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.

Yes, there was a time when Park Avenue bled for blacks, for Vietnamese, for grape-pickers and draft-evaders and the rest of it. That time is long past. Today, the ruling style is overwhelmingly narcissistic or outright conservative or both. The national tone is set more by Nancy Reagan’s lavish White House, and by the ‘new opulence’ of the private jets massed at Washington National airport. It is also set, some might argue, by the distribution of surplus cheese to lines of unemployed people of all colours. These days, Tom Wolfe is a guest at the White House, sometimes making up a table with the William F. Buckleys. Any magazine editor in America would pay any sum for an article by him on the absurdities of such evenings. But he seems oddly reluctant to abuse hospitality from that quarter. Yes, Wolfe changed the way people thought about ‘the Sixties’. He made people feel embarrassed about their ‘emotional’ and spasmodic reactions to war and revolution. It might be clearer to say that he made them feel self-conscious about their lapses into commitment. And self-consciousness, often of the most exorbitant kind, has been the thing ever since.

Was Wolfe just having fun at the expense of the smart set? He certainly worked hard at coining his phrase. The words ‘Radical Chic’ appear eight times, capitalised, in the first nine pages. The effect-producing stuff about Manhattan celebrities works only if you know them. What Wolfe did, really, was not so much a social or stylistic satire as a political hatchet-job. Take, for example, his long and incongruous exegesis of Seymour Martin Lipset, who was then attempting to open a fissure between American blacks and American Jews. The uneasy context of Black Panthers at the Bernsteins made this general theory, for Wolfe, easy of illustration. So when Otto Preminger raised some awkward Middle Eastern question with Panther leader Don Cox, Wolfe was onto it like a lynx: ‘Most people in the room don’t know what the hell Preminger is driving at, but Leon Quat and the little gray man know right away. They’re trying to wedge into the argument. The hell with that little number, that Israel and Al Fatah and UAR and MiGs and USSR and Zionist imperialist number – not in this room you don’t –’ That was very perceptive: the ideological equivalent of what Wolfe elsewhere terms ‘status radar’. But, to most of his readers, his political shrewdness was irrelevant or went unnoticed. Radical Chic seemed like a good laugh at the expense of a traditional target: the well-heeled reformer otherwise known as the salon socialist, parlour pink, Bollinger Bolshevik, or more candidly and less attractively as the ‘do-gooder’.

In a thoughtful and spirited article, Garry Wills once analysed the selfish commonplaces which underly the anti-do-gooder school. He was in a strong position to do so, having been a star at William F. Buckley’s National Review even while it was heaping praise on Tom Wolfe (as it still does). Wrote Wills: ‘It takes a very dull or skewed acquaintance with our history to think that élite interest in reform arose at last (and only then as an aberration) when a composer-conductor got interested in restive blacks awash in the streets of his own town. He did, after all, compose the song “New York, New York” – why should interest in the “coloured” part of the city’s population arise from nothing but nostalgie de la boue. Is Mr Wolfe saying that blacks and Puerto Ricans and Chicanos are boue?’ He added: ‘Capitalists revolutionised out society. Having started that process, the sorcerer’s apprentices cannot call it off overnight or blame the whole thing on cocktail parties for Cesar Chavez.’[*] That suggestive judgment would come as more of a surprise to his lazy fans than it would to Wolfe. He, at least, knows what he’s on about. As the Eighties advance, he is more and more frank about his convictions. These are: that the United States was stabbed in the back over Vietnam (‘The Truest Sport’); that welfare deliberately encouraged ghetto insurrection (‘Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers’); that élitist designers are responsible for the failings of modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House); that men of action have been fettered too long by wet liberals (The Right Stuff, ‘The Truest Sport’, passim). He once told me that his favourite journalist was Taki Theodoracopoulos, best-known in America for his essay ‘Ugly Women’, which argues (surprise) that feminism is a neurotic disorder of the ill-favoured.

Ah, but does Wolfe write like a dream? Depends. He certainly has a gifted ear for American speech. He can even catch it without directly quoting it, as in this piece from The Pump House Gang:

The Mac Meda Destruction Company is ... an underground society that started in La Jolla about three years ago. Nobody can remember exactly how; they have arguments about it. Anyhow, it is mainly something to bug people with and organise huge beer orgies with ... They have Mac Meda Destruction Company decals. They stick them on phone booths, on cars, any place. Some mommy-hubby will come out of the shopping plaza and walk up to his Mustang, which is supposed to make him a hell of a tiger now, and he’ll see a sticker on the side of it saying, ‘Mac Meda Destruction Company’, and for about two days or something he’ll think the sky is going to fall in.

