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The Purple Decades: A Reader

Excerpt from The Purple Decades by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1982 by Tom Wolfe. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

The Purple Decades—if we hadn't lived through them, we wouldn't have believed them possible. Already they begin to seem very far away. Luckily, we have Tom Wolfe to remember them by. Luckily, future historians, curiosity-seekers, and literate citizens will be able to turn to Tom Wolfe for the definitive, comprehensive, tuned-in portrait of our age.

In the Introduction to his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe explains how "the whole thing started" accidentally one afternoon in the early sixties when he was sent to do a newspaper story on the Hot Rod & Custom Car show at the Coliseum in New York and how this led to his eventual interest in stock car racing and free-form Las Vegas neon-sign sculpture and "all these . . . weird . . . nutty-looking, crazy baroque custom cars, sitting in little nests of pink angora angel's hair for the purpose of 'glamorous' display." While he was trying to understand why the conventional newspaper story he wrote failed to capture some essential truth of the experience, Wolfe was struck by the animating insight that "the paroles, peasants, and petty burglers" of America were "creating new styles . . . and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even seems to bother to record, much less analyze." He was on to something.

Wolfe goes on to relate how Esquire became interested in the custom-car phenomenon, how they sent him to California, and how he ended up staying up all night, "typing along like a madman," in order to meet the Esquire deadline, elaborating the perception that suddenly "classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles." Among teenagers, this meant custom cars, rock 'n' roll, stretch pants, and decal eyes. In the South, he was to discover, it took the form of stock car racing, which in fifteen years had replaced baseball as the number-one spectator sport. All over the country, at every suburb, supermarket, and hamburger stand, Las Vegas-style neon sculpture was transforming the American skyline. "The incredible postwar American electro-pastel surge into the suburbs," Wolfe would later call it. It was "sweeping the Valley, with superhighways, dreamboat cars, shopping centers, soaring thirty-foot Federal Sign & Signal Company electric supersculptures—Eight New Plexiglas Display Features!—a surge of freedom and mobility . . ." The Esquire story Wolfe finished that morning long ago was eventually called "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" and thus the New Journalism was born.

Tom Wolfe's ascendancy as spokesperson for this era in American life developed through the medium that came to be called the New Journalism, but by reason of his own special gifts. The novelists, those erstwhile cultural chroniclers, failed to fulfill this role, according to Wolfe, because they were "all crowded into one phone booth . . . doing these poor, frantic little exercises in form." Therefore, the new Journalists "had the whole crazed obscene uproarious Mammon-faced drug-soaked mau-mau lust-oozing Sixties in America all to themselves," and the seventies too, for that matter—"the Me Decade," as Wolfe described it.

But Wolfe's success is based on realities that go beyond the theory that the novelists weren't paying attention and the fact that Wolfe himself came to be the most accomplished and notorious practitioner of the New Journalism, and its chief architect and advocate. Wolfe's banner of the New Journalism was flown, in large part, to gain acceptance for a whole new set of literary conventions—conventions that, not accidentally, allowed full expression of his particular virtuosity. Encompassing the aesthetics and methodology of the nineteenth-century realist novel and the modus operandi of the big-city streetwise police-beat reporter, it was a form, Wolfe noted, that consumed "devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixed them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoyed an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what a power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened."

Probably, the New Journalism was also part of the same evolution in consciousness that led, in different ways, to the new fiction, the new poetry, and the old psychology: an idea about the importance of focusing attention on subjective emotional experience, dramatized point-of-view, unique sensibility, and of delving beneath appearances for deeper meanings. In formulating new conventions and then serving as a propagandist for his own mind of art, Tom Wolfe, like Fielding, like Zola or Joyce, was following in a time-honored tradition, the formal innovator modifying received forms and methods to suit his own, historically exceptional, circumstances. "Every great and original writer," wrote William Wordsworth, "in proportion as he is great and original, must create the taste by which he is to be relished."

Among the trickiest of the conventions Wolfe entertained was his inventive application of the principles of point-of-view. Wolfe describes in The New Journalism how and why he aspired to treat point-of-view in non-fiction writing "in the Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene." The idea, he says, "was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go the novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters."

How can a non-fiction writer pretend to know exactly what a person is thinking or feeling at any given moment? He asks them. If a reporter bases his reconstruction of the subjective life of the character on the most scrupulous reporting, Wolfe would contend, he can get close to the truth of the inner life. Wolfe's dead of saturation reporting is far more ambitious than anything the old journalists had thought to try. His approach is to cultivate the habit of staying with potential subjects for days, weeks, or months at a time, taking notes, interviewing, watching, and waiting for something dramatic and revealing to happen. Only through the most persistent and searching methods of reporting, Wolfe would emphasize, can the journalist's entrée into point-of-view, the subjective life, inner voices, the creation of scenes and dialogue, and so on, be justified.

