Kathleen J. Weatherford, Tom Wolfe’s Billion-Footed Beast

Tom Wolfe’s
Billion-Footed Beast
Kathleen J. Weatherford
Copenhagen University
At a time when the daily violence in some American cities has come to exceed
that in many of the world’s war zones, any book that attempts to portray contemporary
urban conditions in the United States is taking on a formidable task.
Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities combines the frenetic chase
for money and social status among New York’s economic elite on Wall Street
and Park Avenue with the despair of America’s underprivileged in the South
Bronx, one of the nation’s most poverty-stricken areas-all in a spirit of
savage satire.1 Through its acerbic humor and intricate plot, involving the
social and political uproar after the accidental fatal injury of a ghetto boy by
Manhattan socialites, the book shows how the various social, ethnic, and economic
factions that make up New York society battle for control of America’s
largest city and prey upon one another in their struggle. In The Bonfire of the
Vanities, Wolfe captures the reckless, go-to-hell atmosphere of the 1980s, and
his own recent metaphor of a “wild ride” through American civilization is an
apt description of what it can be like to read the book.2
The Bonfire of the Vanities has created about as big a sensation in the
United States as could ever be expected from a work of fiction appearing in
book form rather than on the television or movie screen. Although Wolfe’s
fashionable women, called “social x-rays” and “lemon tarts,” will probably
never be as well known to the general public as the naughty women of
“Dallas” or the afternoon soap operas, Wolfe’s novel has proven itself a
remarkably marketable item. After having been the number one longest-running
hardcover best seller for 1988, The Bonfire of the Vanities was still
1 Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (New York: Bantam, 1987).
2 Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Manifesto for the New Social Novel,”
Harper’s Magazine, November 1985, p. 56.
82 American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
selling strong in paperback and even beating out the thrills of Stephen King’s
Tommyknockers in the last weeks of that year.3 And not only were a great
many people buying the book, but even college professors had begun almost
immediately to make it required reading in their sociology and contemporary
literature courses. The appearance of “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A
Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel” in Harper’s Magazine of
November 1989, exactly two years after the publication of the book, seemed to
signal that Wolfe had established himself as an important fiction writer and
that the reading public was hungry for his word on the art of novel writing.
Wolfe’s comparison of the process of writing and reading about contemporary
American society to “a wild ridem-an exhilarating flight through the
ether or a roller-coaster ride-comes at the end of “Stalking the Billion-
Footed Beast.” In his manifesto Wolfe plays the role of literary historian and
critic, as well as explicator of his own aims in writing the novel. “Stalking the
Billion-Footed Beast7′ has three overt objectives: a review of American fiction
and the theoretical discussions of it in the last three decades, a re-declaration
of beliefs Wolfe expressed in 1973 in his introduction to The New Journalism,
and most important, an after-the-fact statement of intention for The Bonfire of
the Vanities in which Wolfe attempts to relate his own novel to the literary
productions of great novelists of previous centuries.
Upon first reading, Wolfe’s manifesto appears heartening in one respect: it
purports to stand up for the idea that art and life, literature and the world have
something to do with one another. Wolfe advocates literature that involves
itself directly with life as it is lived in America today in the midst of seeming
chaos and insanity. He says that “the answer is not to leave the rude beast, the
material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists but to do what
journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it
to terms.”4 This pronouncement, as well as Wolfe’s statement that his novel
was an attempt to cram “as much of New York City between the coversns as he
could, rings courageous against the din of post-structural literary criticism that
would have everyone believe that all writing is pure artifice unconnected with
reality and “the world.” Finally, however, like all literary manifestos, Wolfe’s
is primarily self-serving: it attempts to speak for the kind of literature Wolfe
would like to write and claims that that kind of literature is what is in fact
most needed at the moment.
Wolfe’s manifesto is at least as much a reaction against other self-serving
manifestos-particularly those by writers who have seen the novel as a dying
genre or as a mode for discussing fiction itself-as it is a statement against
recent trends in literary theory. In 1967 John Barth suggested in his essay
3 Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1989; March 10, 1989.
4 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 55.
