A Return to Heroes: Tom Wolfe was the Stoic Writer America Needed

Tom Wolfe has died, our only artist who made manliness his theme and tried to ground the experiences of freedom in terms of our society and our pre-political psychology. In his four novels, he tried to show that American character, faced with the various crises of our times, could still produce heroes—Stoic heroes. Not the men who make the future, but those who have to deal with the consequences of change, social, economic, and political, which threaten to drive us all crazy.

We must talk about his novels above all, because they are both popular and neglected, and thus reveal both his great achievement and its limits—and ours. No one made more of an effort than Wolfe to rehabilitate the novel as a form of poetry, that is to say, the story-telling that articulates the truth about human things. It was his purpose to restore plausibility to the novel by careful research and to restore insight into our way of life by dramatizing the essential conflicts we tend to ignore or misunderstand.  Thus, he wanted to restore the standing of the poet as a wise man, who tells the truth, albeit prudently. And yet he has no imitators, he has had no lasting success in Hollywood, and neither his detractors nor his admirers have done much to show his greatness. Much will now be said about him and we face the real threat of covering over entirely his great poetic-political enterprise.

The soul of poetry, to recall Aristotle, is plot. There need be drama—a fundamental conflict—to attract our attention as human beings and as Americans. There need be heroes, too, fitting protagonists of the drama, to focus our gazes upon. Cometh the hour, cometh the man—a certain type of man in a certain situation serves to reveal it while at the same time it reveals him. This is what a poet must contrive if he is to tell necessary truths in the way it is necessary to tell them—prudently. There is always a conflict between America and manliness, and Stoicism is always Wolfe’s answer, whatever the question about the future turns out to be. He saw American obsessions with status (instead of class) as elite attempts to abandon the people in times of social change, which is precisely when elites should manfully rededicate themselves to public duties, as befits the privileged and powerful.

He could find the look of nobility wherever he turned his gaze, however studiously society denied that there was anything to see, whether among the rich or the poor, whatever the ethnicity of the man or the predicament he was in. This was not because he didn’t pay attention to the facts on the ground, but precisely because he knew them too well. He understood both what was new and what only seemed new to those who were anxious to leave America behind and, not coincidentally, to abandon the moral virtues tied up with danger. Where others looked for novelty to solve the problem that was America, Wolfe looked to new developments only to reveal American character.

Wolfe thus came to write about manliness through the question of freedom and daring, which occupied his early journalistic efforts. He came to his understanding of American Stoicism later. He noticed that manly Americans do not use the word manliness, unlike the man who knows political philosophy, Harvey Mansfield. They instead say these are men who have “The Right Stuff.” This is partly bowing to our egalitarian mores, but it is also a work manly men must do in America, to stand up for citizenship by not being too impressive or boastful. Our manly men, if they show modesty, too, are not only loved, but also inspire us. There are no Greek demigods among us, but there are heroes—the men who dare deal with the crazy consequences of our modern freedom. They have to take responsibility for others and nevertheless to act with consent—their manliness must be prudent.

Wolfe came to novel-writing as an old man and shared Henry James’s love of French novelists for their great realism (James is the American novelist least concerned with manliness). He brought a rare love of nobility to the ambition to describe America and men. Their blindness to nobility is why he savaged artists so often. Whereas they are thought clever (if pretentious) and daring (if improper), he thought them imprudent cowards, driven by class contempt rather than his wiser analysis of status in America, and thus enslaved to an audience that lives by class contempt, whereas he himself was free of any narrow partisanship.

Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of The Vanities (1987) dealt with Wall Street in the Reagan Era, when new ways of making money that might seem crazy to the public promised to liberate a new generation of the wealthy from any duties to society—leaving New York politics to demagogues and abandoning the lower classes to misery. Ultimately, the novel is about the relationship between fortuna and virtù, chance and manliness. Wolfe showed with uncanny insight that the new financial elites were tempted to be the opposite of classy because they had no Stoic acceptance of limits to their desires or duties to their fellow citizens, in return for their privileges, and that their obsession with conquest of chance, which made them apt Machiavellians, would corrupt their souls. Thus, his first protagonist, Sherman McCoy, finds himself in a world of pleasure and success up until an unforeseeable crisis hits. Then, his abandonment of his father’s Stoic morality proves to have blinded him to his social duties and has left him psychologically defenseless, too. He has to find a new pride in his time of humiliation, to discover what it is to be a man, and he slowly moves to a new form of Stoic public service that fits with American society.

