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A Journalist in Full

[whitespace] Tom Wolfe forgets his contempt for 'mangy collection of humanity' for an evening

By Michael Learmonth

HE'S SKEWERED OVERLY AMBITIOUS astronauts, Wall Street stock brokers and the New South's petty bourgeoisie. So it's no wonder that author/icon Tom Wolfe has been making some people on the Stanford campus very nervous. Perhaps none more nervous than his generous hosts in the communications department, who have given him all access privileges while he researches his latest book.

"Am I worried?" joked Ted Glasser, director of the graduate program in journalism, as he introduced the department's newest visiting scholar. "No, because he promised that my portrayal would be favorable."

Wolfe has been hanging around Stanford for three months. In exchange for bestowing his greatness on the students and faculty in the communications department, the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities and, most recently, A Man in Full has been given carte blanche to prowl around campus researching what many believe will be a book about American higher education.

Wolfe, of course, isn't offering any clues to what he's up to, leaving Stanford at once flattered by his esteemed presence and apoplectic that this mecca of the West's intellectual elite could end up being treated in the next Wolfeian opus with the same sensitivity as a gathering of the nouveaux riches at the latest art opening in Atlanta.

Wolfe had planned to be firmly installed back on the Upper West Side by now, but he agreed to lengthen his stay on the West Coast another two days to address the farewell dinner for the class of departing journalism graduate students.

Tonight, on the tail end of a $45 chicken dinner--for a good cause, of course--Tom Wolfe takes the lectern in Stanford's Faculty Club to deliver remarks that will inspire the educated bunch of future journalists to make the best of their careers in an industry that is both shrinking and succumbing to lowbrow entertainment.

"This is not a commencement address," he begins, clad in starched collar, cuff links, white pants and regal blue jacket. "It's really more an expression of sympathy and wonderment. It's not long ago that I've been out of college looking for a journalism job."

After getting a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale, Wolfe landed his first journalism job at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, before moving on to the Washington Post and then the New York Herald Tribune.

"About half the people on the newspaper were wannabe novelists and I was one of them," he says. New York Magazine emerged from the ruins of the Herald, and it was there that Wolfe published "Tiny Mummies," an exposé of the embalmed culture of The New Yorker that launched his career as a New Journalist.

It is a career that any of the young future journalists assembled here would aspire to. So why would he express "sympathy and wonderment" for anyone trying to enter a profession that served him so well?

Since he's left the biz, Wolfe has reserved his harshest descriptions for the poor slobs he left behind. Take a pivotal scene from A Man in Full--a news conference taking place at a law firm in downtown Atlanta: "They were the raggediest, maggotiest collection of men and women that had ever assembled here on the fortieth floor of the Peachtree Olympus. Their name was ... the Press."

He goes on:

"Ninety percent of this mangy collection of humanity were white. They seemed to range in age from twenty-five to fifty. The older men's taste, if you could call it that, ran to gray beards consisting of out-of-control ten-week stubbles that had spread like crabgrass on the undersides of their jowls and practically down to their Adam's apples. Made you itchy just looking at it."

When a reporter interrupts the proceedings to ask a question, he is described thus: "It was a white man, about thirty-five, wearing a shirt open almost to the waist, better to reveal a T-shirt with the face of a grotesque clown on it and the name KRUSTY."

It's hard to imagine any of these scrubbed and shiny Stanford students wanting to join that rabid group. In his remarks, however, Wolfe focused on the positive.

"I don't think most people realize how important newspapers are to news coverage," he says. "I honestly believe there is less news coverage today than at any point in this century."

By way of closing, Wolfe fires a final salvo of inspiration, urging the students to use their "rude animal health" to surmount the "shaggy beasts" in their path.

"One thing you will find is there are so many untalented people in the business," he says. "I certainly wish you all the best possible careers!"

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From the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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