KA-THUNKA-KA-WHOMP! KA-THUNKA-KA-THUNKA-KA-WHOMP-KA-WHOMP! KA-THUNKA-KA-THUNKA-KA-THUNKA-KA-WHOMP-KA-WHOMP-KA-WHOMP! KA-WHOMP-WHOMP-WHOMPWHOMPKATHUNKAKAWHOMPAKAWHOMPA W H O M P A W H O M P a WHOMpaWHOmpaWHompaWhompawhompa . . .
What inna name a Christ we got going on here? This is the famous writer’s orderly and even very literary study, I mean, the white bookshelves seem to zoom up about 18 feet straight and they’re just chockablock with, you know, the heavy lumber: old Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence and everybody else up there in gleaming binding, the expensive first editions, none of these half-price reviewer’s copies from the Strand Book Store, where every Saturday afternoon you can see every low-rent book reviewer in Manhattan struggling in with these D’Agostino shopping bags full of review copies—Scruples!—staggering down the metal stairs into the basement and weaving through the aisles — tachycardia time! — to finally dump these goddamn shopping bags full of books they’ve heaved and carried all the way down from West 96th Street, the goddamn bags ripping and The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet falling out on the goddamn sidewalk there at 12th and Broadway, so they scoop it up and finally dump all these goddamn books on the floor there at the back of Strand’s basement in front of this rope they have stretched across there, and they avert their eyes and try to look literary – bug-eyed and wheezing and army-navy turtle-necked and Frye-booted, real-Levied literary – while some goddamn pustular NYU lit major behind the rope takes his goddamn sweet time to sift through the bound detritus and hand them this little chit like it had a bad smell, like it had dogshit all over it or something, and this NYU twit calls out ”$27.50!” and they take their dogshit chits and heave their way back upstairs to collect $27.50 and buy a 75-cent paperback of E.M. Forster’s that they always meant to read but something always came up and they just never got around to it, but tonight, this very night, they will, after hitting Zabar’s with their remaining $26.75 to get the latest goddamn new cheese and some real coffee, this very night they will read the whole goddamn book and feel very self-righteous and very literary.
Nosiree, no goddamn dogshit reviewer’s copies of books in this here office, this precise, white-on-white office looking right out on one of the … better treelined Upper East Side streets, where the author can look right out and see these perfect East Side priapic buds just undulating their way over to Bloomingdale’s for more of those crotch-grabbing Jordache jeans that just deliciously creep and slither into every secret fold and fissure.
But – KA-THUNK-KA-WHOMP – the famous writer is not peering out at the undulating buds. He’s not even pacing back and forth, stopping to leaf through the fifty-pound Webster’s dictionary (to see how to spell hummocky or some damn thing, for those hummocky shanks, you know) that lies there like the world’s supreme authority on its very proper wooden stand. KA-THUNK – the famous writer in his handmade English suede shoes and those transparent socks with the little stripes on them and the handmade suit – real buttonholes, nothing off the rack at Barney’s for this boy – the goddamn writer is standing out there flailing away, just beating the shit – KA-WHOMP – out of this Everlast punching bag – the real thing, just like what they got down at Bobby Gleason’s Gym, whamming the bejesus out of this punching bag that he finally decided he needed in his study to combat that goddamn writer’s block that just comes sweeping over you like a goddamn migraine and just poleaxes you. KA-WHOMP! Take that, motha! Let me meet my quota. That goddamn quota! TWO THOUSAND words a day. Count ’em; onetwothreefour … it just never stops. One thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine won’t get it: twofuckinthousand a day. When you’re in your agent’s office and you’re signing that fifty-page contract – you practically get a goddamn hernia just lifting the thing – and you look at that due date for The Work – which is the way they refer to your creativity, your life’s essence, your goddamn blood and vital juice, you figure mentally, oh, I can hit about 2000 a day easy.
Well, Tom, boy, nobody ever said a writer’s goddamn life was easy. Exactly!
(Sorry, Tom, boy, but you know how impossible it is to avoid . . .… just kind of slipping into that Jax-Slax-kind-of-clinging Tom Wolf-ese just to sample what the air is like at that altitude, and then before you know it you leave oxygen behind and you find that your respiratory system is running on soma or some damn thing. If there is a practicing young American writer alive who denies ever having lifted anything from your style . . . well, we all know that’s impossible:::::::am I . . . …right? Exactly!)))))(((((((Perfect!)))))))
Thomas K. Wolfe Jr., now forty-nine, was an extremely unlikely candidate to be the writer who would happen along in the Sixties and propel American journalism into a new realism that would become known and worshiped and vilified as the New Journalism. Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia – he still retains the careful inflection of aristocratic Southern speech – where his father was editor of the Southern Planter. Tom decided to be a writer and went to Washington and Lee University, where he was surprised to find there was no such thing as a major in writing. He studied English literature instead, was sports editor of the school newspaper and distinguished himself by wearing a hat and carrying an umbrella, rain or shine. A course in American studies led him to pursue a doctorate in it at Yale. In 1957, as he finished his Ph.D. and still yearned to write, he took a “prole” job as a truck loader to try to get insights and become a writer. All he got was drunk after work every day.
“Most of the things I have done have not been send-ups or zaps, but those things are remembered somehow.”
He decided that a newspaper job would let him write, and he applied at all the New York City papers. The Daily News offered him a post as copy boy for $42 a week. He was ready to take it, until he heard laughter behind him during his job interview: an editor told him, “We never had a Ph.D. copy boy here before; the Times has them all the time.” Wolfe foresaw a future of fetching coffee for reporters and decided to rethink things. He bought a job-hunting book, from which he learned how to prepare a resumé, and he wrote to 100 newspapers around the country. He got three replies. The Buffalo Courier-Express and the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram said no, but the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union invited him for an interview and hired him as a reporter. He remembers that his most important assignment was tallying the number of empty stores on Main Street.
Wolfe moved to the Washington Post. He thinks he got the job because he was totally disinterested in politics: the city editor was amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted. Wolfe’s apartment overlooked the DuPont Theater, which had Never on Sunday for an extended run. Every morning he could see the marquee, which read ‘Never On Sunday’ – Tenth Big Week or whatever week it was. When the movie reached its 44th big week, that marquee was a big reminder to Wolfe that he was having no big weeks, and he saw that marquee as a big clock ticking his life away. Tom still wanted New York City, so he made the rounds of the newspapers again.