Another aspect of Wolfe's treatment of point-of-view is his playful use of the downstage voice, the devil's-advocate voice, and other voices in his work. Here is a writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, an easily galvanized, chameleonlike faculty for empathy, and a ventriloquist's delight in speaking other people's lines. From the start of his career, he was bored silly by the "pale beige tone" of conventional non-fiction writing, which seemed to him "like the standard announcer's voice . . . a drag, a droning," a signal to the reader "that a well-known bore was here again, 'the journalist,' a pedestrian mind, a phlegmatic spirit, a faded personality. . . ." So, early on, he began experimenting with outlandish voices and with the principle of skipping rapidly from one voice or viewpoint to the next, sometimes unexpectedly in he middle of a sentence, and often enough without identifying the voice or viewpoint except through context. Anything to avoid the stupefying monotony of the pale beige tone.

Even in expository sections, he often adopts the tone or characteristic lingo, point-of-view, or pretense of a character he is writing about: the "good old boy" voice he assumes, for example, in he narration of "The Last American Hero"; the slangy L.A. vernacular of the Mac Meda Destruction Company in The Pump House Gang; the freaked-out lingo of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; the ghetto jive of Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers; or the sugary, gossipy persona of Radical Chic. Any vice he wishes to take on, he assumes with unerring smoothness and fidelity. Frequently, however, the voice produced turns out to be a put-on voice that reveals and dramatizes personality as it reveals in the flaws, prejudices, and affectations of the character. The voice, that is, is both part of the character and, at the same time, above or outside it, interpreting and passing judgment.

Literal-minded critics have sometimes leapt to the assumption that Wolfe's put-on voice was expressing his actual opinions on a subject. Thomas R. Edwards does this, for instance, in discussing a passage about the Watts riots from The Pump House Gang:

Watts was a blast . . . Artie and John had a tape-recorder and decided they were going to make a record called "Random Sounds from the Watts Riots." They drove right into Watts . . . and there was blood on the streets and roofs blowing off the stores and all these apricot flames and drunk Negroes falling through the busted plate glass of the liquor stores. Artie got a nice recording of a lot of Negroes chanting "Burn, baby, burn."

Edwards claims that Wolfe's general view of serious social concern makes the passage a virtual endorsement of the attitudes it mimics, when, obviously, the passage is expressing the lack of social concern of the Pump House Gang. The mercilessness of their attitude toward the Negroes serves to document the insularity of their tribal bond. The put-on voice here is Wolfe's way of dramatizing the group's attitude toward other groups, a trait he also illustrates in showing the kids' outrageous prejudices against anyone over the "horror age" of twenty-five.

Now, in any case, the New Journalism is a fait accompli. Whatever quibbling one might still occasionally hear about the dubiousness of its procedures, it is practiced every day across the land, from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker, from The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire to the sports pages of The New York Times, the Fresno Bee, and the Bangor Daily News—in some cases by writers who don't even know what to call it, who might be surprised to learn they are committing it. Though Wolfe has always remained loyal to the journalistic calling and has expropriated its methods in all earnestness for his own purposes and has thus permanently changed the definition and the shape of journalism, he clearly is, and always has been, more than a journalist.

Temperamentally, Tom Wolfe is, from first to last, with every word and deed, a comic writer with an exuberant sense of humor, a baroque sensibility, and an irresistible inclination toward hyperbole. His antecedents are primarily literary—not journalistic, and not political, except in the largest sense. All these years, Tom Wolfe has been writing comedy with a capital C, Comedy like that of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen and Joseph Addison, like that of Thackeray and Shaw and Mark Twain. Like these writes, Tom Wolfe might be described as a brooding humanistic presence. There is a decided moral edge to his humor. Wolfe never tells us what to believe exactly; rather, he shows us examples of good and (most often) bad form. He has always proffered these humanistic and moral perspectives on his subjects.

Which is not to say that beneath the cool surface of the hyped-up prose we should expect to find either a fire-and brimstone preacher or a Juvenalian sort of satirist seething with indignation about the corruption of his fellow men. Neither will we discover, in Wolfe's work, any sign at all of a political or social activist who might argue on behalf of a particular party, issue, system, creed, or cause.

The satirical element in Wolfe's sort of comedic writing is most of ten sunny, urbane, and smiling. Like all Horatian comedy, I aims to reform through laughter that is never vindictive or merely personal, but broadly sympathetic:

Comedy may be considered to deal with man in his human state, restrained and often made ridiculous by his limitations, his faults, his bodily functions, and his animal nature . . . Comedy has always viewed man more realistically than tragedy, and drawn its laughter or its s attire from the spectacle of human weakness or failure. Hence its tendency to juxtapose appearance and reality, to deflate pretense, and to mock excess.

