A new round of lush profiles re-examines the 14-ct mystique of Tom Wolfe now that his papers, which he sold to the New York Public Library for $2.15 million, are available for research.
That is, I think he sold them in exchange for that goodly fortune. Vanity Fair's Michael Lewis reports the transaction more tastefully: "Back in November 2013, the New York Public Library announced that it would pay $2.15 million to acquire Wolfe's papers...."
Lewis then samples the trove for Vanity Fair. The results are Vanity Fair to a vanity-fair-thee-well, as when Lewis, taking his reluctant young daughter along on his reportorial travels, writes: "So I try all over again to explain why, to travel quickly from Martha’s Vineyard to Long Island, you can’t fly in a normal plane, only a small one or a helicopter ...". Such dedication to craft is always inspriing.
Anyway, Lewis did fish up something quite interesting from the papers, letters, notes, masses of ephemera (report cards, tailor bills, etc.) that make up the Wolfe collection.
Discussing Tom Wolfe's graduate school career at Yale, Lewis writes:
He picks for his Ph.D. dissertation topic the Communist influences on American writers, 1928–1942. From their response to it, the Yale professors, who would have approved the topic in advance, had no idea of the spirit in which Wolfe intended to approach it:
“Dear Mr. Wolfe:
I am personally acutely sorry to have to write you this letter but I want to inform you in advance that all of your readers reports have come in, and … I am sorry to say I anticipate that the thesis will not be recommended for the degree…. The tone was not objective but was consistently slanted to disparage the writers under consideration and to present them in a bad light even when the evidence did not warrant this.” [Letter from Yale dean to T.W., May 19, 1956.]
Yes, you read that right. It would seem that in an ideological diktat that could have been written in the USSR,Yale rejected Tom Wolfe's dissertation on Communist and fellow-travelling American writers.
Lewis doesn't give us much at all from the rejected dissertation itself -- not the name of the writers' Communist front group Wolfe studied, not even a list of the writers, except for Hemingway, whom Wolfe discussed (or, as the Yale dean put it, "disparaged"). The Vanity Fair capital-D Discovery is too important for such details. The (only) point is, as Lewis tells it, is that as a young grad student, Wolfe was enaged in the act of epater le bourgeoisie, or l'academie. Get it???? That the tradition the fusty old Yale profs were defending was a Communist front organization named the League of American Writers that included Communist Party members under party discipline set by Stalin as a weapon of Soviet foreign policy is of no interest -- and probably no comprehension.
To me, this is in itself interesting. Any cursory online search that a VF writer might perform will pull up the noxious facts about the League of American Writers, which slavishly followed every zig and zag of Kremlin policy in the 1930s and 1940s, beginning with the so-called Popular Front period (circa 1935), calling for unified Communist action with the democracies against Axis fascism. This would later switch on a dime -- on the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in fact -- to opposition to the democracies ("imperialists") during Stalin's alliance with Hitler (1939-1941). Meanwhile, the first president of the league, Waldo Frank, would be replaced in 1937 because he questioned the verdicts (guilty) in the notorious Moscow Show Trials. See Hollywood Traitors by Allan Ryskind for all the disgusting details.
Lewis, however, sticks to professorial shock at a student's generic temerity.
To this [dean's letter] comes appended the genuinely shocked reviews of three Yale professors. It’s as if they can’t quite believe this seemingly sweet-natured and well-mannered southern boy has gone off half cocked and ridiculed some of the biggest names in American literature. The Yale grad student had treated the deeply held political conviction of these great American artists as—well, as a ploy in a game of status seeking.
The American Betrayal question is: Would Yale have treated "the deeply held political conviction" of great American writers in thrall to Hitler and Nazism in a Bund-linked writers group with such reverence? In such a case, would Lewish have glossed over Yale's censorship in defense of pro-Nazis?
Such thoughts never enter the bubble.
He continues with the Yale's reaction:
This student seemed to have gone out of his way to turn these serious American intellectuals into figures of fun. “The result is more journalistically tendentious than scholarly…. Wolfe’s polemical rhetoric is … a chief consideration of my decision to fail the dissertation.” To top it all off … he’d taken some license with the details. One outraged reviewer compared Wolfe’s text with his cited sources and attached the comparison. Sample Wolfe passage: “At one point ‘the Cuban delegation’ tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. ‘This is where our literature is being built,’ exclaimed she, ‘on the barricades!’ ” Huffed the reviewer: “There is no description of her in the source, and the quotations do not appear in the reference.”
