Roger Kimball on Tom Wolfe

Nobody strings together a sentence quite like Roger Kimball. Here he is discussing the late Tom Wolfe:

One thing that Wolfe’s extravagant style at first obscured was the deep conservatism of his world view, moral and political as well as aesthetic. All those exclamation points and eye-popping agglomerations of adjectives—to say nothing of his Beau Brummell–like taste in haberdashery (the inevitable white suits, the spats)—distracted early observers from his commitment to the canons of realism, on the one hand, and, on the other, his firm endorsement of the traditional social, political, and economic order—“middle-class values,” in fact—that had made the United States such a conspicuous oasis of prosperity and freedom.

Wolfe’s chief subject, in his novels as well as his essays and documentary efforts, was the baneful effects that regularly follow upon the transformation of moral ideas into imperative fashion accessories. In one sense, fashion inhabits a fluctuating and ephemeral realm. But its diktats can be tyrannical as well as peremptory. Counterpoised against the ground of traditional moral and aesthetic practice, the expostulations of fashion absolutized amount to what Wolfe once called “pernicious enlightenment,” which is to say the fake enlightenment of what we today call political correctness: that intoxicating emotion of virtue that follows on the conviction that one is traveling in the vanguard of history. The result is often comic, but also often appalling, not to say malicious. Wolfe was expert at rendering the tout ensemble…

Were Tom Wolfe starting out today, we suspect that he might find the path to success more arduous. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, effective satire depends upon a clear and generally agreed-upon distance between satire and reality. As the moral and aesthetic pretensions of nihilism gobble up greater and greater precincts of cultural life, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish reliably the one from the other. The line was already getting blurry in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, when Wolfe was at his satirical apogee. Progress towards terminal fatuousness has continued apace and has made the satirist’s job more difficult. What common values, after all, can he confidently appeal to in framing his gibes?..

Tom Wolfe was a literary treasure and a sly if undeclared culture warrior on the side of civilization. There might be a place for him still as a writer of genius. As a polemicist, alas, he is too high-octane to pass muster in our timid, querulous, and self-asphyxiating age.

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