Tom Wolfe! Tom Wolfe! Tom Wolfe! The man in the ice cream suits, the perfectly white suits or soft canary, with cuff buttons that weren’t sewn on as cheap decoration for the small-town burghers who dream of the day when they will graduate from J.C. Penney to Hickey Freeman and upgrade to a younger wife; no! cuff buttons that actually buttoned through actual button holes rimmed with perfect tiny stitches that bespoke (bespoke!) generations of Italian tailors with soft hands and minuscule needles; suits that Tom Wolfe! wore through turbulent and tumescent decades of grime and crime when New York was at its sordid, sooty, sexy worst — and BEST! — and he was its chronicler and America was his muse; suits that remained somehow pristine, spotless, unmarked, unsoiled, unsmudged, unsullied and certainly un-sweated-in. For what defined this Wolfe in chic clothing, this Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. of Richmond, Virginia, from the day in 1959 when he first scandalized the Washington Post newsroom by declaring his preference for The Actual over The Political — sacrilege! editors gulping Old Overholt 80-proof rye from the bottom-right drawer of a scuffed Steelcase desk! society columnists in wide-belted dresses from Lord & Taylor succumbing to the vapors! — to the day of his death, May 14, 2018, was that Wolfe made writing of the most difficult order look deceptively easy, and luminously fun, to the delight of readers and the embarrassment of all who tried to copy him.
When T.S. Eliot declared that “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal,” he had in mind the fact that writers begin as readers. In seeking one’s own voice, it is only natural to borrow inflections from writers one admires. But woe to the generations of writers who passed under Tom Wolfe’s influence, for he was that rare artist who cannot be imitated. He shared something of the quality of his fellow Southerner William Faulkner: Both men found a way of writing that was wholly and only their own, and any attempt to achieve the same effects would immediately announce itself not just as a forgery but a bad one.
I learned this lesson the hard way. During Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, I was assigned to cover a visit by the Arkansas governor to a stock car race in Darlington, S.C. I had the bright idea to reread Wolfe’s brilliant exposition of NASCAR culture, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!,” on the flight down. This classic of midcentury American journalism starts out:
“Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields.”
As I had done many times before, I fell deeply and instantly under the spell of that seductive dance. The way the words dip and veer like a butterfly in flight, some intended to make you see, others to make you hear and still others to make you laugh — with one startling volley (“Rake-a-cheek raspberry”) dropped in to make you think.
But as I was to find the next day when I tried to write my own story with Wolfe still regnant in my head, this is the sort of thing that can be done only once. As deadline loomed, I typed and deleted paragraph after paragraph of Bad Wolfe, which is all Wolfe that Wolfe himself did not create. From the day the words “aqua beige” and “aqua Malacca” were published in Esquire in 1965, anyone creating a singsong catalog of real and imaginary colors ever again — or anything remotely similar — would be stale and pale by comparison.
Of the so-called New Journalists (a term hatched by Wolfe himself, one of many memorable monikers he created, including radical chic, Mid-Atlantic Man, and the Me Decade) one could read Truman Capote or even Joan Didion for tricks, hooks and moves worth imitating. Their distinctiveness mostly derived from what they saw, in Capote’s case, or how they thought, in Didion’s, rather than from the language itself, which in both cases approached Orwell’s famous standard: “Good prose is like a windowpane.”
Wolfe’s work, by contrast, was the exception that proved Orwell’s rule. His prose was exceptionally good but quite unlike any windowpane I’ve tried to peer through. Unless it was a stained-glass window: spectacular, kaleidoscopic, sensational and revelatory.
But if the late Mr. Wolfe cannot be imitated without humiliation, we writers can steal a few of his trade secrets. We can cultivate a voracious curiosity. Wolfe’s work bristled with startling bits of information concerning all the topics in the world. We can emulate his love of the English language. No less an authority on affairs of the dictionary than William F. Buckley Jr. pronounced Wolfe “probably the most skillful writer in America,” by which Buckley meant “he can do more things with words than anyone else.” And we can attempt to replicate Wolfe’s work ethic, which for all the effortlessness of his persona was as sturdy as a farmer’s. All his zingers, fireworks and endless run-on sentences depended on his complete mastery of his material, which was possible only because he put in the time and effort such mastery required.
Now we live in the age of the Quick Take. There’s no time in the news cycle, nor room enough on social media, for the intricate, joyful play of words and images and ideas and details that made Tom Wolfe’s work the epitome of New Journalism. But if copying him is impossible, and emulating him is discouraged by our era, we can at least give Wolfe the due of all great writers. We can read him, with astonishment and awe.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year" and "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America."