He was lucky. Lewis Lapham (now editor of Harper’s) had just quit the Herald Tribune and Tom got his job. It was there that Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and others were encouraged by editor Clay Felker to try new avenues in journalism. New York magazine, begun by publisher Jock Whitney as the Trib‘s Sunday magazine, was the birthplace of New Journalism. The Trib‘s ad campaign was, “Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?” and Felker let his writers take the bit and run. They were encouraged to go beyond the “objective” journalism that ruled daily newspapers, and the result was crisp, alive writing that, more than anything else, made its subjects personal the way fiction did. It was like the difference between Jack Webb, cop (just the facts – but only the facts I like), and Frank Serpico, cop (facts don’t tell the whole story). Tom went out to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to interview the widow of slain “rackets boss Tony Bender.” Tom couldn’t understand, if the dailies called Tony a mob chieftain, why Tony didn’t seem to have any money or a big house or a big car. The widow showed Tom the modest house, let him see the “rackets boss'” little woodworking shop and described the last bag of garbage that the “rackets boss” himself had neatly tied up with string. All of a sudden – all of a goddamn quick sudden, newspaper targets became people. This irritated most newspaper editors in America. What would later be called New Journalism was ignored or denounced as biased reporting or even fiction. By now New Journalism has been examined enough so that even William Safire should admit that it’s an attempt at honest, personal reporting.
Tom blazed the national trail by accident. He covered a hot-rod and custom-car show in New York for the Trib and treated it as a sideshow, which was what was expected of him – the sort of coverage that any respectable newspaper gives to anything the chamber of commerce wouldn’t endorse.
Tom was uncomfortable, though; he sensed these car nuts had bypassed the system and were operating in a stratosphere they had created and knew could exist on its own. Subcultures. Tom thought these weird car people were a story.
He talked Esquire into an assignment to talk to car geniuses in Los Angeles but couldn’t make a story out of it. Tom is not a fast writer. He worried and worried over it. Esquire already had the piece laid out, was not patient and directed Tom to type out his notes so a good rewrite man could get on it. Tom sat down at eight p.m. and started a memo to his editor, Byron Dobell (“Dear Byron, The first good look I had at customized cars was at an event called a ‘Teen Fair'”); it took all night and ran to 48 pages. Esquire x-ed out “Dear Byron” and ran the piece as it was: presto, chango, New Journalism! Tom had read history; he knew historical patterns, but he was obsessed by what he sensed to be a new wrinkle. He had stumbled on the fact that the United States of America post-World War II had broken all the rules of history: it no longer took generations for change to take place – after the war, the sudden injection of money into every level of American society had canceled all bets and called off all games. Wolfe was the first to see a major upheaval. The enormous changes allowed subcultures to create themselves despite the fact that the media failed to recognize their existence: Vegas high rollers, rock tycoons, forever-young surfers, Manhattan high-class groupies – America finally was financing a fantasy island for anyone who would lift a little finger. Tom began reporting about a movement that disturbed a great many people, mainly those who controlled the media. The disturbing message from the heartland – from North Carolina, where Junior Johnson’s racecar fortunes were more important than Lyndon Johnson’s electoral fortunes – was that the aristocracy was finished; that Americans cared about their neighbor-hoods and their neighbors but not much else. That chauvinism narrowed down quickly to the predictable minimum: me and myself.
Everyone credits Tom for naming the Seventies the Me Decade. What’s funny is that he was out of sight for most of the Seventies. He was a late-Sixties hero, especially for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and also for The Pump House Gang and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. But once he pegged the Seventies with the Me flag, he took himself off the college-lecture circuit, where his first question from audiences was invariably “What’s Ken Kesey doing?” followed by “How many times did you do acid?” He was not rich, but he was tired of being a Kesey travel guide. Tom was, after all, a journalist, he told himself.
He did take an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the space program, and he wrote a series of four articles (for RS 125, 126, 128, 129) that he eventually expanded into his recently published book, The Right Stuff. It took him six years to report it, he said, but only six months to write. It takes, he said (and he should know), any writer only six months to actually write any book. The rest of the time is…leisure time, eh, Tom?
Wolfe does guard his time jealously. He postponed The Right Stuff for one year just to polish it after it was written. His magazine assignments are like pulled teeth. He is reluctant to talk about New Journalism; he caught flak for it from everyone, especially the writers he anthologized.
Tom and Sheila Wolfe seem to live very quietly in their East Side townhouse. Tom’s only excess seems to be tailor-made clothes: He does not light up the sky at Elaine’s. He sits at home in his white-on-white studio and sketches illustrations for Harper’s and works on outlines of his next book, which will be his first novel and which he hopes will be a sort of Vanity Fair of New York City. He feels New York – any major city – should be a central part of a book. Dickens and Zola and Balzac and Thackeray did it, Tom said, so why shouldn’t he?
Probably the most striking thing about The Right Stuff is that it has made you very respectable. You’re no longer the hit man who literary people fear and hate. Now you’re eminently respectable.
Most of the things I have done have not been send-ups or zaps, but those things are remembered somehow. People love a little merciless mockery. So they’ll tend to remember something like…. . . .
‘Tiny Mummies,’ for example.
Yeah. Or Radical Chic, particularly, or The Painted Word, since, if you even make gentle fun of people who inhabit the world that you and I live in or the world of the arts, or anything having to do with expression, they scream like murder. And of course they have the equipment to bite back, so the fight starts. Everyone kind of enjoys it whether they’re paying any attention or not. But The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was not a sendup, was not mockery or satire.
It was not necessarily a subject the literary world understood or endorsed.
Well, the literary world certainly doesn’t endorse the subject of astronauts; it hasn’t been a very popular subject. As a matter of fact, one of the things that interested me most was not the space program but military life. I could see that the military, particularly the officer corps, had really been a vacant lot in the literary sense, Serious writers stopped looking at the military around 1919 – in any sympathetic way or even empathetic way. It’s around then that you start finding the fashion of dealing with the military in a way in which the only acceptable protagonist is the GI, the dog soldier, the grunt, the doughboy, who’s presented as a victim, not as a warrior, a victim of the same forces as civilians.
Did ‘Radical Chic’ start with you finding an invitation on a desk at the ‘Trib’?
Yeah. It was an invitation for David Halberstam, and he wasn’t even there. I just happened to see it on his desk and there was an R.S.V.P. number. Some people had told me about the thing, but I was not invited, so I called up this number, and I said this is Tom Wolfe, I’m with New York magazine, I accept. It turned out to be a defense committee for the Panthers. There was just somebody there writing down the accepts and regrets.
Incidentally, I came in very openly, with a National Brand stenographic notebook and a Bic ball point pen. I introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein. At the time, they figured anybody who was there was riding the same wave they were. The idea that there might be anything funny about it, or amusing, was unthinkable.
How accurate were your notes?
It turned out I took very good notes. Leonard Bernstein’s sister later wrote me a long letter in which she said I did several terrible things, but apparently the worst was that I brought a hidden tape recorder into her brother’s home. And I knew then that I was right on course. Kind of a left-handed compliment. Actually, I knew that if I hadn’t been accurate, that would have been the first cry.
