Tom Wolfe’s California

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Tom Wolfe is most identified with New York City, and his most recent book takes place in Miami, but Michael Anton looks back at Tom Wolfe’s California:

That piece — “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” — represents the first time that Wolfe truly understood and was able to formulate the big idea that would transform him from an above-average feature writer into the premier cultural chronicler of our age. Those inhabiting the custom car scene were not rich, certainly not upper-class, and not prominent — indeed, they were almost invisible to society at large. Wolfe described his initial attempt to write the story as a cheap dismissal: “Don’t worry, these people are nothing.” He realized in California that he had been wrong. These people were something, and very influential within their own circles, which were far larger than anyone on the outside had hitherto noticed.

“Max Weber,” Wolfe tells me, “was the first to argue that social classes were dying everywhere — except, in his time, in England — and being replaced by what he called ‘status groups.’ ” The term improves in Wolfean English: “Southern California, I found, was a veritable paradise of statuspheres,” he wrote in 1968. Beyond the customizers and drag racers, there were surfers, cruisers, teenyboppers, beboppers, strippers, bikers, beats, heads, and, of course, hippies. Each sphere started off self-contained but increasingly encroached on, and influenced, the wider world.

“Practically every style recorded in art history is the result of the same thing — a lot of attention to form plus the money to make monuments to it,” Wolfe wrote in the introduction to his first book. “But throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy was responsible for. What has happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.” If Wolfe’s oeuvre has an overarching theme, this is it.

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