Classical comedy outlives causes and headlines because of its freedom from parochial ideology. It is a human response based on the conviction that human nature is so prone to folly and vanity that it cannot be helped or changed, except possibly through self-awareness, through admission of its innate silliness. Whatever side of whatever issue we are on, the comedian believes, we are likely to end up making fools of ourselves. Yet there is always a forgiving or good-natured quality to Horatian (and Wolfean) comedy, since it assumes that this peculiar flawed human condition is universal and any one of us (including the writer poking fun) may be guilty of demonstrating it at any moment.

A close connection between laughter and reproof is evident throughout Wolfe's oeuvre. In works such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and "The Me Decade," for example, Wolfe mocks the idea that "letting it all hang out" is likely to offer a road to salvation or improvement. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe shows again and again how destructive the sixties phony wisdom about the "joys" of abandonment to chemical cornucopias, in particular, could be. Similarly, by parodying facile aspects of the human potential movement in "The Me Decade" ("Esalen's specially was lube jobs for the personality"), Wolfe demonstrates his concern about the exploitation and misdirection of human energies in what he sees as a foolish, limited, and petty cause. In "The Intelligent Coed's Guide to America," Wolfe exposes the preposterous ironies of a certain brand of fashionable intellectual bellyaching in the seventies and shows how the pronouncements of certain. American intellectuals may have had more to do with their own status and identity needs than with any authentic repression or doom worth taking seriously. In From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe shows how a status-related infatuation with things European in the 1930s and 1040s led to a redirection of American music, art, psychology, and especially architecture, that was ultimately reductive, excessive, and nonsensical.

Or in Radical Chic, was Wolfe observes the socially elite of Manhattan indulging the fad of inviting members of the Black Panthers to their opulent parties, he poses the theory that the ostensible desire for social justice and the display of generosity involved had somewhat less to do with the proceedings than had the secret motive, which was the longing of the aristocrats to feel in its fullest degree the heady sensation of "How chic we are." Switching his angle of vision diametrically in Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Wolfe shows, hilariously, how enterprising blacks gleefully intimidated, outwitted, and hoodwinked social-agency do-gooders during the heydays of the poverty program.

All these perspectives arise out of a sense of the moral insufficiency of the participants and reveal Tom Wolfe pointing a finger and laughing wholeheartedly at what people do when they fly in the face of the hard facts about their own natures or their unconscious or concealed motives or aspirations. The merriment is intense; the laughter is real. But there is little cause for feeling vastly superior to the miserable fools, tarnished folk heroes, rebels, fanatics, and hustlers from Wolfe's rogue's gallery of humanity. For lurking just beneath the swirling surface of his prose is the sobering realization that the potential for vanity of similar proportion is common to us all.

One indirect moral service that great comedic writers perform is to promote self-awareness, and Wolfe's major contribution here has been his emphasis on the hidden and sometimes peculiar manifestations of status-seeking in American life. In the manner of a conscientious Martian anthropologist, he has tried rigorously to apply the principle that all primates, including humans, organize their societies according to status hierarchies and struggles for dominance. The importance of status behavior as the source of society's most mysterious subtleties has, of course, been recognized and studied by the social sciences for years. The proof of the existence of such behavior is not original to Tom Wolfe, but the wholesale exploration of its features in American culture and its exploitation for comical purposes are certainly important aspects of Wolfe's novelty and uniqueness. The tool of status-analysis, and other gleanings from the social sciences, had led Wolfe, over the last two decades, to these basic assumptions about American life: (1) That the fragmentation and diversity of American culture resulted in the emergence of subcultures or enclaves that have evolved their own bizarre art forms, life styles, and status rituals independent from the "elite" culture of the past, the "high" culture of the American Northeast via Europe ("the big amoeba-God of Anglo-European sophistication", or other common references (2) That these enclaves, generally ignored by serious social observers, deserve the closest scrutiny, both because they are the truest, most authentic, examples of "the way we live now" and because they illustrate comically that human nature follows the same quaint, barbaric patterns regardless of class, region, or circumstance. (3) That fragmentation of American society has sometimes caused rampant status confusion (as in Radical Chic); emphasis upon enunciating weird new tribal identities (as in The Pump House Gang, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or The Right Stuff); the evolution of status dropouts who discover they can compete more favorably with some new set of rules in life style (as in "The Mid-Atlantic Man"); and a remarkable array of bewildering or ridiculous behavior (as in "The Voices of Village Square" or "The Girl of the Year")—all ripe for Wolfean analysis—including the widespread frantic search for spurious forms of salvation (as in "The Me Decade" or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

Thus, Junior Johnson's stock cars of "That Last American Hero," as seen through Wolfe's eyes, are like the totems of the Easter Islanders or the formal architecture of the Regency period, critically important cultural artifacts that are the focus of both veneration and status competition for their creators. Or, as in The Right Stuff, among the test pilots, the fraternity of "the right stuff" is the basis for the display of almost incredible forms of heroism, which Wolfe clearly admires. But, even here, it is the fierce status competition within the group that serves to motivate the men, a desire for the "sinfully inconfessable . . . feeling of superiority, appropriate to him and his kind, lone bearers of the right stuff."

