Tom Wolfe In Our Time, and In Our Library
Special note: This blog post was written by Tim Buchanan, M.A. ’15, East Carolina University Department of English, as part of a special series highlighting the Stuart Wright Collection
While browsing the Stuart Wright Collection a few weeks ago, I saw mention of a collection of illustrations by Tom Wolfe. Best known for chronicling the 60s counterculture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Wall Street excesses in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe is also known by his trademark white suit, which he wears like a uniform. I hadn’t expected to find works by this still-living author in the archive, and this item presented me with a facet of his work I never knew existed. They’re a fitting introduction to the Tom Wolfe Papers held at ECU, which also include an uncorrected proof of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The book of illustrations is titled In Our Time, and was published in 1980 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It compiles a series of Wolfe’s sketches, caricatures and accompanying essays, which originally appeared as a monthly feature in Harper’s Magazine with the same title. The book chronicles the narcissism and excess of the 1970s, offering an interesting glimpse at the sexuality, drug culture, and gender politics of the time from Wolfe’s perspective. In the first paragraph of the first essay, “Stiffened Giblets,” Wolfe describes his entry into the decade:
For me the 1970s began the moment I saw Harris, on a little surprise visit to the campus, push open the door of his daughter Laura’s dormitory room. Two pairs of eyes popped up in one of the beds, blazing like raccoons’ at night by the garbage cans . . . illuminating the shanks, flanks, glistening haunches, and cloven declivities of a boy and girl joined mons-to-mons. Harris backed off, on little step after another. He looked as if he were staring down the throat of a snake. He pulled the door shut, ever so gingerly (3).
The book also shares its title with Ernest Hemingway’s very first story collection, published in 1925.
Of further interest to researchers interested in Wolfe’s work is a comb-bound, uncorrected proof of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bearing Wolfe’s signature. This is a far more modern––even postmodern––glimpse into the age or contemporary writings than the mention of a literary archive might bring to mind. The bound galleys are meant to give an idea of what the text will look like in print as well as the overall layout of the book. Some passages are crossed out by Wolfe’s own hand, so it’s possible to see bits of writing that didn’t make it into the final shelf copy.
Wolfe helped pioneer a new approach to journalism, called New Journalism, which blended literary technique with more traditional reporting. Among his contemporaries in the style were Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. Because of his importance to modern writing, it is no surprise that we aren’t the only ones looking to archive Wolfe’s work. The New York Public Library has just processed a collection of his works and some selections are on display in “Becoming the Man in the White Suit: The Tom Wolfe Papers.”
Finding such well-known and contemporary writing among other, more obscure texts is a special thrill of working in the archive. Turning the long brittle sheets of the corrected proofs of a collection of his essays or the bound set of galleys to one of Wolfe’s most famous works, I felt that the archive itself was a living, unfinished thing not just shining a light on our literary past, but grounding those who explore within it to a strong on-going literary tradition.