Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

White Suit, Gray Eminence


By Lawrence Biemiller

The exclamation points — how could I have forgotten the exclamation points? Two in the first two sentences, 10 on the third page, seven in a mere five lines on page 11. So many that they start to look like straight pins driven neatly through the exoskeletons of rare specimen phrases: This one here's the ironic observation, down there's the learned pun, these are the brazen revelation, the riposte, the clever twist, two running jokes, and several related species of punch line. It's a Tom Wolfe chrestomathy — one from the early years, neatly labeled "Mauve Gloves."

"Mauve Gloves," of course, is "Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine," the title story of a 1976 collection of Mr. Wolfe's essays that I've finally found by dragging the kitchen stool into the back hall and climbing up here to the top shelf of what was once a pantry. The news that Mr. Wolfe will deliver this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities has sent me searching the apartment for books of his that ought to be around here somewhere. From Bauhaus to Our House, his snarky repudiation of Modernism in architecture, is still missing — I must have lent it out. But The Right Stuff, a highly entertaining history of the Mercury astronauts, was in a long row of brittling mass-market paperbacks. I found Mauve Gloves & Madmen nestled up here between collections of Pauline Kael film reviews and John Cheever short stories.

And now, leafing through it, I'm counting exclamations and grinning at Mr. Wolfe's third-person admission that, after a party, he had gone to stand in the doorway of his study, right where he had seen John Leonard of The New York Times standing earlier, and suddenly Mr. Wolfe had decided that his study was depressingly ordinary. "The solution, as he saw it — without going into huge costs — was the library stairs — the stairs to nowhere! — an object indisputably useful and yet with an air of elegant folly!" I'm balancing high up on a kitchen stool by the makeshift back-hall bookcase, reading about Tom Wolfe's custom-made, moveable library stairs — "the classic English type," he says, "going up in a spiral around a central column, carved in the ancient bamboo style, rising up almost seven feet, so he can reach books on his highest shelf." I climb down.

I first encountered Tom Wolfe in the spring of 1978 in Sandy Pinsker's basement in Lancaster, Pa. That's where Eng. 63, "Non-Fiction Writing," met every Wednesday, a dozen or so Franklin & Marshall students slouching on the Pinskers' sofas and chairs. It was, we knew, a great honor to be accepted into the class and invited to the professor's house, where we discussed Robert Benchley and Ms. Kael and Mr. Wolfe before tearing apart each other's mimeographed travelogues and autobiographical sketches and failed attempts at humor. I still have a thick folder of our papers — Gregory Murphy on Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Connie S. Pilla on her weekends with her boyfriend at a cabin in the woods, me on ... well, never mind. The papers are, by and large, bad, although some are very bad and others even worse. My own I can't stand to read past the first or second paragraph. It's a wonder Professor Pinsker didn't fail us all, instead of responding to each essay with cheery half-page, single-spaced notes. Whatever retirement benefits he's getting now, down there in Florida, he should be getting twice as much.

Mr. Wolfe's role in Eng. 63 was to represent the New Journalism. One of our assignments, after we had tried our hands at movie reviews and travel writing, was to do a paper in the style of the New Journalists. We faced some disadvantages. None of us knew Leonard Bernstein well enough to call him "Lenny" or get invited to his parties to mingle with Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, and the Black Panthers. None of us was being asked to appear on university panels with Günter Grass and Allen Ginsberg — I'm not sure I had ever even heard of Günter Grass. We were English majors at a liberal-arts college in a small, conservative Pennsylvania city where no one would have dreamed of ordering a pair of four-exclamation-point shoes from Mr. Wolfe's London boot makers, John Lobb & Sons Ltd. ("$248! — for one pair of shoes! — from England! — handmade!") We were suburban kids. Like Mr. Wolfe's study, we were depressingly ordinary.

