Wolfe got a Ph.D. at Yale in the 50s in "American Studies," which required that he read (among other things) a lot of American fiction from the first half of the 20th century, which was primarily "realistic" in character. Â (Not that he wouldn't have anyway, for all we know; just that it helps explain the literature that in some respects formed his mind.) Â At this time, there was a lot of talk at the upper reaches of acadamia about the "death of the novel." Â Lionel Trilling, who dominated the literature discussision in a way that is hard for us to imagine (much more than, say, Stanley Fish ever did), proclaimed at one point that the life-blood of the novel was the old (pre 20th century), primarily European class structure, and that its erosion meant the end of the novel. Wolfe chose not to go into academia but to be a reporter. Â As such, he was writing mostly about hard facts. Â Later, he excelled as a "feature" writer: "soft", long-format stories about personalities, trends, etc. Â This experience convinced him that Trilling and others were wrong: the old class structure may have been gone, but human nature being what it is, it had been replaced, almost seamlessly, with the somewhat more elastic but no-less-real concept of "status." Â People still organized themselves, either conciously or subconciously, into hierarchies, but not according to birth and wealth strictly, but according to a whole range of complex factors. Wolfe has said that one of the most misunderstood yet brilliant devices of Balzac was to go on at such length about furniture. Â This drove some of his critics nuts; they argued that it was proof of Balzac's superficiality. Â Wolfe counters: not so; it is Balzac's way of showing where his characters fit into the class and status structure of the society of his time. Â And, more importantly, where they themselves thought they fit. Clothes are to Wolfe's novels what furniture is to Balzac's. Â Shoes especially. Â One reviewer of Bonfire
(I can't remember who it was) was so turned off by this aspect of the book that he dismissed it as a "catalogue of shoes." As to why he mentions this or that specific brand, I can only guess. Â He does mention Lobb in some of his non-fiction writing from the 70s. Â I suppose he may have used N&L to give a plug to George Cleverley, who was at the time his shoemaker. Â I suspect is was more that Lobb was an iconic brand, and very well-known, and he wanted to show that Sherman was obsessive enough to be discerning enough to seek out and find a slightly less-known (and arguably better) shoemaker. Â I agree with the notion that Huntsman was selected because it makes a sharp silhouette. Â At one point, when Wolfe is writing one of Sherman's frequent internal monologues, he hints that Sherman would have liked to wear double-breasted, but didn't feel he could get away with it on Wall Street (a sly, early indication of Sherman's conformity and lack of courage). Â So perhaps the severity of the Huntsman silhouette was as far as he thought he could go. Â It's notable, too, I think that Sherman always
wears nailhead. Other random points: 1) Bacon is not Sharpton. Â The Bacon character was conceived and written for the Rolling Stone
serialization of the book long before the rise of Sharpton. Â Wolfe in a sense predicted
Sharpton and his success. 2) Wolfe makes clear that Sherman "stole" the phrase "Master of the Universe" from the toys that were based on the cartoon. 3) The Fallow phenomenon -- sponging Brits (especially journalists) taking advantage of Americans' sense of awe upon hearing an upper-class English accent -- was very real in the New York of the 1980s. Â (Apologies to our British members.) Â A lot of people assumed that Fallow was based on a real person, and there were at least a dozen theories as to who he was supposed to be. Â Personally, I don't think Fallow was a roman Ã clef
character. Â But Nick Stopping is clearly supposed to be Alexander Cockburn. 4) As to crime and the 80s, well, I guess you had to be there. Â Certainly, the 6 train these days is not much of a problem. Â But for a little taste of "Old New York", crawl down onto the 8th Avenue line at 2 am. Â It's ... a little different.
Excellent post, Manton. I just wanted to add something to your opening comments. As you know, Saul Bellow just died. I love the fact that Bellow published Augie March right after the calls about the "Death of the American Novel". He then went onto write several more excellent works. If we really want to be serious, then I think we should admit that Wolfe, held up to many of his contemporary novelists, doesn't make the grade. But he's a very fine occasional journalist, and he's written a few truly great pieces. For a different take on Wolfe, one might see last issue of the Harvard Advocate. There's a small anecdote in one of the stories about Wolfe's reception of a Paris Review intern that had Plimpton aghast. Actually, come to think of it, I can't think of it, I can't think of two people less similiar in values (including dress -- superficial "value" though it is") than Plimpton and Wolfe.