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Tom Wolfe: Our Strange Reality


... and the changes they brought to media and family structure ... Nudist colonies. The Black Power movement. Models, The Rolling Stones, the Hip cats ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Tom Wolfe: Our Strange Reality

Tom Wolfe Our Strange Reality
There is nothing more interesting than a wall
behind which something is happening.
  • Victor Hugo

The New Journalism?
  • Any movement, group, party, program, philosophy
    or theory that goes under a name with New in it
    is just begging for trouble. The garbage barge
    of history is already full of them
  • It was no movement. There were no manifestos,
    clubs, salons, cliquesin the mid-Sixties, one
    was aware only that all of a sudden there was
    some sort of artistic excitement in journalism,
    and that was a new thing in itself.
  • --Tom Wolfe, 1973

Tom Wolfe

A Brief History
  • Born Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. Richmond,
    Virginia, 1931
  • Father, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr., was a
    journalist and author, as well as director of a
    co-operative apple farm
  • Mother, Helen Hughes Wolfe, taught him arts and
  • Graduated from an Episcopalian day school in
    1947, turned down Princeton to attend all-male
    Washington and Lee University in Lexington,
  • Tried out for the New York Giants in 1952, cut in
    third round.
  • Enrolled in a Ph.D. program in American Studies
    at Yale Universityin New Haven, Connecticut.

Newspaper Man
  • First newspaper job was in Springfield,
    Massachusetts, at the Springfield Union
  • The Washington Post, 1959
  • The New York Herald-Tribune, wrote for Sunday
    supplement magazine, New York, 1962
  • Four-month strike at the New York Herald-Tribune,
    wrote for Esquire magazine--"There Goes (Varoom!
    Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake
    Streamline Baby" made him famous, 1963
  • "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," about Ken
    Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, 1966
  • "Radical Chic Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers"
    about the liberal Left and art society, 1970
  • Started to work for Rolling Stone and Harper's.
     Rolling Stone sent him to cover the last launch
    of the Apollo space program, December 7, 1972
  • Published "The New Journalism, 1973

Book Writer
  • The Painted Word, criticized architecture in
    America, 1975
  • "The Right Stuff," 1983
  • Wrote novel in serial form for Rolling Stone
    became famous social realism novel about New York
    Citys classes The Bonfire of the Vanities,
  • Heart attack, 1996
  • Ambush at Fort Bragg, 1997, about the fight
    between the US Army and the American media
  • Mauve Gloves Madmen and Clutter Vine, 1999
  • I am Charlotte Simmons, 2005

The Sixties The Crux of Change
  • "Manners and morals were the history of the
    Sixties.  One hundred years from now when
    historians write about the 1960s in America, they
    won't write about it as the decade of war in Viet
    Nam or of spaceexploration or of political
    assassinationbut as the decade when manners and
    morals, styles of living, attitudes towards the
    worldchanged the country more crucially than any
    political events."  

The Disjointed States of America
The American Mind Recoils and Reshapes Itself
  • By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely
    that the realistic novel was no longer possible
    but that American life itself no longer deserved
    the term real... American life was chaotic,
    fragmented, random, discontinuous in a word
  • Stalking the Billion-footed Beast, 1989

Is New Journalism New?
  • HistoryHemingway, Twain, London, Dreiser, Crane
  • Literature had renaissance, then became very
  • Nobody was writing the great social novel
  • Writing like Gustave Flaubert and Henry
    Jamesself-enclosed world of art.

Whats a Borges? Bore-hez
Thus Spaketh Borges
  • Time is the substance from which I am made. Time
    is a river which carries me along, but I am the
    river it is a tiger that devours me, but I am
    the tiger it is a fire that consumes me, but I
    am the fire.
  • Reality is not always probable, or likely.

