American novelist, Tom Wolfe, died earlier this week. He will probably be best remembered for his innovative journalism of the 1960s, 70s and 80s but he also branched into fiction with a satirical novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1989. Several of the articles relating to his passing mention that novel as well as his other writing in connection with the satirical tradition of Evelyn Waugh. The Catholic Herald posts online an article by William Cash it had recently published in its print edition. See earlier post. This is entitled “Tom Wolfe–the Evelyn Waugh of Wall Street”. Cash read Wolfe’s first two novels obsessively and used the first as a basis for his undergraduate Eng Lit thesis at Cambridge. He writes:
There are two things that people forget about Wolfe. First, judging himself by his contemporaries – who included John Updike and Norman Mailer – he was positively historic to be publishing his first novel at the ripe literary age of 56. Wolfe found this almost an embarrassment. … Wolfe’s skewering of the white plump meat of American capitalism came out just as Wall Street suffered the greatest single-day loss since the Crash of 1929. Bonfire was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for two months and sold more than 800,000 copies in hardcover. The phrase “Master of the Universe” came to sum up the aspirations of a generation of would-be Gordon Gekkos in the red-braces world of Wall Street in the late 1980s. Bonfire drew on a tradition of conservative satire harking back to Evelyn Waugh. Wolfe’s brand of politically incorrect social criticism remains so important in a world where the Left seems to have an ever-increasing cultural monopoly, from the theatre to the BBC, news, arts, film, publishing and, most blatantly, the well-manicured groves of academia.
Writing in the German paper Die Zeit, Jens Jessen says much the same thing (translation by Google with minor edits):
Tom Wolfe was an American writer who started out as a baseball player, ended up as a novelist and preferred to wear white or cream suits. Similar to Truman Capote, with whom he invented the New Journalism …, he liked to be invited to rich people, then turned ugly when writing about them. In that sense, he could also be described as the Evelyn Waugh of the United States, which would also appreciate the fact that he was like his British colleague a highly talented, but not perfect, good writer. … Like many other dandies in literary history, he was essentially a moralist, a deeply startled child. He needed the white suits to hide the bleeding heart. … In his hatred of modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981) he even showed populist features. But all in all we have reason to complain that Wolfe’s despair over the never-released, always-betrayed promises of modernity was profound.
Finally, the Daily Telegraph has an article by Ben Lawrence about the dearth of comic writing in the UK having caused the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction be placed on hold for the current year. Wolfe’s death is sadly noted in the context of a comment that, in the United States, the comic genre manages to continue to live on, if not exactly thrive. In a brief survey of comic fiction in England, casting back to its beginnings with Lawrence Sterne and Henry Fielding, Lawrence offers this observation on the generation that produced Wodehouse:
Near contemporaries [of Wodehouse] such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell took the form to an even higher level (and in Waugh’s case brought a blackness never matched in humorous fiction), but it was the publication of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim in 1954 which changed the literary landscape for decades. This story of a young man’s wry existential crisis in provincial academia became a default setting for how British novelists should view the British world around them. Certainly there were pale imitations which followed in the wake of Lucky Jim, but writers such as Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark offered biting accounts of British mores, sometimes strange but always utterly unique.