Ready to light a new bonfire?


Tom Wolfe's next novel may skewer academia. But first he's coming to Hopkins -- to accept a medal.

May 20, 2001|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Since the mid-1960s, Tom Wolfe has anatomically dissected U.S. institutions ranging from the space program to stock car racing, from the pomposities of limousine radicals to the postmodernist high-art market, from urban grub politics to Olympian venture capitalism. And more, lots more.

None of those books has failed to yield, cooing on one flank, a righteous chorus of admirers who believe Wolfe has the clearest grasp of the American social fabric of anyone writing. Gnashing at the other flank is a pack of condemners balefully keening he is dead, wise-guy, reactionary wrong.

Right now, he is hard at work on a novel set on a U.S. college campus, targeted for publication in the autumn of 2002. So it is not without a certain tingling potential for irony that Johns Hopkins University tomorrow evening will bestow upon him its President's Medal, "in recognition of his distinguished contributions to journalism, literature, and contemporary American culture."

Wolfe stands diffident, if not stone silent, about the nature of his book in progress, except to say that it will be written mainly from the viewpoint of contemporary undergraduates. That's in contrast to his elaborate, five-vantage-point, immensely successful last novel, "A Man in Full." He is equally taciturn about the talk he is scheduled to give at Shriver Hall in accepting the medal.

Still, deductions may be drawn.

Introducing Wolfe, Hopkins President William R. Brody will note that the occasion is the 70th anniversary of the Friends of Johns Hopkins University Libraries. Wolfe is known to believe the world is a better place for the existence of libraries than it would be without them -- and quite possibly may say so.

If he does, it will be a courtly performance. And if he goes further and speaks about controversy in and about the American academy, he will do that with grace as well. He is a Richmond, Va., native who was graduated from Washington and Lee and earned a doctorate at Yale in 1957. He is a man whose double-breasted white or beige suits have virtually never been seen unbuttoned. He's not a tub-thumping, brimstone-breathing speaker. For Wolfe, persuasion is work fit for the pen.

Such is his civility that the gentry of Atlanta all but paved his every path with plucked flower petals when he went there 2 1/2 years ago to tout "A Man in Full" -- despite a widespread conclusion that Wolfe had put a harsher hand to the Georgia capital than Sherman had while marching to the sea 134 years earlier.

Academic research

And so it may be with his novel of academic values. Asked if the book is to be about culture warfare -- the battle between aesthetic theory and artistic practice -- Wolfe quite firmly insists, "Actually, this is going to be seen mostly through the eyes of students, and I am not sure that's all that much on their minds."

Provocatively, though, in next moment of the interview, he cites among several "wonderful faculty novels," "The Handmaid of Desire," by John L'Heureux. That 1996 novel, he says, is "based on the comparative literature department and related departments at Stanford. It's very funny and it's right on the subject." And Wolfe has spent substantial time in the last two years doing research at Stanford, the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What does that suggest?

In the words of novelist Evelyn Toynton's New York Times review of "The Handmaid," that university faculty was "sharply divided into two groups, fools and Turks, the fools being those older, fuzzily benevolent types who retain a wistful fondness for literature, although none of them is any longer foolish enough, or brave enough, to pretend seriously that it still matters. Everything about them is an object of scorn to their younger, hipper colleagues, whose devotion to 'the probing, thrusting, hard-breathing analysis of the latest developments in metaphilosophical transliterary theory' is second only to their ferocious ambition for themselves. Constantly scheming to humiliate their enemies, and to attain more sex, power and money (in roughly that order), the Turks are a thoroughly envious, discontented lot; the death of literature, like the death of God that preceded it, would not appear to have contributed much to the general happiness."

If the glow of his enthusiasm for the L'Heureux novel means that Wolfe will take academia's theory heads head on, history dictates that he will do it with consummate surgical suavity, backed by exhaustive and punctilious research.

His 'Three Stooges'

However his new book may evolve, it will be controversial in the U.S. literary hothouse. That is guaranteed by the far-from-pretty battle that rages in cycles between Wolfe (and Wolfe's work and principles) on one hand and, on the other, Grand Old Men of American fiction -- particularly Norman Mailer, John Irving and John Updike.

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