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If you like Tom Wolfe's story, you might also like:
Nora Ephron,
Henry R. Kravis,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Norman Mailer,
James Michener,
Vincent Scully,
John Updike,
Edward O. Wilson
and Chuck Yeager

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The New York Times: Wolfe's Southern Roots

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Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
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Tom Wolfe Interview (page: 2 / 4)

America's Master Novelist

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  Tom Wolfe

What books did you enjoy reading when you were young?

Tom Wolfe: I loved the Wizard of Oz books. There was a whole series of Oz books. But before that, I remember reading tales of King Arthur. I have no idea who wrote that, but it seemed to me it was awfully good. I used to also like to read non-fiction. I can remember reading Count Von Luckner, the Sea Wolf, he was a German submarine commander in the First World War who was apparently a dashing and courageous figure. And the first time I started reading things like novels, I was probably 14 or 15. And my first great discovery, in my mind, was James T. Farrell, who had written the Studs Lonigan books. You don't hear anything about them much anymore, but the first volume of the three Studs Lonigan books -- it's a trilogy -- and the first one, which is called Young Lonigan, is so beautifully lyrical. And Farrell is thought of as a kind of plodding naturalist today, if he's thought of at all. But that was an extraordinary book. And it was about a boy about my age. And it just opened up all sorts of possibilities to me.

At that time, as a teenager, had you already thought of becoming a writer yourself?

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
Tom Wolfe: Yes I had, from a very early age. I don't know, six or seven years old. Because of my father. I thought of him as a writer, he thought of himself as a scientist. Interestingly enough, he has more entries in the New York Public Library than I do, because he wrote so many monographs in the field of agronomy. I daresay he did more good for humanity. He did things like discover how you could quadruple, or increase tenfold, the yield of corn. That was one of his specialties. This was back at a time when that was an exciting industry. This country was discovering ways to make American bountiful, in terms of crops. Wheat, corn, all those sort of things.

When word got out that you were interesting in writing, were your parents encouraging?

Tom Wolfe: Yes, they were. You don't realize how interesting your family is until you get much older and you look back. I remember Thomas Wolfe, my namesake -- we're from the same mountain range and everything, but we're no kin. But he once said that he grew up thinking he was in the most banal, boring, grind-along family that had ever existed. And he said, "I was 23 or 24 when I first realized I was living with a group of raging lunatics." You can see this in Look Homeward, Angel. This is a family in turmoil, largely because of the excessive drinking of the father, and the fact that his mother's turned the house into a boarding house, and there's a constant flow of boarders who'd come to western North Carolina for the nice air and the cool air in the summertime. My family was anything but raging lunatics, but when I look back at how hard it all was in the middle of the Depression, it was just a horrible time. Particularly when I look back at the emphasis that was completely on education.

My father's family apparently came to the Shenandoah Valley from somewhere north of there in the early 1700s. And nobody ever made any money that would catch your attention, but for six generations back, there were graduate degrees. My full name is Thomas Kennerly Wolfe. And, the first person in the Wolfe family named Thomas Kennerly Wolfe went to the University of Edinburgh to study. Where the money came from, I don't know. My father's father was a country doctor who died when my father, I think, was 12. So, his mother had five children -- three boys, two girls -- out of the 10 who had been born. Infant mortality was terrible. And all three of the boys went to graduate school, had higher degrees. One was a lawyer, one was a medical doctor, and my father had a Ph.D. in agronomy. Where that money came from, I don't know. But, I just love the fact that they didn't care about the money. The thing was, you know, get an education.

Were there teachers that were very important to you?

Tom Wolfe: Yes, there were. In kindergarten, there was a teacher named Miss Shackleford, as I always called her. I honestly cannot remember her first name, although I saw her years later. She took a special interest in me very early, which made me feel very special. Maybe I can really do things with these words, and so on, and ended up combining my kindergarten and first grade into one year. Which I don't really advocate, because you end up being smaller, a year younger than the people you're competing with. But anyway, she got me off to a good start.

In high school, there was a course in the sophomore year of high school in rhetoric. And I'm talking about rigorous rhetoric: the use of figures of speech, figura sententiae, and tropes, and all these technical names, and training in the three or four ways that you can arrange a paragraph. I don't think any of this happens any longer. Parsing sentences, which is a fading art. These diagrams of sentences, so you find out how all the different parts fit together. This was amazingly good training. Then in college, I went to Washington and Lee in Virginia, there was a young professor -- it never dawned on me 'til later that he was probably only four or five years older than me -- who had come to Washington and Lee from the American Studies program at Yale. That's where he had gotten his doctorate. And this course was so exciting that I was determined to do what he had done, which was to go to Yale in American Studies, which I did.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What was the name of the course that he taught?

Tom Wolfe: I think that particular course, was called "American Intellectual History." We went through every branch that might fall under that heading you can think of. Everything from philosophy to architecture to psychology. William James and figures like that. It was tremendously exciting.

So I managed to get into that program at Yale, which turned out to be a terrific choice for somebody who wants to write. A bad choice if you want to -- as I was going to do -- be a teacher, because there are not that many American Studies departments. And a lot of the people who graduate from that program would end up at the bottom of the heap in somebody's history department or English department. But, it's absolutely great for writers. I discovered sociology there, which was like a light bulb going on over my head. Like most liberal arts students, I'd always looked down my nose at sociology as this kind of bogus science. When I finally had to deal with it in graduate school, I quickly came to the conclusion, which I maintain to this day, that it is, in fact, the queen of the sciences. I won't get into this, but biology, in my mind, is a subset of sociology, not the other way around.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Sociology's sort of the big picture?

Tom Wolfe: Yes. Sociology is the big picture. As I say, I have a long involved theory, but I'll only inflict that if you really want to know. My first great real flash was reading the work of Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He wrote Class, Caste and Status, and many others, mostly essays. But he's the one who originated the concept of status as a motivating force in life. It was one of those things that's under everybody's nose, but he gave it a name. The reason I call it "stay-tus" instead of "stat-us," is that at the Yale graduate school, status had more "stay-tus" if you call it "stay-tus." And I can't get that out of my mind now. I still call it "stay-tus." Maybe somebody from Yale's listening.

My belief is that everyone, me included -- I hate theories that don't apply to the person who thought up the theory -- all people live by what I call "the fiction absolute," which is a set of values which, if absolute -- in other words, God said, "Hey, here are the values," and you heard the voice clearly -- would make not you, yourself, but your group -- your status group, whatever that may be comprised of -- the best there is. For example, a group of good ol' boys sitting around a general store in the South, and I've been around that a lot, they usually -- things can get confused in this era -- but they usually are very content to be good ol' boys. And they're not only content, but they value that life very, very highly. People who are obviously their superiors -- or, in my case, my superiors -- military people, politicians, President of the United States, movie stars, whatever -- they become types who are really outside of your life. And whatever they're doing doesn't matter. Unless they move in the neighborhood, then it creates real problems. It really does. And so that just about everything we do is controlled by that constant need to feel that our status is being kept at a certain level. It doesn't mean necessarily status climbing. It usually doesn't mean that. More often it means believing that what you're doing now, the people you're with now, the values you have now, are the most important.

But you call it a fiction.

Tom Wolfe: Oh, because it is a fiction! How can you really think that? But I do the same thing. Everybody does it. But if you're really thinking clearly, you can't really, honestly.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 22:25 EDT
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