Friday, August 23, 2019

Talking Tom Wolfe

Since my last few posts have been on poetry and the theater, it strikes me as appropriate, or at least not altogether inappropriate, to continue with a literary theme. And yes, I know that technically there is a world of difference between the literature and performance, but they do tie together as art forms that are based, more or less, on the word. And anyway, I'm just looking for an excuse, after all, to get this post off the ground.

So, I want to take this opportunity to share another New York Society for General Semantics program that was held on June 27th of 2018. The program was devoted to discussing Tom Wolfe, who had passed away the previous month. And I want to note here that I had the opportunity to meet Tom Wolfe for the first time in 1999, when he gave a Marshall McLuhan Lecture at Fordham University, preceded the evening before by a special dinner at the Canadian Consulate. We also corresponded and spoke on the phone on several occasions, and he generously allowed us to include his poems inspired by McLuhan in the anthology I co-edited with Adeena Karasick, The Medium Is the Muse [Channeling Marshall McLuhan].

It was, therefore, sad news indeed to learn of Wolfe's passing, and it seemed altogether appropriate to organize a program paying tribute to him. The session, entitled, Tom Wolfe, Man of Letters, Man of Words, had the following write-up on the NYSGS website:

On May 14th, the world lost one of its most celebrated, talented, and accomplished authors, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., best known simply as Tom Wolfe. Wolfe earned his PhD in American Studies from Yale University in 1957, and worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade, writing for periodicals such as the Washington Post and the New York Herald-Tribune, as well as New York magazine and Esquire.

Wolfe pioneered the use of a personal, literary style in news reporting and feature writing that became known as the New Journalism. A best selling author, his nonfiction works include The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965); The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); The Pump House Gang (1968); Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970); and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976). His examination and critique of the contemporary American art scene, The Painted Word (1975), proved to be extremely controversial. His history of the early space program The Right Stuff (1979), was adapted as a feature film by Phillip Kaufman in 1983.

His book, In Our Time (1980), featured his own artwork, while From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), as a follow-up to The Painted Word, took on the topic of American architecture. Wolfe turned novelist with the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which was followed by A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and Back to Blood (2012). Hooking Up (2001) collected several works of his short fiction coupled with several of his essays.

Tom Wolfe was an early promoter of media ecology scholar Marshall McLuhan, famously posing the question, "What if he's right?" in a 1965 essay published in New York magazine, and comparing McLuhan to the likes of Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov. Wolfe's last book, The Kingdom of Speech (2016), a critique of Noam Chomsky's approach to linguistics, was awarded the Institute of General Semantics's S. I. Hayakawa Book Prize at last year's [2017] annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, which was co-sponsored by the NYSGS.

I am going to interrupt the quote here to state that it was truly a privilege to have Tom Wolfe with us at the 2017 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture. And his brief acceptance speech upon receiving the Hayakawa Book Prize was itself quite memorable, and fortunately preserved on video:

And now, let me return to the NYSGS program description:

Wolfe is credited with coining a number of terms, including the right stuff, radical chic, the Me Decade, good ol' boy, and statusphere. As an author and journalist, he was truly a man of letters, to invoke an old fashioned phrase that fits well with the famous man in a white suit, as he was known. And as a student and scholar of language, art, media, and communication, as well as a writer, interviewer, and raconteur, he most certainly was also a man of words.

On June 27th, 2018, the New York Society for General Semantics honored his contributions, creative and intellectual, and celebrated his achievements with a special panel discussion on select aspects of his career and publications.

The participants on this program were:

Thom Gencarelli, Professor and Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College, member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, and the Board of Directors of the NYSGS, and the new editor of ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Martin Levinson, author of several books on general semantics including a forthcoming new edition of Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living, President of the Institute of General Semantics and Treasurer of the New York Society for General Semantics.

Lance Strate, author of several books including the award-winning Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and President of the New York Society for General Semantics.

The program was moderated by Jacqueline Rudig, Treasurer of the Institute of General Semantics, and member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics.

It was a thoughtful and belletristic discussion!

And here now is the recording of the program:

And I have to say that, in my opinion, this was one of the best programs we've had since I've been organizing them for the society. Don't you agree?

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