Tom Wolfe Chosen For Jefferson Lecture

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Tom Wolfe will deliver the 2006 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced yesterday.

The celebrated journalist turned fictioneer -- whose first book was 1965's "new journalism" harbinger "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" and whose most recent was the 2004 novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons" -- said he was surprised and gratified to be asked. "It's a great league to be put in," he said.

Established in 1972, the Jefferson Lecture honors what the NEH calls "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." Last year's lecture was given by Yale's Donald Kagan, whose specialty is the history of ancient Greece.

Wolfe said his talk "is going to be about 'the human beast' " -- a phrase he borrowed from French novelist Emile Zola. At least in part, it will reflect his longtime focus on "status as a primary human motivation." He has always insisted, he said, that his best-known book, "The Right Stuff," is not so much about the U.S. space program as it is about "status competition among pilots."

Wolfe's notoriously amped-up prose is perhaps not adequately captured by NEH Chairman Bruce Cole's observation in yesterday's news release that Wolfe's "skill as a literary stylist has influenced our language." The "statistically improbable phrases" found in "I Am Charlotte Simmons," according to Amazon.com, include "caress caress caress," "unhh unhh unhh," "rutting rutting," "sobs sobs sobs sobs" and "wooo wooo."

Did he imagine, Wolfe was asked, back when he was working on "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" in the late 1960s, that he would one day be awarded the federal government's most prestigious honor for a practitioner of the humanities?

He did not. "At that point, I was one of God's lowliest creatures, a freelance writer, and you don't have the luxury of indulging in thoughts like that," he said.

The 35th Jefferson Lecture, which comes with a $10,000 honorarium, will take place at the Warner Theatre on May 10 before an invitation-only audience. Those interested in an invitation may call 202-606-8400 or e-mail info@neh.gov .


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