Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

In the author's latest foray into combat, it's his fame he's fighting to preserve

Friday, December 8, 2006, 12:45:28 p.m.
To: felixgillette@yahoo.com
From: tomwolfe@zeitgeist.com*

How can I help you?

—Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe's right stuff
Tom Wolfe's right stuff


Tune in: Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

What I want from Tom Wolfe is an explanation. Why is Wolfe—who for more than four decades has entertained millions of readers with stories about everything from heroic astronauts to whacked-out hippies to knuckle-dragging Wall Street power players —now writing at length about historic preservation? The question occurred to me on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, when Wolfe published his latest work, a 3,500-word essay in The New York Times on the state of historic preservation in New York City, declaring it a crisis.

From the lofty heights of Mount Week in Review, Wolfe had summoned up all of his rhetorical powers—his vroooom vroooom, kandy-kolored, tangerine-flake streamlined prose—to smite an obscure municipal agency, the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The agency's mission: to designate historic landmarks and to vet planned construction projects in the city's historic districts. Wolfe declared the commission "de facto defunct." He called its members pushovers for City Hall, patsies for developers—and he said they're more concerned with their own popularity than with protecting the city's historic assets.

"The writer Tom Wolfe and other neighbors have taken to lobbying objections in the direction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission," wrote Wolfe, speaking of himself in the third person. "Today it is a bureau of the walking dead."

For the most part, preservation advocates tend to be sincere traditionalists, who revere the established order and speak earnestly and without irony about the grave importance of such things as safeguarding the fabric of a neighborhood. In short, they are nothing like Wolfe—a bestselling author who has spent much of his career singling out the establishment's plump sacred cows and then reveling in their subsequent slaughter as he enriches his own life and parades about town in his trademark white suit, top hat, and spats.

Then again, historic preservation tends to attract an older crowd, and that would clearly include the 75-year-old Wolfe. His most recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons—about the softcore adventures of a handful of college undergraduates—explored the terrain of young Americans and was the least successful book of his long career. And just as aging buildings need preserving, so do the reputations of aging writers. Wolfe's salvo in the Times may say less about the commission's attempts to save old buildings and more about Tom Wolfe's attempt to preserve his own decaying facade.

As it turns out, Wolfe isn't much of an e-mail junkie. Several days passed with no reply to my e-mail. Eventually, I wrote out a letter by hand on Voice stationery, mailed it to Wolfe's home on the Upper East Side, and waited. In the meantime, I began digging back through Wolfe's lifework, hoping to figure out some pattern that might explain his latest obsession.

Looking back, one thing about Wolfe is immediately apparent: He has always loved a good institutional battle, particularly if he gets to throw the first punch. Wolfe originally vaulted to celebrity in 1965 by landing a rhetorical haymaker squarely on the chin of The New Yorker. At the time, Wolfe was a young reporter at the upstart New York magazine, then a supplement to the New York Herald Tribune. Across town, the editors at The New Yorker were celebrating the magazine's 40th anniversary. Somehow, Wolfe sensed a target in the making. So he wrote an unflattering two-part profile of The New Yorker's editor, William Shawn, portraying him as a shy wisp of a man, "unrecognized in his own office," overseeing a crusty labyrinth of fellow recluses.

Its publication caused a media firestorm and elevated Wolfe to instant stardom.

Shawn promptly accused New York of libel. New York magazine then leaked Shawn's complaints to editors at Time and Newsweek, who published stories about the dustup. Soon an outraged group of prominent New Yorker contributors, from J.D. Salinger to E.B. White, fired off rebuttals. Walter Lippmann joined in, calling Wolfe an "incompetent ass." Even the White House got involved, with an aide to President Lyndon Johnson calling up New York to complain.

Wolfe reveled in the notoriety. In the years to come, Wolfe would repeat the pattern and target eminent institutions, launch unexpected rhetorical broadsides, and sit back to enjoy the resulting stir. In The Painted Word (1975), he crushed the modern-art establishment for prizing adherence to esoteric theory over aesthetic innovation. In From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), he eviscerated the leaders of modern architecture for subjecting the American people to an endless procession of hackneyed glass-and-steel and concrete boxes. In Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (1989), he lambasted modern American novelists for turning their backs on the realistic novel in favor of postmodern gimmickry. And in his essay "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists" (2000), he mocked intellectuals for deconstructing academia into smaller and smaller slivers of cross-disciplinary nonsense.

But rhetorical repetitions aside, this latest Wolfe work doesn't stand up to his earlier successes; his choice of targets has diminished and his pursuit of the zeitgeist—so successful in books like The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities—doesn't dovetail with an attack on something as small as the Landmarks Preservation Commission. And to make matters worse, he's late. The Municipal Art Society and the Women's City Club of New York had already publicly highlighted problems facing the commission before Wolfe got around to it.

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