Tom Wolfe thinks the concept of community status offers the most fertile ground for young writers, a notion that is vastly under-explored. Social status undergirds much of Wolfe’s writing, cautionary tales against the pursuit of wealth or power at the expense of protagonists’ moral character. His warnings are wildly popular, book sales prove, though his biting, culturally conservative observations are often pilloried by the mainstream artistic glitterati.
“I would like to see more reporting about social rank,” Wolfe said Wednesday while charming a crowd of young professionals at an event sponsored by The Manhattan Institute think tank. “Everyone’s life is consumed by status of the group they’re associated with … as long as your life is not in danger, every moment it consumes your thoughts.”
Wolfe’s first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, catalogued the excesses of 1980s Wall Street moguls, concerned with the personal, moral choices of characters, rather attacking their economic system. Indeed, Wolfe on Wednesday bemoaned the ethos behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, which he said pits classes against each other.
“People don’t think in terms of ‘99 percent’ and ‘One percent,’” said Wolfe, always the Southern gentleman dandy, dressed immaculately in his signature, white tailored suit. “I wish the press would stop mentioning it.”
A Man in Full, Wolfe’s 1998 novel, highlights the ideals of ancient Stoicism, that people can and should make moral choices in spite of tempting external stimuli, including the pursuit of status. One could argue that Wolfe seeks a society in which people uphold traditional values in their personal lives, pursuing wealth and power yet refusing to collapse into depravity should that pursuit collide with individual rectitude.
Columnist Paul Krugman recently opined that pursuit of social status through lower-taxed capitalism is undermining economic equality and societal stability. His arguments are deftly counteracted by American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard, who describes the overwhelming consumer surplus–the vast improvements in life quality–that flow away from high-status seekers toward mass consumers. Yet if economist Adam Smith showed us the systemically desirable fruit of capitalism, which enables the best chance of success in life through pursuit of self-interest, Wolfe shows us the dark side of extreme self-interest without moral compass.
Without overt preaching, Wolfe’s writing illustrates the impact of the demise of traditional bourgeois values in American society. Though not a policy analyst, Wolfe’s cultural observation is backed by quantitative data showing the collapse of the nuclear family is a primary driver in the perpetuation of poverty in America.
When I asked him whether there was any way of reversing these trends, carefully documented by Harvard-trained political scientist Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Wolfe was not hopeful.
“I can’t imagine that there is,” he replied.
At 83, Wolfe, the prolific social analyst is still clairvoyant and lively, his most recent book, Back to Blood, released in 2012 warns of what he calls “bloodthirsty brotherhoods,” the secular replacement for traditional Judeo-Christian values with identity tribalism.
Wolfe’s body of work is astoundingly successful, selling millions of books, landing him a reported $7 million advance for Back to Blood. Last year the New York Public Library paid $2.1 million from for his personal papers, preserving decades of entertaining philosophical foray into the forces governing human behavior.
New York Times columnist David Brooks joked that Wolfe was so prescient in his novel plotlines preceding real-life events that “God is plagiarizing him.”
“I think of the individual as vertical and the society as this broad plane,” Wolfe told the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson. “And you’re going to change when you intersect with society, whether you want to or not.”