Born in 1930, educated at Washington & Lee University and Yale University, author of three novels and twelve works of nonfiction, and known for his trademark white suits, Tom Wolfe has worked hard to establish himself as one of America’s most iconic post-war writers. As Kurt Vonnegut remarked, “[Wolfe is] a genius who will do anything to get attention.”
Wolfe’s best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was made into a popular movie, but he is perhaps best known for his books of nonfiction, especially The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff.
He was a central figure in the New Journalism of the 1960s, which established itself in magazines such as Esquire, Harper’s, and the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine. With E. W. Johnson, Wolfe edited The New Journalism (1973), a definitive anthology that featured the work of Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and George Plimpton, as well as Wolfe himself who also wrote a long and influential introduction to the volume. New Journalism emphasized the use of techniques borrowed from fiction (e.g., dialogue, dramatized scenes, etc.), stylistic experimentation, and immersion by the author in his or her subject.
Wolfe, in particular, is known for his long sentences, lavish use of punctuation, and immersion in previously unexplored subcultures, including test pilots, car customizers, California surfers, and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Wolfe anticipates postmodern approaches to subjectivity in “Putting Daddy On.” Parker, the “Daddy” of Wolfe’s essay is painfully self-aware and removed: “It is as if Parker were looking through a microscope at a convulsive amoeba, himself, Parker.”
Wolfe largely absents himself from the action, appearing explicitly only in dialogue, such as when he gives Parker directions or when Parker introduces him to his son.
The setting reinforces the essay’s “unreal,” dreamlike, dissociated mood. Ben’s crummy apartment, for example, seems more like “a caricature of an extremely crummy place.” Even Parker remarks on the apartment’s artificiality: “‘Ah…the whole scene,’” he says, as he enters.
Essay’s Immediate Context
“Putting Daddy On” was first published in 1964—a doorway year into the Sixties. This transitional moment affects to the essay’s content. Parker is a kind of refugee from the Fifties, unable to adapt to the new scene. He is a “casualty of the Information Crisis,” who is “forty-six years old and close to becoming a vice-president of the agency.”
In a brown Chesterfield, he visits his son—a “hemp-smoking flipnik” who dropped out of Columbia and is doing drugs “in a pair of white ducks and rubber Zorrie sandals,” shirtless, in a slummy tenement.
The essay appeared originally in the Sunday magazine section of the New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper that was itself straddling the generational divide. The Tribune catered to wealthy New Yorkers, people like Parker who were trying to understand the Sixties their children were already entering, but it was trying to break from the what Wolfe saw as the staid journalism of the New Yorker and find its own contemporary niche. The Tribune Sunday supplement was about to become New York magazine, where, a year after “Putting Daddy On” appeared, Wolfe would attack the New Yorker in a two-part parody that prompted a rebuttal by Dwight Macdonald in the New York Review of Books and became known as “the New Yorker affair.”
“Putting Daddy On” is one of twenty-two essays in Wolfe’s 1965 nonfiction collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The book sold well and critics responded favorably though with occasional reservations. Vonnegut wrote, “His language is admired but a Wolfe chrestomathy would drive one nuts with repetition.” William James Smith added, “it is hard, in fact, to decide whether what he [Wolfe] is saying is significant in itself because of his assertiveness and his talent.”
“About Tom Wolfe.” Tom Wolfe. Tom Wolfe. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.
Newsweek. “The Wolfe-Man.” 1965. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Ed. Doug
Shomette. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992. 5-6.
Smith, William James. “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” 1965.
The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Ed. Doug Shomette. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992. 9-10.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Infarcted! Tabescent!” Rev. of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake
Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe. New York Times 27 Jan. 1965. The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/116900049/pageviewPDF/12EC555B4F15D6F52C3/1?accountid=4840>.
Wolfe, Tom. “Putting Daddy On.” New York Herald Tribune 15 Mar. 1964, Sunday
Magazine sec.: 17+.
_____. “Putting Daddy On.” 1964. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake
Streamline Baby. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965.
_____. “Putting Daddy On.” 1964. Ed. Robert Atwan. The Best American Essays of
the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 280-87.
_____. An Evening With Tom Wolfe. Park School of Communications, Ithaca, NY.
30 Oct. 2008. Address.
Text and images: Chris Nelson