Tom Wolfe GRD ’57 may have studied at Yale in the 1950s, but he is still in touch with college life.
Wolfe told students at a Calhoun Master’s Tea that his next book project is on college life. He said he had visited different colleges, from Stanford to the University of Florida, for research.
“Everywhere I went students would not go to sleep until two, three, and four in the morning,” he said. “When they go to class the next morning they’ll do the ‘nod and jerk.’”
Wolfe, the author of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff,” discussed his observations on college life as well as memories of his own years at Yale. He spent much of the tea answering questions from the 60 or so audience members, which led him to topics ranging from journalism to the current college dating scene.
“Sexual relations, to an outsider, are astounding,” he said. “Boys and girls go out in groups and then proceed to a seven-minute seduction. In so many ways, things have been turned upside down.”
“But again, I’m preaching to the people who know this,” he said.
Wolfe wore his signature white suit, but said that when he was at Yale, there were two distinct apparel habits: the “white shoes” and the “army surplus.”
The “white shoes” wore traditional tweed coats and button-down oxford shirts, and the “army surplus” wore ponchos and construction boots, he said.
Based on his observations, Wolfe said students’ experiences today compared favorably with his own.
“[Yale students] seem to enjoy themselves more than I did alone up in Sterling Memorial Library, as a graduate student,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe arrived at Yale after attending college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He initially thought he would teach, he said. But after earning his American Studies Ph.D., he took a year off and went to Springfield, Mass., where he wrote for the Springfield Union.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
Wolfe said he was attracted to “new journalism” and the effort to write nonfiction and bring it alive.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m writing the crust of history,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said he still believes the last era of the American novel was around 1900.
“American writers began to bow down to French feudalism and support art for art’s sake,” he said.
Wolfe also offered students writing advice.
“Anytime you see a column based on something someone said yesterday or what they saw on television, or what a cab driver said, you know quality is lacking,” he said.
Mollie Farber ’06, who attended the tea, said her professor from a nonfiction writing course last semester gave similar advice.
“I’m interested in how he makes nonfiction so compelling and how it seems it couldn’t possibly be real,” Farber said.
Wolfe addressed the war in Iraq in response to a question.
“Whether it’s good or bad will have to do with the results. Who am I to say this kind of stance shouldn’t be taken?” he said.
Calhoun Master William Sledge, who introduced Wolfe, said he attended college at Washington and Lee at the same time as Wolfe.
“When he attended the Yale Tercentennial celebrations two years ago, we became reacquainted and I asked him to come,” Sledge said.
Audience member Cassie Kaufmann ’06 said she first read Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in the seventh grade and loved it.
“Since then, I’ve been interested to see who he is,” she said.