May 16, 2018

"The New Yorker was turning 40, occasioning a certain amount of 'greatest magazine that ever was' praise. "

"Despite that, and despite the presence of a few of those New Journalism proto-pioneers, it was going through what was arguably one of the duller stretches in its history. [Tom] Wolfe decided to try... putting into print what most journalists would say only at the bar after hours. The manuscript he produced was so long that it had to run in two parts. 'Tiny Mummies! The True Story of The Ruler of 43d Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!' was the first half, published on April 11, 1965, and it was vicious, hilarious, punishing, gleeful. Its basic stance was, as Wolfe himself said, to paint a portrait of 'a room full of very proper people who had gone to sleep standing up, talking to themselves.' Yes, it was a little bit mean. It was also deadly accurate, and, probably inevitably, became the most-talked-about story in newsrooms across the city.... And if there was a story that coalesced it all, it was Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in June 1970, about a fundraiser at Leonard Bernstein’s apartment for the Black Panthers.... It’ll be taught as long as there are journalism schools. As will 'The Me Decade,' the story that named the 1970s. It’s an extremely unusual piece of magazine writing, going off into thickets about the sociology of Max Weber, but it’s under control all the way, and you will not find a better summary of the baby-boomer solipsism that (one could argue, and Wolfe does indeed suggest) was beginning to eat America alive...."

From "Tom Wolfe, New York and New Journalism Legend, Dies at 88," which I'm reading this morning because it's in New York Magazine, which damned well better have a great article on the occasion for Tom Wolfe's death.

And lets follow those 2 internal links...

From "Radical Chic":
From the beginning it was pointless to argue about the sincerity of Radical Chic. Unquestionably the basic impulse, “red diaper” or otherwise, was sincere. But, as in most human endeavors focused upon an ideal, there seemed to be some double-track thinking going on. On the first track—well, one does have a sincere concern for the poor and the underprivileged and an honest outrage against discrimination. One’s heart does cry out—quite spontaneously!—upon hearing how the police have dealt with the Panthers, dragging an epileptic like Lee Berry out of his hospital bed and throwing him into the Tombs. When one thinks of Mitchell and Agnew and Nixon and all of their Captain Beef-heart Maggie & Jiggs New York Athletic Club troglodyte crypto-Horst Wessel Irish Oyster Bar Construction Worker followers, then one understands why poor blacks like the Panthers might feel driven to drastic solutions, and—well, anyway, one truly feels for them. One really does. On the other hand—on the second track in one’s mind, that is—one also has a sincere concern for maintaining a proper East Side lifestyle in New York Society. And this concern is just as sincere as the first, and just as deep. It really is. It really does become part of one’s psyche. For example, one must have a weekend place, in the country or by the shore, all year round preferably, but certainly from the middle of May to the middle of September. It is hard to get across to outsiders an understanding of how absolute such apparently trivial needs are. One feels them in his solar plexus. When one thinks of being trapped in New York Saturday after Saturday in July or August, doomed to be a part of those fantastically dowdy herds roaming past Bonwit’s and Tiffany’s at dead noon in the sandstone sun-broil, 92 degrees, daddies from Long Island in balloon-seat Bermuda shorts bought at the Times Square Store in Oceanside and fat mommies with white belled pants stretching over their lower bellies and crinkling up in the crotch like some kind of Dacron-polyester labia—well, anyway, then one truly feels the need to obey at least the minimal rules of New York Society. One really does.
From "The Me Decade":

A key drama of our own day is Ingmar Bergman’s movie Scenes From a Marriage. In it we see a husband and wife who have good jobs and a well-furnished home but who are unable to “communicate”—to cite one of the signature words of the Me Decade. Then they begin to communicate, and there upon their marriage breaks up and they start divorce proceedings. For the rest of the picture they communicate endlessly, with great candor, but the “relationship”—another signature word—remains doomed. Ironically, the lesson that people seem to draw from this movie has to do with . . . “the need to communicate.” Scenes From a Marriage is one of those rare works of art, like The Sun Also Rises, that not only succeed in capturing a certain mental atmosphere in fictional form . . . but also turn around and help radiate it throughout real life. I personally know of two instances in which couples, after years of marriage, went to see Scenes From a Marriage and came home convinced of the “need to communicate.” The discussions began with one of the two saying. Let’s try to be completely candid for once. You tell me exactly what you don’t like about me, and I’ll do the same for you. At this, the starting point, the whole notion is exciting. We’re going to talk about Me! (And I can take it.) I’m going to find out what he (or she) really thinks about me! (Of course, I have my faults, but they’re minor, or else exciting.)

