“At a Washington party,” Tom Wolfe once observed, “it is not enough that the guests feel drunk; they must feel drunk and important.”
Classic Wolfe! Piercingly funny and perceptive . . . instantly quotable . . . exposing the vanities of the elite. So why is it so . . . unfamiliar? Because you won’t find the line in the familiar Wolfe canon — “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” No, it was discovered in a vast unexplored trove: the daily journalism Wolfe produced as a police and features reporter for a full decade before he morphed, in the mid-1960s, into . . . Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe’s work as a city desk reporter for The Washington Post from 1959 to 1962 has long been cast as a forgettable precursor to his later accomplishments. In his 1977 history of The Post, “In the Shadow of Power,” former diplomatic correspondent Chalmers M. Roberts reported that the newspaper’s editors “never really knew what to do with Wolfe’s offbeat talent.” Biographer William McKeen called The Post newsroom “much too stuffy . . . to accept Wolfe’s innovations.” The 32-year-old prodigy left the capital, McKeen declared, “frustrated like a leashed animal,” and his “stylistic gestation . . . waited until after he left the newspaper.”
But in compiling an anthology of Wolfe’s writing, I reviewed all 315 articles filed for The Post under the byline “Thomas Wolfe.” And they reveal exactly the opposite: deadline journalism brimming with the humorous social commentary and stylistic brio that later became, along with the dandy white suits, Wolfe’s trademarks.
The young reporter’s assignments ran the gamut: African envoys and Soviet ping-pong tours, book fairs and high school reunions, escaped monkeys and street muggings, and — the bane of all reporters — zoning meetings. Yet almost every story reflected his yearning to broaden the boundaries of the English language.
The kind of Wolfeiana to be found in the vaults of The Post would come, a few years later, to define the New Journalism and revolutionize American literature.
From the beginning, the Richmond native employed the most colorful Southern similes and metaphors:
Two muggers gave their victim “a black eye big as an eggplant.”
Zeros in a budget stretched on “like so many eggs in a hatchery.”
A shopkeeper flashed a smile “you could hang the wash on.”
Neighborhood gossip ran “free as the back-wash from a pig train to Secaucus.”
Another indispensable element in the Wolfe arsenal — sarcasm — also made frequent appearances:
Washington was “the city where everybody represents somebody else.”
“Rome now makes half as many movies as Hollywood, and every other one is about a prostitute.”
A 1959 article previewed a visit from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev: “All of striped-pantsdom will await the moment with the anguish of a man deciding between two forks at dinner. The question is, should Khruschev get a 19-gun salute or the full 21?
“The big blast, theoretically, goes only to a bonafide ‘chief of state,’ like Queen Elizabeth. The 19 are for a ‘head of government.’ With Marxist-Leninist modesty, Khrushchev is officially only the latter — but suppose he counts the cannon blasts and doesn’t like it?”
Wolfe soon began experimenting with other innovative devices. One was antonomasia, the usually derisive practice of describing an individual by a certain characteristic, then making it into a proper noun.
Thus Wolfe depicted the gunman in a botched liquor store robbery as “slightly built and snappy-talking.” Seven paragraphs later: “Turner retreated but now the truck pulled up. Snappytalk opened fire.”
At a reunion of Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s World War II buddies, Wolfe reported Nixon’s opening punchline, “I’m outranked here,” then noted drolly: “Junior Operations Officer Nixon had done well enough in the meantime to be the center, for an hour last night, of an incessant round of handshakes, photographs, autographs, and of course, old war stories.”
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Onomatopoeia, the formation of words by imitating natural sounds, was another favorite:
When Federal Aviation Administration officials unveiled a new machine that immediately malfunctioned, Wolfe recorded its “ta-pocket-ta-pocket-ta-pocket-ta” noise.
The subject of another piece was heard to growl: “kr-r-r-r-r-r-!”
Forty-two years before he dropped “otorhinolaryngological” into a sex scene in the novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe used bewildering medical terminology to similarly comedic effect in a story about Chubby Checker’s hit song “The Twist”:
“The knee action in this dance fad embodies a simultaneous flexion, extension, adducation, circumduction and rotation of the human joints hitherto unknown to anatomical science.”
