CHICAGO JOURNALIST AND SHOW HOST JOHN CALLAWAY INTERVIEWS NOVELIST - WRITER TOM WOLFE
John Callaway 0:06
Sometimes if we can understand the, the business of style, we can perhaps have some insights into substance of what's going on around us. That's the feeling that I sometimes have when I read the essays and the articles and the reports of our guests this evening. Thomas Kennerly wolf Jr, known to most of his readers, as Tom Wolfe has a new book of his articles and pieces out a book entitled Mauve Gloves and Madmen Clutter and Vine. I want to repeat that that's a Mauve Gloves and Madmen Clutter and Vine. You may have read his earlier books, which include the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby or the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test or The Pump House Gang, among others. Mr. Wolfe has been a contributing editor in New York Magazine since 1968. He also writes for Esquire magazine and other magazines. He was educated at Washington and Lee University, first college football team I ever saw. Against us Virginia University and they got beat 6 nothing. And he earned a Ph. D. in American Studies at Yale University has been a newspaperman worked for the Washington Post, he worked for the old New York Herald Tribune magazine, and he is a native of Richmond, Virginia. And first of all, I would like to ask you, what do you mean, you write about it? But in this interview, you would tell our viewers who haven't read your book? What do you mean by the me decade.
Tom Wolfe 1:28
That's the name and it finally occurred to me when everyone was saying when when of the 1970s going to begin, the idea was the 60s had been so identifiable. The 70s people had a feeling that things were changing, but they couldn't put any, any name on it, they couldn't figure out what it was, it seemed to me suddenly that what I was seeing all around and I've already said me five times in the last sentence seems indication what we're getting into that more and more people in fact, it's now runs into the millions were treating themselves to the luxury of putting themselves on stage, analyzing their personalities with a view towards reshaping them the way that in the old days, the alchemist tried to turn stones and base metals into gold, and really trying to create an entire new life for themselves if they suddenly they had a free ticket, they had a carte blanche and they could could do this, they Erica Foundation, Scientology movement, and, and all these movements, the original lore is that you're going to talk about me and we're going to see what makes me tick and it's very satisfying no matter what people say about you when you're on stage and one of these groups just the mere fact that all eyes are on me, is a is a tremendously appealing thing to have to have happen. And we are in a period where people are saying, as in the old Clairol commercial if I've only one life to live let me live it as a and the commercial it was let me live it as a blonde well, you can add there's you can kind of fill it in any way you want. It's a sign of the tremendous prosperity of the time so I was
John Callaway 3:13
gonna ask you if it isn't significantly attached to economics, I mean, people look the somebody that has studied during World War Two so the British were so busy fighting, they couldn't afford to go to therapist and they didn't need them.
Tom Wolfe 3:24
Oh, the siege of Leningrad same thing. When they the psychiatrist went out of business and during the siege because people everyone had something to focus their lives on. Well, this is not to say that what's going on now as a sign that people have no focus to their lives is just giving themselves a new focus. There's kind of doing what Ken Kizzy always said people should do which is move off of dead center. So one way it's narcissistic, seems selfish. And another way it's rather exciting that people feel they're in a position to do it. And this prosperity is the key to it. We often don't even think about it. It's so obvious that it's like we know we don't mention anymore. It's like the Big Dipper, you know is up there every night. Nobody ever looks at it. I haven't anyone know ever points out the constellations anymore, but we've been in a boom now since about 1943 The war. Second World War got us out of the depression and started this boom and we're still in it. We have recessions. We have little dips, but the level of wealth in this country is so far beyond anything in all of human history, that suddenly people feel that they can treat themselves to luxuries that in the past only the wealthy could afford. I know when when I was at Yale graduate school. I was mystified every Thursday night along with everybody else except for a few well positioned seniors about this strange parade that would go on 11 o'clock at night on Thursday nights of seniors at Yale College and black flannel suits, white shirts black neckties, little gold pins on them. They'd walk single file wouldn't talk to a soul and during this march into these great Greek mausoleums with no windows, everyone said, what goes on there every Thursday night. It turned out I want somebody squealed. I found out later that every Thursday night they had what are known in girl schools is lemons sessions, a different senior would be it each night, and this person would be in effect on stage and sometimes literally. And this seniors personality would be just ripped apart by all the others, and they'd say, you know, your do you masturbate? And he'd say, Yes, I do. And they get into that, or they, they get into his fears, the way he fawned and sucked up to people above him other anything that was wrong with a person would be would be brought out into the open sometimes in the sessions, we end up in tears and hysteria, and everything else. And if the idea was that, out of the ashes, and the carnage would rise, a superior man, a real Yale man to take over the the country, which is everyone knew ran from Wall Street up to Madison Avenue in 57. And this was the forerunner of what the of the marathon encounter groups that we see all around us now of all of the counseling sessions, the constant therapeutic sessions that people are into, because although it seems like it brings it comes out of sadness is actually extremely satisfying to people, as it was satisfying even to those Yale men who broke down in tears inside of Skull and Bones, what unites Skull and Bones and have to leave the room when I say that. It was, it's, it's just great to be on on stage. And I'm not. I said, even when I say it, it sounds like I'm making fun of it. There's something to me funny about it at the same time. It is a luxury, we didn't laugh at it, when the rich enjoyed it. We sort of say, well, that's what the rich do, that they send their daughters to finishing schools to have their personalities shaped like a fine piece of cabinet work. Now millions of people aren't doing it.
