By CHRISTOPHER MASON
Tom Wolfe died on May 14 at the age of 87. This interview with the prolific author originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Town & Country.
When great American writers go to heaven—or to some infernal rotisserie—their papers generally wind up at the University of Texas at Austin, purchased for princely sums by the prodigiously funded Harry Ransom Center. Mindful of this curious literary migration, Tom Wolfe, now 83, was adamant that his own archives should remain in New York City, where he has lived—and expertly skewered some of its more egregious inhabitants—for half a century.
"I didn't want to wind up in Austin," Wolfe says, during a recent visit to the cathedral-like Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue, which recently acquired his papers for $2.15 million.
Dapper as ever, the perennially white-suited author is giving me a privileged peek at some of the highlights. He chuckles when Bill Stingone, the library's assistant director for archives, hands him a seven-page handwritten document, "Letter to Myself about What the Bonfire of the VanitiesShould be," dated October 1985. "I'd heard that Zola did this," Wolfe says, referring to the French novelist Emile Zola, one of his literary heroes. "It's a good thing to do before setting out."
"I don't consider myself a pack rat," Wolfe says. "I just don't throw anything away.
Halfway through, a sentence catches his eye. "This fascinates me," he says. "I'm talking about racial and ethnic groups in New York, and I write: 'The silent scream of one and all is back to blood.'" He seems genuinely startled. "That's the title of the last book I wrote!" (Published in 2012, Back to Blood is set in Miami.) "I guess those words were in your brain all those years," Stingone says, marveling at this discovery.
Wolfe's hyperbolic, cinematic style—described by one reviewer as "jittery gyroscope prose"—is animated by his ingenious observations, a technique that Wolfe labeled "saturation reporting." Such prolific accumulation of detail accounts for the sheer size of the archive, which was delivered to the library in 111 boxes, representing 165 linear feet of material.
It seems apropos that the boxes also contain annotated fabric samples from Mr. Nicolosi, Wolfe's New York tailor.
Meticulously labeled, it contains thousands of manuscripts, newspaper clippings, and reporter's notepads, all covered with doodles of things like vintage cars. It spans his entire literary output, ranging from his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a rollicking collection of magazine articles that was published in 1965, to Back to Blood. Given Wolfe's reputation for sartorial splendor, it seems apropos that the boxes also contain annotated fabric samples from Mr. Nicolosi, his New York tailor.
"I don't consider myself a pack rat," Wolfe says. "I just don't throw anything away."
The acquisition was funded by Katharine Rayner, a longtime trustee of the library, who felt strongly that the archive belonged in New York. "There was certainly no way we were going to lose Tom's papers to Texas," Rayner says. She began reading Wolfe in college and has remained a fan. "He's added so many expressions to the language: 'radical chic,' 'the Me Decade,' and 'social X-ray,' " she says. "Reading his papers is like reading Shakespeare—you can't believe he was the first to coin so many phrases that have passed into the culture."
Wolfe's papers will join the library's archives of Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Truman Capote. "Tom will be in fine company for time immemorial," says Glenn Horowitz, a dealer in rare books and manuscripts who negotiated the sale.
In a delicious twist, the papers will also be made available to scholars for perusal in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Manuscripts, alongside the archives of the New Yorker, which Wolfe gleefully lambasted as stodgy and boring in New Yorkmagazine in 1965, when the latter was still a supplement of the New York Herald Tribune.
The first broadside in a two-part assault was "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead," an exquisitely withering assessment in which William Shawn, the New Yorker's venerable editor in chief, was described as its "funeral director."
When Shawn saw an advance copy he dispatched a furious letter to Jock Whitney, the Herald Tribune's owner, calling Wolfe's piece "false and libelous…a vicious, murderous attack" and demanding, in vain, that Whitney withdraw it. Ever since, Wolfe notes, he has been barred from the threshold of the impugned magazine. "I think I'm still persona non grata at the New Yorker," he says, with evident satisfaction.