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Wolfe also exploited the comic potential of serial commas in a front-page article on a parade that began:
“Twenty-six thousand cart-wheeling, can-canning, cloud-kicking, cadence-counting, kilt-flipping, skirt-flouncing, show-boating, baton-twirling, tall-strutting, crowd-tickling — Take a breather here. We’ve got 10 blocks to go, from 7th Street and Constitution Avenue NW to 17th.
— band-playing, fife-piping, drum-flogging, jazz-blowing, horn-blasting, ear-bombing, eye-popping, boot-shuffling, heel-clicking, banner-bearing — Getting your second wind? This continues for 5 hours and 14 minutes.
— float-pulling, stunt-pulling, leg-pulling, shillelagh-flailing, slogan-flaunting, flashy-drilling, fancy-dancing, rifle-juggling, flag-flourishing and, we might add — safety-patrolling — boys, girls, policemen and poets marched here yesterday in the 25th National School Safety Patrol Parade.”
The ungrammatical use of ellipses to convey a pause or . . . inner doubt . . . or maybe just an internal aside . . . was a practice Wolfe later made a hallmark. He experimented with this technique for the first time in 1960, in a story headlined “Canine Exhibitor Finds People ‘Look Like Dogs’ “:
“Mrs. White could have gone on . . . about the tweedy, not to say shaggy, types who show the sheep dogs, for example . . . but she wanted to point out one exception to the rule. ‘You aren’t likely to find someone who looks like his Great Dane,’ she said.”
Eighteen months later, in an article about record-high temperatures: “Everybody knows the age-old, infallible signs of spring — the old man lifts his eyes from the Sunday paper and trundles outside to hose down the family car . . . the kids slither down off the TV hassocks and out into the grass to listen to their transistors . . . the usual.”
The assumption of another individual’s point of view was an integral feature of the nascent New Journalism. In a piece bylined “By Caroline Kennedy/As Told to Thomas Wolfe,” the author recorded the presidential toddler’s first entrance into the White House in February 1961:
“So you really want to know how I like my new house?
“Well, the house is — you know, it’s just a house. The thing that broke me up was this snowman. We all drove up — Mother, Daddy and me and my little brother John and, you know, the usual herd tagging along — we all drove up from the airport and here was this big snowman in the front yard with a pink carrot for a nose and a red ribbon around the neck.
[ . . .] But getting back to the snowman . . . there was one lovely touch. He was wearing a big floppy Panama hat, like Frank Lloyd Wright A.D. 1920 or somebody. The joke is — if I have to explain it to you — here is this snowman in the middle of January wearing a tropical hat.”
Nine months later, Wolfe toyed with point-of-view again, shifting it right in mid-sentence in a wry report on the Army’s mess hall switch from compartmentalized trays to separate dishes: “No sticklers for theory, Army ladle commanders have held to an action program for keeping the line moving. And if a hurried throw here and there imbedded the grapefruit slices and the chipped beef in the oatmeal — well, where did you think you were? Vassar?”
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It wasn’t just the Tom Wolfe style that was born in The Post’s pages; they served as the incubator, too, for many of his recurrent themes. And no theme would dominate his famous works like that of status — the view that observable details about an individual’s home, clothing and conduct will invariably reveal where he thinks he belongs in the Great Human Pecking Order.
So, reporting on the demise of lettered telephone exchanges, he exposed the capital’s geographic divides:
“In such fashionable districts as Georgetown and Chevy Chase, the correct telephone exchange (FEderal or OLiver) has been one of the symbols of status.”
On the lobbyists: “The [trade] associations’ marble-slick buildings are a tip-off to their new roles. They still send out lobbyists who, in a crisis, can flash on a 150-watt smile or shake hands like a football captain at a reunion. But they consider that a faintly uncouth phase of their operations. Today they are industry’s status seekers in the broadest sense.”
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Also there for anyone to see, but strangely unobserved until many years later, was Wolfe’s political conservatism. In an otherwise straightforward report about a thrifty bureaucrat, he bemoaned “the tremendous expansion of the government.”
And in a review of C. Wright Mills’s book on the Cuban revolution, Wolfe dismissed the noted sociologist as one of a number of “aging leftwing American intellectuals” who welcomed Fidel Castro’s revolution “like a massive dose of Geritol.”
James Rosen was a Washington correspondent for Fox News when he wrote this story. Lee Ross, a graduate student at George Washington University, contributed research for this article.
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