I then spent a long time trying to establish the world that they lived in: who they were and why they were interested in this particular cause. It took me an awful long time to work out the concept. I had the phrase in my mind already, radical chic, ’cause I knew that by then there was a fashionable quality to certain radical causes.
I started writing in the first person, which was a big mistake, telling how I saw this invitation, how I wrangled my way in. I wrote about thirty pages like that, and then it dawned on me that it was useless information and really detracted from the scene, which was the important thing. In fact, I find that the use of the first person is one of the trickiest things in journalism, and something that’s rarely understood. If you write in the first person, you’ve turned yourself into a character. And you have to establish yourself, you have to make yourself become a character, and you have to have some organic involvement in the action. It’s not enough just to be an observer and to use the first-person singular. As the years go by, I’ve tended to back off from that device more and more.
In his anthology, The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter Thompson takes a shot at you for always being the observer, never the participant.
I must read that.
I found out that when I wrote this New Journalism book, I managed to waste nine, ten months’ writing. I hoped I would antagonize the novelists, ’cause I was touting New Journalism and saying the novel was in disarray. To prove my point, I brought out my aces: Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and a few others. Well, the novelists seemed to be able to contain their emotions, if any, quite successfully [laughs]; I haven’t seen any of them jumping out of windows. Instead, the only people who got angry were my stars, who all ended up despising me for saying they were the shining galaxy of New Journalism.
“I had the phrase in my mind already, radical chic, ’cause I knew that by then there was a fashionable quality to certain radical causes.”
The next thing I knew, Gay Talese was on the same platform with me at a More convention – remember More [a now-defunct journalism review]? And there was a panel on the New Journalism. Renata Adler was on it, and she later told somebody that she had had a can of tomato soup or paste that she had intended to empty on my white suit as her comment on the New Journalism, but then somehow she lost the nerve. I had a feeling it was because I was in a pale gray flannel suit that night, maybe it just ruined the picture she had?
At one point Breslin, I think, said, “There’s no such thing as New Journalism, there’s only boutique journalism and real journalism.” And Hunter said, “I wouldn’t touch New Journalism with a ten-foot pole. I’m a gonzo journalist.” As soon as I tried to say, “Here’s the great champion of the cause,” he says “up yours” with the standard “I’m gonzo.”
Actually, I kind of understand their feelings. Each one said, who the hell does Wolfe think he is, lumping me into his raggedy battalion?
The battalion that is wrecking the novel?
Well, they didn’t care one way or another about the claims I was making for the form or the way I was putting down the novel. It was just the idea that I could put them in a category. I suppose if one of them had written the thing, I would have had the same reaction.
I would think the astronauts weren’t eager to talk to you, some weirdo saying, I’m from Rolling Stone and I want to investigate your private life. Obviously you didn’t say that; how did you go about it?
They weren’t all that tough. By that time, some had left the astronaut corps. They were a lot looser about the whole thing, they were no longer under the Life magazine contract. I think many had become rather bored with the way astronauts had been described. They tended to be pretty open if they agreed to talk at all. A few wouldn’t be interviewed. Alan Shepard told me that he only cooperated in documentary ventures that had a scientific purpose … later on he indicated that he had read the Rolling Stone pieces and didn’t particularly like what was there; I don’t know why. Neil Armstrong said he had a policy of not giving interviews and didn’t see any reason why he should change it. I think he had hopes, and perhaps still does, of writing his own book. All the Mercury astronauts who were still alive – [Gus] Grissom was dead – were willing to talk and were cooperative.
Was John Glenn open?
Very open. I spent a day with him when he was campaigning for the Senate in 1974, the year he finally won the primary against Howard Metzenbaum, who had beaten him just a few years before. Then I spent an afternoon with Glenn after he won; he was actually pretty generous with his time, as senators go, and he was very helpful.
I’ve been surprised by the number of reviews that found my picture of John Glenn negative. I wasn’t trying to send him valentines, but in my mind he came off as an exceptional and rather courageous figure. He did a lot of unpopular things. He told off a lot of people, and he almost lost his flight by telling the administrator of NASA and everybody else that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t go into his house, that he and his wife didn’t want him in there. That took a lot of courage.
When did the notion first strike you – of course it should have been obvious to everyone – that the original astronauts were not the Boy Scouts who were presented to America?
I guess from the first conversation that I ever had with any of them. It’s not that they bragged about their exploits or talked about things like driving these wild races on the highway. At the same time I was starting this thing, in late 1972, there had been reports in the press indicating trouble in paradise among the astronauts. Buzz Aldrin’s nervous breakdown had been revealed. That was the same year there was a stamp scandal, which wasn’t really much of a scandal, but nevertheless it made people stop and ask, “What, astronauts took a cut of some stamp sales?” One of the astronauts had just become an evangelist. Two or three had been photographed with long hair, and this was immediately interpreted by newspapers and magazines as a sign that there were astronauts who were turned into hippies, which never happened as far as I can tell.
Perhaps because the general whitewash of the astronauts’ flaws had gone to such an extreme at the beginning, the least little crack was overinterpreted. To this day, so many people think that most of the astronauts who went to the moon have suffered break downs or become alcoholics. It just isn’t true.
For a while there was the assumption that this voyage was traumatic because it removed them from all familiar environments, and that this just had devastating effects on these simple men who weren’t prepared for it. The truth was, they had had such sophisticated simulations that there was very little new to see when they reached the moon. By the time Armstrong got there, he had had probably 500 simulated missions in replicas of the Apollo command module, with moving pictures of the moon, based on films that had been brought back by manned and unmanned vehicles. I think it was false for Armstrong to have delivered some apostrophe to the gods or some statement of poetic awe about what he had seen, ’cause he had already seen it all simulated in such high fidelity, how the hell could he pretend there was something startling about it? So he said it’s “a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” When I asked him about it, he said, “Sure, I worked on it for a couple of weeks.”
“People never read editorials. All newspapers know this.”
How did you get the notion to cut this book off where you did? The idea of the end of innocence – I believe you make the point that the astronauts’ parade was, in a sense, the peak of American innocence.
I think that was the last great national outpouring of patriotism. There was some of that with Gordon Cooper’s flight, but it was much bigger in the case of Glenn. By the time Cooper flew in 1963, there were many signs that the United States and the Soviet Union were reaching some sort of rapprochement, so that there wasn’t the tension about the flight. The cold war was still a big thing at the time of Glenn’s flight.
I liked your characterization of the press as the proper Victorian gent, that the press was reverent through all this. Did you really review all the clips, or was that a generalization about the way Americans perceived those astronauts?
I noticed things like James Reston’s piece on the astronauts. If for any obscure reason anyone wanted to finish off James Reston, all you would have to do is reprint that piece.
Where he wrote, “This is a pretty cynical town, but we were misty-eyed” and so forth, after the astronauts’ parade?
