“I don’t mean for this to sound like ‘I had a vision’ or anything, but there was a specific starting point for practically all of these stories.”
There’s a saying that goes with the Velvet Underground, that when they first came out only about 1000 people bought their albums but that every one of that 1000 started a band. When you read this first Tom Wolfe collection, which I am certain has what some people consider some of his classic or most famous pieces, you can feel the influence of them in a few ways. For one, is this one particular essay the reason why we talk about this topic at all? Or maybe in this specific way? Is he the reason why we know about this? Or was he simply there in the right place so many times to record about it?
Regardless, this early 1960s collections feels very much like it’s at the transitional stage from the 1950s to some of the ways we understand American culture now. For example, he spends some time in his long essay about hot-rod enthusiasts describing self-designed t-shirts they’re wearing and how wild they are. But they sound very much like the kinds of t-shirts I would buy at K-Mart about 20 years later looking for school clothes. In another moment, he’s discussing the new fascination for NASCAR by way one of the early stars, but I grew up immersed in NASCAR culture (living in a state with several races) and I didn’t even like it. So in both of these, he’s tapping into something that is about to very much be a much broader part of the culture.
The essays here are mostly magazine pieces of the old order (3000-10000 words or so). There’s some, but not a lot of argument here, but more so profile pieces like we know now with the author a clear part of the process of profiling. To describe the writing here — something like a writing situation midway between Gore Vidal and Hunter S Thompson — or rather, what if Vidal wrote about the subjects Thompson covered. Something like that. Collections of nonfiction like these are interesting (or not) for two primary reasons: what are topics that used to get talked about a lot but aren’t so much any more and what are the ways in which we talked about some topics that we now talk about differently?