Tom Wolfe (Photo Rick McGinnis)

Tom Wolfe (Photo Rick McGinnis)

Reading the obituaries for writer Tom Wolfe, who died last month, it’s hard not to think of the overused word “enigmatic,” which seems odd for a man who was neither reclusive nor reticent with his opinions. Wolfe flamboyantly embodied a collection of contradictions that only seem unusual now that his sort of public intellectual seems to be passing from existence.

In a Financial Timesstory that eulogizes Wolfe as “journalism’s great anti-elitist,” writer Janan Ganesh describes Wolfe as a populist before his time: “He exposed the credulity of the rich for artistic fads. He made fun of their recreational left-wingery, or, in that unimproveable phrase, their “radical chic.” Among the vanities that went into his bonfire was the idea of America as classless. At the risk of tainting him with politics, there was something Trumpian about his ability to define himself against Manhattan’s grandest burghers while living among them.”

Contrast that with the New York Times’official obituary for Wolfe, which featured photos of him at the Plaza Hotel with Barbara Walters and socialite Brooke Astor, and at a New York Public Library gala just two years ago commemorating the anniversary of Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White Ball, a landmark high society event.

The New Yorker’s Louis Menand celebrated Wolfe as a satirist. “Politically,” Menand wrote, “satire is a conservative genre. Satire is highbrow populism. (Hence Wolfe’s diatribes against modernist art and architecture.) Satire is premised on the belief that, no matter how much liberal enlightenment you introduce into human affairs, people will still sort themselves out into some kind of pecking order, in which all the little birds are trying to get in with the big bird at the head of the line.”

I photographed and interviewed Tom Wolfe nearly 14 years ago, when he was doing publicity for his latest novel. Apart from worrying about how to capture him in his trademark ice cream white silk suit, I tried to trouble him by pointing out that a key sex scene in his book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, had just been awarded the Literary ReviewBad Sex Award for its depiction of the awkward seduction of the title character, a coed at a prestigious east coast American university.

Wolfe was happy with the award, and untroubled with its judgment that the sex he depicts was wholly unerotic and unsatisfying – that was, he said, exactly the point. At the time he wrote the book, campuses were in the thrall of the “hookup” – easy, consequence-free sex made easier by co-ed dorms and the devaluation of virtue since the ‘60s generation had finally seized the high ground of academia. A decade later this would make its way into the mainstream with “dating” apps like Tinder.

“It seems to me that it puts unnatural pressure on females,” Wolfe told me, “and despite everything that feminism has done – or maybe because of it – women get the short end of all of this. The woman has more pressure on her to participate or a kind of pressure that’s worse than the pressure on men, who have always wanted, or at least have pretended, that they were looking for it. Men, if they don’t have sexual experience, cover it up. And these girls in college are the same way – they don’t want to be known as pure, they do not want to be known as virgins, which simply means – and this is a word used only by men – that they’re ‘dorks.’”

What Wolfe didn’t anticipate at the time – though many other people did, who weren’t literary or journalistic legends – was how quickly this culture of easy, apparently consequence-free sex among young people would sour. The hookup quickly led to the consent code, to charges that college campuses were fostering a “culture of rape,” and ultimately to the #MeToo moment when that generation of women who lived through the campus hookup arrived in the post-collegiate world to discover that powerful men had come to assume that their sexual acquiescence was a given, especially if they aspired to maintaining or escalating their position or status.

Status, ultimately, was the subject Wolfe understood better than anyone else, and he arrived on the scene just when the markers of status had broken free from the old benchmarks dictated by birth and class and began roaming freely all over the cultural, political and social maps. He began his career when the sober “facts only, sir” period of journalism (a remarkably short period, on the whole) began giving way to a more expressive, literary, subjective mode that was called “new journalism” and found a home in magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stoneand New Yorkmagazine.

The New Yorker’sprofile of Wolfe cites the unofficial partnership of Wolfe and New Yorkfounder Clay Felker with reading social trends correctly in the birth of new journalism. “Felker and Wolfe understood that the people who like to read magazine stories about status are the people who are insecure about their status. Flush economic times produce people like this, people who worry that their money is not buying them standing, and those times in New York – the 1960s and the 1980s – were the best times for Felker and Wolfe’s kind of journalism.”

Wolfe was rumoured to be working on a book about political correctness when he died, a book I would have loved to have read, though if he were nearly the prophet he’s been called, he would have written it years ago. The Kingdom of Speech, which turned out to be his last book, was a fascinating combination of essay and polemic – Wolfe’s specialty – that took on two sacred cows of science: Charles Darwin and linguist/leftist Noam Chomsky.

It’s an intensely subjective argument – Wolfe’s specialty, to the end – that’s been disputed intensely since it was published, but at its heart is a key notion, that despite endless research and study, nobody has been able to account for the evolution of language, or been able to fulfill Darwin’s great ambition that it could somehow be corralled into some grand unifying theory of life itself.

The book is really compelling when it recounts the gentleman’s agreement that effectively robbed Alfred Wallace, a lowly specimen collector, of his credit for the development of what became known as Darwinian theory, and the later war that acolytes of Noam Chomsky waged against Daniel Everett, a linguistic researcher who effectively dismantled Chomsky’s concept of an invisible “language organ” in the human mind.

Wolfe’s beef in The Kingdom of Speechis less with evolutionary theory than the tendency of science – putatively meritorious and factual – to defend cliques and artificial consensus, especially where livelihoods and reputations and status are concerned. His most valuable insight was that language is the uniquely human gift that allowed a single species to triumph over all other, despite our disadvantages in size, numbers, and strength.

Hidden in that insight is an even more profound one that this gift of language – the ability to make the abstract understandable through a sophisticated system of verbal mnemonics – also traps us in a web of its own limitations. Most poignant of all was the effort required to find a place to smuggle language into the mechanism of biological evolution, to allow us to imagine language evolving alongside limbs and eyesight and organs and hair, embodied in a phrase like “biological niche construction,” which came into use even as Chomsky’s invisible organ was discarded.

“The niche was hollowed out into Evolution’s flanks for the long march,” Wolfe writes. “It never seemed to dawn on them that they were indulging in sheer metaphor.”

This, Wolfe says, is the great weakness of scientific theory: imagining a moment no one could have witnessed or a process that can’t be replicated, using the gift of language that defies our desire for taxonomy, thanks to its nearly miraculous nature. Language is a manifestation of the divine, so it’s no surprise that it resists comprehension by people who would like to reduce it to mundane process.

In moments like this, Wolfe was on the verge of explicating a great, tragic truth about human nature. It’s a tragedy that he’s no longer here to pursue what he would call that Bang! Shoom! Ka-pooooooooooow revelation.