Yeah. And reading that stuff also pulled together some thoughts I had had along these lines. I’ll never forget working on the Herald Tribune the afternoon of John Kennedy’s death. I was sent out along with a lot of other people to do man-on-the-street reactions. I started talking to some men who were just hanging out, who turned out to be Italian, and they already had it figured out that Kennedy had been killed by the Tongs, and then I realized that they were feeling hostile to the Chinese because the Chinese had begun to bust out of Chinatown and move into Little Italy. And the Chinese thought the mafia had done it, and the Ukrainians thought the Puerto Ricans had done it. And the Puerto Ricans thought the Jews had done it. Everybody had picked out a scapegoat. I came back to the Herald Tribune and I typed up my stuff and turned it in to the rewrite desk. Late in the day they assigned me to do the rewrite of the man-on-the-street story. So I looked through this pile of material, and mine was missing. I figured there was some kind of mistake. I had my notes, so I typed it back into the story. The next day I picked up the Herald Tribune and it was gone, all my material was gone. In fact there’s nothing in there except little old ladies collapsing in front of St. Patrick’s. Then I realized that, without anybody establishing a policy, one and all had decided that this was the proper moral tone for the president’s assassination. It was to be grief, horror, confusion, shock and sadness, but it was not supposed to be the occasion for any petty bickering. The press assumed the moral tone of a Victorian gentleman.
I say Victorian gentleman, because it’s he who was the constant hypocrite, who insisted on public manifestations of morality that he would never insist upon privately in his own life. And I think that one tends to do that on a newspaper. Less so in a magazine. A newspaper seems to have such an immediate tie to the public. Television doesn’t have it. Newspapers do. I’m not entirely sure why, but it makes newspapers fun to work for.
It also leads to these funny sorts of reactions. People never read editorials. All newspapers know this. And yet if you would publish a newspaper without editorials, it would be as if you had sold your soul to somebody. Everyone would ask, in effect, “Well, where are the editorials? They must have sold them. They’re taking something on the side.” And so newspapers are quite right to run editorials. It all has to do with this moral assumption.
Hell, to this day you can’t get anything in newspapers. I think of this as the period of incredible shrinking news. I’m really convinced that there’s less news covered in America now than at any time in this century. Television creates the impression that there’s all this news because the press has become very incestuous and writes stories about the press, with all these marvelous phony wars about television and what it does or doesn’t do. But television as a news medium has no reporting at all, really, except for some cosmetic reporting done by so-called Washington correspondents, who usually stand in front of some government building with a microphone covered in black sponge rubber, reading AP or UPI copy. In effect, every shred of news on television comes from either the wire services or from nonevents, to use Daniel Boorstin’s phrase – the press conference, the basketball game and so on. So you then have to ask, “What are the wire services giving us?” Well, the wire services are totally creatures of local newspapers. Those big wire services just cannibalize local newspapers.
Suddenly you’re up against the fact that there’s no competition in most parts of the country at all. I doubt if there are five cities where there is still newspaper competition. There’s a little bit left in Los Angeles, a little bit left in Boston and some in New York, but not much. Maybe one or two other places. When this happens, the monopoly newspaper cuts back on its staff – always happens. They just stop covering local events – too expensive. And they’ll hire children from journalism schools at the lowest possible scale. They’ll let them work for a couple of years, send them to the Statehouse, ’cause at the Statehouse they can pick up four or five stories a day handed out by public relations people. That’s your local coverage – canned items from the Statehouse. When these people have had enough experience to begin getting good, getting a feel for reporting, they manage to get rid of them or ease them out of the job because they will be wanting more money. They also will be wanting to create heat; it’s very hard for a managing editor – an older man – to resist if a young reporter says, “Look, I dug up a hot story.” There’s still enough pride in the business, so it’s hard to say, “Well, forget it, kid, we’re not interested in hot stories here. We just want the wire-service stuff and a few handouts from the State-house and that’s it.”
So really, what you’re seeing on television via the wire services is just getting smaller and smaller. It’s really very sad. I don’t know how much corruption there is at the local level, but there’s never been a better time in the century for there to be corruption in local government, because the press is not gonna spot it.
“It’s interesting that it’s important to people like Mailer and Capote to call what they do in nonfiction – if they think it has literary value – a novel or short story.”
Is this kind of head-in-the-sand policy deliberate on the part of the publishers?
I don’t think it even gets to that exalted level; it’s just that since there’s no competition, why knock yourself out and send a larger number of reporters to cover, say, the federal courthouse or city court, why beat your brains out by doing it better? And it’s only the occasional newspaper that has pride, a kind of lingering, vestigial pride in the business, and tries to do a job right.
Television, which has the money to do the reporting, has gotten away so beautifully without doing it that it’s not about to start. Within the television news operations there’s such a premium put on not being a reporter, everyone aspires to be the man who never has to leave the building: the anchor man, who is a performer. The reporters are called researchers and are usually young women, and the correspondent on television is a substar, a supporting actor who prides himself on the fact that he doesn’t have to prepare the story. You talk to these guys and they’ll say, “Well, they sent me from Beirut to Teheran, and I had 45 minutes to get briefed on the situation.” What they should say is, “I read the AIP copy.” The idea is that as a performer, you can pull together this news operation anywhere you go, and the whole status structure is set up in such a way that you’re not going to get good reporters. Just try to think of the last major scoop, to use that old term, that was broken on television. I’m sure there have been some. But what story during Watergate? During Watergate there were new stories coming out every day. None were on television, except when television simply broadcast the hearings. They can do a set event. And that’s what television is actually best at. In fact, it’d be a service to the country if television news operations were shut down totally and they only broadcast hearings, press conferences and hockey games. That would be television news. At least the public would not have the false impression that it’s getting news coverage.
Truman Capote talks about the nonfiction short story. What is that about?
It’s interesting that it’s important to people like Norman Mailer and Capote to call what they do in nonfiction – if they think it has literary value – a novel or short story. It reminds me so much of the impulse that made Fielding call his novels “comic epic poems in prose.” In the Eighteenth century, when he was writing, the novel was a very low-rent form. The reigning form was epic verse, particularly the epic drama. Actually, Shakespeare wrote in the form of the epic drama, classical verse, classical drama, and many times he chose classical subjects. As I said in The New Journalism, Fielding made this claim for both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, which is another way of saying, “You’ve gotta take me seriously.” And the fear is that you won’t be taken seriously, if you’re considered part of a low-rent form. Mailer called Armies of the Night the novel as history; history as a novel.
Throughout the world of letters, a curious thing is going on in which all sorts of fiction writers have been struck by the power of nonfiction, good nonfiction, in this era. And they also are instinctively aware of the power of realism. They try various ways of tapping into this current. It was so interesting to see E.L. Doctorow start backing away from the fable in Ragtime. It’s a typical modern fable in many ways, but Doctorow also started using real names, usually of dead people – of course avoiding problems of libel. And the book would not have been…it would hardly have been noticed if he hadn’t done that.
