Author Tom Wolfe, “probably the most skillful writer in America” according to William F. Buckley, died yesterday at age 88.
“Whether profiling One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his hippie pals the Merry Pranksters or America’s first astronauts, Wolfe had a dramatist’s gift for the telling detail and for crafting page-turning suspense,” writes Rolling Stone’s Tim Grierson.
“Never try to fit in; it’s sheer folly,” he once advised. “Be an odd, eccentric character. People will volunteer information to you.”
Wolfe had a style bound to inspire countless bad imitations. You may see some on the socials this week and next.
Terry Teachout writes, “I confess to being shaken by the news of Wolfe’s death. I last saw him in the flesh a year or so ago, and he looked at once frail and somehow ageless. I couldn’t imagine a world without him then. I still can’t.“
Max Muller, a pioneering 19th-century linguist at Oxford, read Darwin’s work and declared that the use of language was the gift that definitively separated human beings from the animal kingdom. It was, Muller said, “our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.” Nowadays, neo-Darwinians would dismiss mulish Muller as a “speciesist.”
Andrew Ferguson summarizes and reviews Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech for sympathetic readers. He condemns scientists who argue against non-scientists asking awkward questions they’d rather ignore and claim to deserve a respect they have yet to earn. “Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be.” (via Prufrock News)
“There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.”
The great Tom Wolfe takes on language, Darwin, and Noam Chomsky in his new book, The Kingdom of Speech. He says all of the theories on how language began are terrible, exposing a major weakness in the bowels of evolution.
In his article yesterday, Hillel Italie notes:
Speech is the book’s primary subject, but status has been the running theme of Wolfe’s work from the astronauts in “The Right Stuff” to campus life in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and it’s a subplot for “Kingdom of Speech.” He doesn’t only take on Chomsky, but portrays Darwin as a competitive, would-be aristocrat striving for “honor as a Gentleman and a scholar.”
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to any argument against evolution, but this particular argument also draws me in and recalls what I read about language origin in a course on the history of English. All of them are grasping at straws.
Charles Mann goes into detail on what Wolfe explores and explains:
When Darwin finally took on language in “The Descent of Man” (1871), the coffee got pretty weak. By that point, the argument that language evolved from animal sounds had already been made by well-known figures like Wallace, August Schleicher (the best-respected linguist of the day) and Edward B. Tylor (one of cultural anthropology’s founders). Darwin mainly reiterated their reasoning, which amounted to: Bird song and dog barks are actually pretty expressive, so I bet they could have extended somehow into human language. The term for this kind of thing in academia is “hand-waving.”
The papers of the Man in the White Suit, Tom Wolfe, have been acquired by the New York Public Library, making him “officially an Important Writer,” as Oliver Wiseman states. The papers have been made available to the public only recently. (via Prufrock)
Wolfe has not published a memoir or autobiography. In general he leaves himself out of his writing. But the career of Tom Wolfe, as told by Tom Wolfe, is the story of an outsider swimming against the tide, first in non-fiction and then in novels. Things got interesting when a strike knocked out New York’s newspapers in 1963. “You weren’t going to catch me on a picket line,” Wolfe said in an interview several years ago. “So I went to Esquire with a story about custom cars.” That article, his first magazine piece, was originally titled “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend! (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” Tom Wolfe was already Tom Wolfe.