5 Zbid., p. 45.
“The Literature of Exhaustion” that perhaps “the novel, if not narrative literature
generally, if not the printed word altogether, has by this hour of the
world just about shot its bolt.”6 Barth’s essay concerns itself not with the relationship
between literature and society, but with fiction as a self-reflexive
means of expression that can turn “the artist’s mode or form into a metaphor
for his concerns.”7 Barth is fascinated by the work of J. L. Borges who can
write “a remarkable and original work of literature, the implicit theme of
which is the difficulty, perhaps the unnecessity, of writing original works of
literature.”g Later in 1979, Barth clarified and moderated his often misunderstood
statements of 1967. In “The Literature of Replenishment” he explains
that he did not mean to say that fiction was “kaput” but to admonish those
writers who thought that they could adopt the techniques of “nineteenth-
.century middle-class realism” and write as if the “modernist enterprise” had
never taken place. His objection is to those writers who write as if their twentieth-
century predecessors had never existed. Barth’s idea1,postmodernist
writer “neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentiethcentury
modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents.
He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back.”g
The interest in self-referential fiction that Barth demonstrated in 1967 finds
even more radical expression in the manifestos of Raymond Federman and
Ronald Sukenick, printed in Surjfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (1975) an
entire volume devoted to discussing fiction that discusses itself. In “Surfiction:
Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction” (1975), Federman proselytizes
for fiction that is not only self-reflexing but that also bares the illusive nature
of reality:
for me, the only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to
explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in
man’s imagination and not in man’s distorted vision of reality-that reveals man’s irrationality
rather than man’s rationality. This I call SURFICTION. However, not because it
imitates reality, but because it exposes the fictionality of reality.10
Federman argues that such common notions as plot and order must be done
away with and that the age-old metaphor of literature as a mirror must be
6 “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic 220 (1967), pp. 29-34. Reprinted in The Friday
Book (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974), p. 71.
7 Ibid.
8 Zbid., p. 69.
9 “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction.” Atlantic 245 (1979): 65-71.
Reprinted. in The Friday Book., pp.205, 203.
10 Raymond Federman, “Surfiction–Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction.”
Surjiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, edited Raymond Federman (Chicago: The Swallow
Press Inc., 1975), p. 7.
84 American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
recognized as outmoded. Fiction “will no longer be a representation of something
exterior to it, but self-representation. That is to say, rather than being
the stable image of daily life, fiction will be in a perpetual state of redoubling
upon itself.”ll Ronald Sukenick also speaks about freeing fiction “from the
representational and the need to imitate some version of reality other than its
own.”l2 Attention first of all to the fictionality of fiction and second to the
fictionality of what we generally speak of as reality-the world out there-is
what preoccupied many writers of the 1960s and 1970s and provides the
background for much of Wolfe’s discussion in “Stalking the Billion-Footed
Reacting against the notion that “a novel is a sublime literary game7′-the
bogie that he says has haunted American literature for the past three decades-
Wolfe asserts the main principle of his creed: “It is not merely that reporting
is useful in gathering the petits faits vrais that create verisimilitude and make a
novel gripping or absorbing . . . . My contention is that, especially in an age like
this, they are essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve.”
Literature ought not return to “the primal origins of fiction, back to a happier
time, before realism and all its contaminations, back to myth, fable, and legend,”
as the Neo-Fabulists have mistakenly done, but should deal instead with
the complexity of the here and now. Wolfe asserts that the best means of
reclaiming “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hogstomping Baroque country
of ours” as “literary property” is through documentation-through the sort of
research journalists employ in their reporting. But for all his protest against
the last thirty years of retreat into unreality, Wolfe is surprisingly careless in
the way he deals with facts about other writers and in his presentation of
literary history. Finally, the manifesto betrays itself as the kind of verbal game
playing Wolfe himself openly denigrates.13
Several well-known writers were invited by Harper’s Magazine to comment
on Wolfe’s manifesto in letters to the editor. These letters were printed in the
February 1990 issue, and many took Wolfe to task. Philip Roth objects that
Wolfe misrepresented him to “serve the thesis of his literary manifesto for the
new social novel.” Roth says that Wolfe’s assessment of his essay “Writing
American Fiction7′ (1961) is incorrect.14 Wolfe mistakenly reports that by
1961 Roth was having “second thoughts” about the “brilliant … but, alas,
highly realistic” Goodbye, Columbus and that other young writers learned
from Roth that “it was time to avert their eyes.”ls Roth testifies that this was
11 Ibid., p. 11.
12 Ronald Sukenick, “The New Tradition in Fiction.” Surfiction: Fictton Now and
Tomorrow, p. 44.