Gore Vidal, you may remember, wrote a curious novel called Two Sisters, in which he used real people like Jacqueline Kennedy and fictional people. And it was also about that time that William Styron did Confessions of Nat Turner. In the old days, such a novel would have been based on Nat Turner, but would have changed the name of Nat Turner to something else. Well, this one again tried to draw on the current of realism, and the reader is led to believe that this is the story of Nat Turner, when of course the novelist had to fill in a few gaps. All of this was during the period in which the fable was sort of fashion. But the fable wasn’t working. Not only were the writers of fables losing readers, but they were losing publishers. There was a depression in the stock market about 1973, and it had a terrible effect on the publishing industry. A lot of publishers just began lopping the deadwood, as they saw it, off their lists. This meant experimental novels had to go. And that, I think, indirectly began to have a lot to do with this backing into realism. It’s sort of like somebody leaving the presence of the king: bowing backward, bowing and walking backward, but getting the hell out of there very rapidly. So I have a feeling that by 1984, well, in a few years, there’ll be a whole new vogue with realistic novels. It’s so obvious now that that is the direction for the novel to resume.
I believe it was in the New Republic that Mitch Tuchman wrote that the reason you turned against liberals is that you were rejected by the white-shoe crowd at Yale.
Wait a minute! Is that one by Tuchman? Yeah, oh, that was great.
He talked about your doctoral dissertation.
Yeah, he wrote that after The Painted Word. It went further than that. It was called “The Manchurian Candidate,” and it said in all seriousness that I had some-how been prepared by the establishment, which he obviously thought existed at Yale, to be this kind of kamikaze like Laurence Harvey – I think that’s who was in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn’t it? – to go out and assassinate liberal culture. I loved that. And he’s talking about Yale. When I was at Yale, William Buckley was writing God and Man at Yale, saying that it had been taken over by the Left and that the Left was pouring all this poison into the innocent vessels of the young. Tuchman’s saying I turned on liberalism is amusing in itself, because it would indicate that I had either been or pretended to be a liberal and then had turned on my comrades for some devious reason. All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, with a capital C, and journalism and the arts and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else. With exactly the same reverence that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all, which is as it should be. And these days, if you mock the prevailing fashion in the world of the arts or journalism, you’re called a conservative. Which is just another term for a heretic. I would much rather be called a conservative in that case than its opposite, I assure you. Of course, the word liberal in itself doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody talks about liberals or liberalism.
The Left no longer exists in America. There are leftists, but they have no terrain. There is a swing away from the political fashion of the Sixties. It doesn’t mean anything more than that. The disappearance of the Left is something that deserves book treatment, and I don’t pretend to know exactly how it happened, but it happened in one year, in 1970. In May 1970, the Left reached a peak of power with the shootings at Kent State.
You’ve never really written about politics or wanted to. In fact, I heard that you advised Hunter Thompson not to, that if he did, he would lose it.
Oh, I think writing about politics was probably one of the biggest mistakes Hunter ever made. I believe he is interested in it, which astounds me. I think his gifts, which are tremendous, are wasted on American politics, except possibly in an event like Watergate – which he didn’t write about, I don’t think. Because this country is so stable politically. It really is an extremely stable country.
It doesn’t matter who’s president.
Oh, I don’t think so either. That’s why I’m not too concerned about who gets elected in 1980. The real lesson of Watergate was, what a stable country! Here you’ve got the president forced out of office, and yet the tanks don’t roll, the junta is never formed. I don’t think there was even a drunk Republican who went out and threw a brick through a saloon window! Everyone enjoyed it. That was the greatest show on earth. Everyone sat back and watched it on television and enjoyed it when Jerry Ford, who had been handpicked by the man they just threw out, stumbled from one side of the country to the other. And then they elected the guy who for three years wore picnic clothes [laughs]. Carter’s too much. I think if they ever do the presidential portrait of him, they should take him to the bow of the Delta Queen in his cutoff Levi’s and Adidas shoes and have him lean against the railing with Rosalynn in her khaki harem pants! And there you have it!
Have you always been a real clothes horse, really careful about clothes?
The first time I remember being interested at all in clothes was after I saw The Kiss of Death  with Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. That was his first big role, he was the villain; Victor Mature was the hero. It was a gangster movie. I was at Washington and Lee, and there was a custom, I guess you’d call it, of conventional dress. It was an all-male school, and everyone had to wear a conventional jacket and tie. I guess I just wanted to put a spin on the custom without transgressing the rules, so I decided on these dark shirts.
Now when I think back on it, I have done the same thing ever since, which is to wear rather conventional clothes and put a little spin on it, such as to wear white where you’d ordinarily wear navy, black or things of that nature. Style, men’s clothing, has very rigid presumptions about it, and if you really experiment, suddenly you’re out of the ball game. You could certainly cut a striking figure by wearing a royal blue caftan everywhere you go, but you would remove yourself from most transactions of life. So if you want to have any fun with it, it really has to be rather marginal. But the interesting thing is that marginal things seem outrageous at first.
I also think I was the only person on campus who wore a hat. And I know I was the only person who carried an umbrella every day. When I got to my next stop, Yale graduate school, I fell into great confusion, because the grad school was full of genuinely eccentric people, and to try to be eccentric in the midst of a zoo full of eccentrics was a lost cause. The currency was debased. At the same time, it was no use trying to dress very conventionally because there was a whole campus full of undergraduates who were dressed very conventionally.
It was a very confusing time for me in terms of dress. My last couple of years there I discovered long hair, and that was very unusual. When I say long hair, I’m not talking about hair down to the shoulder blades. That was still the period back in the Fifties, when everyone’s ears stuck out and the sun shone through them.
Finally, when I got to Washington, I started having clothes made because I discovered a traveling British tailor. There were actually several who advertised in the back pages of the Manchester Guardian air-mail edition. They would set up shop in a hotel room. The samples used to always be on top of the bureau. You’d go look at all these samples books and pick some material. They’d make you whatever you wanted.
Is that when you discovered real button-holes?
Yes. Then, once I got into it, this tailor told me the names of his customers, rather indiscreet of him, and some turned out to be very famous people. That was the basis of a piece I would later write for New York magazine, called “Secret Vice,” about the buttonholes and so on.
When I came to New York I decided I should start getting clothes made in this country so I could get fittings, because there were some rather bad mistakes, though not as bad as you would get with a Hong Kong tailor. So I went to a tailor here in New York and picked out a white material to have a suit made for the summer-time. Silk tweed is actually a very warm material, so I starting wearing the thing in the wintertime. This was the winter of 1962 or 1963, and the reaction of people was just astonishing.
Long hair at that time outraged people. It was a real transgression. I did a story on Phil Spector in 1964, and he had hair about as long as the Beatles’. The things that were yelled to him on the street – I mean the hostility – were just amazing.
