One of the common denominators among immediate reactions to the death of author Tom Wolfe was his relationship with writing about the topic of race. Both fans and critics of the writer, whose death was announced Tuesday, have had much to say lover the years about how Wolfe’s prose was informed as it related to writing about Black people in America.
Depending on whom you ask, Wolfe was either a raging success at writing about race, or he was an abject failure. There was apparently no middle ground. From his coining of the racially charged phrase “radical chic” to his description of a party he attended which was thrown by the composer Leonard Bernstein to raise funds for the Black Panthers, the topic of race has seemingly followed Wolfe throughout his lengthy career (there was even a book about it).
This was especially true for Wolfe’s celebrated 1987 novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which highlighted racial tensions in New York City and included a key scene during which a wealthy White man runs over a Black teenager in an impoverished setting in the city’s Bronx borough. Author Charles Murray found that scene, and the book, to be quite revealing.
“He says out loud things that have been said at cocktail parties for years,” Murray once told the Manhattan Institute while raving about Wolfe’s approach to writing about race. “He talks about the massive racial antagonism that’s been out there for years, something nobody can talk about.”
The New York Post’s review of the Broadway stage version of the book described “Wolfe’s brilliant take on the racial divide.”
But writer Brian Platzer had a completely different takeaway on Wolfe and race.
“‘Bonfire’ is a perfect example of a novel that suffers because its white author is unwilling to write from a Black first- or close third-person point of view,” Platzer wrote for the Literary Hub website last summer. “All three perspectives from which a reader experiences Wolfe’s dystopic vision of race and class in 1980s New York are those of white professional men. Wolfe doesn’t extend the empathy necessary to inhabit any of the Black or female voices the novel relies on for its emotional impact.”
The opinion has differed among Black writers, as well.
Spike Lee, for instance, took umbrage to the portrayal of Black people in the novel’s film adaptation; and he let Wolfe know about it, too. According to the Los Angeles Times, when the filmmaker and Wolfe appeared on a panel together in 1990, Lee placed blame on Wolfe, in part for selling the book’s rights to Warner Bros. “because it’s from TV and movies that a lot of white Americans get their opinions on blacks, especially ones that don’t live anywhere near black people.”
But writer Molara Wood, who is also Black, tweeted that Wolfe was a visionary whose portrayal of African-Americans was arguably ahead of its time because it depicted “The White fear of Black bodies, long before viral videos of caucasians calling the police on Black people going about their lives.”
Despite the differences in opinions for the literary treatment Wolfe gave to the topic of race, his work at the very least yielded constructive conversation surrounding a perennially contentious topic, which is precisely what good art is supposed to do. It’s just unfortunate those conversations couldn’t yield any tangible results.