True Art from True Reporting
  • Really stylish reporting was something no one
    knew how to deal with, since no one was used to
    thinking of reporting as having an aesthetic
  • The New Journalism (1973)

Wolfe Reports on Culture
  • The first American astronauts and the changes
    they brought to media and family structure
  • The hippie generation and drug use, social strife
  • New York Citys class warfare and eccentricities
  • Nudist colonies
  • The Black Power movement
  • Models, The Rolling Stones, the Hip cats
  • Combat pilots in Viet Nam
  • Me-generation reaction to Viet Nam horrors

Tom Wolfe Style
  • Uses a mix of the voices of his subjects and an
    ironic all-knowing narrator (Dickens)
  • Broad usage of irony
  • Repeats odd and exciting phrases almost to a
    point of mania
  • Uses short, hyper-accurate, descriptions of
    factual elements
  • Embellishes on the social implications, essay-ish
  • Long sentences with breaks into cutting short
  • Jazzy, poetic has an ear for the memorable
  • Class critique (clothes and speaking styles)

How To Tackle The Topics
  • Try the writing of American beat poets, known for
  • Embellishments
  • Paradoxes
  • Long-windednesses
  • Confusing and colorfulbut stimulatingphraseses

The Girl of the Year
  • "Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps
    butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy
    sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue
    jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew
    bottoms éclair shanks elf boots
  • "Girls are reeling this way and that way in the
    aisle and through their huge black decal eyes,
    sagging with Tiger Tongue Lick Me brush-on
    eyelashes and black appliqués, sagging like
    display window Christmas trees, they keep staring
    atherBaby Janeon the aisle. What the hell is
    this?  She is gorgeous in the most outrageous

Allen Ginsberg Poet Americana
  • Section from Howl
  • yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering
    facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball
    kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and
    wars,who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey
    leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of
    Atlantic City Hall,suffering Eastern sweats and
    Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China
    under junk-withdrawal in Newark's bleak furnished
    room,who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars
    boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome
    farms in grandfather night,

Wolfe on LSD on Ken Kesey
  • But don't you see?--can you remember when you
    were a child watching someone put a
  • pencil to a sheet of paper for the first time,
    to draw a picture . . .

Wolfe on LSD on Ken Kesey
  • and the line begins to grow--into a nose! and it
    is not just a pattern of graphite line on a sheet
    of paper but the very miracle of creation itself
    and your own dreams flowed into that magical . .

Wolfe on LSD on Ken Kesey
  • growing . . . line, and it was not a picture but
    a miracle . . . an experience ... and now that
    you're soaring on LSD that feeling is coming on
    again--only now the creation is of the entire

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • My happiness did indeed arise from the same
    secret as the happiness in dreams it arose from
    the freedom to experience everything imaginable
    simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward we conquered the war-shattered world
    by our faith and transformed it into paradise, we
    creatively brought the past, the future and the
    fictitious into the present moment. The present
    moment! Now!

Master of Irony The Dickens of 1983
  • Wolfe reports on the extensive first-person
    interviews with Gus Grissom first"Once they
    got over the carrier Randolph, Grissom calmed
    down a bit. The same sort of awed faces that had
    welcomed Alan Shepard were craning up at the
    helicopter. But Grissom hardly noticed them.  His
    head was in a very dark cloud.When he went
    below deck, he was still shaking.  He kept
    saying, "Ididn't do anything.  The damned thing
    just blew.
  • Within an hour they had started the preliminary
    debriefing, andGrissom kept saying, "I didn't do
    anything, I was just lyingthere---and it just
  • Grissom, only the second American to be launched
    into space, is glorified by the masses but
    scrutinized by engineers, who think he messed up
    a vital part of the re-entry process.

Engineers AKA Pangloss
  • "Nobody was about to accuse Gus of anything, but
    the engineers kept rolling their eyes at each
    other. The explosive hatch was new to the Mercury
    capsule, but explosive hatches had been in use on
    jet fighters since the early 1950sOf course,
    any apparatus rigged up with explosive charges
    had the potential of exploding at the wrong time.
     Later on, NASA put a hatch assembly through
    every test the engineers could dream up to try to
    make the hatch blow without hitting the detonator
    button.They subjected it to trial by water,
    trial by heat  they shook it pounded it,
    dropped it on concrete from a height of one
    hundred feetand it never just blew."

