Tom Wolfe on Cuban-Americans in the US

Aside from telling great stories, Tom Wolfe tells those stories through the prism of how he believes people view themselves and their overall place in society, namely their ‘status.’ Wolfe has written often about the influence German sociologist Max Weber had on his thinking.

That insight gives us an idea about how Wolfe has been so prescient in spotting or identifying trends in American society. He once explained how once he saw that once he saw that regular guys started wearing their hair longer in the early 70’s, he knew that college guys would soon be cutting theirs. He gave the 70’s its moniker of the ‘Me Decade.’ Reporting on fighter pilots, he identified the ‘right stuff‘ which separated them from the pack, already heavy with over-achievers to begin. Wall Street in the 80’s generated ‘masters of the universe.’

Through it all he has been a big proponent of the need for writers to immerse themselves in the subjects they are writing about, instead of relying on inspiration in seclusion. He is a huge fan of Carl Hiaasen’s work. Towards that end he has been spending time in Miami [I have no idea how much] since at least 2005 in preparation for his next book, a book about immigration based in Miami and scheduled to be released in 2009.

As a Cuban-American, I take great pride in my background, but increasingly it is just that. In the background. You might say that as an almost native Miamian, the shift during adulthood may initially have been imperceptible, but the accent in Cuban-American has long been on the latter not the former. However, when my favorite writer, one of the greatest American writers ever, sets his sites on my city and specifically my beloved tribe, then it is time to take stock, open a bottle and toast the USofA and our achievements here.

I don’t have to wait for the book to come out to figure out how we fare. Read the excerpt below. That does not mean he won’t reveal flaws about us as a group, even embarrassing [but funny] ones, but the bottom line for me is that how we have been allowed to prosper here is further evidence that ‘this is the greatest country ever.’ Our success is the latest in a series of amazing immigrant success stories, a uniquely American experience.

Now if on publication day, a secretly taped conversation with the Castro brothers is leaked [someone get me David Shuster’s cell please] where they reflect on their time in power and end up bemoaning in unison, ‘pero que cagada hemos hecho aqui … caballero!’ Then I’ll be as happy as Tom Wolfe was at Leonard Bernstein’s duplex apartment on Park Avenue in the late 60’s and as my former opponents were on Nov 4th.

Speaking of publication day in 2009, we will likely be in the midst of a change in Cuba itself by then. That will be an obvious cause for a national reflection on our experiences here in Miami. The fact that the person with the best combination of knowledge and skill to attempt to recap our experience will now likely be Tom Wolfe, in a way is reflective of the embarrasment of riches which have been our destiny in America.

So here it is, an excerpt of Wolfe’s 2006 interview with the WSJ:

“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” Silence. “I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people–different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock–take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”

Mr. Wolfe has a habit of using experience and anecdote to gird an argument or shade a meaning, and he carries on like this for some time. Then, abruptly: “I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”

Well. There is certainly something admirably American about Tom Wolfe–in the preoccupation with the varieties of experience; in his self-created literary persona, the Mark Twain or Ben Franklin of the 20th century. And also, especially, in his exceptionalism. If there is atavism about him, it is not a retreat from the American scene but a risk-all affirmation of its richness and possibilities. What’s the point, he’s asking, if you’re not going all out?

“I’ve begun the research for a book on immigration,” he notes. “When people ask me what I’m doing, I always tell them that, and the response is always the same. ‘How interesting’–and then their heads fall over. ‘God, how dull can it be.’ . . . But immigration I swear is an exciting topic.” Don’t worry: Tom Wolfe, the man of the world, will be back. “Of course,” his voice touched with autumn, “I have to find some economical way to do the research that won’t take forever. Careers don’t last forever, you know.”

Article referenced is copied in full at end of post.

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Tom Wolfe’s advice: Escape the “parenthesis states” and explore America.

THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW – Status Reporter by JOSEPH RAGO
Saturday, March 11, 2006 12:01 A.M. EST

NEW YORK–Tom Wolfe turned out the manuscript of his last novel on a manual typewriter and “quite a bit of it by hand,” he adds, “only because I had badly injured a finger and couldn’t do the typing.” It will probably be one of the last major books–if not the last–to be so composed, since Mr. Wolfe too has made concessions to high technology. “I’m now using a computer,” he says, “because keeping a typewriter is pretty hard. It really is like owning a buggy. You have to have all these parts made, or else cannibalized from somewhere, and you have to have your ribbons re-inked. That tells you it’s time to move on.”

