Tom Wolfe Is Dead but the 'Me Decade' Lives On (and That's a Good Thing)

The world didn't just lose a transformative prose stylist. We lost our guide who still explains the contemporary world.


New York

Tom Wolfe, the celebrated reporter, ethnographer, and novelist, is dead at the age of 88.

With his passing, we've lost the individual who more than any other writer transformed the practice of journalism since he first started writing for the late, lamented New York Herald Tribune in 1962. I'll leave it to others to assess Wolfe's contributions to literary style; the validity of his popular polemics on art, architecture, race relations, sexuality, and neuroscience; and the relevance of his caustic but illuminating feuds with such other major writers as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving. These are all fun to talk about, but they are ultimately ephemeral.

Wolfe's enduring—and fundamentally libertarian—contribution to contemporary discourse is the insight at the heart of his 1976 New York essay that christened the 1970s as the "Me Decade." Writing during a time when most wise men (and they were mostly men back then) were obsessed with inflation, unemployment, and other measures of macroeconomic malaise, Wolfe was nearly alone in underscoring that consumer goods and lifestyle options had been radically democratized in postwar America. Forget the soul-killing depredations of the Cold War, giant corporations, cheap money, rising taxes, and government's expansion into every nook and cranny of life, he counseled. Wolfe focused on the pent-up psychic demand for freedom, individualism, and meaning in a country that had recently withstood a decade-plus of Great Depression and World War. The only thing worse than the impending apocalypse due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, or the Second Coming was that the world wouldn't end and we'd have spent our time on Earth punching the clock for a soul-killing job with great dental benefits. In the goddamn Bicentennial Year, Wolfe argued, Americans were done with building Maslow's pyramid of needs for other people, especially their social betters. Who among us was going to follow slow-witted concussion-cases like Jerry Ford or lusting-only-in-his-heart Jimmy Carter into the twilight's last gleaming? It was our time to shine, baby!

The postwar economy had

pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. True, nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums. Nevertheless, in Compton, California, today it is possible for a family at the very lowest class level, which is known in America today as "on welfare," to draw an income of $8,000 a year entirely from public sources. This is more than most British newspaper columnists and Italian factory foremen make, even allowing for differences in living costs. In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money—$15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon—that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can't even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath's or Johnny Bench's or Walt Frazier's. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them.

As he did later in his most (and perhaps only) successful novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe rooted his observations in detailed reporting on the reality of money and the trappings of class in everyday life. The passage above could never be written by other "New Journalists" such as Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer because they were fundamentally obsessed only with themselves. Wolfe, like Joan Didion at her best, wanted first and foremost to understand and grasp social reality that transcended the self.

White House, Susan Sterner

The turn to self-actualization deeply upset and offended both old-school, puritanical commies and starched-shirt Protestants who deeply believed in Max Weber even if they had never read him. Wolfe understood that the United States was shifting radically from a stratified, button-down society to one where everybody—rich and poor, black and white, male and female—not only had the means to live however the fuck they felt but had the moxie to do so. One of his early pieces for the Herald Tribune covered the introduction of macrobiotic dieting to the U.S.; it exemplifies his interest in how everyday people, long thought by eggheads and scolds not to have any autonomous interest in aspirational living, were starting to explore all sorts of freaky-deaky subcultures. His major works of the '60s, including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, explored how people create meaning in a mass-cult world, sometimes by drug-fueled ecstasy and dropping out, more commonly by modifying production-line cars, clothes, and suburban activities such as grilling to their own individual desires.

My God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century—such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx—lived for the day of the liberated workingman….He didn't look right, and he wouldn't…do right! I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950s. (They actually used the term "common man.")…By the 1960s the common man was also getting quite interested in this business of "realizing his potential as a human being." But once again he crossed everybody up! Once more he took his money and ran—determined to do-it-himself!…

Once the dreary little bastards started getting money…they did an astonishing thing—they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They've created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes…Me…Me…Me…Me….

Wolfe was not uncritical of the turn to "Me…Me…Me…Me…" but unlike such scolds as Christopher Lasch, David Frum, and Robert Putnam, who saw only narcissism and social pathology in the democratization of liberation, the rise to ubiquity of aristocratic privilege, and the assertion of a universal right of exit, he could laugh at its excesses while respecting and reporting out its various mutations. Wolfe's is a world characterized by what later writers have identified as "bourgeois equality" (Deirdre McCloskey), "plenitude" (Grant McCracken), and "cultural proliferation" (me). It is individualism on steroids—or maybe on poppers, bio-dynamic wine, and grass-fed elk—but it also traffics in new ways of community, from the libertarian communalism of Whole Foods to the blockchain fantasies of your friendly neighborhood cypherpunk. Amid the breakdown of old institutions, modalities, and coalitions ranging from the Republican and Democratic Parties to NATO to old-line churches to broadcast media, we won't be changing addresses anytime soon.