She says. “Go ahead. What don’t you like about me?”

They’re both under the Bergman spell. Nevertheless, a certain sixth sense tells him that they’re on dangerous ground. So he decides to pick something that doesn’t seem too terrible.

“Well,” he says, “one thing that bothers me is that when we meet people for the first time, you never know what to say. Or else you get nervous and start babbling away, and it’s all so banal, it makes me look bad.”

Consciously she’s still telling herself, “I can take it.” But what he has just said begins to seep through her brain like scalding water. What’s he talking about? . . . makes him look bad? He’s saying I’m unsophisticated, a social liability, and an embarrassment. All those times we’ve gone out, he’s been ashamed of me! (And what makes it worse—it’s the sort of disease for which there’s no cure!) She always knew she was awkward. His crime is: He noticed! He’s known it, too, all along. He’s had contempt for me.

Out loud she says. “Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that.”

He detects the petulant note. “Look,” he says. “you’re the one who said to be candid.”

She says, “I know. I want you to be.”

He says, “Well, it’s your turn.”

“Well,” she says, “I’ll tell you something about when we meet people and when we go places. You never clean yourself properly—you don’t know how to wipe yourself. Sometimes we’re standing there talking to people, and there’s . . . a smell. And I’ll tell you something else. People can tell it’s you.”

And he’s still telling himself, “I can take it”—but what inna namea Christ is this?

He says, “But you’ve never said anything—about anything like that.”

She says, “But I tried to. How many times have I told you about your dirty drawers when you were taking them off at night?”

Somehow this really makes him angry. . . . All those times . . . and his mind immediately fastens on Harley Thatcher and his wife, whom he has always wanted to impress. . . . From underneath my $250 suits—I smelled of shit! What infuriates him is that this is a humiliation from which there’s no recovery. How often have they sniggered about it later?—or not invited me places? Is it something people say every time my name comes up? And all at once he is intensely annoyed with his wife, not because she never told him all these years—but simply because she knows about his disgrace—and she was the one who brought him the bad news!

From that moment on they’re ready to get the skewers in. It’s only a few minutes before they’ve begun trying to sting each other with confessions about their little affairs, their little slipping around, their little coitus on the sly—“Remember that time I told you my flight from Buffalo was canceled?”—and at that juncture the ranks of those who can take it become very thin, indeed. So they communicate with great candor! and break up! and keep on communicating! and then find the relationship hopelessly doomed.

One couple went into group therapy. The other went to a marriage counselor. Both types of therapy are very popular forms, currently, of Let’s talk about Me. This phase of the breakup always provides a rush of exhilaration, for what more exhilarating topic is there than . . . Me? Through group therapy, marriage counseling, and other forms of “psychological consultation” they can enjoy that same Me euphoria that the very rich have enjoyed for years in psychoanalysis.....


rhhardin said...

Curious, I just copied out this random bit of Women by Philippe Sollers (trans. Barbara Bray), claiming it did better than a cited Wolfe radical chic quote; Sollers is taking on feminism. (...'s in original.)

"It's strange how, when a woman stops being a woman, she can squash the man she happens to be with at the time [...] For his own good of course."

And what strikes me is that she didn't ask what he meant by "when a woman stops being a woman..." As if there was no need to ask ... As if anyone knew what it means when a woman starts being a woman ... Although she's one already ... I'm not talking, of course, about her reaching puberty or losing her virginity ... Nor of the thransition from girl to woman, or from woman to old woman after the formidable journey through menopause ... Nor of the red sea episode ... No, I'm talking about a more profound change ... Might a woman be a woman only from time to time? For a while? Not during pregnancy ... Oh no .. A strange interlude ... Unforeseen ...