Mr. Wolfe says he has “no theoretical bias against any of it,” but still, he seems to find our relentless digital pitch rather cretinous. “Using the Internet is the modern form of knitting,” he continues. “It’s something to do with idle hands. When you knitted, though, you actually had something to show for it at the end. Thomas Jefferson used to answer all his mail from the day before as soon as he got up at dawn. In his position, think of the number of emails he’d have had. He never would have been Thomas Jefferson if he’d been scrupulous about answering all these things. I think email is a wonderful time-waster. It’s peerless. Here it is,” he concludes, “you can establish contact–useless contact–with innumerable human beings.”

Tom Wolfe is a spry fellow, arch and gently convivial in his well-appointed Manhattan apartment. He is dressed precisely as you would expect him to be. Of course, this points up–suits, you might say–the larger predicament: Is there anything new left to be said about Tom Wolfe? His books are not so much published as unfurled, met by blasts of reviews and countless profiles. His story is well-trod: the New Journalist, the wicked social inquisitor, the novelist with the death-clamp on the American Zeitgeist, etc., etc. Despite his uncommon charm, character and appeal, he’s also a figure covered in the barnacles of the familiar.

And that word new, insofar as it relates to Mr. Wolfe, is honeycombed with contradictions. He’s achieved considerable success by registering what’s new, but seems himself consciously removed from modernity. More so than the old-line attire or the aversion to computers, Mr. Wolfe, born 1930, telegraphs a deeply atavistic sensibility. Like any skilled reporter, he keeps a critical distance from his subject; but if your concern is the way we live now, perhaps it helps to put yourself apart from the contemporary ruck, to see as fresh and unusual the things everybody else takes for granted.

But such psychologizing gets us nowhere. So take Mr. Wolfe’s politics. He denies outright any agenda: “I’m just giving the news,” he says, more than once. Fair enough. Yet Mr. Wolfe is a wild goose. “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” particularly in its notice of the coarse sexuality governing campus life, is a book a liberal would never write, as corroborated in the many negative reviews: “‘Oh, big deal, they’re having sex in college, yawn, yawn, what a surprise,'” as Mr. Wolfe puts it. “I do not disallow the possibility that they just didn’t like it,” he continues, but he was frankly taken aback by those who took it “as a counterrevolutionary attack on the sexual revolution. . . . Then it really dawned on me that so many people are proud of the sexual revolution, you know, ‘We freed ourselves from those damned religious people and this Puritanism.'” “At least in the story,” he pains to note, all this “has a very deleterious affect on a very innocent albeit egotistical girl–and that’s I think what’s there.” Sign of the times, I suppose, when you’re considered conservative for exploring the very real consequences of cultural change.

This is Tom Wolfe’s MO–sorting out and at once demolishing pretension, snobbery, vanity in all its guises. “There is such a thing as intellectual fashion–just as we get our clothing fashions–and often it does not mean anything more,” he says. “One follows fashion in order to look proper, and it’s the same thing with ideas.” An example: “We know Sigmund Freud was a quack–the guy believed in dream interpretation, like every witch doctor in the history of the world. . . . How could Freud, a sophisticated man, go around interpreting dreams?”

Mr. Wolfe offers a personal incident as evidence of “what a fashion liberalism is.” A reporter for the New York Times called him up to ask why George W. Bush was apparently a great fan of the “Charlotte Simmons” book. “I just assumed it was the dazzling quality of the writing,” he says. In the course of the reporting, however, it came out that Mr. Wolfe had voted for the Bush ticket. “The reaction among the people I move among was really interesting. It was as if I had raised my hand and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, I’m a child molester.'” For the sheer hilarity, he took to wearing an American flag pin, “and it was as if I was holding up a cross to werewolves.”

