When I’ve taught magazine journalism, my departure point has been Tom Wolfe’s essay on “The New Journalism.” It’s an argument for applying familiar literary devices—scene-setting, point of view, symbolically meaningful attributes—to the work of nonfiction. Wolfe, who died in May, was a protégé of the late Clay Felker ’51, the founding editor of New York magazine (and the longtime advisory-board chair of this magazine); New York, in many ways, provided Wolfe an early laboratory for his writerly experiments.
Wolfe was relentlessly curious about the times he inhabited. But he was also timeless: His literary forebears were figures like Dickens and Balzac—figures who similarly appealed to Felker. And, decked out as he was in those thoroughly emblematic, somewhat outlandish, white suits, Wolfe was always out of context, the perpetual outsider looking in.
The Economist, among many other publications, found it easy to classify Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, from 2004, as the work of an author with Duke insider knowledge. It was a novel that “poked fun at the macho culture of an elite university that was closely modelled on the would-be Princeton of the South, Duke.” For his part, though, Wolfe always insisted that his inspiration came from the excesses of higher education—excesses that he saw as an indictment of elite privilege—and not Duke specifically.
Still, Wolfe was deeply tied to Duke, largely through his daughter, Alexandra ’02. (He gave the commencement address for her graduating class.) In the winter of 1998, Duke Magazine brought Wolfe, this clear-eyed and sharp-edged cultural observer, into the raw and rarified setting of Cameron, for a men’s basketball game. Several weeks later, I interviewed him for a conversation that would appear in the next issue. That was back in New York, in his Upper East Side apartment, a space that could have been a testament to Balzacian good taste and high society.
Wolfe’s personal story intersected with athletics, he told me. He played baseball in high school and college, and then for a couple of years after college. He had fantasized that some pro scout would recognize his talent. “It turned out I was in no danger of being discovered. If I had been offered a professional sports contract, I’m sure I would have gladly done that. Who cares about writing? Nobody cheers you for writing.”
This was a basketball encounter, though, including K-ville, a collection of student tenters who endured, if temporarily, sometimes extreme conditions and unwavering rules for game-going privileges. K-ville, as Wolfe saw it, was “a sort of Academic Outward Bound.” In an autobiographical aside, he described attending summer camp for three years and liking it a lot—“except for the camp’s insistence on camping out.”
For the game itself, the magazine positioned Wolfe courtside; this scholar of sub-communities had a clear avenue into a sub-community with its own exotic rituals. He characterized the student spectacle in Cameron as “high-class choreography,” adding: “There are also elements of ballet about it, and of ancient religious choreography in particular. Rhythmic dance started when people who believe in magic were facing a drought. They would all get together and start swaying to imitate the motion of wind against wheat. The ancient folk thought that when the wheat danced, the rain would come.”
Wolfe’s most intriguing analogy was aligned with animal life. “You know the biological term colonial animal?” he wondered in our conversation. “It’s an animal made up of independent organisms all attached to one another…. And that’s what the crowd is like—it’s like one great colonial animal that has immediate responses to whatever is going on.”
From there, Wolfe went on a trajectory from Cameron to the broader human comedy. He said he was perpetually pondering “why people like stories so much,” but also why people are drawn to the ongoing story of athletic competition: “How are people able to transfer their own yearnings, ambitions, hostilities, primal emotions of various sorts to a group of athletes who represent them in competition?”
In representing the Duke masses, these athletes were garbed in uniforms that he found, well, a little funny, and the white-suited Wolfe was happy to show off his sartorial sensibility: “The thing that I don’t like about the basketball uniforms is the baggy pants. I don’t get it; they’re not elegant, they’re goofy…. Maybe one day they’ll wear Lycra, and the players will all look like Spiderman.”