Tom Wolfe’s writing style and the genre he created have been part of the intellectual wallpaper for so long, that it’s easy to forget how badly he was needed. The following is quite autobiographical, but it does put his emergence in context.
Intellectually isolated adolescents in the early 50s read books, lots of them (minimal TV of any intellectual content, no internet etc. etc.) I had plenty of time in high school, with two 16 mile rides on the school bus each day. So I managed to read a book a day my senior year in high school. I particularly loved Balzac and Dickens for the way they wrote about all levels of society.
So although I was fairly well read on entry into Princeton in the fall of 1956, I was a geographic naif, never really having travelled west of Philly. I was a social naif as well, with only 6/24 boys in my high school class going on to collage. The ones that didn’t went into the military, law enforcement or the trades. None of the 24 girls got further education, initially at least. This was not a high or wealthy social background. I was the first member of my family not to go to Rutgers (the state school of New Jersey).
The Princeton Triangle Club put on a rather sophomoric show each year which toured the east coast and midwest on Christmas break. Earlier famous members included Jimmy Stewart and Josh Logan. Later, after women were admitted, Brooke Shields. I was good enough to make pianist in the pit band for the show and did this for two years. The incredibly creative guy writing the shows was Clark Gesner, who soon after wrote “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and essentially retired in his late 20s.
The class of 1959 was the first at Princeton to have more High School graduates than preppies. To the alums that put us up in their homes after the show, it was assumed that we were to the manor born (as many of them were).
Seeing upper class society was quite an education. After each show the performers (and band) were invited to debutante parties. I’d never seen anything like it, and none of the American novels I’d read dealt with it. The musicians in the band would listen to the society orchestras playing (Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Meyer Davis) and dance with the debs. In Chicago, I even was the male presenting one debutante, rather than a local — probably because she was Jewish and none of the locals would do it. In Grosse Point Michigan the following exchange occurred with a deb who seemed intelligent. Where do you go to school? Oh someplace back East. How do you like the party? Enough for me to decide not to attempt to become part of that world (not that it was ever possible).
Then in grad school at Harvard, I met extremely intelligent guys from the West Coast (Caltech, Berkeley, Brigham Young) who were reading “Road and Track” in all seriousness (camp hadn’t been invented yet). Road and track was for the guys back home who went to work in garages, and dragraced with each other.
No one in the 50s and early 60s was writing about this stuff — here’s a link to the best-sellers of the 50s — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishers_Weekly_list_of_bestselling_novels_in_the_United_States_in_the_1950s
if you don’t believe me. Some were good (To Kill a Mockingbird). A lot were by foreigners (Dr. Zhivago, Francois Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir).
We had this fascinating diverse society, and our literature wasn’t dealing with it — that is until Tom Wolfe came along. He wrote about car customizers, astronauts, high society, low society, enjoying it all. These weren’t thought to be the stuff of serious literature until then. Some of the best sellers back then bore the same relationship to reality (Marjorie Morningstar, Not as a Stranger) as the Doris Day Rock Hudson movies of the time.
So hats off to Tom Wolfe. He’s still writing — I recommend his latest – “The Kingdom of Speech” about which I wrote 3 posts. Although the book starts in Victorian England, it winds up in the USA with Chomsky and company and the social high jinks of the left, which Wolfe has been skewering for decades. Here’s a link to one of the posts — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/book-review-the-kingdom-of-speech-part-iii/