Peggy Noonan: Hats off to Tom Wolfe, who chronicled 20th century America like no other

‘You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better.” That was Stephen Vincent Benet in 1941, in the Saturday Review of Literature, on the work of Scott Fitzgerald, who had recently died.

I thought of it on the death of Tom Wolfe. Not that he was ignored or forgotten, but we are coming to terms with his greatness in a purer, less guarded way than in the past.

He picked up American journalism and shook it hard, then he picked up the novel and shook that too. He saw what was happening all around us, and he said that’s not “what’s happening,” that’s history—the social and cultural story of the great Hog-stomping Baroque America of the second half of the 20th century, which was begging to be captured and finally was, by him, in a way no one else would or could.

He invented characters that presented us to ourselves. He had two masterpieces, “The Right Stuff” in nonfiction and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in fiction. He issued one of the great literary manifestos: Stop your navel gazing, get out your notebook, there’s a world exploding out there.

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