Tom Wolfe’s California: In the Golden State, the Great Writer First Chronicled the Social Changes That Would Transform America
Tom Wolfe is most identified with New York City, for good reason. He has lived and worked in Manhattan since the early 1960s, and New York dominates his writing the way London looms for Dickens. But Wolfe has never been afraid to venture from his home turf—this fall’s Back to Blood, an exploration of Miami, is a case in point—and his true literary second home is California. Over the course of his career, Wolfe has devoted more pages to the Golden State than to any setting other than Gotham. In his early years, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the ratio was almost one-to-one. More to the point, the core insights on which he built his career—the devolution of style to the masses, status as a replacement for social class, the “happiness explosion” in postwar America—all first came to him in California. Even books in which the state figures not at all are informed by Wolfe’s observations of the West. Without California, there would be no Wolfe as we know him—no Bonfire, no Right Stuff, no Radical Chic or Me Decade, none of the blockbuster titles or era-defining phrases that made him world-famous.
And without Wolfe, we would not understand California—or the California-ized modern world. At the time of his most frequent visits, the state was undergoing a profound change, one that affects it to this day and whose every aspect has been exported throughout the country and the globe. Both have become much more like California over the last 40 years, even as California has drifted away from its old self, and Wolfe has chronicled and explained it all.
It started by accident. Wolfe was working for the New York Herald Tribune, which, along with eight other local papers, shut down for 114 days during the 1962-63 newspaper strike. He had recently written about a custom car show—phoned it in, by his own admission—but he knew there was more to the story. Temporarily without an income, he pitched a story about the custom car scene to Esquire. “Really, I needed to make some money,” Wolfe tells me. “You could draw a per diem from the newspaper writers’ guild, but it was a pittance. I was in bad shape,” he chuckles.Esquire bit and sent the 32-year-old on his first visit to the West—to Southern California, epicenter of the subculture.