Tom Wolfe's Lack Of Southern White Guilt
Print Friendly and PDF

David Denby, the lesser of the two New Yorker movie reviewers, has written a short book entitled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.

The book doesn't sound terribly interesting, but part of Michael C. Moynihan's review in Reason caught my eye:

Denby tags the Fox News screamer Bill O’Reilly as a boorish knuckle-dragger, but his liberal counterpart Keith Olbermann is something else entirely: “One can’t help but noticing...that Olbermann’s tirades are voluminously factual, astoundingly syntactical...and always logically organized.” The leftist writer Gore Vidal is a “master of high snark,” while his conservative counterpart Tom Wolfe is an overrated racist. If you agree with the snark, it probably isn’t snark.

Denby identifies Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” as a progenitor of today’s snarky style, but it fails, he says, because the writer’s teasing of haute-liberal infatuation with the Black Panthers “now seems more fatuous than the assembled partygoers.” How so? Because according to Denby, “In the end, [Wolfe’s trademark] white suit may have been less an ironic joke than the heraldic uniform of a man born in Richmond, Virginia, who entertained fancies of a distinguished Old South in which blacks kept their mouths shut, a conservative who had never accustomed himself to the new money in the Northeast.” While denouncing bloggers for rumor-mongering and for besmirching reputations with nothing but conjecture, Denby nevertheless finds it appropriate to imply that Wolfe’s writing is steeped in white supremacy.

Nonetheless, I think Denby's New York Jewish liberal irritation at Wolfe is not wholly without basis. It's been little mentioned, but one of Wolfe's strengths is his complete lack of Southern White Guilt.

Because Wolfe emerged so dazzlingly in the mid-1960s, it took the literary world a long time to figure out he was not one of them, that his political feelings were self-confidently conservative. After all, they reasoned, how could any artistic innovator be a conservative?

And yet, few societies in human history before 19th Century Europe would be surprised that a leading member of the artistic and intellectual classes would be an unalienated offspring of the gentry.

Thomas Wolfe Jr. was born in the Shenandoah Valley in 1931 (or 1930, sources differ), where his father was a professor of agronomy at Virginia Tech. A few years later, the family moved to Richmond when his father became the editor of The Southern Planter, a how-to journal for the rural squirearchy. The family spent their summers on their two farms. (Seeing Look Homeward, Angel and other novels by North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe on his father's bookshelf as a small boy, little Tom naturally assumed his dad had written them.) He attended the traditionalist Washington and Lee College.

What little Wolfe has mentioned of his upbringing has been appreciative and loyal. In 1966, Elaine Dundy of Vogue asked him:

Do you feel that you had an important childhood — i.e., very disturbed, or unhappy, or ecstatic — in short, one that your find you keep constantly referring back to in your mind?

I was lucky, I guess, in my family in that they had very firm ideas of roles: Father, Mother, Child. Nothing was ever allowed to bog down into those morass-like personal hangups. And there was no rebellion. ...

The first girl I ever fell in love with came from divorced parents. That was her status symbol to me. I was so envious of her because I thought, what dramatic lives they're all having — real material to write about.

As the loyal, successful offspring of people of a deserved status in American society, Wolfe, who is hypersensitive to questions of status, upon his arrival in New York City always tended to be alienated from the alienated who dominated artistic and intellectual life. Thus, it's hardly surprising that one of the great themes of Wolfe's satire has been their transparent strategies to "Épater la bourgeoisie."

Print Friendly and PDF