Remembering Tom Wolfe, American writer with an ‘anthropologist’s delight’


JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering
the American writer Tom Wolfe, who died today. Wolfe first broke through to a wider audience
in the early ’60s, as one of the seminal voices behind so-called New Journalism, a form of
nonfiction writing that used fictional literary styles and was distinctively different in
technique. His magazine pieces for led to nonfiction
books that put American subcultures under the microscope, often with a wry and biting
tone. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” zeroed
in on the counterculture. “The Painted Word” targeted the world of art. And one of his best-regarded books, “The Right
Stuff,” which was later made into a movie, showcased the heroism of the first American
astronauts. Wolfe later turned to writing novels. His biggest hit, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,”
was a lacerating satire of money, power and New York life in the ’80s. He spoke with the “NewsHour”‘s Elizabeth Farnsworth
in 1998 about why he wanted to bring his reporter’s eye to his fiction. TOM WOLFE, Journalist/Author: Reporting is
absolutely essential to the novel, now more than — now more than it ever was. ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? TOM WOLFE: It’s because the novel is not going
to be able to compete with television, with movies, with other forms of stories, unless
it exploits to the full what only print can do and what only — in this case, only the
novel can do. And that is to bring people inside of these
amazing worlds that exist in the United States today. JUDY WOODRUFF: Some thoughts about Tom Wolfe
and his work from a writer he influenced. Susan Orlean is a journalist, author, and
staff writer for “The New Yorker.” She’s the author of eight books, including
the bestseller “The Orchid Thief.” Susan Orlean, it’s a pleasure to have you
with us. What was it about Tom Wolfe? What was it about him that influenced you? SUSAN ORLEAN, “The New Yorker”: I read “The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” when I was in high school. And as much as I was a big reader at the time,
this was transformational. There was a voice, a confidence, a tone that
I had never encountered before, particularly in nonfiction. I carried that book around with me for years. And I really do think it’s what made me want
to be a nonfiction writer. There was just a spirit in his writing that
had never — I had never encountered before. It was like hearing jazz for the first time. JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s interesting. He just said if that interview with Elizabeth
Farnsworth, he mentioned American life. He was uniquely American, wasn’t he? SUSAN ORLEAN: Yes. And he took the amazing mosaic of American
subcultures as his subject, everything from the Merry Pranksters, traveling on their bus,
taking LSD every five minutes, to the Upper East Side, very affluent and indulged denizens
of that neighborhood. And he looked at them all in a somewhat equal
way. These were tribes that he wanted to analyze
and understand. JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, there was so much
praise for his work. At times, his critics said he went too far,
he wasn’t sensitive enough to race, to other things. Did he go too far sometimes? SUSAN ORLEAN: He had — he was pretty unburdened
by the propriety of what he said. I think his feeling was that everything was
fair game. He could e easily misinterpreted, which is
an issue for a writer. You do have some responsibility for the way
your words could be perceived. And I think he felt that his responsibility
ended at the page, and if people read it wrong, it was really their problem. JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you think that all
came from? He was Southern. He was born and raised in Virginia. Any sense of what made him the writer he was? SUSAN ORLEAN: He was a serious student of
literature. And I think it’s really important to realize
that he had these two very basic, but serious underpinnings to his work, namely, a really
serious understanding of literature and a deep regard for and talent for reporting. His books only succeed because the reporting
was so good. He seemed to take a sort of anthropologist’s
delight in analyzing subcultures, figuring out how power flowed within them, how people
made their way out of them, and what impact it had for these little groups to bump up
against people who were not inside the tribe. I think he really was, at heart, an anthropologist. JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like, Susan Orlean,
you’re saying his nonfiction more important than his fiction? SUSAN ORLEAN: No, not necessarily. I think his fiction, when he hit it right,
was brilliant. And I don’t think the world is the same after
“The Bonfire of the Vanities,” quite honestly. For him, I think fiction was merely an extension
of the nonfiction, where he took the kind of reporting that his nonfiction had, and
simply created an ideal narrative in which to tell that reporting. And he said often that his novels were very
dependent on fact and on observation and on the real world, and that that’s what they
were meant to do, to explain the real world to us through a fictional narrative. I think that his nonfiction and his fiction
were very closely related. Just, one had a narrative drawn from real
life, and the other had a narrative that he created. JUDY WOODRUFF: Last thing. He was also personally distinctive. He dressed in white all the time. I read that he always wore the vest, the white
shoes. What was that all about? SUSAN ORLEAN: Well, I think he liked — as
he once said, he didn’t think he could blend in, so he decided he might as well really
stand out. He was a real dandy. I think he had a Southern gentleman’s enjoyment
of being fully turned out every day, and perfect contrast to an era in which, starting in the
’60s, the idea of dressing — for reporters to dress well was unheard of. I mean, people came to work in T-shirts and
Birkenstocks. And there was Tom Wolfe. I think he enjoyed playing on our expectations
of convention. And just as we expected the ink-stained wretch
in the newsroom to look a certain way, he looked exactly the opposite, refined, elegant,
and completely out of no particular era. He was a sort of timeless figure with that
— with his getup. JUDY WOODRUFF: Remembering Tom Wolfe. Writer and author Susan Orlean, thank you
so much. SUSAN ORLEAN: My pleasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *