Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities" as a Stylistic Triumph

Examination Thesis, 2014

75 Pages, Grade: 1,4


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Tom Wolfe’s TheBonfire of the Vanities as a Stylistic Triumph
1. Development of the Colloquial in American Fiction up to Wolfe
2. Wolfe’s Call for Realism in Novel Writing
3. Prevalent Stylistic Traits
3.1. Stylistic Idiosyncrasies
3.2. Journalistic Influences
3.3. Satiric Elements
4. Stylistic Analysis of Selected Chapters
4.1. Prologue, “Mutt on Fire”
4.2. Chapter 4. “King of the Jungle”
4.3. Chapter 6. “A Leader of the People”
4.4. Chapter 14. “I Don’t Know How to Lie”
4.5. Chapter 15. “The Masque of the Red Death”

III. Conclusion

IV. Works Consulted

I. Introduction

“I’m not talking about zeitgeist now, or spiritual matters or other things people tend to talk about when they are talking about literary matters To me, it was always the technique that was important.”1

(Conversations with Tom Wolfe, 1990)

Since the beginning of his success as a creative force within the New Journalism movement in the late 1960s, Tom Wolfe has established himself as a major figure of American Letters. Born on March 2, 1931 in Richmond, Virginia, the son of an agronomy professor and a landscape designer discovered his enthusiasm for fiction and journalism even before high school and majored in English at Washington and Lee in 1951. Instead of further pursuing his studies or applying as a journalist, he decided to pursue a professional career in baseball. Playing in a semi-professional league for one year, the twenty-year-old Virginian nourished dreams of earning his living as an athlete. When the New York Giants refused him after three days of tryouts, he enrolled in Yale University’s American Studies doctoral program. Wolfe received his PhD in 1957, but instead of accepting a teaching job in academia, he started working as a journalist right away, following in the footsteps of his idols Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway. First employments led him to Washington and, as a correspondent for the Washington Post, to Cuba, where he covered the revolution in 1959. Starting at the bottom of the trade, Wolfe had already earned his spurs after four years and landed a job at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962. His editor Clay Felker recognized and encouraged the young reporter’s increasingly idiosyncratic techniques and kept him busy with creative assignments on diverse subjects.2

While writing for magazines such as Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Magazine, Wolfe found a whole new, unique approach to the popular form of the feature story. Using techniques usually reserved for fiction, he was among the first to question and consequently expand the boundaries of traditional journalism. His most prominent feature stories were usually concerned with novel phenomena of popular culture such as drag racing, life in Las Vegas, or the work of record producer Phil Spector and entertained a growing readership with lively, often flashy language and a vast amount of well-researched details and facts. A collection of his best essays was published with the title The Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965 and was embraced by readers and critics alike. Throughout the following two decades Wolfe built on his success by writing feature stories and publishing several extensive non-fiction books. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) chronicles the psychedelic experiments of Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters”, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) is concerned with Leonard Bernstein’s dinner party for the Black Panthers and San Francisco’s poverty program. From 1973 to 1979 Wolfe did unprecedented research on the Mercury Space program, culminating in the four hundred pages of the critically acclaimed The Right Stuff (1979). Besides compiling several collections of his essays, he found the time to write two books criticizing modern art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). While usually a commercial success, his works have always had the potential to divide critics and spawn controversial debate. For the most part, Wolfe has appeared unaffected by these outside opinions concerning his work. It was an exception, when he responded to Mailer, Updike and Irving who had found fault with his writing. He continues to investigate whatever subject matter rouses his curiosity and has not wavered from his provocative signature writing style.

The commercial and critical success and popularity of his ever growing non-fiction pieces led to a gradual transition from pure journalism to his first, all fictional novel The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. As of today Wolfe has completed four novels and his reputation as a novelist overshadows his past achievements as a non-fiction journalist and writer of feature stories. A Man in Full (1998) is a portrait of Atlanta and the real estate boom in the nineteen- nineties, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) exposes the decaying values of higher education in America and Back to Blood (2012) depicts the life of Cuban immigrants in Miami.

Most of what has been written about Tom Wolfe within the academic world focuses on the early journalistic period of his life and his embracing of non-fiction techniques while the discussion of his stature as a novelist and of his style remains meager. Chapter 1.2.1. of this study contains a short discussion of several important American novelists beginning with Washington Irving. Besides my intention to sketch a chronological development, I have also included these examples to illustrate the individuality of style. As a concept, however, style is not easily defined. Strunk even argues that there is no satisfactory explanation of style at all. It is always present as soon as we read a written text and it is more than just the sum of simple technicalities. It is hard to define what makes a certain combination of words effective while other combinations do not stimulate the reader’s mind to the same extent. In it’s broader meaning style is “what is distinguished and distinguishing”3, or as Palmer puts it, “not unlike genius: we reckon to know it when we see it, but find it hard to define.”4

Applying Link’s definition5, I understand the term style as the individual characteristics of language. The individuality of language is provoked by the object it tries to express. Success or failure of individual style depends on whether the language chosen is the language best suited to describe its object. Blankenship adds the dimension of variability and free choice, “the variable features, particularly those habitually chosen by an encoder, may be termed the style of the individual6.”

I will focus on the The Bonfire of the Vanities because it is arguably his most fully realized novel, bringing together meticulously researched facts about New York City society in the late 1980s, a well structured, surprising plot and a Dickensian array of compelling characters all tinted in effective, biting satire. It also stands as his most successful novel in terms of its critical and commercial success to date, unsurpassed by his following three attempts at the genre, each of which sold fewer copies than its predecessor. While the book has been repeatedly explained in terms of its cultural references, a true examination of Bonfire as a stylistic endeavor is yet missing. Considering how unique, attention-grabbing and loud Wolfe’s style presents itself, this comes rather as a surprise.

The study contains a close reading analysis of five chapters showcasing various stylistic traits. Wolfe himself has pointed out the four stylistic devices, which he regards as indispensable in creating gripping, expressive and realistic prose. These include the thirdperson point of view, scene-by-scene construction, extensive dialogue, and the recording of status-life symbols7. Due to Wolfe’s consistent use of these devices in his groundbreaking feature stories, they are now associated with the mechanisms of the New Journalism in general. And while their merit in this medium is widely accepted, it remains disputed whether they have enabled Wolfe to write novels that match the quality of his earlier magazine pieces. This study will examine whether Wolfe’s style, largely determined by these four devices, can function in the format of the novel. In order to determine this, the novel’s intentions have to be identified. I claim that Bonfire’s ambitions can be summed up into three main points: to appeal to and entertain a mainstream readership, to paint a comprehensive portrait of New York City at a certain point in time including its social classes, and to satirize the vain status obsession that rules the people representing these classes. If these goals are met, Wolfe’s stylistic choices can be regarded as successful. To prepare for the analysis of selected chapters I will discuss Wolfe’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, and the influence of literary realism, journalism and satire on his writing.

I am aware of the risk that lies in analyzing isolated passages and drawing conclusions concerning an author’s style. As Link points out, the interpretation of individual scenes can only be beneficial, if one considers their function within the literary work as a whole and their position in relation to the intensity arch of the novel8. I have therefore chosen individual sections that occupy a prominent position in the novel or present crucial points of intensity.

It becomes obvious from the selected passages and the allusion in the title that Bonfire can be understood as a modern-day novel of manners in the Thackeray-Austen-Waugh tradition, often becoming a straight comedy of manners as popularized by Oscar Wilde. This distinction would be an interesting field of study worthy of exploration by itself. Considering the constantly satirical tone of the narrator, one could ask the question whether anything in this novel is meant to be taken at face value at all. Especially in the two Manhattan-cocktail-party-chapters “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hero of the Hive” social satire on the leading class becomes the central theme. Other important stylistic trademarks discussed are Wolfe’s considerable talent in coining memorable expressions to pin down otherwise abstract concepts which have often found their way into everyday language and his satirical genius in making up telling names which echo with linguistic or semantic irony. An analysis of the Prologue “Mutt on Fire” will discuss Wolfe’s aggressive stylistic strategy at the very beginning of his novel and the importance of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation. The analysis of the chapter “I Don’t Know How to Lie” will show it as a brilliant example of engaging inner dialogue, realized through a stream of consciousness technique employing broken or one-word sentences.

“King of the Jungle” is the keystone chapter in the arch of the plot, presenting the crisis that accelerates the action. The focus of the stylistic analysis is on how the author creates atmosphere through detail and allusion and on how thoughts and outward impressions are connected. “A Leader of the People” showcases Wolfe’s ability to create authentic character speech and to structure dialogue- heavy chapters with the help of paragraphing. The larger elements connecting all passages under scrutiny are the nature of the narrative voice and its comment on the content, the individual voices of the characters achieved through regional and social dialects and slang and the portrayal of inner feelings. In addition, literary conventions and unusual turns within the plot structure, for example how the last chapter is handled, will be identified and interpreted.

II. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities as a stylistic triumph

1. Development of the Colloquial in American Fiction up to Wolfe

The transition from non-fiction to an entirely new genre was not without struggle on the Wolfe’s part. Three years prior to its final publication in book form, twenty-seven installments of Bonfire had appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine, featuring a different protagonist and a somewhat garbled plot, both of which still felt very unsatisfactory to their creator. Wolfe saw himself forced to undertake major changes in his “very public first draft” 9, most prominently changing the protagonist’s profession from writer to Wall Street bond trader. These insecurities in the process of writing this first novel show that the attempt of the journalist to enter the world of fiction does not automatically result in success. The writers of feature stories are free in terms of their techniques, but not in terms of the content, which have to be factual. The author of fiction is granted limitless creative freedom causing a necessity to invent. Wolfe notes that “in nonfiction you are handed the plot . . . you are handed the characters . . . it just didn’t dawn on me how much I was now depriving myself of.”10 The struggle didn’t end with the new pressure to create these macro elements from scratch however, causing Wolfe to admit, I was not nearly as free technically and in terms of style as I had been in nonfiction. I would have assumed it would be the opposite, since you have carte blanche in fiction, this tremendous freedom. What happened was that all the rules of composition I had been taught about fiction in college and graduate school came flooding back—Henry James’s doctrine of point of view, Virginia Woolf’s theory of the inner psychological glow. All things were suddenly laws. I was on an unfamiliar terrain and so I’d better obey.11

The statement reflects how much pressure Wolfe felt while creating his first fictional work. Although he had been confident about the language of his feature stories, the new endeavor forced him to rethink his methods. Writing a novel was a highly prestigious undertaking among journalists at the time Wolfe started to work on Bonfire, which he regarded as a recent link in a long chain of American novels. Wolfe’s initial cautiousness is remarkable since he had already carved out a stylistic niche of his own in several extensive works, including The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A unique style such as Wolfe’s does not develop in a vacuum, though, and besides the immediate environment of the New Journalism movement in the 1960s, the American novelists preceding Wolfe must be considered.

As Kallan points out, Wolfe’s style is remarkable for its vivid colloquialisms12, a stylistic quality that has steadily developed over the last two centuries with a stream of unique novelists unrelentingly innovating their craft. The following examples show drunken speech in works of fiction, to illustrate different approaches to colloquial expression.

“Whenever his liquor begun to work, he most always went for the government. This time he says: ‘Call this a government! Why, just look at it and see what it’s like.

. . . . Here’s a government that calls itself a government, and lets on to be a government, and thinks it is a government, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take ahold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, whiteshirted free nigger, and-’”

(Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885)13

“Tell him bulls have no horns! Mike shouted, very drunk, from the other end of the table. ‘What does he say?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Jake,’ Mike called. ‘Tell him bulls have no horns!’ ‘You understand?’ I said.


I was sure he didn’t, so it was all right.

‘Tell him Brett wants to see him put on those green pants.’ ‘Pipe down, Mike.’

‘Tell him Brett is dying to know how he can get into those pants.’ ‘Pipe down.’

(Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), 1926)14

“He never did come to think he might just be close to wasted after downing nine beers in a row, plus a tequila shot, more alcohol than he had ever had in one evening in his life

‘Home? I don’t have one a those anymore, home.’

