Mizzou and the Master of Our Universe

Column: Why Tom Wolfe is the most important writer of the twenty-first century

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe / AP
November 13, 2015

Ironic his name is Wolfe. The incidents surrounding University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe’s resignation following protests of racial insensitivity on campus might as well be plot points in a novel by Tom Wolfe. They are certainly as funny.

The graduate student on hunger strike against oppression is the son of a millionaire railroad executive. The administrators who gave in to the radicals’ demands did so not out of sympathy or solidarity but out of fear of a football strike. The professor who called for "muscle" to help her expel a reporter from a protest held a "courtesy post" in the department of journalism. The details of the saga—including, and I am not making this up, a "poop swastika"—read like a missing chapter of Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

That book was released more than a decade ago. Yet its portrait of university life as an orgy of hormones and physical and intellectual posturing remains both vivid and prophetic. It’s why the 85-year-old Wolfe is more than the greatest living journalist and satirist in America. He’s the most important writer of the twenty-first century, full stop.

Wolfe’s output has not mirrored history but anticipated it. NASCAR? Read "The Last American Hero." Self-help? Try "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Reality TV? There’s "Ambush at Fort Bragg." Neuroscience? "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died" was written in 1996.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times over the last year that I thought I was living in a Wolfe book. The hysteria and riots provoked by the police killing of Michael Brown, who never said, "Hands up, don’t shoot," is a replay of Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987. The debate over migration, ethnicity, assimilation, and identity roiling the presidential primary was foreshadowed in 2012’s Back to Blood. The spectacle of a television star facing manslaughter charges who announces he’s become a woman—then being lauded for his courage while he says the hardest part of his new gender is "figuring out what to wear"—well, the absurdity of that one is rather without precedent. But no doubt Wolfe agrees that Caitlyn Jenner is great fun.

The temptation to dismiss Wolfe as a mere gadfly or ironist or stylist has been around for a while. Resist it. He is not only a bestselling author but a thinker of originality and power. How to describe his philosophy? Begin with Darwin, add some Zola and a dash of Swift, pour contents into a vat of Max Weber, and stir vigorously.

The paramount concern of man, Wolfe believes, is status: how to achieve it, how to display it. "Status groups, Weber contended, are the creators of all new styles of life," Wolfe said in his 2007 Thomas Jefferson lecture. He’s made a career of investigating these cliques of status competition and the novel manners and rituals they produce—stock car racing, Las Vegas casinos, surfers, strip clubs, the counterculture, race hustlers, the hermetically sealed insane asylum that is the college campus. His reporting isn’t an end in itself. It’s a seismograph, detecting social tremors before they reach the borders of American middle class life.

That life has been radically altered. It’s been transformed by two shocks: postwar affluence and declining religiosity. "By the year 2000," Wolfe writes in Hooking Up, "the term ‘working class’ had fallen into disuse in the United States, and ‘proletariat’ was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink."

This explosion of wealth not only improves human wellbeing. It expands and heightens status competition. There are more fields in which you can prove your virtue, your prowess, your strength, your virility. And there are more opportunities for sin and folly.

The Sun King was not only rich. He was decadent. The moral corruptions of the European aristocracy—these were now within reach of billions of human beasts. Life became so pampered, so squeaky clean, that practices and perversions that would have been dangerous and stigmatized and unthinkable before World War II were sterilized, imitated, normalized, glorified.

It is the interaction of this consumer society with post-orthodox America that so fascinates Wolfe. He cites Nietzsche, who after reporting the death of God in 1882 delivered a prophesy of the next 200 years. "He predicted," said Wolfe in 1996, "that the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining." World War I, World War II, the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction—that crazy German had a point.

And Nietzsche made a second prediction.

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century ‘on the mere pittance’ of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of ‘the total eclipse of all values’ (in The Will to Power). This would also be a frantic period of ‘revaluation,’ in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says, ‘Thou shalt’ or ‘Thou shalt not.’

The total eclipse of all values, the great revaluation—hard to deny we are living through them both, with one-fifth of the population, including one-third of adults under 30, affiliating with no religion, with scientism and environmentalism and superstition encroaching on religious ground, with the collapse in the distinction between genders, the marginalization of traditional social roles, and the corresponding proliferation of reactionary movements seeking the authentic pasts of nation, of sect, of race, of tribe.

Here is where Wolfe finds his material. We hold doggie yoga classes while selling fetal brains. We denounce global warming from conferences we arrive at by private jet. We recite the hosannas of diversity while suppressing opposing views. We release prisoners even though the communities most likely to be harmed by such a policy are the majority-minority neighborhoods we profess to care so deeply about. We inhabit a continent of poses and struts and vanity and incompetence. It’s a thick soup of the absurd, the frustrating, and the maddening.

Meanwhile Wolfe observes, detached and amused. "The Republican Party as now constituted is obviously too stupid to survive," he wrote to a friend in 2000. "What is to be done? Of course, that was Lenin’s line and the only lucid one he ever wrote." He goes on:

The answer is nothing. America’s position is unassailable. We are the imperial Rome of the 3rd Millennium. Our government is a CSX train on a track. People on one side (the left) yell at it, and people on the other side (the right) yell at it, but the train’s only going to go down the track.

But where does the track end? And who—or what—will be waiting for us when we get there?

Something tells me it will be a man in a white suit.