His second novel, A Man in Full (1998), is about the new South, where ambition for social status and entrepreneurial daring replace the quaint manners and the old grudges. Here, again, modern American freedom endangers the political peace, in this case by attacking the last bastion of manliness in America. The protagonist, Charlie Croker, is the opposite of the Wall Street financial genius, Sherman McCoy. Croker is old, self-made, an athlete, a veteran, and the ruler of a business empire who hopes to become a new aristocrat, providing for others and even founding a new town in his own name—McCoy is barely middle-aged, a scion, rather soft, an employee, however exalted, with no chance of rising to the top of a corporation, and a man given to his own secret pleasures in hiding from the world around him. Croker is Wolfe’s evidence of the social character of pride—the desire to be well-thought of by others, leading to actions intended both to benefit and, thereby, to awe them. Wolfe was one of a handful of writers who know pride to be a social virtue badly needed in America now, if service is to truly be public.

His third novel, I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), dealt with elite colleges (like Duke) and the corruption of morality in American higher education. Aside from what you could hear anywhere else as complaints or boasts about changes in the university, Wolfe’s unique concern for manliness and nobility led him to describe at length two very important social facts. First, that American women are uniquely assertive, even manly—notice the emphatic assertion of the protagonist’s identity in the title, unique for Wolfe—and secondly that the moral truth about college is that success comes by an ignoble conformism that endangers our very awareness that we are ensouled beings. Instead of self-discovery, self-abasement is what the prestigious road to the American future has to offer given the inhuman shallowness of scholarship and the success worship that surrounds athletes and celebrities.

His fourth and now last novel, Back to Blood (2012), for the first time featured a working-class hero without any aspiration to climb the status ladder. Nestor Camacho is a Cuban policeman in Miami and a bodybuilder. He is caught in the middle of the race politics of the first post-American American metropolis and he has to learn what his dignity might mean and how to defend it in a situation where there is no obvious appeal to an authoritative American way of doing things. Previous Wolfe protagonists had the ambition to acquire a great situation for themselves, to win their part in the future of America. Nestor—named for the rare wise man and survivor among Homer’s demigods in the Iliad—is supposed to simply be the future of identity politics. Nevertheless, he refuses, in the name of an understanding of human nature he has not thought through, but which he begins to explore once he is confronted with the crisis of American politics. He is unique in not bringing about his own downfall and is almost an innocent, so his fall is that much more worrisome. He is an everyman whose fault is that he doesn’t stand up for himself enough. He is helped, by the way, by a white gentleman from a good family, straight out of Yale, and who turns into an intrepid reporter with an unusual sense of justice—the only self-portrait Wolfe permitted himself. This brings one of Wolfe’s great concerns full-circle: The phrase “back to blood”, signaling the collapse of the American civil religion and the return to tribal/racial/ethnic strife as a principle, is found in the preface to his first novel.

Much more would have to be said about these novels to show what Wolfe has to teach. But nothing can be said usefully unless we begin as Aristotle does with the moral virtues—with manliness and its crucial role in politics. Wolfe’s idea, to look at questions of politics and society, work and marriage, education and love, pride and striving by asking questions about manliness, is unique in our times. Its daring equals that of John Ford’s Westerns, the only other poetry that deals with foundational questions in America by arguing that men, far from being obsolete or replaceable, are utterly necessary for civilization.

Let us close with the look of the man. Tom Wolfe said different things at different times about his famous white suit. He called it a substitute for a personality, his answer to the foolish interest people had in interviewing him, whereas he preferred to do the interviewing himself. He called it the look of the man from Mars, a necessity when interviewing the weirdos who championed new departures in American freedom, which was his specialty as a reporter. He said it was normal to dress this way in Virginia and he thought it would do in New York, too.

The suit was a contradiction in terms, a flamboyant statement about conservatism. He was formal in informal times, he stood for moral virtues in times of moral confusion, to say no worse, and he defended propriety by telling the truth about the most improper things that fascinated the educated and uneducated audiences in America. He was a gentleman involved in shameless work, which is both all-American and needful in our times.