John Callaway 7:04
We used to lose ourselves in wars, big issues. I mean, I remember World War Two, I was a kid, I was really caught up in that. I mean, I went out and collected news papers and milkweed pod for parachutes. And really felt a sense of felt a sense of fear, I would read, my dad had me read about the v2 rockets and scared the heck out. I mean, I thought they were coming. And so this now we channel, we don't have a great big civil rights movement to get all excited about it. And pockets of people seem to get interested in things like the environment, we got water people over here, and you got air people over there, and you got food people over here. But no great big sense of, Hey, everybody, we're all against cancer, we're all against a bad environment. It's a pockets of things. And so into those into the spaces come these various other movements that in a way you look like you're poking fun at and yet, you're saying well, maybe they maybe they are okay, given all the other circumstances.
Tom Wolfe 8:01
Now, I think they're interesting. And they and you know, that they don't seem to mean necessarily something to despair over at all, because it could be that people will get great satisfaction maybe that they will expand their lives through this kind of kind of impulse. It really started in the 60s with the psychedelic or hippie movement. You know, the psychedelic movement made religion hip for young people, was an astonishing thing. Very few people went into, say Ken Kesey, these Merry Pranksters, or whatever it was, to be religious, they went in for kicks. But once they were there, the thing all suddenly started turning quite religious. And it happens in the following way really quickly, partly through LSD. But aside from that, it happens through getting into the notion that you're going to strip away the junk from your self, to find the real me this started way back way back in the in the in the hippie period. Ken Kesey and his group would have regular meetings once a week out and in these tents outside of Keyes cabin underneath the Redwoods in La Honda, California, and a person just like as in the senior societies, and just as in a marathon encounter groups today, somebody would be it and that person's personality would be would be analyzed. And once you get into the notion that you're going to strip away the junk of civilization from your life, you get into the same frame of mind as the early Christians
John Callaway 9:30
I was going to say say Christ in the disciples and you got to get rid of that. Right You got to get rid of the business you got to get you got to come follow me, man.