‘Then where are you planning to spend the night?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Nestor, except that it came out l’ownoh.

‘I’ll sleep inna car if I’ve toNo! I knowI’ll drive overt Rodriguez’s and sleep on a mat inna gym.’”

(Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood, 2012)15

Twain, the first master of the idiomatic narrator and of lifelike colloquial speech, imitates the endlessly repeating sentences of a drunken rant so well in his writing, that we can almost see Finn’s Pap indignantly throwing his fists in the air. The realistic quality of the speech is achieved by using slang words and expressions, such as “and yet’s got to” and “white-shirted free nigger”, repetitions of crucial words and grammatically wrong sentences typical of the confused mind of a drunkard. The overall effect is so lifelike that we forget for a moment that this is a piece of writing consciously manipulated instead of a real piece of transcribed spoken language.

The Hemingway passage is a typical example of his genius, because it is expressive in the way he omits information. He doesn’t manipulate Mike’s words by onomatopoeia to imitate the slurred pronunciation of a drunk. Mike and the other expatriates are habitual drinkers and probably don’t slur their words when they are intoxicated. Instead, Hemingway simply puts down the conversation as plain as possible. It becomes clear from the exclamation marks and the context that Mike is shouting across the table and we already know he is drunk because Jake has said so. This is emphasized by Mike’s repetition of two lame jokes in the fashion of drunk people, who have lost all sense of what is funny and what is not. The reader can, if he is experienced enough, fill this sparse framework constructed by Hemingway with his imagination and perfectly hear and understand the conversation between Jake and Mike.

Wolfe’s rendering of colloquial speech, exemplified by the passage from Back to Blood, is the extreme development of Twain’s approach. The literal transcription of spoken sound has become so accurate that it is not readable anymore in places. The author sees himself forced to give us the regular sentence “I don’t know” first so that we don’t lose the meaning of the conversation because the transcription of the drunken “l’ownoh” is too far removed from an English we can comprehend. Wolfe is dauntless in his ambition to translate sound onto the page. His fine-tuned ear and his technique are responsible for very readable vivid speech. He has developed this technique to the maximum and exploits it to its limitations. The rendering of laughter for example as “AahhhuhwaaaAHHHHHock hock hock hock”16 is a gimmick we can read but cannot really hear in our mind as laughter anymore.

From the first settlements in the New World to the nineteenth century, American English was regarded the informal, spoken variation, while British English was considered the literary language appropriate for writing. The history of American fiction is characterized by spoken language gradually becoming an accepted literary vehicle. Bridgman argues that the main shift in the language of American fiction is the shift from formal to colloquial, or more precisely, the incorporation of a rising number of colloquial expressions and constructions into the written language. These include the use of repetition, stress on individual verbal units and a fragmentation of syntax, producing shorter sentences with shorter words17. This may be true for the general development, for example from Hawthorne’s to Hemingway’s sentences. The Southerner Wolfe, on the other hand, is known for an opulent and expansive style full of exclamations, repetitions and rhetorical flourishes that one might associate with the oral style employed by several Southern writers. In the following section I lean on Link, who presents a concise summary of the most important stylistic benchmarks in the history of American fiction18. Since my aim is to highlight the road leading towards Wolfe’s colloquial style in The Bonfire of the Vanities, I will focus on the authors of longer fictional pieces. Washington Irving, considered by some to be the first novelist to develop a unique American style19, is still strongly connected to the British literary models of the time. His narrative structure and language remain conventional. The author views the world from a distance and describes it in his own language without adjusting it to social milieu and setting. The first indications of individuality can be found in the lengthy detailed descriptions, often commented on by the narrator. Irving is a master of these gentle, intimate asides, added consciously to “disclaim the role of dogmatic philosopher”20. Vocabulary, hypotactic phrasing, rhythm and sound are chosen with increasing care and convey the atmosphere of a situation and the sensations of the narrator. Humor often expresses itself in the subtle, ironic choice of words. Incongruous vocabulary creates friction with the context and draws attention to the amused, or critical distance of the narrator.

Fenimore Cooper writes in the same tradition as Irving and is widely anthologized and regarded as a major American novelist. As a stylist, one could almost consider him an anticlimax within the development of American literature. While his narratives are admired for their action-packed adventures and heroic characters, his language often suffers from a lack of syntactical order. One can get the impression that Cooper occasionally loses his sense of orientation among all the action he is presenting. Endless constructions are confusing and not transparent enough to be considered good style. The following example is a portion of direct speech, taken from The Redskins, and proves that Cooper has a tin ear for dialogue. People do not talk and have never talked like this:

If that can be done, the sales will be made on the principle that none but the tenant must be, as indeed no one else can be, the purchaser; and then we shall see a queer exhibition-men parting with their property under the pressure of clamor that is backed by as much law as can be pressed into its service, with a monopoly of price on the side of the purchaser, and all in a country professing the most sensitive love of liberty, and where the prevailing class of politicians are free-trade men?21

Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne can be regarded as further stylistic innovators. Although neither progressed into an entirely new rhetoric field, both used the devices at their disposal in unique ways. In Poe’s fiction, the formal arrangement of language often adds a layer of meaning to the content. His ambition to create a very specific atmosphere, for example through the use of archaic or unexpected vocabulary and allusions, is more important to him than fine writing and easily digestible prose. Poe consciously shapes every detail of his writing. This has the effect that the reader forgets he is reading a madeup, fantastical story and becomes totally immersed in the fictional world. With his immense command of traditional rhetoric Poe is able to develop new fields of psychology in his fiction such as translating the currents of the human subconscious into language. The heightened interest in the psychology of his characters also prompts Nathaniel Hawthorne to develop his own version of the conventional style of his time. His use of allegory to describe inner processes can be considered a traditional device, his use of “if “+ conjunctive and inconclusive statements point to the contingent nature of human existence, a major concern of modern literature.

Similar to Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville’s style is still rooted in tradition while testing the boundaries of prevailing conventions at the same time. Especially the language of Moby Dick and later works is more complex and less accessible than that of contemporary writers, a cause of Melville’s decreasing popularity after 1851. Images are stringed up in long chains of associations; the comparisons connecting the imagery are frequently far fetched, as for example the philosophical musings on “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Chapter 42. The ordering function of clear sentence construction and logical argumentation often loses its dominating role to an abundance of rhetorical devices such as metaphor, allegory, allusion and symbol. As a result, fragmentation occasionally breaks up the traditional syntactic unity22. Sentence parts create independent images of individual phenomena. In parts, this is a language which points to later authors of impressionism.

Bret Harte uses a reduced vocabulary and a simpler, plainer style. The narrative voice has a more discreet tone to it and moves to the background in certain stretches. Situations are depicted as experienced by the fictional characters although one cannot speak of fully developed perspective narration. In general Harte’s narrative style is reduced, commenting less on the events unfolding and letting facts speak for themselves. Since coordinating conjunctions are left out in many instances, the reader has to connect sentences and draw conclusions for himself.

Bridgman names two authors mainly responsible for the transition to a colloquial style, Mark Twain and Henry James23. Twain, a trained journalist just as Wolfe, is often regarded as the most important influence on American colloquial prose style. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his two most enduring novels, are both told from the perspective of a boy in the idiomatic language of the respective narrators Tom and Huck. Twain is the first American author to perfect dialect and local colloquialisms in such unwavering fashion. The use of humor is another outstanding achievement is in his writing. Instead of an undercurrent of detached irony as in some of Irving’s passages, Twain’s style relies on surprising revelations and provokes laughter in unexpected places.

