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Tom Wolfe’s California

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In the Golden State, the great writer first chronicled the social changes that would transform America

Michael Anton writes: Tom Wolfe is most identified with New York City, for good reason. He has lived and worked in Manhattan since the early 1960s, and New York dominates his writing the way London looms for Dickens. But Wolfe has never been afraid to venture from his home turf—this fall’s Back to Blood, an exploration of Miami, is a case in point—and his true literary second home is California. Over the course of his career, Wolfe has devoted more pages to the Golden State than to any setting other than Gotham. In his early years, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the ratio was almost one-to-one.

More to the point, the core insights on which he built his career—the devolution of style to the masses, status as a replacement for social class, the “happiness explosion” in postwar America—all first came to him in California. Even books in which the state figures not at all are informed by Wolfe’s observations of the West. Without California, there would be no Wolfe as we know him—no Bonfire, noRight Stuff, no Radical Chic or Me Decade, none of the blockbuster titles or era-defining phrases that made him world-famous.

And without Wolfe, we would not understand California—or the California-ized modern world. At the time of his most frequent visits, the state was undergoing a profound change, one that affects it to this day and whose every aspect has been exported throughout the country and the globe. Both have become much more like California over the last 40 years, even as California has drifted away from its old self, and Wolfe has chronicled and explained it all.

It started by accident. Wolfe was working for the New York Herald Tribune, which, along with eight other local papers, shut down for 114 days during the 1962–63 newspaper strike. He had recently written about a custom car show—phoned it in, by his own admission—but he knew there was more to the story. Temporarily without an income, he pitched a story about the custom car scene to Esquire. “Really, I needed to make some money,” Wolfe tells me. “You could draw a per diem from the newspaper writers’ guild, but it was a pittance. I was in bad shape,” he chuckles. Esquire bit and sent the 32-year-old on his first visit to the West—to Southern California, epicenter of the subculture.

Wolfe saw plenty on that trip, from Santa Monica to North Hollywood to Maywood, from the gardens and suburbs of mid-’60s Southern California to its dung heaps. He saw so much that he didn’t know what to make of it all. Returning to New York in despair, he told Esquire that he couldn’t write the piece. Well, they said, we already have the art laid in, so we have to do something; type up your notes and send them over. “Can you imagine anything more humiliating than being told, ‘Type up your notes, we’ll have a real writer do the piece’?” Wolfe asks. He stayed up all night writing a 49-page memo—which Esquire printed nearly verbatim.

It’s a great tale, but, one fears, too cute to be strictly true. I ask him about it point-blank. “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what happened,” he says. “I wrote it like a letter, to an audience of literally one person”—Esquire managing editor Byron Dobell—“with all these block phrases and asides. But at some point in the middle of the night, I started to think it might actually be pretty good.”

That piece—“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”—represents the first time that Wolfe truly understood and was able to formulate the big idea that would transform him from an above-average feature writer into the premier cultural chronicler of our age. Those inhabiting the custom car scene were not rich, certainly not upper-class, and not prominent— indeed, they were almost invisible to society at large. Wolfe described his initial attempt to write the story as a cheap dismissal: “Don’t worry, these people are nothing.” He realized in California that he had been wrong. These people were something, and very influential within their own circles, which were far larger than anyone on the outside had hitherto noticed.

“Max Weber,” Wolfe tells me, “was the first to argue that social classes were dying everywhere—except, in his time, in England—and being replaced by what he called ‘status groups.’ ” The term improves in Wolfean English: “Southern California, I found, was a veritable paradise of statuspheres,” he wrote in 1968. Beyond the customizers and drag racers, there were surfers, cruisers, teenyboppers, beboppers, strippers, bikers, beats, heads, and, of course, hippies. Each sphere started off self-contained but increasingly encroached on, and influenced, the wider world.

“Practically every style recorded in art history is the result of the same thing—a lot of attention to form plus the money to make monuments to it,” Wolfe wrote in the introduction to his first book. “But throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy was responsible for. What has happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.” If Wolfe’s oeuvre has an overarching theme, this is it.

After the strike ended, the Herald Tribune created New York, a Sunday magazine to compete withThe New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Impressed by the Esquire piece, the new magazine’s editor, Clay Felker, assigned Wolfe a series, The New Life Out There—“out there” meaning California. “There was a real provincialism about the title, like that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorkercover”—the one showing New York City in great detail and the rest of the country as a comically tiny sliver—“as if the West Coast were some exotic frontier,” Wolfe laughs. Between 1963 and 1970, he made frequent trips to California and lived in San Francisco for nearly a year. His visits tapered off after that, but he never stopped going there, both for research trips and for book tours.

His California texts may be sorted into three tranches. The first consists of the early essays, most of them written for New York and later collected into books. Then there are … (read more)

Michael Anton is a native Californian who first read Radical Chic at age 19 in Berkeley and has been a Tom Wolfe fan ever since.

via City Journal

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