Tom Wolfe 9:36
Yeah, and get rid of your your, even your your worldly ambitions and all the rest. And the idea is that at the apex of every human soul, there is a spark from the light of God. And this even goes back before Christian Era to Hindu, the origins of Hinduism. And once you get into once you reach that point, then it really does become religious. because now you're merging with some sort of over with some sort of oversell. So that a Erika foundation for example, which in many ways, a very worldly is to teach people to just straighten out their lives and so on, has ended up being a religion SANAD which started off as a drug rehabilitation program. You started using the marathon encounter technique, as a technique for dealing with addiction. Now it's a religion. And there are many lay members of SANAD a lay member, somebody who is not first an addict. And this thing is building and building. In fact, now we have a what six weeks we'll have seven weeks a President of the United States coming from out of this new religious wave that's connected isn't entry and is connected. It's the, the hipness of the hippie movement attracted young people to fundamental fundamentalist religions because fundamentalist religions were ecstatic. They had some of the ecstasy, the emotion, the holy rolling the talking in tongues of an LSD experience. And after all the 60s when the churches, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal church, the Catholic churches, are all trying to reach the urban young people. That's all they talked about. And they thought the way you did that was to have a Hootenanny down in the church basement, have the preacher come down and play the guitar, wear a turtleneck sweater with the bits of jazzman of bark woven into it from Norway and all the rest and have a coffee shop down there. And have they have joined in civil rights marches. And in other words, turned the church into a great sort of hip secular movement. Well, this didn't impress young people at all because they made the churches look like these aging arteriosclerotic, arthritic groupies trying to keep up with secular movements. But what what they finally went for was fundamentalism little tub thumping, a little hallelujah and a little rolling on the floor. And this in turn, gave an entire because young people liked it gave an entire new lift to evangelical movements. So you had people like Harold Hughes, a US senator resigning from the Senate to become an evangelist. He then one of his convert becomes Charles Colson of the Nixon hardball squad, and I think it's a sincere religious experience. And then finally, of course, Jimmy Carter, our our next president a born again. Carter at first tried to hide the fact that he was a fundamentalist, but he wasn't gonna deny it. I mean, he was an honest man, he's okay. I'm a fund... and to his amazement, I think people liked it. They responded, Well, this is they responded to Jerry Brown is in Jesuit from California, they liked it. Then his advisers got to him and they started saying, but listen, a lot of people are turned off by this stuff. So it's just a soft peddle it Jimmy. A lot of people don't like this fundamentalist stuff. So thin, he made almost the mistake that almost wiped him out the Playboy interview, where he tried to show that even though he was a fundamentalist, he was also a regular fellow. Instead, I think he should have given the interview. But four out of them were talking about political strategy. Now, he should have pointed towards the interviewer, he should have said, Yes, I'll give you an interview. Because I want the world to know that your sheet is scandalous. It is pure sin, from page one to page 424 is probably the length of the carnage. And then he should have said, and the idea of a man having a sinful thought in his heart for another man's wife, even a thought is an abomination. And such people will be dealt with at Armageddon. Because on the day of Armageddon, where are you going to be when it comes time to kiss the snake? I think this people would have loved it. Even people who are sleeping around slipping around even shorter who comes in after the after the man of the house leaves the leaves the house and short is short. You can't see him you know, he comes in and gets things done. goes on. Even shorty would have loved this kind of messy we're in that period. Now the wave is started his religious way of starting.
John Callaway 14:17
You know, what I've always wondered about is you write so well and you talk so well about these things. Have you come through this yourself personally? Did you come out of Richmond Virginia with a fundamentalist experience and maybe try a little dope over here a little this or are you relentlessly down the middle of taking notes or however it is you operate?
Tom Wolfe 14:33
I felt like I was in a I was raised a Presbyterian but I feel like I missed out on all of this because my main memory of the Presbyterian Church is being going to sleep during the prayer. The prayers were longer than the sermons, person would go on for about 20 minutes. And I did get rather close to this whole sort of movement when I did the electric Kool Aid acid test about Ken Kesey he and his group. And I find it was the first time I'd ever been in the midst of have a primary religious group. One reason I did the book was that it seemed to me I was able to watch in the creation of this religious group and Kesey would never call it a religious group. He would when he spoke of God, he's calling cosmos. It's a Cosmo does this. And so I tried to take the curse off, but it was religious. I had never been in such a group. And it was, it was an atmosphere that was absolutely uncanny. And I could see how people could really be drawn. I was, I must say, I was tempted. Kesey came to me one day. And he said, he said, Look, why don't you put your notebook away? And just be here for a while. And that was a typical Kesey way of saying, why don't you join and experience it, and then write about it, really make it your life, make the commitment, as we might say, in religious terminology. And I did find it sort of tempting, because Kesey idea of moving off the dead center of trying to see just what potential you had, was an engaging thought to me. But I also I thought it over one night. And I also knew, though, that I wanted so many things I wanted to write. I had this dream, I still do. I don't know, if I last long enough, somehow covering this whole country. Because this is the most amazing era in the history of the... This is a bizarre nation we're in and we journalists have only scratched the surface. Well, anyway, I knew that I wanted to keep writing about many things. And I also knew that you didn't, it was impossible to be a participant observer. In a group like the any religious group, man, Norman Hartweg, a gifted playwright, was writing a column for the Los Angeles free press, and he decided he was going to join kesey's group, five days a week he was going to be part of the pranksters, and on the weekend, he's gonna write this column for the free press about his experiences. Well, this lasted just about seven days. On the end of the seventh sounds like the book of Genesis doesn't end of the seventh day he took me through his Olivetti over one shoulder and his Nikon over the other and just became part of the practice. So and it was all or nothing proposition. The next day, I showed up with my notebook and my big 19 ballpoint pen, and Kesey got the message. He didn't say any more. He didn't say, Get out of here. He realized that I had there was a decision you made a choice. Yeah. So I guess I am. I didn't really get on the bus as used to be called in Kesey's group. And I haven't, I know that some of the groups that I've written about in the me decade and Mauve Gloves and Madmen Cluttering Vine kind of felt that I was making fun of them. And I got letters from people in these groups saying, really, rather than sweet letters saying, they're still hope for you, at least you're interested. And that kind of touched me in a way. But I, I suppose I am detached. In that sense, and yet I try to write if I can, I try to write as if I'm inside the central nervous system of these people, if possible,
John Callaway 18:02
what makes people feel that you are amused with them or putting them down? Is your decision as a writer to describe for example, at some length, clothing? And, and there's, there's my view of your writing and to make your own peculiar formulations, verbal formulations, or, or word formulations of characteristics, behavior, groups, that sort of thing. Kandy-Kolored? People think oh, that's Wolfe is. Wolfe is putting the needle in he's, he's cute. I gotta ask you question. Why are you wearing a white suit? This is being recorded on a very cold evening in Chicago, Illinois in December,
Tom Wolfe 18:47
this I kind of miss cue to tell the truth. I do have I do like to wear my winter whites. But Chicago really did me and I just came in to town. I felt like the eye all day, and now I felt like the lemon drop kid. I don't if you ever saw that movie, but an old Bob Hope movie in which his greatest opening scene I've ever seen you come into Penn Station from Hialeah. He's just coming from Florida to Penn Station in New York. It's a day like today in Chicago. And he's got on his white Palm Beach suit. And there's a scene and Marcel Marceau couldn't have done it better of Bob Hope trying to walk up Seventh Avenue against the wind. I guess it's also though, even though I realized that the white suit today is a back number. When Jerry Rubin went on television in body paint. I knew that there was no way that I could possibly keep ahead of the game. sartorially maybe it's my maybe it's my the only armor I have I'm not sure. You know, clothing into seriously is for everybody is a is a dead giveaway to everybody with the person who wears it. It's a sim it's symbolic communication member Suzanne Langer used to talk about symbolic logic. It's symbolic communication, the message of which is you usually more obvious to the onlooker than the than the person with the with the messaging I just in California in California just the mere fact that I have that I wear a necktie and a suit leads to always awkward things I'm every time I'm in a restaurant somebody comes to me and asked if the table by the window is free. The only people who are where the men's room is because the only people who wear coats and ties in in Los Angeles today are people working in restaurants.
John Callaway 20:30
My grandfather wore suspenders. I love suspenders. I think it's because my I love my granddad and he wore suspenders. And besides it keeps your pants up. And I've gone on on the news broadcasts from time to time with no jacket and suspenders. Well, some nights we can't get a rise I mean, we tell people about death and destruction etc. And yeah, they're no telephone calls anything like it's another news cast. I mean, you know, the weapons are coming. I want to suspenders, I get telephone calls. Don't you come? Don't you come into our living room half dressed young man. Very interesting.
Tom Wolfe 21:05
Well, style really does get very close to people. They don't like to admit it. People don't like to admit they're affected by style, but it happens all the time. And that's why there's so much attention to things that seem trivial on the surface, such as whether Jimmy Carter is going to wear a silk topper to the inauguration or felt hat. All right, well, I think he should come on with a straw hat with the air holes on top of the like a real and bib overalls. I mean, when I when I do the thing when I do the thing all the way but it does it. It takes on an important far beyond what people like to give to, to, to matters of, of style. And I think I'll give you an example of how big results remember the phrase the new left? It's hard to remember today, just how big the new left movement in the colleges was in the late 60s. It was tremendous people quaked. I remember going to Princeton commencement 1970 When two members of the New Left took over the commencement they jumped up on stage they took the microphones I turned to the president of Princeton was Robert Goheen, and they said okay, Bobby baby. It's all coming down now Mr. Jones This is that moment you've been fearing all your life and you know it has your little eyeballs congeal into ice we're going to tell you about human litter and then the guy points out to all the alumni there's human letter and here was 1/3 of Wall Street. The other two thirds were in Cambridge in New Haven that particular day and they were quaking at the at the new left. Well, the new left was quite a force people the people running many parts of the phases of our whole country felt that their children were in revolution against them now if the new left could have done one thing that it tried to do. Oh, and pulled it off, it might have been a huge force we will be still talking about it. That was a it was an attempt made to recruit working class youth constantly these attempts to go into factories and get blue collar youth into the new left because after all was supposed to be a counterculture at that time all the young were supposed to be thinking the same way but they weren't and a lot of the resentment was caused by style because members of the New Left would come in dressed dressing down in there they wouldn't were just playing the Ferro brand blue jeans they would wear these can't bust 'em brand with the with the gorilla on the back you know real baggy balloon seat Levi's they come in with with combat boots and those olive green socks you buy for two for 29 at the Army Navy store, they come in with the you know the beret and and the the miners with dirty faces look and instance after instance, working class people are real street youth to use a term from that period would say these guys are playing poor. They're they're they're actors. And even if they agreed with them, even if you gave them a political checklist, and they agreed with everything, the fact that the the dress itself was something that because of this power of the symbolic communication of dress was something that said these told them these people are acting we were going to go our own way and the new left always fractured, fell apart at the at the at the key moment.
John Callaway 24:40
Tom, a lot of people have read, read your books or have read that those who haven't read your books have read the titles of them. And because you're writing about Ken Kesey or because you're writing about groups and institutions which made them seem way out and on the cutting edge of society. They think that that you are that you're here you're wearing your white suit man, isn't he snazzy and he must just be one of those cutting edge way out sorts people and yet you're being described in some quarters as a very conservative writer, you should be grouped with William Buckley.
Tom Wolfe 25:11
Also as a Philistine. I don't don't not forget that one
John Callaway 25:14
And you write and you write movingly in this book about Solzhenitsyn. Do you consider yourself conservative?
Tom Wolfe 25:24
I don't consider Well, I've written a little piece in the appeared on symposium and commentary on the subject of liberal and the question was, do the terms liberal and conservative mean anything today? And I said that most people have their whole political outlook set in their teenage years, and never change thereafter. So you should use teenage terminology. The current teenage terminology is Jocks and freaks. So I think we should eliminate the jock would be conservative and freaks would be liberal. And since it's a child, the idea is basically a child, a teenager, rather childish one might as well use the proper terminology, which was a kind of roundabout way of saying that I think that terms have been absolutely corrupted today, you see what the real, here's the real case, if you identify with the orthodoxy, the fashion let me know, Orthodox is too heavy, because it's not a heavy thing. If you If you disagree, or take issue with our make sport of the intellectual fashions of our day, then this makes you this mate. This means that you will be called a conservative if you read a book, as I didn't call it, about modern art, in which you treat it as a fashion show how fashion operated in creation of styles, and reputations in art, then this qualifies you not only as a conservative, but as a Philistine, the Philistines a marvelous word. The word culture is a marvelous word. Culture is the word that is used when taste has been elevated to a system of beliefs. Therefore, once it's great, because once you attack that taste, or make fun of it, as I seem to do in the painted word, then you are not simply attacking, attacking some sort of taste. You're attacking culture, which is an immoral thing to do. And you don't have to argue the issue anymore because you can brand it as Philistine that's, that's what Phillip a Philistine as a transgressor against the religion.
John Callaway 27:30
Not only were you a brand dresser, but you weren't an establishment transcribing you were not an art critic.
Tom Wolfe 27:37
Thank God. Our critics are the great practices of cruel and unusual punishment of the of the English language.
John Callaway 27:45
But were you a jock? At the age of 15? Philosophically? No, Greek.
Tom Wolfe 27:52
No, I, in fact, I've always usually was being castigated for not getting involved in, in politics, and I still get it. I get a bit of that. So people want to be able to put you in a slot. They want to be able to say you're a conservative, and they will anybody who disagrees with any of the just try disagreeing, for example, with the orthodoxy and current architecture. Current architecture is something that's only 75 years old now.
John Callaway 28:19
And it is a subject we'll have to discuss another evening. But orthodoxy we will not accuse you of if we are to look at your title of your new book called Mauve Gloves and Madmen Clutter and Vine. Thank you, Tom Wolfe for being with us this evening. I'm John Calloway. Good night.
Description: INTERVIEW WITH WRITER TOM WOLFE 12/2/76
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