I was 19 years old when I read “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s biting critique of New York socialites who try to capitalize on the cultural cache of the Black Panthers. The teeth of the essay have come back to bite me often. It’s incisors haunt me as I try to write about social justice in an age where “wokeness” is having a moment.
That’s not a bad thing, that haunting.
When he died in May, I thought about how Wolfe’s work in general, and “Radical Chic” in particular, brought me into journalism. Ultimately, it was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that he wrote it.
I read “Radical Chic”…and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…and The Painted Word…and Bonfire of the Vanities…and Hooking Up…while I was deeply mired in the corner of the Evangelical world that is skeptical of outsiders at best and anti-intellectual at worst.
Jack Simons— a singularly formative voice in my education— assigned “Radical Chic” to his intro to journalism class. Simons is a Fulbright Scholar, Baptist preacher, and Vietnam vet, and at the time he had been seemingly exiled to a tiny building on the far edge of the campus at The Masters College (now University). He also taught a class on Southern Women Writers, which he boiled down to an exploration of the fear of “sexual predation between the races.” He devoted one class per semester to the proper use of swear words in writing.
In other words, he was a smart guy in a weird world. So when he assigned Tom Wolfe, he knew what he was doing.
He also assigned what came to be all of my other favorite books.
I read those mentioned above and other works from Wolfe, and fell in love with his style, which is super fun. It’s catchy yet human, casual yet precise. It’s readable. A perfect hook for the boy crazy and distracted reader (see photo below)
Wolfe often wrote about things far from the ordinary person’s experience, but he did it in a way that felt like it was happening in your back yard. More importantly, he wrote about a world of limited access in a way that didn’t act like he was happy to be there.
He was one of “them” in almost every way, except for the collective self-righteousness.
For an Evangelical kid from semi-rural Texas, Tom Wolfe was my inside man. He made me see that those people who, in every other form of writing, tended to sneer and disregard people-like-me, were just as silly and insecure as I was. They were striving and shallow at times. They were guided by the same base instincts as I was, and just as afraid of them.
With a trustworthy guide who was not trying to sell me or shame me, I was able to take a few glimpses into worlds outside my own. Wall Street, free love, radical counter cultures, and hyper-intellectualism. While my people were adding more locks to the door, I was able to cautiously peek outside. I could let down my defenses, because Wolfe was already on the offensive.
Evangelical alarmists beware, though. Wolfe made me feel “safe,” but I clearly was not. He made it appealing to think for myself. And that led to a life that is far from where things were headed when I first read “Radical Chic.” For those who knew me before, I’m a cautionary tale. If you ask me, I’m a close call. What if I had ignored the “Radical Chic” assignment, never discovered Tom Wolfe and kept fearing the Left and running harder to the Right?
If we want more people to fall somewhere in the middle, instead of on the far ends of ideology, we’ll always need Tom Wolfe in some form. Someone inside the camps has to be willing to critique their campiness in the most searing tone. Someone inside the pastures has to be willing to tip the sacred cows.
Writers like Tom Wolfe are good for everyone. No one has to be on the back foot when our toughest critics belong to our tribe. It opens up dialogue inside and outside, because it doesn’t equate criticism with rejection.
In the church, we call these internal outsiders “prophets” and they have long since been exiled by the greed of kings and the anxiety of priests. They are had to find in our partisan media environs and increasingly polarized academic institutions. There’s pressure to choose a side and back their play as they drift to the fringes. There’s pressure to put Team over Truth, and it’s dangerous.
But it’s a world with lots of fodder for the next Tom Wolfe.