New York — What was it that Tom Wolfe once called the American press? If memory serves, he called it the “Courtly Gentleman.” That was the synecdoche Wolfe created for the standard-issue journalist, who, he said, always strikes “the seemly sentiment.” The perceptive Wolfe was once again having fun with pomposity and getting it right.
Breakfast with him at the Carlyle Hotel in New York’s swank upper east seventies is always a merry and informative time, as it was just the other day. Al Regnery, the new publisher of The American Spectator, and I wanted Tom’s advice on magazine design. Tom knows vast amounts about design and art in general as he made clear at the expense of the poseurs of the Art World in his impious book The Painted Word. While spooning a modest bowl of oat meal with brown sugar and what looked like an entire orchard of fruit on the side, he discoursed over a vast range of matters. Soft-spoken, eloquent, and urbane, dressed in his characteristic white ensemble — is it a Victorian style? — he put me in mind of nothing so much as a “courtly gentleman,” but a genuinely courtly gentleman. Tom is a Virginian, educated at Washington & Lee, and Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in American studies. Without any hint of “seemly sentiment” or artifice of any kind, Wolfe really is the courtly gent; and he is finishing up a novel that, given the raw material he is working with, ought to be stupendous. It is on the American university. How can Wolfe miss with that?
In conversation Wolfe always brings up unusual aspects of American life, hitherto ignored. At some point years ago some reviewer of his work called him, I believe, a sociologist of sorts. The appraisal is not far off the mark. Social behavior is forever a target in his writing. During breakfast on this occasion he notes that none of the billionaires of Silicon Valley ever was involved in financial fraud either on the way up or on the way down. Wolfe sees an endemic integrity among the genius entrepreneurs of the Computer Civilization. They did not “cash out” during the heady days. And there was something very genuine that he observed in their personal lives while he was lecturing in the Valley. Though they might live expensively, they did not live ostentatiously. Moreover, “they always drove their own cars and flew their own planes.” They might have very expensive cars, but they drove them. They rarely had Boeing jetliners, “because one man cannot fly” a Boeing jet. I only know one of the fabled Silicon Valley billionaires, Charles Simonyi, the developer of “what you see is what you get” for Microsoft. He is just as Wolfe pronounced, an unostentatious engineer, of huge accomplishment, who flies his own planes and drives his own cars.
Perhaps it is Wolfe’s enormous learning — worn lightly — that provoked that reviewer to describe him as a sociologist, but a better job description would be reporter. Seth Lipsky, the editor of the newly-founded New York Sun, calls him “the greatest reporter of his generation.”
“Why does his writing ring true?” Lipsky asks. “Because despite the white suits, the glamour and the wealth,” Wolfe is the same clear-eyed reporter today who set out forty-seven years ago to report for the Springfield Union, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Through the years he has reported on limousine liberals, radicals working cons, druggies, rockers, art frauds, wheeler-dealers in finance and real estate. Every time, he writes only after going out with a reporter’s pad in hand and observing his subjects.
For his book on university life he traveled across the country peering in on that fantastic scene that is the American college campus. The students, the faculty, the alums, the coaches, the sports fans, and, of course, the state politicians caught his eye. His research is indefatigable. Recently he called a writer with experience in political scandals and asked him where he might get first-hand information about how a randy governor would cover up his dangerous liaisons. Wolfe leaves very little to his own imagination, though that wondrous faculty of Wolfe’s is always available to radiate a scene in one of his novels.
I never probe too deeply when Tom is at work on a novel. It just does not seem like the right thing to do. But from what he has let slip about this novel, I suspect the American university is about to suffer a staggering exposé. Wolfe will leave his readers not only outraged but laughing — that is the cruelest cut of all.