A Pen As Mighty As a Sword: Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event at Alan Flusser’s place. Alan — who was clad in, if I recall correctly, a double-breasted shawl-collared tartan dinner jacket, ascot, Belgian Shoes, and black jersey Ralph Lauren athletic pants that looked like formal trousers in the light and the context — told me he’d read my mini-book “The Disengage.” Basically, and I’m summarizing here, he found the writing voice annoyingly precious at the get-go and didn’t care for it. But he stuck it out and by the middle the voice and the tale itself were one, made perfect sense, and he really enjoyed it. “I should give it to Tom Wolfe,” he said. “He’d love it.”

Alas there’s no point in asking Alan if that ever happened, as the pioneering author in the white suit has died at the age of 88. There are a lot of synchronicities (meaningful coincidences) going on here, including the fact that I discovered Wolfe in ’88. I was a senior in high school and had just discovered the worlds of literature and style that would fascinate me to this day, and Wolfe embodied them both in one person. Back then, in suburban California, my only connection to the world of style were through movies such as “Wall Street” and “The Untouchables,” and the monthly issues of GQ and M, The Civilized Man. Wolfe had recently released “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” and must have been featured in one of the magazines. His neo-Edwardian look touched on some archetype in my unconscious, and I rushed out to buy the book, the first contemporary novel I’d read, and one of the few ever since.

By the time I was 24 I’d published a couple of short stories, won a regional fiction contest, and written a novella called “Rewinding” about a young fogey and reclusive eccentric adrift in the modern world. I wrote a letter to Wolfe in care of his publisher appealing to his sense of dandyism and asking if he’d read it, and some months later he was gracious enough to write back. Later, in 2011 I wrote a piece pegged on his ornamental penmanship called “How To Get A Swashbuckling Signature” for the Park & Bond website. The original is down, but the Ivy Style post on it remains.

Here’s Wolfe’s letter, written in sky-blue felt:

A year later, in 1995, I heard Wolfe speak before a large crowd in San Francisco. I remember feeling that the theme of his talk on contemporary American society was five years behind the times. Wolfe had managed to nail the zeitgeist in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, less so after that.

But his influence on me personally may be just a tad greater than I like to think. Although my story “The Disengage” is a pastiche of fin-de-siecle people and pretensions, the use of exclamation points by the flamboyant narrator may owe something to Wolfe. His sartorial and literary style will not be forgotten. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

23 Comments on "A Pen As Mighty As a Sword: Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018"

  1. Cuastic Man | May 15, 2018 at 12:52 pm |

    I was very saddened to hear of his death but happy to know that he had lived and done the work that he did. What an icon of Southern style! And living in New York for all those years! I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said once that exclamation marks are like laughing at your own joke. I never got that feeling from Wolfe. Or Chensvold for that matter. :).

    On your point about his failure to grasp the spirit of the times after the 1980s, I’ve begun to realize what that feels like. I am approaching 40 and I already feel out of touch. I had my finger on the pulse for something like five or six years in my late 20s and early 30s. That Wolfe was able to capture the mood of three decades is nothing short of remarkable. Inspiring, too. It makes you want to get on out there and experience life from the bones. Just like you might do if you were a part of the New Journalism.

  2. SC Terrier | May 15, 2018 at 12:56 pm |

    CS – Marvelous piece. Mr. Wolfe was a giant. I read Bonfire of the Vanities in ’94 and later read most of his works. A Man in Full is my favorite, probably because I had spent time in Atlanta and thereabouts during the time the book was written. It also has the best book jacket ever.

  3. SC Terrier | May 15, 2018 at 1:04 pm |

    Also, I believe he graduated from W&L and Yale. Not sure whether he attended UVA.

  4. Jacqueline | May 15, 2018 at 1:15 pm |

    Tom Wolfe did go to W&L, and he returned yearly for the “Tom Wolfe Seminar” where another author would be invited to share a few days with participants who signed up for it (mostly alums). He was always in the white suit.

  5. For Dubyuhnell I yell | May 15, 2018 at 1:18 pm |

    While Washington & Lee could be described as THE University of Virginia, Mr. Wolfe spent his college years in Lexington, not Charlottesville.

  6. Corrected. Thank you.

  7. Charlottesville | May 15, 2018 at 1:57 pm |

    Brilliant writer, eccentric style icon, provocateur nonpareil, and a real southern gentleman, despite living in Manhattan for the past 56 years, Tom Wolfe has been hero of mine since I discovered him in the late 70s. While I would never think of speaking ill of the local school in my current town, and indeed I am happy that there is a state university in Virginia for those who for whatever reason are unable to go to W&L, I am thankful to be able to claim Mr. Wolfe as a fellow Lexington alumnus. And thanks, Christian, for sharing that wonderful letter. He signed a book for me one summer a few years back, but that letter is a real treasure.

  8. Richard Meyer | May 15, 2018 at 2:23 pm |

    I found his ” New Journalism” works far more entertaining than his fiction. I tried re-reading “Bonfire” recently and couldn’t get half way through.

  9. Sad to see Tom Wolfe and his unimitable style go. I’m happy to report that he is still being taught in schools (or at least as recently as 2009-2013). My nonfiction writing and literature courses at Emerson College were full of Wolfe.

  10. whiskeydent | May 15, 2018 at 2:57 pm |

    Tom Wolfe deserves acclaim for being one of the pioneers of New Journalism that was utterly American. His non-fiction works are classics, and I think they will always be seen seen as the standouts of the genre.

    Unfortunately, I hear the writer’s or character’s voice as I read a book, and Wolfe’s exclamation points created a cacophony of screams and yells in my brain that at times drove me batty (admittedly, a short trip). Given the chance, I would have broken the ! key on his typewriter to save the world — okay, perhaps just myself! — from further agony.

