The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"The Kandy-Kolored Kid Comes Home"

"People love sermons." Tom Wolfe at the White House, 2004.

On Oct. 20 at the Library of Virginia's 10th Annual Literary Awards, Governor Timothy M. Kaine presented the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award to Richmond native Tom Wolfe, whose distinguished career includes bestselling and award-winning fiction and nonfiction works. Among Wolfe’s best known works are The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe graduated from St. Christopher’s School and Washington and Lee University. Following his Yale doctorate in American studies, he worked as a journalist for the New York Herald-Tribune and as a staff writer for New York magazine.

You can read Valley Haggard's take on the night in a Style Weekly web exclusive here.

Back in late 1978, Wolfe revisited St. Christopher's and his appearance then was recorded in the December 1979 issue of Richmond Lifestyle magazine by Martha Steger. The piece was titled "The Kandy Kolored Kid Comes Home."

At the time he provided some prescient observations about newsgathering and newspapers. He recalled how he graduated in 1956 with his fresh-minted Yale American Studies doctorate too late to get a teaching job for the fall. So he went to work at the Springfield Union.

His ideas about newspapering were fed by what he knew of its Ring Lardner past.

"When I actually got into it," Wolfe explained, "what I found out was that the newspaper business is a dead business...I call it the incredible shrinking news because I firmly believe that less news is actually being covered now than at any time in U.S. history. There's a [newspaper] monopoly in virtually every city, and without competition, there's no need to go beyond 'setting the proper tone' for each story that's covered."

He gave an example of 'setting the proper tone' in what he wrote about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963. Wolfe, writing for the New York Herald Tribune was assigned 'man-on-the-street' interviews. He went to Little Italy, Chinatown and other ethnic neighborhoods.

Wolfe remembers, "What I discovered was that the Tongs thought the Mafia had done it, the Italians thought the Tongs had done it, the Puerto Ricans though the Jews had done it, and so on...I wrote my story and handed it into the rewrite desk. Late that afternoon I was appointed to do the rewrites, but when I started going through the day's stories, mine wasn't there. I figured someone had lost it, so I rewrote it and included it in the stories for the morning paper. When I picked up the paper the next morning, however, my story had again been removed, and all that appeared of the man-on-the-street stories were little old ladies collapsing in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral-- the 'proper tone' for the day in which a President had been assassinated. It was then that I knew I had to get out of newspaper work."

Wolfe continued, "I think the hope for the future of news lies in the weekly newspapers and the magazines because the local newspapers feed the newspapers, and the wire services supply virtually all television news. The reporter with his own beat has almost disappeared."

That was 1978. Today, a proliferation of cable news is busy 'setting the proper tone' as the ownership of those outlets are in fewer hands than ever; making the entire country a one news media town: except for the Internet and the blogosphere. Maybe. Political blogs of both the standard accepted sides are tiresome in their repeated tropes that one or the other party is stupid or even evil. But, are community-oriented bloggers becoming 'the reporter with his own beat?'

Wolfe told Steger that he got into the closed communities of custom-car builders, surfing acid heads and astronauts by admitting that he knew nothing about their worlds and not trying to fake otherwise. He learned this lesson while covering the grandfather of NASCAR, Junior Johnson.

"Since I was going into the moonshine country of North Carolina, I dressed what I thought was the part in a green suit, a black knit tie, brown suede shoes, and a Borsolino hat -- the kind with a half-inch beaver fur on it. It turned out that I was the only person on the scene with a suit or hat on, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Junior came to me after a couple of days and said he had a piece of advice for me, if I wouldn't feel offended. He said that people at Anderson's General Store had asked him 'Who is that strange little green man who keeps following you?' I learned from that that you should never try to fake it."

Later on Wolfe provided his explanation for gossip and/or blogging, whichever the case may be, again bearing in mind this is 1978 --emphasis mine.

"My one contribution to psychology may be my theory of information compulsion, that is, every human being feels a minor gain in status if he can tell another human being something that he didn't know before. Many people have a story to tell, and an introduction is all you need. I try to work this way, one-to-one, rather than arriving on the scene with my notebook."

Wolfe predicted that during the 1980s that "religion will be the thing" due to the Third Great Awakening.

"By the 1984 elections every candidate will be wearing some form of religious garb and making imaginary snow balls [with hand gestures]--like the television preacher. We're going through a stage of reevaluation of our values, and people love sermons--as long as you don't follow through with too much action. People love to be reminded that they're sinners, but they don't want you to take away the sinful things they might be enjoying."

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