Henry James, “one of America’s major novelists . . . an unsurpassed literary stylist and craftsman” 24, leans towards colloquial language in the dialogues of his writing as for example in the following exchange between Winterbourne and a little boy in Daisy Miller:

“Will you give me a lump of sugar?” he asked, in a sharp, hard little voice-a voice immature, and yet, somehow, not young ”Yes, you may take one,” he answered; “but I don’t think sugar is good for little boys.” “Oh, blazes; it’s har- r-d!” he exclaimed, pronouncing the adjective in a peculiar manner.25

His style is innovative and influential because of the complexity of his clauses, which reflect the intricate psychological processes depicted. Sentences do not move forward according to dynamic action sequences as in Cooper or Stevenson, but dwell on the situation to decipher its intricate social and psychological implications. Wolfe mentions James’s doctrine of point of view as an influence. This is remarkable since most of James’s narration, especially in his later works, creates an atmosphere of detached objectivity by showing rather than telling and differs in this respect considerably from Wolfe, whose narrative tone is often implicitly judgmental. In his humorous or pessimistic satire Wolfe is closer to the melodramatic style of Dickens or Hardy than James.

Stephen Crane, another journalist-turned-writer, who is important for the development of American prose, is often regarded as a transitional link between the styles of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. He further develops Harte’s and Twain’s approaches of letting facts speak for themselves while the omniscient narrator fades even more into the background and does not interpret the situation. The human condition of being exposed to inevitable situations and an indifferent fate is not expressed by commentary but by the way circumstances are presented. These insights are condensed into short effective statements reminding one of his journalistic background and his extensive reporting as a correspondent. These following passages taken from his short story “The Open Boat” show the impressionistic nature of his writing and his painterly eye for natural colors:

When the correspondent opened his eyes, the sea and the sky were each of the grey hue of the dawning. Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared finally in its splendor, with a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves.”

The shore was set before him like a bit of scenery on a stage, and he looked at it and understood with his eyes each detail of it.

The shore, with its white slope of sand and its green bluff topped with little silent cottages, was spread like a picture before him.

It was very near to him then, but he was impressed as one who, in a gallery, looks at a scene from Brittany or Algiers.26

Short, simple sentences are connected by coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions; readers are then left to make their own connections implied by the paratactic syntax. The juxtaposition of starkly dissimilar images or fragments can be considered a forerunner of the impressionistic technique of Ezra Pound’s Imagism. The following example is taken from chapter nine of The Red Badge of Courage; the protagonist Henry Fleming has just witnessed the death of his fellow soldier Jim Conklin.

As the flap of the blue jacket fell away from the body, he could see that the side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves. The youth turned, with sudden, livid rage, toward the battle-field. He shook his fist. He seemed to deliver a philippic. “Hell-“ The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer.27

The poignant last sentence conveys a striking image via the combined use of simile and oxymoron. The wafer, usually associated with the peaceful communion of Christianity, is described as “fierce” echoing Henry’s rage at the death of his comrade. The red color of the sun symbolizes the recent bloodshed and in combination with the wafer image, Jim’s passing is likened to Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life for humanity. “Wafer” is also an ironic answer to Henry exclaiming “Hell-“. In this context the color red additionally alludes to fire and the devil. It is also significant that even the distanced sun assumes the color red while Henry longs in vain for a “red badge of courage”. He feels like a coward without wounds in a world marked by the wounds of war. Although the sentence is short, not subdivided and contains simple words of one ore two syllables, it carries complex meaning, an achievement testifying to Crane’s stylistic expertise. This artistic competence also shows in the authentic character speech.

There are also American authors in the second half of the nineteenth century who were not part of the development towards a more objective narration and idiomatic expression. One is tempted to say that Theodore Dreiser’s novels Sister Carrie and AnAmerican Tragedy are widely appreciated despite, and not because of their style. Dreiser is prone to overstating issues and to repeating himself, weaknesses which clog up his diction. This is the opening paragraph of An American Tragedy:

DUSK- of a summer night.

And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants-such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,-a man about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a bible and several hymn books.28

Usually novelists craft the very beginning of their works with special care; in this case one can question why “and” is used eight times in four sentences. Perhaps it is intentional that three consecutive sentences of the opening paragraph start with “and” but it is not clear to what end Dreiser decided to make them begin this way. The repetition is monotonous and makes for a tedious reading experience. The walls of the city, the man and the woman are thus aligned in parallel sentence constructions although this adds no additional meaning to the situation depicted. At this point it should be admitted that the repetitive “and”sentences could have been deliberately chosen in order to convey the atmosphere of a plain street ballad.