The hostility for minor changes in style was just marvelous. I had a great time. I was really getting into the swing of things. I remember my friend Bill Rollins, who was one of the great figures on the Herald Tribune at the time. Every time I came into Bleek’s or one of those places where newspaper people met, he’d say, “Here comes the man with the double-breasted underwear.” I rather liked that. In fact I loved the idea. I’ve always been waiting for someone in an interview to ask me what I sleep in.
Okay, I’ll bite. What do you sleep in?
I think I would say double-breasted pajamas with frogging. In fact, it’s not true. I actually wear nightshirts.
Brooks Brothers nightshirts?
No, my mother’s made me a few that are really nice. I’ve also got these chain-store-look ones with the alligator, I don’t know who makes those – they’re like a long polo shirt. But I much prefer the idea of the double-breasted pajamas. I mean I bought some; they really aren’t comfortable. They have a big lapel, you know, and piping around the lapel and collar.
Strangle you while you sleep.
The cinch drawstring on the trousers was always uncomfortable, and the big collar tends to make you perspire. But those things are so beautiful, with all the buttons and the frogging; that’s the way people should sleep. Which brings me to one final note on style. It’s still possible to have fun with clothes if you’re willing to be pretentious. That still annoys people: pretension in dress. In fact, this summer I was in East Hampton visiting some people who took me to a party. I was wearing a four-button seersucker jacket that buttons up really hig – I think it is actually Edwardian – with a little tiny collar and a white tie with small, far-apart black stripes, and I had on a collar pin and cuff links, white serge pants and white captoed shoes, which are real English banker shoes, only I had them made in white doeskin. I had on some sheer white socks with black stripes to pick up the stripes in the necktie – I’m the only person who would confess all this to somebody. Pretty soon I noticed that I was the only man in the room – and this was a party of maybe 60 people—who had on both a jacket and a necktie. I think everyone had an income far in excess of mine. Finally this man came over to me; he was a little drunk, but he was also angry. He asked, “What’s the idea of the rig?” I asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “The tie, the pin, all this stuff.” So I looked at him, and he had on a polo shirt and some kind of go-to-hell pants, and he had this big stain down the front of his polo shirt, right down the middle, right down to his belt line. I said, “Well, gee, I guess I can’t keep up with the styles in these parts. How do you do that bright stripe down your polo shirt?” He looked down sort of in surprise and said, “That’s sweat, goddamn it, that’s sweat!.” He suddenly was very proud of it. I could see that I had landed in the midst of the era of funky chic.
You know when I write certain things and it turns out that I’m correct, it amazes me, I must confess. When I wrote that thing, funky chic, I never dreamed how correct that was.
On several occasions, most recently in the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, I’d just be standing around and people would come up and ask me if there’s a table available, because I’d have on a suit and necktie. It’s really odd, but you can have fun if you’re willing to be a bit pretentious. Wear some trick outfits. If it’s worth it to you.
Does it ever get in the way of your role as the observer?
No, most often the opposite has gotten in the way. In the beginning of my magazine-writing career, I used to feel it was very important to try to fit in.
To be the chameleon?
Yes, and it almost always backfired, most notably when I went to do a story on Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer, one of the first stories I did for Esquire. I was quite aware that he was from the hills of North Carolina. A lot of moonshine and ex-moonshine runners were involved with stock-car racing at that time, Junior being one of them. I thought I’d better try to fit in, so I very carefully picked out the clothes I’d wear. I had a knit tie, some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino hat with a half-inch of beaver fur on it. Somehow I thought this was very casual and suitable for the races; I guess I’d been reading too many P.G. Wodehouse novels. I really thought I’d fit in until about five days after I was down there. Junior Johnson came up to me and said, “I don’t like to say anything, but all these people in Ingle Hollow here are pestering me to death saying, ‘Junior, do you realize there’s some strange little green man following you around?'”
I realized that not only did I not fit in, but because I thought I was fitting in in some way, I was afraid to ask such very basic questions as, what’s the difference between an eight-gauge and seven-gauge tire, or, what’s a gum ball, because if you’re supposed to be hip, you can’t ask those questions. I also found that people really don’t want you to try to fit in. They’d much rather fill you in. People like to have someone to tell their stories to. So if you’re willing to be the village information gatherer, they’ll often just pile material on you. My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don’t know. So this does work in your favor.
“Every modern religion, from Hinduism to Buddhism and Christianity on to the present, started with a primary group, a small circle of disciples…. The Pranksters were no exception.”
After that, when I did The Pump House Gang, I scarcely could have been in a more alien world. I did the whole story in my seersucker rig. I think they enjoyed that hugely. They thought of me as very old. I was thirty-odd years old, and they thought of me as very stuffy. They kind of liked all that – this guy in a straw boater coming around asking them questions. Then it even became more extreme when I was working on Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I began to understand that it would really be a major mistake to try to fit into that world. There was a kind of creature that Kesey and the Pranksters, practically everybody in the psychedelic world, detested more than anything else, and that was the so-called weekend hipster, who was the journalist or teacher or lawyer, or somebody who was hip on the weekends but went back to his straight job during the week. Kesey had a habit of doing what he called testing people’s cool. If he detected the weekend hipster, he would dream up some test of hipness, like saying, “Okay, let’s everybody jump on our bikes and ride naked up Route 1.” They would do that, and usually at that point the lawyer, who didn’t want an indecent exposure charge on his life’s score sheet, would drop out. Kesey explained this theory of testing people’s cool, his notion that there’re lots of people who want to be amoral, but very few who are up to it. And he was right.
How did you come to write ‘Acid Test’?
This goes back to 1966, the year after The Kandy-Kolored Streamline Baby came out, and I had written a whole bunch of articles that eventually became The Pump House Gang, but I didn’t want to bring out another collection. It just wouldn’t seem like a step forward. I was really casting about for another book to write. About that time, Henry Robbins, who was my editor at Farrar Strauss and Giroux, had gotten Xerox copies of some letters that Larry McMurtry had gotten from Kesey, who was then in hiding in Mexico. These letters were marvelous, paranoid chronicles of his adventures and lamentations about the strange fate that had befallen him now that he was a fugitive. And I got the idea of going to Mexico, finding him and doing a story on the life of a fugitive.
I bought the ticket for Mexico City, and somehow, before I went there, Kesey sneaked back into the U.S. and was arrested by the FBI just south of San Francisco. I went out to the jail in Redwood City where they’d put him, and I met all these crazy-looking people hanging around. There were people trying to get me to take books to Kesey with I Ching coins slipped into the binding. They turned out to be Pranksters. I didn’t know anything about these people and what they were up to. I knew that Kesey had been involved with dope, because that’s what he’d been arrested twice for. I assumed that dope must be what accounted for their strange appearance. Stewart Brand was one of the first ones I met. He wore a piet in his forehead. A piet is a disc, a silver industrial disc; I don’t know what they were used for. They reflected the light in some strange way. They had a very geometric sunburst design.