Even so, we learned a lot reading Mr. Wolfe's essays. We learned to look hard for the telling detail, like the red Lincoln Zephyr in which Frank Lloyd Wright was being chauffeured on the day that, according to From Bauhaus to Our House, he so richly snubbed Walter Gropius in Racine, Wis. We learned to look for lively new ways of putting ordinary things: "Dr. Gladys J. Loring," says Mr. Wolfe in The Right Stuff, "looked at him as if he were a flatworm." We learned to write as though writing were fun: "O Mother O'Hare," Mr. Wolfe intones at one point in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, "big bosom for our hungry poets, pelvic saddle for our sexologists and Open Classroom theorists — O houri O'Hare, who keeps her Perm-O-Pour Stoneglow thighs ajar to receive a generation of frustrated and unreadable novelists — " In fact, writing is not fun. It's having written that's a blast.

We also learned — or we should have learned, although I'm not so sure we did — not to take ourselves too seriously. By now, of course, Mr. Wolfe has caricatured practically everyone in the United States, either individually or generally, and millions unfamiliar with the caricatures in his books have met them in the film adaptations, first of The Right Stuff and later of Mr. Wolfe's wildly successful 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. But it must be said of him, in fairness, that he made a caricature of himself first of all. The fussy suits, the parties, the name-dropping, the exclamation points and italic interjections, the O Destinys and the one-word sentences, the ellipses and the em-dashes chasing one another across the pages — all so splendidly unmistakable, all so easily mocked. O peerless ego! —

Mr. Wolfe is like Hemingway, in fact, in that it's hard to read much of his work without finding that your own sentences are sounding a little like his, or a lot. But worse things could happen to a person. Mr. Wolfe's enthusiasm, his boundless confidence, his seemingly relentless reporting, and his bravura writing — well, it's quite a package. Settling back with the copy of From Bauhaus to Our House that Amazon has overnighted, I see that his account of Modernism's rise is much more opinionated than I remembered, not having read the book in 20 years — and having in that time learned a little more about architecture. I also see that he has abridged the tale in ways that support his own view at the expense of Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the other "Mies-box people," as Mr. Wolfe refers to them. But heck — as Gregory Murphy told me once, some years after we took Eng. 63 together, "To have an opinion is to live." Even where I mistrust it, and especially where I disagree with it, From Bauhaus to Our House is a lot of fun to read.

So now I've had old Tom Wolfe books open in various rooms for the better part of a week. Because I have a short attention span, I've taken a pass on two huge, high-profile novels, Bonfire and last year's I Am Charlotte Simmons, rereading older nonfiction instead. E.B. White is still the nonfiction writer to beat, as far as I'm concerned — nothing compares with the rural Maine coast he describes in One Man's Meat, a collection of modest, dachshund-pestered essays he did for Harper's in the early 40s. But White, whose gift was understatement, is long gone. There's no question that Mr. Wolfe, exclamation points and all, is both a keen observer of our times and a fine representative of them — or that he'll give a crackerjack Jefferson Lecture come May.

I pull down the Library of America's black-jacketed Thomas Jefferson, Writings, to see if I can guess what Jefferson himself would think of a career like Mr. Wolfe's — which is, in a way, to wonder what Jefferson would think of his country now. Jefferson did not shy away from ordering himself fourand five-exclamation-point luxuries — he was deeply in debt when he died — or from having marvelously strong opinions about buildings. He, too, knew the most famous people of his time.

But in skimming 1,500 onionskin pages I find few details about Jefferson the man. I can learn almost as much about Tom Wolfe's day-to-day life from the brief title essay of Mauve Gloves as I can about Jefferson's from nearly 1,000 pages of letters on politics, philosophy, farming, and the course of history generally. There is almost no ego to be found anywhere in his lines. And while Jefferson had a keen eye and wrote beautifully, it was not the style of his time to appear to be having fun in the process.

Still, he makes many of his points memorably. Here is a single sentence from a letter Jefferson wrote at Monticello in 1820 to John Holmes, one of Maine's first senators. The letter concerns the Missouri Compromise, but it's easy to see it in a larger context, to take it as a kind of commentary on the stairs-to-nowhere America that Mr. Wolfe chronicles so deftly and inhabits so comfortably: "I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it."

Is ours an era to weep over or laugh at? It's hard to know how Jefferson would answer. Mr. Wolfe, I think, lets us have it either way. O muddled destiny!

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 31, 2006.