  11. Gerry Malmo | May 15, 2018 at 3:31 pm |

    As one alumnus said to me after Dr. J. D. Futch, III died, “all the characters are dying!” and so another W&L does. Well, its is nice to see the Washington & Lee brethren are so quick to protect Tom Wolfe’s heritage from the dreaded Wahoos. What many of you don’t realize is the W&L/UVA rivalry following WWII was every bit as intense as any Carolina/Duke, Army/Navy encounter.

    Now, no one has mentioned Mr. Wolfe’s initial education began with his days at St. Christopher’s in Richmond. Also, you may find it interesting, Tom was a pitcher on the baseball team; albeit, not very good, but he pitched. One of his dissertations in the Lee Chapel for an alumni weekend referenced Cap’n Dick Smith’s disappointment with his performance in a night game played in Buena Vista because W&L did not have a lights at Wilson Field. At 18 matriculating in the Fall of ’47, Tom Wolfe was an adolescent among many grown men and battle hardened veterans of WWII. Unfortunately we will never know, but it would be interesting to hear from him what he learned from this cosmopolitan mix of the Greatest Generation. Oh, if the walls of Phi Kappa Sigma and “Red Square” could talk, now?

    I think he also embodied something Dean Gilliam stated to me, my freshman year, “you may not have the finest, but you should be clean and neat of appearance presenting yourself in a gentlemanly manner.” Mr . Wolfe most assuredly did.

    I encourage all to build a library of his works. In the Washington Post article today, comment was made of the “New Journalism” including Norman Mailer Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton. In the late ’70’s we were fortunate to hear the last three at W&L. Further, I encourage all of us to read and read “Radical Chic”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Thank you for entertaining and tolerating my rambling hyperbole.

  12. Anonymous | May 15, 2018 at 4:48 pm |

    10-15 years ago I saw him in Paul Stuart, at the sale right after Christmas. No mistaking who it was in his white outfit.

  13. Old School Tie | May 15, 2018 at 5:40 pm |

    Great piece. Better than the inevitable GQ eulogy will be.

  14. Stuart Wade | May 15, 2018 at 9:16 pm |

    CC, this is a terrific post. I have resd everything I ould get hands on, and was glad to have seen him speak twice. Here are a couple of personal favorite quotes:

    I’m sure my ego is as big as any other writer’s, but a real southern gent isn’t supposed to reveal his arrogance or his ambitions.

    Longevity and relevance as a writer: Depends on How much reporting are you willing to do. Reporting is tedious and as writers get older they begin to think that it’s not the material that is responsible for their genius, it is their brilliant imagination. The material is the most important part. When you think you’ve done enough reporting in one area and you stop because you think you know it all, that’s when you’re in trouble.

    So many people totally accept whatever happens to be the current intellectual fashion and then pat themselves on the back for being nonconformists.

  15. Jefferson | May 16, 2018 at 4:19 am |

    Always some lovely custom clothing on Mr. Wolfe.

  16. Jefferson | May 16, 2018 at 4:37 am |

    His essay “The Secret Vice” is pertinent to the Ivy League dresser, noting the fall of Ivy as the garb of a master of the universe.

  17. He was a conservative, to be sure. A particular breed of the species: the conservative as funny, clever, creative eccentric (not unlike Buckley and T.S. Eliot). Conservatism stands in desperate need of a creative, imaginative force (personality, actually), and God knows Jordan Peterson damned well won’t suffice over the long term.

    Wolfe’s challenges to Darwin/evolution are worthy of a glance. The guy had no fear. He took on sacred cows galore.

  18. Vern Trotter | May 16, 2018 at 12:40 pm |

    I last ran into Tom Wolfe April 4, 2008 in St Patrick’s Cathedral after the memorial service for William F. Buckley. There were several minor celebrity types present: Tom Selleck, Henry Kissinger, George McGovern, Dominick Dunne, Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose. The one who stood out, wearing all black of course, was Tom Wolfe. His “Well, hello.” still carried the soft Richmond, Virginia drawl that I recognize anywhere and that he brought with him to New York in the early 1960s to write for the New York Herald Tribune.

    He was a baseball pitcher and tried out for the old baseball NY Giants between graduation from W&L and going to grad school at Yale. If he had been good enough to play pro ball, he might never have become the writer we knew. He called his style of dress “counter bohemian.”

  19. Vern Trotter | May 18, 2018 at 9:34 am |

    @ Gerry Malmo,

    I too, knew J.D. Futch but before he was at W&L. When I was an undergrad back in Baltimore about 1960 or 61, I wrote a letter to the Baltimore Sun (morning) critical of some liberal shibboleth. Out of the blue, I was contacted by Dr. Futch and invited to his family home in NW Baltimore. He was working on his Ph.D. at that time. Then began a friendship based on our mutual connection to National Review, Bill Buckley and aversion to liberals in general. I had lost contact with him a couple of decades ago because of my moving around the country in the corporate world and later learned of his passing. Thank you for mentioning his name here.

    • Gerry Malmo | May 21, 2018 at 7:19 pm |

      Please look up my business,
      Holden Mickey, Inc. and call me one afternoon. Dave Futch was a true character and a fascinating man. He once said in the classroom (we had to wear a tie to class),”gentlemen, you allowed like thriving junior executives when I first arrived at Washington & Lee. Now, you look as though you took a wrong turn at Woodtstock?”

  20. Warrington Faust | July 9, 2019 at 5:50 pm |

    I met Mr. Wolfe some years ago at a party in NYC. I had to inquire about the white suits, and expected a pithy response. What did I receive? “I like them”.

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