Repetition, later perfected by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, can be an effective device for carrying meaning as the following passage, again from “The Open Boat”, demonstrates.

In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And also they rowed. They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed.29

While Crane is also able to render the complicated circumstances of his characters in economic language, Dreiser’s sentences often lose themselves in stilted constructions, which are difficult to comprehend.

Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure which tended toward eventual shapeliness and an eye

alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class-two generations removed from the emigrant.30

This description of Caroline in Sister Carrie presents several problems. First it tries to fit too much information into one sentence and becomes difficult to understand. The different aspects such as her nature, figure and intelligence distract from each other and no clear image of Carrie can emerge after just one reading. Secondly, the connection between her characteristics and the American middle class is not logical. The final remark “-two generations removed from the emigrant” is added to the statement as though it is the logical conclusion to what has been said before although it presents a new aspect. The dash wrongly suggests that there is a connection between the last statement and Carrie’s features. By the end of the sentence Dreiser has moved too far from the initial description to keep the sentence’s logical structure intact. The third problem lies in repetitive formulations. In this instance, “pretty with the insipid prettiness” is not very expressive and “a figure which tended to eventual shapeliness” sounds awkward and laborious, as though it really wants to conceal what it tries to say.

Finally, I would like to mention Ernest Hemingway as an important contributor to the development of American prose style. Few writers are associated with their style to the extent that Hemingway is. His “clean, well-lighted” sentences have become famous for the meticulous way they have been crafted. His economic style is perfectly suited to the iceberg method of his novels. It is worthwhile to note that their journalistic background influenced the writings of Hemingway and Wolfe in very different ways. While it was one of the causes leading Hemingway to cut all extraneous and superfluous matter from his minimalistic style, Wolfe’s time as a reporter later caused him to move into the opposite direction stylistically. It was his boredom with factual newspaper language that motivated him to embellish his style with every eye-catching device he could think of. Instead of relying on the reader to fill spaces left deliberately empty, Wolfe tends to include as much information as he can. Lang points out that both positions are risky. “Die Gefahr, als “putter-inner” in der schlechten Unendlichkeit des amerikanischen Lebens zu ertrinken, erscheint so groß wie die Gefahr, als “leaver-outer” zu viel gerade dieses Lebens zu verhehlen.”31 In order to come to Wolfe’s defense, we can quote his namesake Thomas Wolfe. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald he writes:


1 Scura 1990, 232-233.

2 McEneaney 2009, 1-9.

3 Strunk 1959, 66.

4 Palmer 1993, 67.

5 Link 1970, 9.

6 Blankenship 1974, 85.

7 Wolfe 1973/ 31-32.

8 Link 1970, 182-184.

9 Ragen 2002, 32.

10 Wolfe 1991 (interview with George Plimpton)

11 Wolfe 1991 (interview with George Plimpton)

12 Kallan 1979, 53-62.

13 Twain 1885/2010, 49.

14 Hemingway 1926/ 1964, 135.

15 Wolfe 2012, 216.

16 Wolfe 2012, 149.

17 Bridgman 1966, 12.

18 Link 1970, 195-209.

19 Tuttleton 1993, 3.

20 Martin, Harold C. 1959, 127.

21 Cooper 1846/1883, 76.

22 Bridgman 1966, 71.

23 Bridgman 1966, 78-131.

24 Norton Anthology 1998, 282.

25 James 1878/1998, 286.

26 Crane 1897/1968, 297-302.

27 Crane 1895/1983, 45-46.

28 Dreiser 1925/1953, 15.

29 Crane 1897/1968, 281.

30 Dreiser 1900/1981, 4.

31 Lang 1972, 28.

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Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities" as a Stylistic Triumph
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Tom Wolfe, Bonfire, Bonfire of the vanities, prose style, american novel, writing style, wall street, the eighties, man in full, charlotte simmons, stylistic, hyperbole
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Martin Smollich (Author), 2014, Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities" as a Stylistic Triumph, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities" as a Stylistic Triumph

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