Farewell Tom Wolfe

He wrote some great books and coined new language. But I stopped liking him.

A blast from the past:

4 Nov. 04: A loyal basil.CA reader sent me a friendly election-day double-dinger: an email entitled “Is Bob Cranky Today?” that begins, “Your entry today [on Tom Wolfe, below*] was opaque and confusing.” I WAS cranky, and it  IS confusing.  Here is what I meant to say: 

Wolfe was my favourite writer for about a year in college, when I was an editor at the college newspaper:  He really opened up my view of nonfiction generally and journalism in particular.  He was very USEFUL to a young writer.  His later essays are often very funny, but they are infected with reverse snobbery, which I loathe a good deal more than regular snobbery. From college on, and especially from grad school on, I’ve run into countless snobs and reverse snobs.  I have always like snobs more:  They think they are better bred than you, and that’s fine with me, even on those occasions when they are clearly wrong.  Reverse snobs decry the whole idea of breeding and so not only renounce but DENY theirs — they become citizens of the working class, etc., or some other “authentic” class.  They are frauds, not to put too fine a point on it.

And here is what I meant when I said that Wolfe now parrots the Republican party:  He employs clichéd expressions like “the Eastern Media elite” to echo reactionary resentments the same way that party does. I don’t know if being a parrot makes you fraudulent, but it does make you mind-numbing.

The post to which my friend was responding:

At one time Tom Wolfe was my favourite writer.  (When I was at Stanford, I used to teach The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) He lost his charm when he started writing fiction.  He lost everything else when he started parrotting the Republican Party.  It’s not uncommon for writers to get resentful and ossified at the end of their careers, but it always dismays.

4 Comments»

  sanjose61 wrote @

Just to be clear, when you talk about breeding and bred, what exactly are you referring to? Thanks.

  Robert Basil wrote @

I know it is a weird verb. “Bred” and “breeding” typically refer to one’s level of education and training, and conventional politesse, as well as to each of these qualities / traits among one’s ancestors.

  sanjose61 wrote @

Apologies if I stray from the post, but it seems then that the person who acquires impeccable politesse (for instance from being a servant for the rich) and acquires formidable knowledge through native intelligence and self-teaching (her father was an encyclopedia salesman) would not be considered well-bred due to a lack of pedigree. Is this generally true? Sincere question.

  Robert Basil wrote @

Pegiree is (the worst) part of it.


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