The White Suit Was Camouflage: Tom Wolfe Was Tough

Tom Wolfe had a dead eye for the telling detail.

From an appreciation of Tom Wolfe by Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard.

Tom Wolfe never minded making enemies. Early in his career he took on William Shawn and the New Yorker in an essay called “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!,” guaranteeing that he would never appear in that magazine’s pages.

Later, he wrote of Robert Silvers, the Anglomaniacal editor of the New York Review of Books, that “his accent arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London. Intrigued, he slapped it into his mouth like a set of teeth.” In those two strokes, he made himself permanently non grata with two of the most powerful editors in the land.

He was no more tender about the leading intellectual figures of the day. He described Susan Sontag as “just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review.”. . .

Although he mentions him only once in his writings, and that far from favorably, Tom Wolfe is a writer in the line of H. L. Mencken. Both devised original, altogether inimitable prose styles. Both were in hot pursuit of the quacks of their time: Mencken of healing and holy-rolling preachers, fatuous professors, and others, Wolfe of many of the sad social climbers and savant-idiots who went under the name of intellectuals.

Each man in his work brought a literary sensibility to keen sociological instincts. Each exhibited his greatest energy on the attack: Mencken on such figures as William Jennings Bryan and Warren Harding, Wolfe on Leonard Bernstein and Noam Chomsky. Like Mencken, Tom Wolfe deserves a place in American literature for doing so much to pull the wool off the eyes of his countrymen. May the line of Mencken and Wolfe never run out.

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