They had these white coveralls on with pieces of American flag sewed on. Only a few of them had really long hair; it was more just strange rigs and gear. They were very open and invited me to this place, this abandoned pie factory where they were studying while they waited for Kesey to get out. It was down in the skid-row section of San Francisco, worst place I ever saw. Very hard on a boy like me, that life. It got more and more interesting. I’d learned that some of them had been down in Mexico with Kesey, so I started pumping them for information – about the fugitive life. They kept saying, “We’ll tell you about that, but that isn’t what it’s all about.” I said, “Well, what is it all about?” And they said, “It’s the unspoken thing.” It gradually began to dawn on me that this was a religious group, a religion in its primary phase. It began to seem even important to me. The sociology of religion is one of the things I’d picked up at Yale graduate school.
One learns that every modern religion, from Hinduism to Buddhism and Christianity on to the present, started with a primary group, a small circle of disciples, as they’re called in Christianity, who have an overwhelming experience that is psychological, not neurological – a feeling, an overwhelming ecstasy that they have interpreted in a religious way and that they want to enable the rest of the world to have so it can understand the truth and the mystery that has been discovered.
The Pranksters were no exception. Their neurological experience had come through LSD, but that wasn’t so unusual either. The Zoroastrians were always high on something called haoma; to this day no one knows what it was, but it was obviously a drug. By the time I met Kesey, he was already starting to promulgate the concept beyond acid: the idea that LSD could only take you to a certain level of understanding and awareness, but that you couldn’t become dependent on it. Having reached the plateau, you must move on without it. He announced this new truth to the movement and was much criticized for it, because by this time, 1966, the rest of the movement was having a helluva good time still getting high. They didn’t want to hear this. But this is exactly what Zoroaster ended up doing. He said, now boys, we’ve got to start doing it without this haoma stuff. A little astral projection if you please, maestro!
How did you come across the third great awakening and the Me Decade? Was that originally a lecture that you were doing?
I think I did it for The Critic; I used “the third great awakening” in that.
One of the few things I learned on the lecture circuit, which I have abandoned for the most part, was the existence of these new religious movements and some insight into what they were like. I would begin to meet members of religious communes who had come to my talks in hopes of hearing about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, whom I was not talking about any longer. I would talk about art, and the first question would be, “What’s Ken Kesey doing now?” And I can’t tell you how many times that happened. I began to see that I was perceived as a medium who could put them in touch with the other world. And all these people were patiently listening just to get to the question period, or to get me alone to ask, “What’s Ken Kesey doing now? What’s he really like? Where can I find a commune? Are we running our commune correctly?” God, I used to get all these letters – I could have started a column like “Dr. Hip Pocrates, Advice for Heads.”
Well, the other question that everyone asks, I recall, is how many times you’d taken acid in order to do Kool-Aid Acid Test, and you said you hadn’t, which disappointed everyone greatly.
Yeah, I think they really wanted me to be on the bus. In fact, I never was.
You went off in private and took acid, just to see what it was like?
Well, I actually did it once during the writing of the book; I’d started writing the book, and then I thought, well, this is one little piece of reporting I haven’t done. So I did do it; it scared the hell out of me. It was like tying yourself to a railroad track to see how big the train is. It was pretty big. I would never do it again. Although at several places I went to lecture in the years that followed, people would put things in the pie that was cooked for dinner – not LSD, but a lot of hashish, marijuana baked into things, or methedrine. People would pop poppers under my nose, things of this sort. They thought they were doing me a favor. But one of the reasons I wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, one of the reasons I thought it was important enough to write about, was that it was a religion; Kesey’s group was a primary religious group.
“I did do [acid]; it scared the hell out of me.”
And you could see how just such a group developed, as if you’d been able to have been a reporter when the early Christians were forming and then again, running into students who would tell me they had formed communes, and who were very frankly religious and would call themselves Jesus people. They said they didn’t use dope, but they all had. In the beginning the whole Jesus movement was made up of former acidheads, and when they said they didn’t use dope, in most cases they really meant they didn’t use chemical dope. Anything you could grow was quite all right. That meant that marijuana was okay, peyote was okay…
…mescaline was all right, mushrooms, etc.
Yeah, if you would go to the trouble of making it. Those things were all okay. The people in the psychedelic world had been religious but had always covered it up. There was such a bad odor about being frankly religious. I mean Kesey would refer to Cosmo, meaning God; someone in the group used the word manager. Hugh Romney [a.k.a. Wavy Gravy] used to say, “I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager.” Or they’d say, if they were getting into a very religious frame of mind and began to notice a lot of – what’s the word when two people pick up the same thought at the same time? Probably coincidence is the right word, but they had another name for it – they would begin to say, “Well, there’s some real weird shit going down” or “Brothers, this is the holy moment,” or anything like that.
In the early Seventies, the mood of all this began to get more and more frankly religious, and the idea that this was the third great awakening popped into my head. Because I had remembered from graduate-school days the first awakening and second great awakening, out of which came Mormonism. Then I began to read about it. I saw that the Mormons, for example, had been just like hippies and had been seen as such. Just wild kids. They were young when they started. You think of Mormons as being old and having big beards. They were children. They were in their early twenties. Joseph Smith was twenty-four years old – he was the leader of the band. And they were just hated, more than the hippies were hated. And Smith was lynched. He wasn’t hanged, but he was in jail in Carthage, Illinois, and it was invaded by vigilantes and they shot him to death. That’s why Brigham Young took the group out to the woods of Utah.
And I think that movement is growing bigger and bigger. There’s such a…yearning in everybody – there always has been – for blind faith. There’s no such thing. I think, as rational faith. It isn’t faith. And people always want it, one way or another, me included, although I hide it from myself, as do most people who think they are really sophisticated and learned. But this is something people really want, because blind faith is a way of assuring yourself that the kind of life that you’re either leading or intend to lead is inherently and absolutely the best. That’s really what it’s all about.
Now is a great time for new religions to pop up. There are people who get religious about jogging, they get religious about sex, and you talk to some of these people who are avowed swingers—they’ll bore your head off. God, it’s just painful to listen to them. Fifteen minutes in a roomful of these people is like turning your head into a husk. Health foods have become the basis of a religion. Let’s see, ESP, of course, flying saucers, anything is fertile ground now. There’s a new messiah born every day. That’s why Jimmy Carter made such a colossal mistake in not preaching. He’d gotten away with murder as it was, getting elected as a born-again Christian. That’s what people wanted. If he had just ranted and raved for the last three years about the depravity of the people, they would have loved it.
You’ve collected an impressive list of critics and enemies.
