Tom Wolfe, RIP
I remember two books from my adult pre-Rothbardian days: Bonfire of the Vanities, and Liar's Poker. The first written by the recently departed Tom Wolfe, the second by Michael Lewis, who recalled telling his daughter on the way to interview Mr. Wolfe in 2015, “I want at least one of my children to meet him. I think he’s a big reason it ever occurred to me to do what I do for a living. Because the first time I ever thought 'writer,' I also thought 'delight.'"
After Bonfire I waited for, what seemed like forever, to read Wolfe’s next novel and to my delight it centered on an Atlanta real estate developer. It was a book I would recommend to real estate loan officers who worked for me.
Then there was Back to Blood, which in turn made me read The Painted Word. Most recently, a conversation with Hans Hoppe and Patrik Schumacher led me to From Bauhaus to Our House.
After Wolfe’s passing, I read his last, The Kingdom of Speech, a book that was reportedly “not well received by critics.” Many of his books weren’t “well received” yet sold well enough for him to live in a 12-room apartment in New York.
The New York Times called Kingdom, “a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution, which he finds to be less scientific certainty than ‘a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,’ to put it in the words he inserts into the mouths of past genetic theorists.”
Of course his usual shoe leather wasn’t used for this expose. Ironically, he skewers Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky for their lack of fieldwork in taking the quantum leap in theorizing just how humans developed what makes them the invincible top of the food chain.
It’s vintage laugh out loud Wolfe, for example, “Subscribing to Darwinism showed that one was part of a bright, enlightened minority who shone far above the mooing herd down below.”
The Bible Belt and Trump crowd won’t appreciate his mention of Darwin’s work having an atheistic bias and how it spread through Europe and “to self-professed intellectual elites in the United States, even though the great mass of the population kept on mooing and made sure America remained the most religious country on earth outside of the nations of Islam (and it remains so today).”
Darwin believed language had somehow evolved from animal sounds and was constantly criticized by Max Muller, who described Darwin’s theories in baby-talk terms.
Wolfe wonders if Darwin’s theory was his at all. Maybe he stole it from Alfred Russel Wallace, a nobody.
Wolfe only get warmed up on Darwin, saving his real bluster for Chomsky, who claimed human were born with a built-in “language organ.” It starts working along with your heart and kidneys, which Wolfe reminds us, “are already pumping and filtering and excreting away.”
The hard work of linguists was indoors, “at a desk...looking at learned journals filled with cramped type instead of at a bunch of hambone faces in a cloud of gnats.”
Speech has allowed humans “to conquer every square inch of land in the world, subjugate every creature big enough to lay eyes on, and eat up half the population of the sea,” writes Wolfe. Everything humans do is enabled by speech, from the creation of religions to the taking of one’s own life.
The man of letters concludes, “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved in to Michelangelo’s David.”
Wolfe, in full white suit and tie dress went to work by 10:00 am each day with a writing quota of 1,200 words (ten triple-spaced pages as he puts it). It might take a couple hours or well into the night.
Wolfe’s daughter Alexandra, who writes for the Wall Street Journal explained in a WSJ piece in 2015 , “Still, in recent years the family has had to impose a new rule for mealtime talk: If one of us thinks we’ve heard a particular story or argument at least five times before, we get to raise our hand as a signal to stop. The rule was created for one reason: to manage my father’s enthusiasm for the topic of his new book, “The Kingdom of Speech.”
His research had been going on for the past decade she wrote. “The heart of my thinking is that language is man-made,” he told her. “It’s not a result of evolution, and it is only language that enables human beings to control nature.”
Wolfe was, as if Forrest Gump, around some of the finest writers in history. In the summer of 1963 Wolfe worked at The Herald Tribune in New York City. Llewellyn King writes, “67 people who worked at the paper went on to major journalistic success. The names included Eugenia Sheppard, Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith and David Laventhol, who later created the Style section of The Washington Post and fired another newspaper revolution.”
King leaves out Charles Portis, who after writing for the Trib, penned a novel called True Grit, which Anthony Bourdain calls “a masterpiece. Don’t settle for seeing the film versions. One of the great heroines of all time and a magnificent book filled with great dialogue.”
Wolfe also tagged along with Ken Kesey, who would write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the Merry Pranksters as they rolled along in their school bus, high on psychedelics. Wolfe says he dropped no acid and was in a suit and tie the entire trip, which he chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Social status and how it affected people’s behavior was Wolfe’s constant theme. So, it made sense that his daughter would ask “is the argument of [your] new book an attempt to elevate the status of writers, by putting language above all other human achievements?”
Wolfe, always the southern gentlemen replied, “That’s like calling chefs the best eaters — it’s what we call irrelevant.”
I think Wolfe’s daughter was on to something, and her dad artfully dodged the question.