The Novelist, Tom Wolfe on Handwriting and Humility

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Tom Wolfe introduced the term “Masters of the Universe” to the American lexicon with his debut novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. From February 13-27, the New York Public Library will display the author’s papers in an exhibition called “Becoming The Man in the White Suit: The Tom Wolfe Papers at The New York Public Library.” This week on the podcast, we are lucky to share Tom Wolfe’s appearance at The Library, in which he discussed handwriting, humility, and social status.

Tom Wolfe at LIVE

Prior to his Live from the NYPL event, Wolfe perused some of the Library’s archival materials, including Charles Dickens’ manuscripts. Wolfe expressed his interest in handwritten materials:

“I’ve always been interested in people’s handwriting, people from the past, and that’s because above all for years I wrote everything on the typewriter and then came the computer. I struggled with that for about two and a half years. I think I was born at the wrong time, because this last book that I’ve done has been completely handwritten… I write with a Twist-Erase mechanical pencil. Good erasers. It’s almost as good as a computer. You should try them. Twist-Erase is the brand name.”

In 2010, Wolfe received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Yet he spoke of the importance of humbleness for a writer:

“In I Am Charlotte Simmons, I did quite a bit about my heroine, Charlotte Simmons, being from a town called Sparta, North Carolina, it’s a little town up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and so I ran into a teacher who had moved on from Sparta or somewhere else in her life, and I said, ‘You know, it’s the funniest thing, I got no reaction at all from Sparta.’ And she said, ‘What on earth makes you think they read it?’ And that’s a good thing for a writer to put in the back of his mind. ‘What on earth makes you think they read it?’”

Wolfe’s work has often been informed by his studies, especially in the field of American Studies. In particular, his work reflects a fascination with status anxieties:

“American Studies was made up of four subjects concerning the United States: history, literature, economics, and sociology. And I went to a liberal arts college, Washington and Lee, in Virginia, and we tended to look down on things like sociology as arriviste, you know, mostly people from abroad who decided to get into this muck, but when I, as soon as I started reading in that area and found the works of Max Weber, it was like my eyes opening… I had never thought of all the ways in which we think of status in the most unlikely places. For example, just going to the bathroom, you’d be amazed at the choices that you make because of the people around you and how you’re expected to be, this could be a messy example, it’s an example of something that you do in solitude, but you still think of your status. If people only knew—or only thought about, they know—why they choose the mates they choose and what enormous parts of the male or female population are excluded because they just simply are impossible in terms of status, it would surprise you. I look upon it as a constant motive. The only time that we are not conscious of it, I’m conscious of it right now, is when we face death, particularly sudden violent death, then I think you pretty much drop looking the right way.”

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