That’s not hard to do, as we mentioned earlier, if you’re willing to treat the world of critics and artists and journalists the way they normally treat other people. If you really want to accumulate a list of enemies, you can get it soon enough. There were finally so many extraordinary insults in print about The Painted Word that I began having fun by putting them in categories. Tuchman’s “Manchurian Candidate” critique was under a huge list of political insults, most of them saying I was a fascist, but some also saying I was a communist. There was another category of what I thought of as X-rated insults, which came about as follows: right after The Painted Word came out, a well-known abstract-expressionist painter was at a dinner at which he said, you know, this man Wolfe reminds me of a six-year-old at a pornographic movie; he can follow the action of the bodies but he can’t comprehend the nuances. Which incidentally is rather a reckless metaphor or conceit to set up for yourself, if you’re defending contemporary art, because that’s pornography, and I become the innocent child. Quite aside from that, I loved the notion that there was someone in this day and age who professes to find nuances in a pornographic movie. The next thing I knew, in Time magazine there is a review by Robert Hughes – the art critic, I think he’s called – and he says, “Wolfe is like an eleven-year-old at a pornographic movie.” [Laughs.]
Regarding John Russell’s review in the New York Times.
This is the man who, at the age of, well, I guess he was in his late fifties, had risen to the eminence of first assistant to Hilton Kramer of the New York Times. I only mention his age because he mentioned my age. He rather flattered me by saying I was a little too young to understand all these things. He changed the image somewhat. He said I reminded him of the eunuch at the orgy who can follow the action of the bodies but cannot comprehend the nuances. I suppose he was afraid that some of his readers might find the image of the child in the pornographic movie somewhat sexy, so he changed it to the eunuch; nobody would find that very sexy.
It became indirect proof of a point that I was making in The Painted Word – just how small a world the art world is. As far as I know, neither of those men was at the dinner party. But this conceit, this metaphor, quickly passed around to the 3000 souls who make up the entire New York art world.
It became doubly funny when I really began to realize that in contemporary art, there is almost no sexual content whatsoever. It’s one of the few major movements in art history where there is no sexual content. Even in pop art, what few sexual images there are, such as Wesselmann’s nudes, are so highly stylized that there is no sensuality. In effect there’s a very determined effort made to remove the sensuality, from nudes, for example. Let’s see, there were a lot of psychoanalytic references.
Some [critics] were rather simple-minded, along the lines of how sick or neurotic I was. There was one woman who was much of fended by The Painted Word, and she wrote to Bob Shnayerson, who was then the editor of Harper’s, where the piece first appeared, and she berated him for letting me exacerbate my well-known mental affliction –psychosis or neurosis, I forget what she called it – by publishing this piece. And it was really more his fault than mine, because after all, I was sick. It was a shame, a terrible chapter in what had been the rather great history of Harper’s magazine. I happened to see a copy of the letter and I ran into her at a party. So I said, “I must tell you, I happened to see a copy of what you wrote, and you could do me a great favor if you would explain my affliction to me, because I believe that prophylaxis is a good thing to aim for in mental health as well as in such areas as tetanus and diseases of that sort.” At the very least, I expected a little dissertation on obsessional neurosis or something of that sort. Instead she suggested that I perform a crude anatomical impossibility on myself and then left the party. [Laughter.]
“I’m doing something that I’ve had on my mind for a long time, which is a Vanity Fair book about New York, à la Thackeray.”
But that was the passion of the response to that piece. I found that there are people who take art more seriously than politics. Everyone seems to understand that underneath it all, politics is a game. But art really is religion to some people. Creativity is the new godhead and the artist is a receptor of emanations from the gods. It is the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Max Weber, who said that in the twentieth century, aesthetics would replace ethics as the standard for moral conduct. I think we see a lot of that now.
Tell me, where are you going to turn your eye next? Are you at loose ends, or casting around?
I’m doing something that I’ve had on my mind for a long time, which is a Vanity Fair book about New York, à la Thackeray. When I went to Leonard Bernstein’s party, it was with the idea of gathering material for what was going to be a non-fiction book, which could be done, incidentally, if you could find enough events or scenes like that to move into. My impulse now, though, is to try to do it as a novel, since I’ve never done one, and to just see what happens. I’m also very much aware of the fact that novelists themselves hardly touch the city. How they can pass up the city I don’t know. The city was a central – character is not a very good way to put it, but it was certainly a dominant theme – in the works of Dickens, Zola, Thackeray, Balzac. So many talented writers now duck the city as a subject. And this is one of the most remarkable periods of the cities. Who has been the great novelist of New York since the Second World War? Nobody. Or Chicago or Cleveland or Los Angeles or Newark, for that matter. My God, the story of Newark must be absolutely amazing.
So you’re going to be out prowling the streets?
Well, I don’t know if I’ll be charging into people’s houses, but I will have to do a lot of reporting. There’s more good material out there than in any writer’s brain. A writer always likes to think that a good piece of work he has done is the result of his genius. And that the material is just the clay, and it’s ninety-eight percent genius and two percent material. I think that it’s probably seventy percent-thirty percent in favor of the material. This ends up putting a great burden on the reporting, and I don’t think many fiction writers understand this.
Wasn’t that part of the first big attack on the New Journalism? They said, well, the material is just there; it’s the inspiration, the genius of the novelist that does something with it. If it’s a reporter digging something up it’s just journalism, raw material lying around: anyone can pick it up.
Yeah. I’m sure I went into this in the introduction of The New Journalism, but novelists in the nineteenth century understood that no one writer had enough material, and they would go out and do reporting as a matter of course. And Zola especially – he wrote a lot of his novels serially – would spend two weeks of the month doing reporting with a notebook, and the second two weeks he’d spend writing the episode. There’s a scene toward the end of Nana, a very important scene at the races at Longchamps; he just went out there and soaked up all this material. It’s not just a matter of your saying, “Here’s the episode I want to write, so now I’m going to hang some accurate details on the story.” The material leads you to the story. I don’t know exactly what Zola did in that case, but I have a feeling that he came up with an entirely new and more exciting story because of the material he ran into.
I know that in one part of the book, there’s the image of a golden bed, which is one of the great symbols in French literature, and he found it through reporting. He wanted to do a novel about a courtesan, Nana, so he arranged an introduction to meet a real courtesan, and he went to her house, and he was greatly disappointed to find out that she was far too urbane and cultivated to serve as a model for the kind of woman he wanted to present. He wanted really just an animal, a sexpot who had a tremendous power over men of all sorts. While he was there she showed him her bedroom, which featured a bed with golden posts done by goldsmiths at enormous cost, with all sorts of priapic cherubs and nymphs with shanks akimbo springing out of it. That stuck in his mind and he used it, he gave it to Nana in the novel. It became a symbol of the decadence of the Second Empire. You know, you wouldn’t dare dream up such a bed, even if you had the power to dream it up in the first place. But the fact that he actually saw it gave him the idea in the first place, and then the confidence to use it.