Which is to say that, as a 26-year-old graduate student, just as a 12-year-old letter writer, Tom Wolfe was already recognizably himself.
Without reading more of Wolfe's rejected dissertation, it is not possible to draw conclusions. But from the clues Lewis has, despite himself, laid down, I am inclined to disagree at least in part. That is, in his career, Wolfe has, at most, evinced a sylphlike conservatism amid the tea leaves that in no way resembles the apparently vigorous anti-Communism of the 26-year-old Wolfe's 1956 dissertation. In public statements, he seems always to maintain a scrupulous apoliticism.
See, for example, this interview with the late Ben Wattenberg:
TOM WOLFE: ... As far as the task of the writer -- I feel is to simply to discover, I totally disagree with Orwell -- who I admire. Orwell said, I never wrote a decent word that wasn’t motivated by a deep political feeling. I have never written a decent word that was dominated by -- and people always talk about me as this right wing writer.
And then I say, what’s my agenda? What is political about I am Charlotte Simmons? What’s political about A Man In Full? What’s political about The Right Stuff or The Bonfire of the Vanities, or Electric Kool Aid Acid Test?
WATTENBERG: [speaking over each other] Well, some of your readers like me think we know that -- the answer to that, that it is a -- it is a rebuttal of some of the crazy leftism that has gotten into our arts.
If I have to explain it to you, Tom, I’ll do it, but that’s a --
TOM WOLFE: Well, I can’t stand the fact that party lines are created all the time in the arts. And in the days of communism, that’s -- they used talk about the party line. Well, this is not the days of communism. But there’s still a party line and I just can’t resist trying to pop the bubbles. It’s really irresistible, that’s why --
WATTENBERG: But in our society bubble popping is a political art and has political meaning to it.
TOM WOLFE: Well, not in the terms of who’s going to win elections.
Back to Lewis:
He’d also found a lens through which he might view, freshly, all human behavior. He’d gone to Yale with the thought he would study his country by reading its literature and history and economics. He wound up discovering sociology—and especially Max Weber’s writings about the power of status seeking. The lust for status, it seemed to him, explained why otherwise intelligent American writers lost their minds and competed with one another to see just how devoted to the Communist cause they could be.
And then, what a truly bizarre conclusion Lewis draws from the Yale episode.
In a funny way, Yale served him extremely well: it gave him a chance to roam and read and bump into new ideas. But he didn’t immediately see that:
Bump into -- and then be informed that they were what Mao called "politically incorrect"? Lewis quotes from Wolfe's un-enlightened (read: natural, moral) reaction to Yale's rejection of his dissertation as written in a letter to a friend in June of 1956.
“These stupid [explitives] have turned down namely my dissertation, meaning I will have to stay here about a month longer to delete all the offensive passages and retype the sumitch. They called my brilliant manuscript ‘journalistic’ and ‘reactionary,’ which means I must go through with a blue pencil and strike out all the laughs and anti-Red passages and slip in a little liberal merde, so to speak, just to sweeten it. I’ll discuss with you how stupid all these stupid [explitives] are when I see you.”
Lewis sums up:
He re-writes his thesis. He lards it up with academic jargon and creates a phony emotional distance from his material (he refers to “an American writer E. Hemingway”), and it is accepted.
No Vanity Fair comment.
I have looked up a few interviews in which Wolfe discusses his Yale disseration -- the edited version, apparently. None of them includes the shocking backstory: how young Wolfe wrote his dissertation on a notorious writers' Communist front group; Ivy liberalism factory Yale rejected it as "journalistic" and "reactionary"; Wolfe cut the offending "laughs and anti-Red passages" and replaced them with "a little liberal merde"; and then duly claimed his Ph.D.
Not exactly the American Solzhenitsyn. Maybe more significant, perhaps, is the fact that 60 years later, this may be the first time we've ever heard this story. If so, that is really something. All these bloody culture war later -- all these hundreds of thousands of Tom Wolfe books sold later -- we find that going back to the McCarthy Era, a young anti-Communist named Tom Wolfe submitted to a Yale re-education for his Ph.D. and maybe never uttered a public peep about it -- or really anything like it again.
Later in his piece, Lewis returns to the anecdote:
He harbors no ill will toward the professors who failed his thesis, and thinks, in retrospect, that “Yale was really important for me.” He recalls the epiphany of reading the sociologists—and especially Weber—on the subject of status. “I kept saying that’s right. That’s exactly the way it works. I honestly think that everyone—unless they are in danger of losing their lives—makes their decisions on status.”
And perhaps so did twenty-something Tom Wolfe. Better read than anti-Red.