George Bush’s appeal, for Mr. Wolfe, was owing to his “great decisiveness and willingness to fight.” But as to “this business of my having done the unthinkable and voted for George Bush, I would say, now look, I voted for George Bush but so did 62,040,609 other Americans. Now what does that make them? Of course, they want to say–‘Fools like you!’ . . . But then they catch themselves, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t go around saying that the majority of the American people are fools, idiots, bumblers, hicks.’ So they just kind of dodge that question. And so many of them are so caught up in this kind of metropolitan intellectual atmosphere that they simply don’t go across the Hudson River. They literally do not set foot in the United States. We live in New York in one of the two parenthesis states. They’re usually called blue states–they’re not blue states, the states on the coast. They’re parenthesis states–the entire country lies in between.”

We’ve plowed headfirst into one of Mr. Wolfe’s great themes. He has long argued American literature was going through a bad patch, and the condition wouldn’t improve until authors engaged with the density and complexity of “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” So any change, 15-odd years later? “No, I don’t see any at all,” he says acutely. “The great emphasis is still put on the psychological novel, and to dig your hands into the dirty social reality is really unrefined . . . as if the social context doesn’t mean a thing.”

That’s the thing, the social context. “All of us are products of this vast plane called the social reality, the weight of the time and place we live, intersecting vertically with the individual psychology, or our impulses. And a person’s psyche, to use a vague term, is the result of the intersection.” He discusses the work of a path-breaking Spanish brain physiologist named Jose Delgado, who held that “each of us is a transient–that was his phrase–combination of elements from the environment. And as killing as that idea is in one sense, it’s pretty close to being true. It all goes back to Hegel’s original theory of the Zeitgeist, which is that each age has a moral tone–that’s his phrase, too, from 1808, I think–and that you cannot escape that moral tone, no matter what you try to do, and it’s going to affect your life in a fundamental way.”

You can’t “make all the relationships” as a writer, as Mr. Wolfe has it, unless you’ve got a theory. The conceptual rigging for his own work is the notion of status–as he neatly defines it, the standing of “the human beast” as compared with the other beasts, combined with our overriding awareness of the cues that mark hierarchy. “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status,” he says.

So how does Mr. Wolfe’s status theory apply to his own life? “Well,” he says, largely circumventing the question, “it’s much easier for people to talk about their sexual lives–which I’m not about to do–than their status lives.” If it’s difficult for people to assess their own status, though, he wryly remarks he hates theories that apply to everyone but the theorist. Then, unbidden, he casts his white suit as metaphor, “a very mild rebellion,” he puts it, a way to attract attention and maybe a status cue. “Incidentally,” he comments, in a way that suggests he’s letting you in on the joke, “I have this pimped-up car now, which is all white, with total white interior; there’s synthetic white suede that covers the roof and ceiling; they call it the headliner. White leather seats, and the rims are powder-painted white, and it has white sidewalls. I figured why spend all that time on the highway and not be noticed?”

I asked a personal question, and Mr. Wolfe has no obligation to obey the laws of our celebrity culture. But while his reply was a hoot, it was also nonresponsive and, in its way, representative of the man–a brilliant exterior concealing darker, unknowable corridors. Straining out the comic extravagance and the reportage, Mr. Wolfe’s reading of the world seems at bottom rather grim. If, as he argues, we can’t escape or define our age’s moral tone, if status pours the foundation for our innermost lives–well, what’s the point? What’s there to admire, or aspire to? What is it that Tom Wolfe believes in?

“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” Silence. “I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people–different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock–take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”

Mr. Wolfe has a habit of using experience and anecdote to gird an argument or shade a meaning, and he carries on like this for some time. Then, abruptly: “I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”

Well. There is certainly something admirably American about Tom Wolfe–in the preoccupation with the varieties of experience; in his self-created literary persona, the Mark Twain or Ben Franklin of the 20th century. And also, especially, in his exceptionalism. If there is atavism about him, it is not a retreat from the American scene but a risk-all affirmation of its richness and possibilities. What’s the point, he’s asking, if you’re not going all out?

“I’ve begun the research for a book on immigration,” he notes. “When people ask me what I’m doing, I always tell them that, and the response is always the same. ‘How interesting’–and then their heads fall over. ‘God, how dull can it be.’ . . . But immigration I swear is an exciting topic.” Don’t worry: Tom Wolfe, the man of the world, will be back. “Of course,” his voice touched with autumn, “I have to find some economical way to do the research that won’t take forever. Careers don’t last forever, you know.” Neither, in the end, do typewriters.

Mr. Rago is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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