Writers & Company·From the archives

The nuances of sex, class and religion in American society, according to the late Tom Wolfe

Looking back at the writing from the Man in the White Suit in this 2005 interview with Eleanor Wachtel.
American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Jr. appears in his living room during an interview in July 2016. (The Associated Press/Bebeto Matthews)

Tom Wolfe, the provocative author and chronicler of American social, cultural and political trends died on May 14, 2018. He was 88. 

In the early 1960s, Tom Wolfe revolutionized journalism in the United States. Although he was influenced by everyone from New Yorker writer Lillian Ross to Émile Zola and Truman Capote, it was Wolfe who seized the language, infused it with exclamation marks, capitals and fashionable proper nouns, and then released it on the world, virtually vibrating with energy.

As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote when he was reviewing Wolfe's first collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, "This is an excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention." Tom Wolfe's next book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about the drug-addled antics of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, was even more successful. In 1970, Wolfe published Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — a controversial and highly satirical account of racism and liberalism in the U.S. 

Perhaps Wolfe's most successful nonfiction book was his 1979 account of the early years of the American space program, The Right Stuff. It won the U.S. National Book Award and was made into a major motion picture with the same name. 

In the 1980s, Wolfe turned to fiction. His 1987 novel about New York and Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. His next novel, A Man in Full, tackled the corporate billionaires of the 1990s, moving his focus from New York to Atlanta.       

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Tom Wolfe in Toronto late in 2004, after George W. Bush had been elected for a second term and Wolfe had just published his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. In it, he takes on American college life — the fraternities, the jocks, the intellectuals — in a brew of sex and status. It, too, made it to the bestseller list. He wore his trademark white suit to the interview.

Capturing a social climate

"At first, Charlotte was a device for showing the reader the university she would be going to, but then I got interested in her. Her mother is an evangelical Christian, and very strict about matters of sexual morality. Charlotte is naive, but extremely bright. I wanted to have a naive girl as the main character of I Am Charlotte Simmons because through her eyes, I could show the American university today. I think a girl, particularly in an American university, is more vulnerable because there is a tremendous sexual pressure from which girls have no escape. Co-ed dorms are open day and night and anyone can walk in; because it's so easy, there's a lot of pressure on girls to, as Charlotte thinks, 'give it up.' There are boys and girls in this college who do not want to engage in a four-year bacchanal — one character in I Am Charlotte Simmons is a virgin. But sex is almost literally in the air. It's gotten to the point that girls often feel obliged to give it up on the first date. Things become a little backward."

Impressions and the impressionable

"I think status is the subject of life. Charlotte doesn't even realize it, but stardom is what she's after — being known as the girlfriend of someone who is exceeding cool. It's my grand theory that we all are engrossed in status, but there are two kinds. One is status climbing, Charlotte's type, where you want to rise from whatever position you're in. The other is maintaining your status. I, for example, am very clothes-conscious — I love to wear my white suits. Wearing clothes that are more expensive and formal than what most people are wearing, for better or for worse, sets you apart. I went to a lot of fraternity parties where boys put a great premium on a sloppy look. Whereas the girls would come in a black dress because they already realize the game of life — they are miles ahead of boys in terms of realizing the social facts of life.

"Like clothing fashion, there are also intellectual fashions where people adopt certain attitudes just to be in style. It's to maintain the status that they have. Everyone wants at least a shred of approval on first meetings."

Writing with authority

"There was a lot of talk in the 2004 U.S. election about the religious right as if religious people with ideas of morality were a fringe group. They weren't on the right, they were just religious. I grew up among these people — everyone went to a religious edifice on the weekend with a real faith in God or else they pretended. I never made a declaration of atheism. I just started going to church less and less. The breakdown of religion among educated people today is going to lead to a desperate situation. For millennia, religion has been the glue that has held people together. Without that, a society is in really bad shape. I wrote an essay called The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening about the new religions that started in the United States during the '60s. I always assumed that by now, somebody would have done a real take out on these new religions, but nobody has."

Tom Wolfe's comments have been edited and condensed.