Sollers is sort of doing Wittgenstein, with what we know but nobody can articulate stuff.

rhhardin said...

Thurber somewhere has an essay on The New Yorker and its ambience, with every fact wrong.

tim in vermont said...

I lived through the seventies, I think this whole "Me decade" thing was only a thing in those "America is already great!" wealthy, elite, blue cities. The rest of us were just trying to get by. The only "me" I can remember from the decades was that "my place in line for an interview at McDonalds" was sometime around four months from now.

William Chadwick said...

I un-ironically loved the Me Decade. I was raised to worship Them: society ("What will the neighbors think?"), the church ("You're a miserable sinner whose desires count for nothing, and are sinful anyway"), parents, etc. A lot of people found the Sixties liberating, but all I saw was one form of conformity replacing another: The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit supplanted by the Collectivist Hippie in the Tie-Dye Shirt. The individualism of the Me Generation was a breath of fresh air.

wild chicken said...

Yeah, more New Yorkish stuff, but it ws always interesting to see how the other half lived.

Ralph L said...

one truly feels for them. One really does.
Only the Queen speaks like this now, if fact she may have said exactly this, which could be why Wolfe uses it. I've heard him speak about "Bauhaus", but I've never read more than a few paragraphs.

Sebastian said...

The Me Decade was really the Them Decade.

Them's still at it. What did we do to deserve Them?

surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roughcoat said...

I like Wolfe and his sensibilities are more or less in line with my own. But sometimes, maybe oftentimes, in his writing he lays it on too thick. There's too much style, it's too rich. But overall, and bottom line: good on him. Very good indeed.

surfed said...

William Finnegan and I went surfing - though not together at the same time - through the "me decade". He became a great writer for the New Yorker and I became a great teacher of refugees a d immigrants. We both scored a lot of waves. It was a great decade.

rehajm said...

But sometimes, maybe oftentimes, in his writing he lays it on too thick. There's too much style, it's too rich.

I concur- pithy can singe but wallowing and overindulgence is distracting.

Roughcoat said...

The 70s was a very good time to be a young heterosexual white man looking to get laid. Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, seemingly overnight, women started putting out like gumball machines. There was no AIDS and condoms were unnecessary. Thank God for women's lib! Yowza, what time!

ballyfager said...

I read and enjoyed a lot of Wolf's stuff. But I do remember that John Updike, and other first class writers, didn't think much of his fiction.

Freeman Hunt said...

"The discussions began with one of the two saying. Let’s try to be completely candid for once. You tell me exactly what you don’t like about me, and I’ll do the same for you. At this, the starting point, the whole notion is exciting."

Ha! I once heard someone on a radio show give this as marriage advice. He said couples should sit down and tell each other three things that each needed to improve. I thought this was hilariously bad advice.

I also remember some girls at boarding school wanting to sit in a circle and tell each other one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about each person. I knew how that would end and suggested that the dislikes be left out entirely.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

He seems like a good writer but his stories are so dated.

Any suggestions for a Wolfe book that is more general than a time or place story.

wwww said...

I love The Right Stuff. It chronicles the generation before Boomers.

His other works tend towards an examination of the Baby Boomer generation, which I find less interesting.

Charlotte Simmons was not about the Boomers, but from the descriptions, it didn't sound like he had captured things quite right in that book, so haven't read it.

Michael K said...

Captain Beef-heart Maggie & Jiggs New York Athletic Club troglodyte crypto-Horst Wessel Irish Oyster Bar Construction Worker followers,

Where Trump came from, very early in the game.

buwaya said...

There is no dated, really. Everything is written for its time, but yet lives past it.

Karamazov is about a society that is dead and gone, as is Pride and Prejudice, as is Nostromo as is the Iliad as is Genji.

Or, rather, they are about things only partly gone. Or in fact not gone at all. Everything in all of these exists, somewhere, or will exist again.

The current obsession about personal relevance is idiotic. Literature doesn't count unless it is specifically about Guatemalan lesbians in wheelchairs in Los Angeles last week.

Daniel Jackson said...

