Getting scooped by 85-year-old Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, you old rascal! You’ve done it again. You’ve taken on the entire academic field of linguistics – as an outsider, a mere journalist – and played your snappy Emperor-has-no-clothes game on them. Bingo!


Wolfe at W&L booksigning, 2013. Photo by me.

And once again, you’ve stolen one of my ideas. But then, I never did anything with it. You did. Good show!

Getting my Harper’s magazine out of the mailbox recently, I couldn’t believe Wolfe, at age 85, was again doing what he did in Harper’s back in 1975. Back then, I was just starting out as a newspaper reporter when I read that long cover story, “The Painted Word,” with a kid’s excitement. Here was a funny, intellectual journalist, a Virginia neo-duelist taking on the pretensions of all those abstract expressionist painters – Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler. They were gods where I had just graduated from college, Bennington College. Wolfe deflated them all with good old reporting and satire.

Now, almost every year since I’ve been teaching journalism at Washington & Lee University, I’ve seen Wolfe visit, increasingly stooped and guarded in his fancy white suits, two-tone shoes, white-framed reading glasses, and for an honorary degree, white academic robe. He is a W&L alumnus, class of ’51. I remain in amused awe of his work – his New Journalism, good fat novels, moral mockery, punctuation!!!! But he was looking in decline.

Not at all!!! He has a new nonfiction book out now – The Kingdom of Speech, excerpted in the current Harper’s as “The Origins of Speech – In the Beginning was Chomsky.”

When I saw that, I had an Emersonian moment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted Americans to realize that we were geniuses, every single one of us. But we fail to realize our genius, he said, because we defer to others – to Europeans, to experts, to published writers. Emerson virtually invented American individualism, and maybe he was a little too successful in getting everybody else to come around to that belief.

But anyway, when I saw that Tom Wolfe had done a number on “the origins of speech,” I thought of what Emerson said about the embarrassing experience of recognizing our own thoughts – my ideas – in someone else’s writing. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”  You can find that in Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”

Wolfe’s insight is that language is the distinguishing characteristic, “the attribute of attributes,” of the human species. Now that might seem obvious. But there’s a second part: Human language is like nothing else in the known universe, from subatomic particles to sex-drives in pigeons to every known physical law. What is it then, this very thing that makes us human – and accounts for our incredible success as a species?

We don’t know. They don’t know. It’s a mystery. If it’s not like anything else we know in the animal kingdom, then it didn’t evolve. Wolfe rejects the Darwinian view, and says language was invented. It is the human thing.

No one knows how it originated. No one has discovered a “primitive” language – except maybe a heroic linguist working in the jungles of Brazil who figures in Wolfe’s new book. In any case, we have a lot of theories and a lot of data about language, but we don’t really have a picture of what it is like. Of what it is. It’s bizarre.

Another Southern writer, the novelist Dr. Walker Percy, published academic articles on this failure to understand the bizarre thing, human language, back in the 1950s. Like Wolfe, Percy coyly noted that the weirdness of human language baffled all scientific theories. Back then, it was B.F. Skinner who tried to explain language as merely behaviorism – our animal attribute, like a dog doing a trick for a bone. Noam Chomsky at MIT destroyed that theory, and Percy admired Chomsky’s respect for the bizarreness of language. Now Wolfe is mocking Chomsky’s theories.

But the point is, we just don’t know. And that is an idea I have toyed with ever since I absorbed Walker Percy’s brilliant skepticism. I’m no Creationist. Journalists don’t know anything. But they do tend to know when people who claim to know things don’t, really. I have for many years found it interesting that we don’t really know the origin of this most central fact of our human story. “In the beginning was the Word” makes as much sense as anything.

There are two other great mysteries I have long been obsessed with, but never pursued. I wish Tom Wolfe would report on these. One is the fact that we don’t really know how life – DNA – originated. And two, we don’t know how anything – matter itself – came into being. If Wolfe doesn’t report on those questions, somebody should.

[this is in the Roanoke Times, Sept. 11, 2016]

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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