Grounding his insights about human nature firmly on his belief in the potent force of status in human affairs, and its expression through fashion, Wolfe claims—in The Painted Word and in From Bauhaus to Our House, for instance—that styles in contemporary painting and architecture can be understood more plainly by examining the ambitions and status games of influential artists, architects, critics, and patrons than by trying to comprehend their creations as personal miracles, a position that has been somewhat less than stupendously popular in the art world.

As his career has matured, Wolfe's aspirations as a cultural chronicler have been greatly enhanced by his ability to grasp, to digest, and to stimulate human interest in large, sometimes esoteric, subject areas usually though to be the domain of art historians, sociobiologists, or other specialists. Few would have dared, as Wolfe does in The Painted Word, for example, to take on the whole bloody history of Modern Art and to offer a waggish, but devilishly shrewd, critique of how Modern Art came to serve fashion and theory instead of humankind; or, as in he scorching sequel, From Bauhaus to Our House, to deal with "what went wrong" during the past fifty years of American architecture.

Wolfe's unfailing wit and his faculty for selecting the truly memorable example are undoubtedly a part of this ability to assimilate, transform, and humanize his subject matter. "Yale had completed a building program of vast proportions," he explains in From Bauhaus to Our House, "that had turned the campus into as close an approximation of Oxford and Cambridge ad the mind of man could devise on short notice in southern Connecticut . . . For better or worse, Yale became the business barons' vision of a luxurious collegium for the sons of the upper classes who would run the new American empire." But when an addition as built for the Yale art gallery after the Second World War, "that building could scarcely have been distinguished from a Woolco discount store in a shopping center" and the interior "had the look of an underground parking garage." And all this in the name of "unconcealed structure"—another instance for Wolfe of how mindless fashion and buzz-word aesthetic theory were allowed to undermine good sense and consistency of design—but also an instance of how Wolfe is able to concretize and persuade by skillful elaboration of the perfect example.

Typically, as Wolfe unspools yard after yard of theory, he forces us to test it against our own understanding of the nature of things. And he compels us to ask questions: Why in the name of God should painting and architecture in our time have become so trivialized, so specialized, so uniform? Why would an accomplished, clever man want to give up his work and French-fry his brains and invest his earthly time tooling around the countryside in a psychedelic schoolbus? Why in the world would a normal, sane, healthy person want to risk his life on a day-to-day basis as a test pilot or an astronaut? Why do people behave as they do? How do we live? How should we live?

Clearly, as Wolfe has grown in stature, he has become more interested in reform and more concerned about what he sees as "the wrong stuff" and "the right stuff." At the heart of Bauhaus and The Painted Word is a straightforward wish to humanize art and architecture by showing how "the freight train of history" got off on the wrong track by the most ludicrous sort of historical coincidence. All of Wolfe's recent books, and many of his earlier essays, are also parables offered as intellectual history. They show how political power and orthodoxy and fashion-mongering have often run roughshod over originality, virtue, fair play, exuberance, and panache. The moral would seem to be that those who succumb to the temptation to aspire to the merely fashionable, who thus sacrifice the noble impulse toward individual vision, may end up "succeeding" and thereby mucking up whole centuries. This failing, he seems to warn us, is so common that all of us should be on guard against it, lest we, too, be tempted to repeat it. Substance over surface, he proclaims, should be our guide—be alert to the frailties of human nature and pay attention to values that truly matter. Yet there is nothing self-righteous in Tom Wolfe's moral stance, and it is so well disguised that the average reader often may be unaware that an implicit moral position is being assumed.

After roughly twenty years of development—by combining the methodology of the journalist with his own special sense and sensibility—the young writer whose life was forever changed by one amazed afternoon at the Coliseum at the Hot Rod & Custom Car Show has gone on to become the most astute and popular social observer and cultural chronicler on his generation. If Tom Wolfe sometimes interprets the American scene with the apparent detachment and freedom from constraints of a visiting Martian, he remains a Martian with an enviable sense of humor, energy, and playfulness. If he is often the maverick skeptic among us, the ultimate "King-Has-No-Clothes-On" man of principle, he is a skeptic with the power of empathy. If, at times, he seems to be viewing his own culture like an anthropologist studying the strange habits of the Trobriand Islanders, he is an anthropologist with an ear for every kind of idiomatic speech, loaded language and the multiple meanings it contains, and a conviction about the value of skewing pretentiousness wherever it may be found. No other writer of our time has aspired to capture the fabled Spirit of the Age so fully and has succeeded so well.

JOE DAVID BELLAMY

 


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