Is it over yet? Is it safe to come back or go out?

narciso said...

it does seem like deja vu all over again, Bernstein hadn't any better a clue than the celebrities now in for some lives matter,

narciso said...

I mentioned Vazquez Gomez, 'the secret history of costaguana,' which is a picaresque tale about a walter mitty character, who is present in every aspect of 19th and early 20th century Colombian history, allegedly Conrad stole the story for him, this is the hook, it's written by a Colombian educated at the Sorbonne, the English translation is actually better than the original print in Spanish,

Unknown said...

"Men in shorts" tag -wsw

Jupiter said...

Blogger ballyfager said...
"I do remember that John Updike, and other first class writers, didn't think much of his fiction."

John Updike was a navel-gazing dipsomaniac. In tennis shoes. Who else have you got? Saul Bellow?

Darkisland said...


I've heard others say that he wasn't very good at fiction. That he was best as a nonfiction writer.

I tend to agree. His non fiction stuff is really right.

I love bonfire of the vanities. I really liked AMan In Full until he brought the California kid in. Then it seemed like 2 novels, one good and the other one not, got mooshed together at the printer. I tried his other novels but could not get into them.

I'm one of the few people in the world who liked the movie versio of Bonfire too.

John Henry

Darkisland said...

One thing from Bonfire was his calling the prisoners "chow"

He spoke at some length about how the prisoners had to exist, whether they were guilty or innocent didn't matter.

They were the "chow" on which thepolice, bailiffs, lawyers, judges, prison guards etc feed.

He really nailed if.

I think the same applies to students too. They are the chow on which the ed system feeds.

John Henry

James Lileks said...

Michael K snagged on the same line I did: "all of their Captain Beef-heart Maggie & Jiggs New York Athletic Club troglodyte crypto-Horst Wessel Irish Oyster Bar Construction Worker followers." It's a compact cultural literacy test for the late 60s.

Richard Dolan said...

Wolfe's satire of the powers-that-be and, more often, those who wanted to be, was always a hoot. Enjoyed it at the time, but have never been tempted to go back and read it all again. Same with Hunter Thompson's stuff. But unlike, say, Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Jupiter said...

"I think the same applies to students too. They are the chow on which the ed system feeds."

The wealthier the society, the more rapaciously it can be plundered by the managers of its institutions.

William said...

One generation arises and another passes away. Tom Wolfe, the counter culture, boomers take their bow and move off the stage. What abides? The poor are always with us. Ditto the radical chic. Radical chic is the most enduring phenomenon that Wolfe ever brought to our attention.

buwaya said...

Good tip narciso,

"The Secret History of Costaguana" Juan Gabriel Vasquez
$12.99 on Kindle.

tim in vermont said...

""I do remember that John Updike, and other first class writers, didn't think much of his fiction.""

Better to let them decide than read it for yourself, I guess. Updike was OK, but Rabbit Run doesn't stick with you like Bonfire.

tim in vermont said...

Politics is everything when judging who is "first rate." Wolfe had a whole riff on brilliant sculptors with the wrong politics being rated lower than "sculptors" with the "right politics" who were considered "first rate" even though they made their sculptures by casting molds using live models.

Robert Cook said...

"John Updike was a navel-gazing dipsomaniac."

All writers are dipsomaniacs.Or drug addicts. Or both.

At least...enough of them are that it's not an unfair truism.

narciso said...

Also Jorge volpis in search of klingsor, a historical romance set in the German nuclear program.

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Naimisha said...

New York magazine is not correct when it says that Tom Wolfe's article "Tiny Mummies!" was "deadly accurate." Dwight Macdonald pointed out a lot of factual inaccuracies at the time. It's true the inaccuracies were relatively minor. They did not affect Wolfe's main criticisms of the New Yorker and its overblown reputation. But they were inaccuracies that affected just the sort of telling details that Wolfe uses to get you chuckling, to create a vivid imaginative world, and to pull you right into one of his great articles. Should you care that some of the things you love the most about Wolfe's work are, well, not true? I have some more on this point, and on Wolfe's amazing infiltration of the culture more generally, at this post on "Searching for Tom Wolfe", here: