Author Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday in New York City, came to Kansas City some 40 years ago and turned the local art community on its head.
Wolfe had the effrontery to speak to a midwest gathering of the Association of Art Critics about art criticism, a subject he had delightfully skewered in his then recent book, The Painted Word. The event was set up as something of a debate with Wolfe on one one side and three professional critics on the other.
Although the audience seemed initially hostile to Wolfe, he made his case so skillfully and congenially he won the audience over before the night was through. This was Wolfe’s perennial style, making converts, not enemies.
This style carried Wolfe through a 50-plus-year career as America’s foremost conservative writer without the media ever fully catching on that he was conservative. The Kansas City Star, for instance, ran a lengthy Associated Press article on Wolfe’s career without the words “conservative” or “right wing” ever appearing.
And yet throughout his career, Wolfe sliced and diced liberals and their pretensions with glee. His lengthy 1969 piece “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” immortalized composer Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers at his opulent New York digs in all its glorious hypocrisy. So dead-on was Wolfe’s reportage that the phrase “radical chic” entered the lexicon and never left.
Tom Wolfe introduced several other lasting phrases into America’s language, none more fundamental than “the right stuff,” the title of his stirring 1979 best seller on high-speed experimental aircraft and the evolution of Project Mercury.
In the 1980s, Wolfe turned his attention to fiction and hit the motherlode with his first novel, the satirical Bonfire of the Vanities. In his character, the Reverend Bacon, Wolfe foreshadowed the emergence of the Rev. Al Sharpton before anyone but New York news junkies had heard of him. The book also anticipated the PR-driven template of every racial brouhaha in the 30 years that have followed the book’s publication.
Today, the mainstream media will rarely even review a book by a conservative author, and if they do it is almost inevitably a pan. Tom Wolfe knew how to navigate the liberal world.
True, when he started, its seas were not nearly as dark and angry as they are today, but to the very end, Wolfe always managed to find his way.