Others have their own preferred pieces. But there are two objections to the view of Wolfe as merely an elegant and sardonic chronicler of manners. The first arises simply from reading him for several chapters at a stretch. After a cloying interlude, his use of affectation becomes tiresome. The italics, the exclamation marks, the arch Capital Letters, the repetition of anecdotes and of keywords (‘lollygagging’ must appear dozens of times): all these begin to pall. Second, we have the testimony of somebody called Joe David Bellamy. Mr Bellamy appears, presumably with Wolfe’s warm approval, as the writer of an introduction to this anthology. Here he is in full spate:

Temperamentally, Tom Wolfe is, from first to last, with every word and deed, a comic writer with an exuberant sense of humour, a baroque sensibility, and an irresistible inclination towards hyperbole. His antecedents are primarily literary – not journalistic, and not political, except in the largest sense. All these years, Tom Wolfe has been writing Comedy with a capital C, Comedy like that of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen and Joseph Addison, like that of Thackeray and Shaw and Mark Twain. Like these writers, Tom Wolfe might be described as a brooding humanistic presence. There is a decided moral edge to his humour. Wofe never tells us what to believe exactly; rather, he shows us examples of good and (most often) bad form. He has always proffered these humanistic and moral perspectives on his subjects.

Well! One wonders briefly what Wolfe would say if anyone else got himself promoted in this fashion. ‘Not political, except in the largest sense.’ Hah! Oh yeah? And as for the Comedy with a capital C ...

  It’s not that Wolfe cannot write really memorably. This passage, for example, has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it:

The traffic jam at the Phun Cat ferry, going south to the Ho Chi Minh trail, was so enormous that they couldn’t have budged even if they thought Dowd was going to open up on them. They craned their heads back and stared up at him. He was down so low, it was as if he could have chucked them under their chins. Several old geezers, in the inevitable pantaloons, looked up without even taking their hands off the drafts of the wagons they were pulling. It was as if they were harnessed to them.

And then:

For two days they softened the place up, working on the flak sites and SAM sites in the most methodical way. On the third day they massed the bomb strike itself. They tore the place apart. They ripped open its gullet, They put it out of the transport business.

Now it’s not as if, in ‘the largest sense’, Wolfe knows anything about Vietnam (he says of the year 1963 that it was a year ‘when the possibility of an American war in Vietnam was not even talked about’). But he followed the lurid, almost pornographic passage above with a bitter attack on the New York Times for eroding domestic morale in the face of the foe. It seems to me, therefore, that he is at best inconsisient in his attack on the politicisation of writing that occurred (according to him and others) in the Sixties. He is simply, as was once said of the old German ruling establishment, blind in the right eye. He devotes a whole section of ‘The Me Decade’ to a critique of pseudo-religious cults, blaming them all on the mushy permissiveness of the hippies and the Guevara Left. You would never suppose that two of the most virulent sects, the Mormons and the Moonies, still provide muscle and money to the New Right of which Wolfe recently announced himself a charter member.

Peel away the hidden agenda of his prejudices, and the residue is precariously thin. A freakish trip with Ken Kesey, an idolatrous profile of the bootlegger and stock-car racer Junior Johnson, and various other bits of slumming. These are American ephemera, and good American ephemera, but it’s clear from the packaging and introduction of this collection that Wolfe wants to be taken more seriously than that. He wants to be thought of as an anthropologist, almost as an authority – which is why I have concentrated so much on his social and political hard core.

In Radical Chic Wolfe remarked that ‘moderate’ black politicians could be detected by their habit of wearing suits three times too large for them. He must have thought this to be clever (like the old Vietnamese ‘geezers’ in their ‘inevitable pantaloons’) because he made the observation several times. The other day, there took place in Washington (where I live) a meeting of moderate black politicians. I didn’t especially notice their dress, but I did notice that when one of their leaders made a speech about the hopes of the vanished Sixties, they wept. They were crying. Crying for the Sixties! For the resources that were meant for them, and which went on Vietnam. For the moral energy that has become so dissipated and introverted. Perhaps this is why Wolfe has started to lose his cutting edge. I suspect that he is running short of targets. His latest book, From Bauhaus to Our House, was a flop by his standards: people are not ready to believe that modern building and its disgraces are to be blamed on an imported conspiracy of pointy-heads. Indeed, the pointy-heads are ‘out’ these days. Blacks and the poor are scarcely fashionable. ‘Progressive’ talk is at a discount. The official line is that Vietnam was a war well worth fighting. In the crass, natural wealth of Reaganite Republicanism, Wolfe cannot find the snigger potential he found in Leonard Bernstein’s naive philanthropy. He now has the America he always wanted, and I hope it stays fine for him.

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