Library Blog

Taste and Discernment: Tom Wolfe at the Society Library

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Library is honored to have had journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe as a member from 1991 until his death last week at age 88. His books are loved among our patrons, as among readers everywhere. We're proud to have served him and thankful for his many contributions to us.

Mr. Wolfe lived very close to the Library and used the collection frequently - as attested by this delightfully miscellaneous clip of him walking from his home to the Members' Room. Staff members can confirm that he lived up to his dandy reputation even when he just dropped by to pick up a hold, dressing in the full white suit, or at least crisp navy blue and white, with spats. Head of Acquisitions Steve McGuirl recalls Mr. Wolfe once encountering author/trustee Louis Auchincloss in the Circulation Hall and exclaiming "Well, as I live and breathe!"

Mr. Wolfe gave brief and wondrous keynote speeches on two of our major occasions: the celebrations of our 250th anniversary in November 2003 and April 2004, and our inagural New Members Party in June 2011. He also presented an enthusiastically received 2005 lecture on I Am Charlotte Simmons.

At the anniversary party, he said,

"I've more and more begun to appreciate the extraordinary job the people who select the books do to preserve human memory. It's an extremely hard-to-come-by talent. If I had my biggest homburg on I would doff it to you right now.

I think everybody should follow in the footsteps of Don Quixote at some point in their life. My doomed project is to rescue the American arts of all types from Europe. You know, we're independent in every other area of life, but not in the arts. Schoenberg paralyzed American serious music. In art, the whole American tradition was wiped out so all we have are European pass-me-downs in painting and sculpture. And poetry! Thanks to Mallarmé and Baudelaire and their acolytes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, a fabulous tradition of American poetry came to an end. There have been only four good American poets in the entire twentieth century, and you know who you are.

But here in the Library I found the original publications of the works of Vachel Lindsay, a name that doesn't ring many bells today. These books are priceless; I don't know why they lend them to me. Thanks to people like [the Library's staff], in my quixotic quest to rescue our arts, I haven't had to move an inch from the Society Library."

Noting the mention of poet Vachel Lindsay, former Head Librarian Mark Bartlett dropped Mr. Wolfe a note commending some new Lindsay acquisitions in 2013. The response:

"That Vachel Lindsay cover and title page have played some lovely chords on my heartstrings. I genuinely regard Vachel Lindsay - somehow it's impossible to refer to him simply as Lindsay - I regard him as the greatest American poet of the 20th century, just as Poe was the greatest of the 19th. Both wrote in rhymes. Today that would be lucky to be writing jingles for radio commercials, the ones that are played before the telephone number is repeated four times....

Maybe I should add, for balance, that I consider - genuinely consider - Bruno Paul, Rudolf Wilke, Eduard Thony, Olaf Gulbransson, Thomas Theodor Heine, Karl Arnold, and Ragnvald Blix as the seven greatest artists of all time. All seven were caricaturists a century ago for German satirical magazine Simplicissimus (known amongst its staff as Der Simpl.) Or maybe I should regard them as a field entry, since all worked with one another.

All of this is actually leading up to your kind offer of showing me around the upscaled new areas of the Library. That would be great! I'll be in touch!

P.S. Congratulations on your Fall 2013 of your most stylish...and that's going some...Not only that, I encourage you to run a photo of me in the upcoming brochure."

We did just as he suggested, as you can see from this panel in the brochure we hand all prospective and new members.

Mr. Wolfe's key remark at the 2011 party has grown into one of our essential institutional definitions:

“The line here is that Society [in the Library’s name] has nothing to do with class. But look around you. This is an aristocracy—of taste and discernment.”

We feel he should know.

Here's plenty of Tom Wolfe reading throughout the stacks - fiction, essays, reportage, history, even architecture


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