13 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” pp. 48,49, 55.
14 “Tom Wolfe’s Novel Ideas,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1990, p. 4
15 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 48.
not the case at all and that his essay was “not a manifesto but an analysis” of
what he saw as a “postwar literary trend.”l6 A glance at the essay in question
reveals that in fact Roth was just as perplexed and concerned about how to deal
with the incredibility of daily events in America as Wolfe is. Roth campaigns
for nothing in the essay but merely observes that there are “certain obsessions
and innovations, to be found in the novels of our best writers, supporting the
notion that the social world has ceased to be as suitable or as manageable a
subject as it once may have been.”l7
Philip Roth is not the only writer who takes exception to Wolfe’s manifesto.
Others, like John Hawkes, “deplore Wolfe’s self-serving attacks on other
writers” and resent what they see as a skewed presentation of American
literary history since the beginning of the 1960s.18 Alison Lurie finds fault
with Wolfe’s sexist presentation of American writing, as she notes that of the
forty-eight writers mentioned, only two are women, and are cited only in
passing.19 Mary Gordon points out that Wolfe complains that writers have
neglected the issue of race relations but does not even bother to mention Toni
Morrison.20 These comments from other writers put many of Wolfe’s
statements in a dubious light, but the manifesto itself is worth examining
closely for its own argument and for what it suggests about The Bonfire of the
Vanities and about Wolfe’s real ambitions as a writer.
Wolfe admits in his manifesto that one of the motivations behind his novel
was that he wanted to fulfil a prediction and prove a point that he had made in
The New Journalism in 1973. In the manifesto he restates that point: “that the
future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on
reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a
realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation
to the society around him.”21 Wolfe’s repetition here is symptomatic of the
manifesto as a whole. There is little that is new. Unlike Barth, Wolfe has not
revised his earlier declarations on the nature of literature. In fact, Wolfe does
not just refer to his earlier ideas; he even repeats their exact formulation. For
example, his disbelief in the affective power of some of the greatest writers in
history is restated word for word and reused as an argument for realism: “No
one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and
heroines in Homer, Sophocles, Molibre, Racine, Sydney, Spenser, or
Shakespeare. Yetz2 even the impeccable Lord Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh
16 “Tom Wolfe’s Novel Ideas,” p. 4.
17 Philip Roth, “Writing American Fiction,Commentary 31 (1961), pp. 223-333. Reprinted
in Reading Myselfand Others (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 181.
18 “Tom Wolfe’s Novel Ideas,” p. 11.
19 Ibid., p. 8.
20 Ibid., p. 9.
21 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 50.
22 “But” is written instead of “yet” in The New Journalism, p. 34.
86 American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
Review, confessed to having cried-blubbered,23 boohooed, snuffled, and
sighed-over the death of Little NelP4 in The Old Curiosity Shop.” The point
of this anecdote and piece of reader-response criticism is pronounced in the
following assertion and analogy, also virtually verbatim from The New
Journalism: “For writers to give up this power25 in the quest for a more up-todate26
kind of fiction-it is as if an engineer were to set out to develop a more
sophisticated machine technology by first of all discarding the principle of
electricity.”27 The statement in the manifesto ends with the phrase, “on the
grounds that it has been used ad nauseam for a hundred years”28-Wolfe’s
only new addition to a nearly twenty-year-old sentence. In one sense Wolfe’s
manifesto is consistent: he says nothing about fiction as a genre here that he
has not said before.
Wolfe’s pronouncement on Homer, Sophocles, Molikre, Racine, Sydney,
Spenser, and Shakespeare is certain to awake suspicion among many readers.
That this statement is actually a word-for-word repetition of a statement made
in The New Journalism suggests that it expresses a sentiment particularly close
to Wolfe’s heart. To the reader who may have shed a tear over the classic
heros and heroines, Wolfe’s declaration seems remarkably obtuse. But even
aside from one’s subjective reaction, Wolfe’s pronouncement indicates
doubtful assumptions about the criteria by which literature should be judged.
