Tag Archives: Washington & Lee

Tom Wolfe of Washington & Lee

(May 16, 2018) Tom Wolfe, who died earlier this week of pneumonia at age 88, rose to fame in the 1960s by blending extravagantly detailed reporting with the storytelling techniques of fiction as a pioneer of New Journalism. It is the style-model for my latest book, The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Erawhich I implied by quoting Wolfe on the flyleaf: “The trouble with fiction is that the story has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” Mr. Wolfe’s life itself could be Exhibit One among the evidence that might be compiled to validate his quote.

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Tom Wolfe was a Virginian who earned an English degree from Washington & Lee College in the 1950s, when the school’s graduates were as proud of Lee as they were of Washington. He later earned a PhD from Yale in American Studies. After sending out one-hundred job query letters he received only one offer, which he took with a daily newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. Within six years he was in New York and building a reputation for insightful reporting and storytelling.

He was a provocateur and deflater of reputations that were built on film-flam. In Radical Chic, he skewered the limousine liberals at Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party fundraiser for the Black Panthers. Wolfe’s exceptional talent was that his ability went beyond exposing the hypocrisy of political-correctness. He was able to make it look ridiculous because he was a participant, rather than merely an observer, to the follies around him. He was, for example, a guest at Bernstein’s fund raiser.

His Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test remains the best book about hippies, and this is so because he accompanied Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters on their LSD-laden bus tour of America.  The Wall Street Journal insightfully notes that The Right Stuff Wolfe portrays America’s first seven astronauts as “flawed strivers rather than idealized heroes.” In his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, he criticizes aspects of American culture but unlike other critics he stops short of attacking America itself. Although published thirty-one years ago when it was politically-incorrect to depict even a minor black character as a racial demagogue, the novel’s fraudulent Reverend Reginald Bacon is a dead ringer for Al Sharpton. And yet  perhaps the novel’s evilest character is a white Southerner who is the protagonist’s mistress and actually the person responsible for the criminal hit-and-run auto accident. But she is not held accountable because she is protected by female gender privilege—another true but politically-incorrect concept.

In short, any novel that had a nattily-dressed Southerner and W & L graduate transplanted to New York where he became celebrated for decades as one of America’s best writers would be too implausible to be accepted by a publisher. And that is why Wolfe’s story underscores his point that a fictional story must be plausible whereas a true one sometimes isn’t.

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Lee’s Memory

In the wake of growing hostility toward the Confederacy a New Orleans Robert E. Lee statue is scheduled for destruction and debate is underway in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove another. Even though Washington & Lee is a private university, it has already yielded to pressures to remove the Confederate flag from the Lee Chapel. The school may ultimately feel compelled to drop the Lee name unless at least a few venerable historians publicly object to the escalating hatred toward Confederate symbols. To date none have done so, presumably for one of two reasons.

W&L Stamp

First, they believe the odium is justified. Given such an opinion there is no reason why they should object to degrading Lee’s memory and may even wish to promote it.

Second, those who think the disdain is excessive lack the will to speak out due to the prevailing opposite sentiment among their peers and the public. It takes courage for historians who have spent years earning favor  to express a contrary viewpoint since it may adversely affect their popularity, reputations and book sales. Nonetheless, Mississippian Shelby Foote set a good example of such pluck fifty years ago in the afterword of the second volume of his three-volume Civil War Narrative:

I am indebted also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during the several years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I…fervently hope it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know in watching these three gentlemen, it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction is in miniature.

Washington & Lee would not be the admired school it is today without Lee’s legacy. After he became president of Washington College in 1865 he attracted financial donations from all over the country. His reputation was a magnet that drew some to the best students in the South and increasingly from other parts of the country as well. The school’s present status owes more to his memory than to Washington’s, or anyone else’s. To remove his name would be to deny the credit he deserves. Nonetheless, it could become a consequence of the present trend toward Southern cultural genocide that is “terrifying in its approximations.”

My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide