Literary corner: “Today and Tomorrow in Tom Wolfe’s New York”

Few books of our own era would make it onto my desert island list; one is Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. While I’m late getting to Michael Lewis’s new profile of Wolfe, it’s reason enough to renew a Vanity Fair subscription, especially the priceless story of how Wolfe rewrote his dissertation on status jockeying among 1930s literary leftists after Yale turned it down as “tendentious” and “disparaging” to its oft-lionized subjects.

Early in my time at the Manhattan Institute, after Wolfe’s New York novel The Bonfire of the Vanities had made a gigantic popular success, I put together a roundtable on “Today and Tomorrow in Tom Wolfe’s New York” with Terry Teachout, Richard Vigilante, the late Walter Wriston, and others. MI published it as an envelope stuffer one-off with, if memory serves, a cover letter in which Wolfe himself mentioned observations the various participants had made, but in his own words. Not to say I was awe-struck at this, but for the next few days I wandered the streets of New York talking to the trees.


  • What a great treat this was. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t read Bonfire yet – but will in the near future. Sadly, not much has changed for the better since the discussion.

  • Tom. while race relations may not have improved for the better, the quality of life discussed in the Manhattan Institute panel has improved dramatically. A city that goes from 2000 murders per year to 500 is a dramatically different place. I appreciate all the efforts that the Manhattan Institute has made to fight the good fight (and wish we had a similar organization here in the Bay Area) but it does have a certain Chicken Little attitude at times.

  • Bonfire of the Vanities got so many cultural mentions that, just a year ago, I broke down and read it. It’s unbelievable — and as someone who has toiled 1) as a journalist, 2) a government lawyer in the Bronx and 3) other pursuits that figure heavily in the book, I found it awesomely accurate. I recommend it. Wolfe’s feel for the primary machinery of modern America — crime, the law, the media, racial politics, you name it — is almost perfect.