The capacity to evoke tears-a capability that Wolfe’s own novel does not
have-becomes the means of measuring the value of a work of art. The statement
also implies that works like The Odyssey and Hamlet contain little that is
realistic, but that Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, generally acknowledged as one
of Dickens’ most sentimental works, and particularly the chapter on Little
Nell’s death, represent the epitome of realism. The conclusion Wolfe draws
from this generalization is ambiguous. His beginning phrase-“For writers to
give up this power”-is obscure, as it is not clear what “this” refers to, but
perhaps Wolfe means the power to move readers’ emotions, presumably
through realism. But one glance at the scene mentioned from Dickens’ novel
shows that realism hardly figures and that the affective power arises from a
kind of desoription that is all but realistic. A few lines from Dickens’ chapter
on Nell’s death expose the fallacy in Wolfe’s argument:
She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look
upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life;
not one who had lived and suffered death.
23 “actually blubbered” is written in The New Journalism , p. 35.
24 The New Journalism has “Dickens’ Little Nell,” p. 35.
25 The New Journalism has “unique power,” p. 35.
26 The phrase is “sophisticated kind of fiction” in The New Journalism (35).
27 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 50-51.
28 Ibid., p. 51.
Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow
was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil
beauty and profound rep0se.~9
Dicken’s portrayal of Nell’s death combines quasi-religious description with
blatant sentimentality. The passage plays upon the reader’s feelings, not by
describing the dead Nell in minute, realistic detail, but by using idealized
depiction, pathetic contrast and an elegiac tone evoked by the “ubi sunt?”
Wolfe’s treatment of Zola in his manifesto suffers from the same sort of
brazen carelessness as his reference to Dickens. Wolfe’s admiration for Zola
appears to consist largely in the similarity of their research techniques. Like
Wolfe, Zola visited the places and people he was writing about, taking down
realistic details in his documentation notebooks as he explored slums, railroad
yards, engine decks and coal mines. Wolfe focusses on the “moment of The
Horse in Germinal”30 as the quintessential example of how reporting creates
verisimilitude in fiction. Even a superlkial reading of the passage in question
reveals, however, that it is not Zola’s use of realistic detail that makes the
episode of the horse effective, but his sentimental description drawing upon
personification and the pathetic fallacy.
He [Trompette, the dead horse] had never been able to accustom himself to life underground
and had remained dismal and unwilling to work, tortured by longing for the daylight he had
lost. In vain had Bataille, the father of the pit, given him friendly rubs with his side and
nibbled his neck so as to give him a little of his own resignation after ten years
underground. Caresses only made him more doleful and his skin quivered when his friend
who had grown old in the darkness whispered secrets in his ear. And whenever they met
and snorted together they both seemed to be lamenting-the old one because he could not
now remember, and the young one because he could not forget. They lived side by side in
the stable, lowering their heads into the same manger and blowing into each other’s nostrils,
comparing their unending dreams of daylight, their visions of green pastures, white roads,
and golden sunlight for ever and ever. Then as Trompette, bathed in sweat, lay dying on his
straw, Bataille had begun to sniff at him with heartbroken little sniffs, like sobs . . ..3l
Zola’s horses are friends who whisper secrets to one another, lament, compare
their dreams, mourn and reason about their own death, and suffer physical
effects of grief. Zola’s language is neither realistic nor reminiscent of
29 Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp.
30 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 55.
31 Emile Zola, Germinal. Trans. Leonard Tancock, (New York: Penguin, 1951), p. 401.
8 8 American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
reportage. Although Zola may have originally been inspired by having
witnessed the death of a horse in the mines, the description is highly figurative
as it attributes to horses the feelings of human beings. The effectiveness of the
episode does not rely on realism but upon the reader’s willingness to accept the
validity of Zola’s figuration and his or her ability to identify sympathetically
with the horses.
Wolfe’s examples of realism can hardly be classified as realism at all, and
Wolfe’s manifesto as a whole fails to provide a convincing argument in itself
since the examples Wolfe uses unintentionally undercut his thesis. What is
perhaps most interesting about the manifesto, however, is the disparity
between the way Wolfe suggests he would like to write and the way he actually
does write in Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s examples of “realism” in his
manifesto can be put side by side with The Bonfire of the Vanities in order to
illustrate fundamental differences between the works of Dickens and Zola,
works Wolfe claims to admire, and Wolfe’s own work. Wolfe cites the
descriptions of Little Nell and fallen Trompette in order to illustrate the
capacity of realism for awaking emotion in the reader, but finally the
references to Dickens and Zola serve most effectively to point out what
Wolfe’s own novel does not do-allow the reader to identify with the
characters and arouse his or her empathy and compassion.