What Is Wolfe Doing?
  • Italics are Wolfe's italics 
  • Writes from the Pangloss Engineers point of
    view, inside their collective head, not afar  
  • What seems a "logical" reporting of events is
    quite artistic, a taking-on of roles  
  • Reader taken from dulled and shamed incredulity
    of Grissom to careful and wise skepticism of the
    NASA engineers 
  • Makes Grissom and the engineers a part of a
    narrative of ironic omniscience

Edwards Test Pilots
  • "In flight test, if you did something that
    stupid, if you destroyed a major prototype
    through some lame-brain mistake such as hitting
    the wrong buttonyou were through!  You'd be
    lucky to end up in Flight Engineering.  Oh, it
    was obvious to everybody at Edwards that Grissom
    had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was
    allMaybe the poor bastard just wanted out,
    andbango!he punched the button."'I was lying
    there, and it just blew'oh, that was rich.  And
    then the brethren sat back and waited for the
    Mercury astronaut to get his, the way anyone of
    them would have gotten his, had a comparable
    fuckup occurred at Edwards."

But Irony Prevails, a la Dickens
  • "Andnothing happened."

Result Precise Reporting on Ideas/Society/Culture
  • Wolfe brings it back to Grissom, the person
    starring in a behind-the-scenes theme of the new
    Astronaut Americana, but not by quoting him, by
    referring to him ironically
  • Astronautsa program that would land a man on
  • Wolfe gives the psychology of these characters,
    but keeps us close to a theme 
  • Careful reporting of interior motives, failures,
    mistakes and nuances of human action creates a
    drama that is just as newsworthy as new
  • He finds deeper meaning and reports it through a
    willing character, a la Grissom

Mastery of Observation and Voice
  • Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more
    than that, three of the others had called her on
    the telephone to ask her if she had heard that
    something had happened out there.Jane, this is
    Alice. Listen, I just got a call from Betty, and
    she said she heard something's happened out
    there. Have you heard anything?" That was the way
    they phrased it, call after call. She picked up
    the telephone and began relaying this same
    message to some of the others."Connie, this is
    Jane Conrad. Alice just called me, and she says
    something's happened . . ."
  • The Right Stuff, 1983, Tom Wolfe
  • Is this news??? It is made to be news. Nobody
    knew how astronauts wives dealt with death or
    hardship. How do you love an icon?

New Journalism Breaking A Moldy Mold
  • "Most non-fiction writers, without knowing it,
    wrote in a century-old British tradition in which
    it was understood that the narrator shall assume
    a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice.

Revealing Real America
  • "I was feigning the tones of an Ingle Hollow
    moon-shiner, in order to create the illusion of
    seeing the action through the eyes of someone who
    was actually on the scene and involved in it,
    rather than a beige narrator.  I began to think
    of this device as the downstage voice, as if
    characters downstage of the protagonist himself
    were talking.
  • On the driver in The Kandy-Kolored
    Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The Way We Live
  • "By the Sixties talented novelists had
    abandoned the richest terrain of the novel
     namely society, the social tableau, manners and
    morals, the whole business of 'the way we live

  • "And the cop, all he can see is a bunch of
    crazies in screaming orange and green costumes,
    masks, boys and girls, men and women, twelve or
    fourteen of them, lying in the grass and making
    hideously crazy soundschrist almighty, why the
    hell does he have to contend withSo he wheels
    around and says, What are you, uhshow
    people?"That's right officer," Kesey says.
     "We're show people.  It's been a long row to
    hoe, I can tell you, and it's gonna be along row
    to hoe, but that's the business."

What a feast
  • We were alive in the first moment since the dawn
    of time in which man was able at last to break
    the bonds of Earths gravity and explore the rest
    of the universe

The Feast
  • a New-Fabulists or a Minimalists electrician
    or air conditioner mechanicmight very well be in
    Saint Kittswearing a Harry Belafonte cane-cutter
    shirt, open to the sternum, the better to reveal
    the gold chains twinkling in his chest hair,
    while he and his third wife sit on the terrace
    and have a little designer water

The Feast
  • What a feast was spread out before every writer
    in America! How could any writer resist plunging
    into it? I couldnt.

The Feast