For all the problems of the world that Wolfe mapped for us, it is not only vastly preferable to what came before it—go ask your ditch-digger grandpas and piece-work grandmas if they lived fulfilling lives—it is fantastically more interesting and promising too. Tom Wolfe was the Amerigo Vespucci of our time and, like all important dead people, he will be forgotten even as we still elaborate the maps he drew for us long ago.

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  1. And he was unafraid to say that living your life for yourself need not be a sin.

    1. I just got paid $6784 working off my laptop this month. And if you think that?s cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $9k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less.
      This is what I do…>>>>

  2. “Wolfe: My dissertation was on the League of American Writers. The subtitle was “Communist Activity Among American Writers, 1927 to ’42.”
    Cole: What impelled you to choose that subject?
    Wolfe: I did a paper in graduate school about the first American Writers’ Congress. Why was I interested in that? I honestly don’t remember, In the stacks at Yale, I remember coming across volumes of the New Masses, which was a Communist publication–quite well done, incidentally.
    This first American Writers’ Congress was held in 1935 . It was an attempt by the Communist Party to remove the red glare in the coloring of their cultural movement–in the arts, movies, literature–and to focus on the anti-Nazi, anti-fascist cause.
    In fact, it was the Communist Party that invented the word fascist to apply to the Nazis. The fascists were only in Italy, members of a socialist party known as the Fascisti. The word was never used in Germany. The Communists wanted to obscure the fact that the Nazis and the Fascisti were, like themselves, national socialists. The acronym NAZI stands for the National Socialist Workers Party. So, was Soviet communism national socialism? Absolutely. Communists the world over never did a thing that wasn’t for the defense or the advance of the Soviet Union.

    National Endowment of Humanities

  3. Thanks Nick, great column on a truly great American writer.

    Haven’t read Bonfire of the Vanities but the electrons so constituted to reproduce it are now stored on my Kindle.

    1. I regret to say that I do not LIKE Wolfe’s fiction. I’ve tried it multiple times, and each time I have been unable to tolerate the company of the characters. I understand completely why he would want to write about them, but I can’t spend that much time in their company.

      His non-fiction, though, is balm to my soul. Particularly his analysis of what happened to the Art World, in THE PAINTED WORD and FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE and in some of the essays in HOOKING UP.

      I’m still trying to make my mind up about THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH. In it’s favor, it infuriates the Establishment Left.

      1. Interesting.

        The Painted Word is great, a real and deserved shellacking of the pretensions of the abstract art crowd

        As for The Right Stuff, that book almost triggered paralysis, really, could not put it down, it sucked you in like you were there on the scene.

        You’re right about The Kingdom of Speech, was just checking it out and anything that infuriates Chomsky et al and his acolytes has to have something going for it.

        1. FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE pretty much does to ‘modern’ architecture what THE PAINTED WORD did to the ‘modern’ art movement. My late Mother was an architectural historian by avocation, so the subject interested me, but I think anyone who likes Wolfe will enjoy it.

          THE RIGHT STUFF was a great book, but for some reason I’ve only gone back to it once or twice. But any of Wolfe’s non-fiction is worth reading…..and his little comic “The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon” is a classic.

          I think it’s in THE PURPLE DECADES.

  4. It’s important to note that Nick Gillespie actually reads the Bob Dylan interviews in Rolling Stone.

    1. you just look at the pictures?

      1. I don’t subscribe… if you get my meaning.

        1. I didn’t even know newsstands existed anymore to masturbate at.

          1. there’s always the library

  5. Some people around here pick on him, but The Jacket is pretty cultured and he has good taste.

    He actually got me to start listening to The Cramps several months back and I’m grateful for that. Maybe I will now try reading some Wolfe.

    1. Highly recommend The Right Stuff.

      Agree, The Jacket is cool.

  6. Protestants who deeply believed in Max Weber even if they had never read him

    Max Weber wrote quite a lot about social status and status seeking behaviors (pioneering much of the discourse) in ways that are very familiar to a reader of Tom Wolfe. I’d say that Tom Wolfe deeply believed in Max Weber.

  7. so we could afford to be selfish like that’s some kind miracle. bizarre sentiment from Reason magazine

    1. What about it strikes you as strange?

  8. My first book of his was The Right Stuff back in my teenage years. I’ve since learned that he was full of shit throughout the book, but it was a fun read nonetheless. Sad for his death, but it’s a good opportunity to go through more of his catalog.

  9. For some, like McCloskey, one ‘me’ is not enough.

  10. I found the Me Decade wonderfully liberating; but as I recall the phrase “Me Decade” was picked up as a pejorative by the usual bluenoses: traditionalist conservatives, who didn’t want us to stray from the Church; and “liberals” who didn’t want us to stray from the State.

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