Wolfe says that he originally planned to pattern The Bonfire of the Vanities
on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a novel that he soon realized was an inadequate
model since it dealt only with the upper classes of British society. One of
Wolfe’s gestures at realism was to write a novel that dealt with all levels of
New York society including the very extremes-the highest on Wall Street and
Park Avenue and the lowest in the South Bronx. Wolfe explains in his
manifesto that “The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many
currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that
[he] eventually found exhilarating.” He also outlines his intention by referring
to what he sees as the achievement of the realistic novel from Richardson on-
“the demonstration of the influence of society on even the most personal
aspects of the life of the individual.” Modifying Lionel Trilling’s statement
that the great characterization of nineteenth-century novels was achieved
through portrayal of “class traits modified by personality,” Wolfe substitutes
status into Trilling’s formula and asserts that “that technique has never been
more essential in portraying the innermost life of the individual.”32 Wolfe’s
invocation of social novelists of the 1800s, which includes Balzac and Tolstoy
as well as those mentioned above, and his recitation of Trilling’s theoretical
statements are intended to help define his own sense of what a novel should be.
These references do help Wolfe define his intention, but they also help to point
out how the novel differs significantly from the great social novels of the
32 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 56, 51.
previous century and how far Wolfe is from writing the kind of literature that
he claims to want to write.
Wolfe says first of all that he wanted to write a realistic book about life in
America today. There can be no doubt that Wolfe has in fact visited the kinds
of locales that he portrays in his novel and that his descriptions are based upon
detailed notes about people’s appearances, gestures and speech. And the book
does deal with problems of contemporary importance: for example, the overloaded
and hopelessly ineffective court system in crime-ridden areas like the
Bronx, and the tendency of the news media lo control public opinion and root
mercilessly through the lives of those who happen to come under public
scrutiny. Does this therefore make The Bonfire of the Vanities a realistic
book? As Harold H. Kolb points out in The Illusion of Life, “Realistic details
do not define realism” since all writers, including Homer, use details that are
realistic-that supposedly refer to the world of fact.33 Although Wolfe seems
to think that he presents realistic detail as such, he most frequently indulges in
description spiced with similes and metaphors that ironically expose the system
of social charades by which the characters conduct their lives. As mentioned
earlier, Wolfe claims that it is “the petits faits vrais that create verisimilitude”
that are responsible for “the very greatest effects literature can achieve,” and
yet his own novel demonstrates that realistic details alone are quite inadequate
for making good literature.34 Instead, the thrill of reading Wolfe’s novel
comes from his mastery of irony and sarcasm.
One of the strengths of Bonfire of the Vanities lies in Wolfe’s ability to
portray social posturing vividly and to give a name to social pretensions.
Wolfe is a genius at supplying epithets-like “social x-ray” and “Lemon
Tartm–that ironically illuminate the main attributes and mannerisms of his
characters. Wolfe’s proclivity for ironic name-calling, particularly when it
points out the difference between a fictionalized ideal and a debased actuality,
points to the satiric nature of Wolfe’s characterization and of the book as a
whole. Rather than exploring the depths of his characters’ personalities, Wolfe
exposes their superficiality and lack of complexity by resorting to neat,
sarcastic expressions to categorize and mock them.
The superficiality of Wolfe’s characters finds apt expression in the way the
book dwells on surfaces and the outermost life of the individual, as opposed to
the “innermost life of the individual,” something Wolfe claims to be concerned
about in the manifesto. Most of the novel is taken up with manifestations of
characters’ status obsessions. Wolfe is, in fact, at his best when describing
appearances, when portraying the system of signs by which people consciously
or unconsciously indicate their position in society. Wolfe’s New York is the
33 Harold H. Kolb, The Illusion of Life: American Realism as a Literary Form
(Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1969), p. 27.
34 Wolfe, “Manifesto,” p. 55.
90 American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
exhibition hall of social semiotics. Appearance and gesture are what count in
human relationships. What characters say to one another has little import.
The American concern with keeping up appearances takes an extreme form
in this book-creating the right appearance is everyone’s obsession. Only
Sherman, the defendant in the McCoy/Lamb case and the main character of the
novel, is forced to change his ways when his notion of “self” begins to dissolve
as he becomes the object of media attention and public hatred. It does change
his appearance: at the end of the book we are told that he now “dresses for
jail” in “an open-necked sport shirt, khaki pants, and hiking shoes.”35
Wolfe’s dwelling upon surfaces and gestures that constitute social status is
clearly an attempt to show “the influence of society on even the most personal
aspects of the life of the individuaL”36 But one characteristic of Bonfire of the
Vanities that keeps the book from resembling those novels that Wolfe claims
he wants to imitate is that the characters have no personalities; they are mere
conglomerations of their appearances, social gestures and ethnic prejudices.
Because the characters tend to caricature, the “innermost life of the individual”
is never portrayed in a convincing way.37 The characters have attitudes that
the reader will find familiar, but as characters they have no sense of selfhood.
They are first members of some ethnic faction, be it WASP, Jewish, Black, or
Irish, and second, bearers of social signs.
What Wolfe does not do in this book is show “what truly presses upon the
heart of the individual.”38 Wolfe’s characters have no time for an inner life
because they are so caught up in the distractions of the outer one. Wolfe speaks
in admiration of Tolstoy’s “concept of the heart at war with the structure of
society.”39 Yet because he has failed to give his characters hearts, Wolfe’s
book lacks the well-rounded characterization of the great social novels of the
nineteenth century. Wolfe’s irony brilliantly exposes the vanity and hypocrisy
of his characters and of the society he describes. It cannot, however, give even
a glimpse of the deeper motivations and feelings that direct human behavior.
Wolfe’s manifesto shows that he would clearly like to align himself with
writers like Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Thackeray, and Tolstoy, but his style and
tone in the novel show a closer relation to satirists like Fielding and Swift, or
on the American scene, to Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos. But strangely
enough, “satire” is not a word that even appears in Wolfe’s manifesto. The
Bonfire of the Vanities is an ironic expos6 of the affectation in American
society, not an in-depth study of human character, and generally speaking,
35 Bonfire of the Vanities, p. 687.
36 “Manifesto,” p. 5 1.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid., p. 52.
39 Ibid., p. 51.
Wolfe’s techniques are those of the satirist, not the true social novelist. Wolfe
himself, however, does not seem to want to admit this.
Wolfe’s irony is often as obtrusive as Fielding’s and as bitter as Swift’s, but
Wolfe writes without the desire for portraying virtue (as well as vice) that
characterizes the former writer or the passion for censuring moral and social
atrocities that typifies the latter. He exposes but he does not attempt to correct.
All levels of society are treated with the same ruthless irony-the poor of
Wolfe’s New York are no better than the rich, and neither gains the reader’s
sympathy. If there is one thing The Bonfire of the Vanities does not do, it is
incite the reader to philanthropic endeavors or a campaign to improve the
conditions in American cities, or even to the belief that either is possible in
America today.
Wolfe’s penchant for unveiling affectation in American society finds a
parallel in the novels of Sinclair Lewis, another writer who employs minute
“realistic” details, but who is finally a great deal more kindly towards his
characters. Lewis laughs but does not jeer at Babbitt, who, although moneyhungry
and status obsessed like Sherman McCoy, is a complex and sympathetic
character occupying a world where people are still capable of genuine human
feelings. In his manifesto Wolfe mentions Lewis and his use of documentation
in the writing of Elmer Gantry but does not discuss Lewis as a satirist. In fact,
satirists discussed as such are remarkably absent from the list of writers Wolfe
claims to want to emulate.
One of these absences is as suggestive as the entire role call of Wolfe’s
esteemed writers. John Dos Passos’ name never appears, and yet in terms of
his overall scheme for The Bonfire of the Vanities-his professed desire to
capture the rhythm of all of New York-Wolfe perhaps resembles him most
closely. Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer also presents a panoramic view of
New York by presenting an array of characters treated more as types than as
individuals whose personalities are explored in depth.40 Yet Dos Passos’
superficial characterization is deliberate and purposeful: he is more interested
in the interactions between characters-in society as a whole-than in
characters’ private lives. And most important, he has no pretences about being
interested in “the heart of the individual.” Dos Passos critically portrays
society in action, but he does so without the kind of flagrant caustic humor
Wolfe delights in. Dos Passos gives the impression of being truly concerned
with the study of a society where “It’s looks that count,”41 and writes with a
keen political and social awareness. This cannot be said of Wolfe, however.
