions of a Conservative. Penguin, 1980.