He burned Wall Street and savaged Atlanta. What does Tom Wolfe have in mind for Stanford?
The celebrated author is spending a month on campus this spring as a visiting scholar in the communication department. His mission: soak up life on the Farm as he researches a coming novel on higher education.
Wolfe's two previous novels, both bestsellers, offered brilliantly scathing satire. The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, probed the greed and lust of 1980s New York. Last year's A Man in Full skewered the manners and mores of 1990s Atlanta. Prior to becoming a novelist, Wolfe developed a reputation as one of the best-known practitioners of New Journalism with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff.
Some on campus wonder how Stanford will fare under Wolfe's pen. "He might make fun of what he sees," says Steven Chaffee, chair of the communication department. "He's pretty sarcastic. But if we enjoyed that when he did it with the astronauts [in The Right Stuff], we should be able to sit still if he does it to us. "
Wolfe, talkative and genial in a telephone interview from his New York City home, seems honestly baffled by the concerns. "I'm a reporter. Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, I try to get the settings as accurately done as possible," he says. "It's never my aim to write a book about something as a means of attack, but as a means of discovery. . . . My only interest is in bringing these things to life. I honestly think that's what I've done."
The Man in White says he's interested in Stanford because it has everything -- top scholarship, sports and accomplished students. (Wolfe's own alma mater is Washington and Lee University, and his 18-year-old daughter is a freshman at Duke.)
In any case, Stanford probably won't be Wolfe's only model. He is toying with visiting other schools, including the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, Harvard and Yale.
The arrangements for Wolfe's stay on the Farm are loose. He plans mostly to hang out with students and faculty and soak up life on campus. If asked, he may give a lecture or two and consult informally with students.
"I just want to tell everybody that New York still stands. Atlanta still stands," Wolfe says. "I honestly don't think anyone ever felt burned in Atlanta. New York is fireproof anyway."