Wolfe merely gives an ironic presentation of the state of New York society
and offers no insights into what to do about any of America’s ills. Wolfe’s
ironic humor does not lead to a productive political or social vision and
40 Manhattan Transfer (1925. New York: Penguin, 1986).
41 Ibid., p. 16.
American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 22, 1990
sometimes seems to have little purpose but scintillating verbal abuse for its
own sake.
Though Wolfe’s book is fun to read, it is also the kind of fun that ultimately
becomes cloying-like staying on a roller coaster too long. Wolfe’s book is
also funny, on the surface, and one can read it simply to delight in the irony
and snide humor. If taken seriously, however, the book is deeply disturbing.
One of the questions the book silently poses is whether there is anything at all
beneath the veneer of social gesturing that makes up New York society, and
seemingly by implication, all of American society. The intimation is that there
is not. All characters direct their energy into creating the proper image; none
cultivates an inner life, and none, except the degenerate British reporter and
parasite, Peter Fallow, shows any creative ability to change his or her
circumstances. In Wolfe’s New York it is impossible to act both imaginatively
and morally.
Whether Wolfe means to project such a dire picture of the American
character is not clear. The manifesto, with its careless handling of literary
history and its jaunty tone, makes one wonder about the earnestness of Wolfe’s
intent-both in the manifesto and in the novel. Wolfe’s zeal for witty mockery
sometimes seems to override or undermine more serious intentions. Some of
Wolfe’s previous raillery, however, takes on interesting implications in light
of his new career as a novel writer.
Although writers like the Neo-Fabulists are the main object of Wolfe’s
attack in the manifesto, one of his earlier “adversaries” was Saul Bellow-a
writer who, unlike Wolfe, is ultimately affirmative in spite of his apocalyptic
vision of the state of American civilization. In The New Journalism Wolfe
refers twice to Bellow in a spirit of derision: first in the epigraph to the book
where he implies that Bellow maintains a worn-out and empty tradition, and
then in the first chapter where he compares the frustration of going to
graduate school to reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), a book that also deals
with the plight of urban America. Wolfe’s derogatory statement about Bellow’s
novel becomes especially interesting in light of Wolfe’s own attempt to
write a book about New York. Mr. Sammler’s Planet portrays New York as a
place that “makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and
Gomorrah, the end of the world.”42 In books like Mr. Sammler’s Planet and
The Dean’s December Bellow’s portrayal of the violence and injustice that
reign in American cities is more vivid, serious, and terrifying than Wolfe’s,
yet Bellow simultaneously upholds the integrity of the self and the human
imagination even in the midst of a society on the edge of ruin. Bellow’s vision
provides a sustaining alternative to the cynical view that Bonfire of the
Vanities perhaps inadvertently projects-that American culture is nothing but
social gesture and struggle for status.
42 Mr. Samler’s Planet (1970. New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 277.
Surprisingly enough, in his manifesto Wolfe merely classifies Bellow as a
realist, one of those writers who has not gone astray, and then makes no
further comments.43 After having earlier singled Bellow out as a kind of
literary opponent, Wolfe’s reserve is remarkable, particularly in view of his
complete willingness to repeat other earlier statements without revision. If one
takes The Bonfire of the Vanities seriously, it might in fact be said to portray
the disintegration of civilization, a return to Sodom and Gomorrah-perhaps
the consequences of the letting go of a belief that creative and moral thought
and action are still possible in America today.
As a note to “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Harper’s Magazine tells us
that Wolfe is working on a second novel. Wolfe’s unconcealed admiration for
great social novelists and his attempt to associate himself with them, as well as
his blatant omissions and silences about other writers with whom he shares
subject matter as well as definite stylistic and technical similarities, suggests
that Wolfe is not entirely comfortable with the way he has written in Bonfire
of the Vanities. Perhaps he will be able to sort out his conflicting impulses and
meet the challenge of his own professed aims in this next book.

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