The Wikipedia entry speaks volumes (pun intended). When I looked up the famous American author Thomas Wolfe, I learned that “This article is about the early 20th-century writer. For the late 20th and early 21st century writer, see Tom Wolfe.” We lost the first Wolfe at the very young age of 38 in 1938, and we lost the second Wolfe last week at a much older age of 88. After learning of this, I was reminded that in so many ways, the literary history of the 20th and early 21st centuries is bookended by these two Wolfes. Both of them wrote beautifully and provocatively, and one wonders how many more books were left in the other Wolfe had he not died at such a young age. In his two masterpieces, LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL (1929) and YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN (published posthumously two years after his death), Thomas Wolfe found in his hometown of Asheville, NC, a microcosm of humanity. And Tom Wolfe found these kinds of larger themes in all his subjects, whether he was writing about cars, modern art, finance, hippies, architecture, or speech in the two forms in which he worked–fiction and non-fiction (or a sometimes curious mixture of the two). While I am writing this, I am rewatching the film version of his 1979 account of the early years of the American space program, THE RIGHT STUFF, a “nonfiction novel” that located the glory and tragedy of the American dream in the skies high above our heads and in the earthbound bureaucracy of Washington, DC.
Although I never met Tom Wolfe, I got to know Junior Johnson when he was building cars for Cale Yarborough and while a high school acquaintance of mine was a member of his pit crew. As Junior was engraving his name in a piston that occupies a nearly sacred spot on my bookshelf, I asked him what he thought of Tom Wolfe, who wrote a memorable chapter about the race car driver (and former moonshiner) in his 1965 book of essays, THE KANDY-KOLORED TANGERINE-FLAKE STREAMLINE BABY (a portrait, “The Last American Hero,” that became a movie starring Jeff Bridges, as “Junior Jackson,” in 1973). “He is a strange little fellow,” replied Johnson, and I took that to be a very high compliment for the man who elevated Johnson to the pantheon of mythical American gods and made stock car racing a metaphor for American success. In a bittersweet exchange from the two old friends’ last meeting in 2015, Wolfe asks Johnson about the phenomenon of “drafting” that allows the driver of a car to gain extra speed by following in the wake of the lead car’s draft. Wolfe tells Johnson that he was in fact drafting on the racer’s bumper when he wrote his now-iconic essay. “We were drafting on each other,” replied Johnson, acknowledging the debts the two men owe to each other.
That essay on Johnson captures Wolfe’s inimitable style as well as anything he has ever written (and that’s saying a lot). Savor these lines about Junior’s appearance at the Wilkesboro (NC) Speedway as you would a glass of North Carolina moonshine: “Then, finally, here comes Junior Johnson. How he does come on. He comes tooling across the infield in a big white dreamboat, a brand-new white Pontiac Catalina four-door hard-top sedan. He pulls up and as he gets out he seems to get more and more huge. First his crew-cut head and then a big jaw and then a bigger neck and then a huge torso, like a wrestler’s, all done up and rather modish and California mod-ern, with a red-and-white candy-striped sport shirt, white ducks and loafers. . . .His face seldom shows an emotion. He has three basic looks: amiable, amiable and a little shy, and dead serious.”
This essay about Johnson appeared in Wolfe’s first published collection of essays, and I find it only fitting that his last publication, THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH (2016), takes on Charles Darwin, a figure perhaps nearly as imposing as Junior Johnson, but someone who probably never wore a red and white candy-striped sport shirt or sported a crew cut. Wolfe’s focus is on the question of what makes us human. Taking some issue with Darwin, Wolfe declares that our humanity is based on our speech, and by implication our ability to express ourselves in writing. As he states in the book’s introduction, “Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes–speech is the attribute of all attributes! Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal!” Speech and literary expression defines us and makes us unique in the world of nature–after all, most animals will beat us in a competition involving eyesight, hearing, taste, or speed. All we have, in the end, is speech. I can’t think of a better way for Wolfe to share with us his last reflections on human nature.
Wolfe never intended for us to agree with him, but only to think deeply about what he said. Take one of my favorite books of his as an example. In THE PAINTED WORD (1975), Wolfe took on a subject that is near and dear to my heart–modern art–and skewered it pretty savagely. While I don’t agree with most of what he said, I treasure the book for the way it makes me think and for how it challenges my complacency. And his prose is magnificent the way F. Scott Fitzgerald’s is magnificent.
Although I will miss Tom Wolfe’s unique voice, I am grateful we still have Chuck Klosterman and Greil Marcus around to inspire and provoke us with their writings on American popular culture. They are Wolfe’s rightful heirs.
Here’s hoping you will take time to savor some of Tom Wolfe’s prose this week.