Ignorant Youth in Johnson and Wolfe

Jesse Bull '05, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Tom Wolfe's young subjects in "The Pump House Gang" feel "immune — not so full of black pan-thuh panic" (p.27); in Rambler No. 196, Samuel Johnson's youth, on the other hand, "sallies jocund into life" (p. 2). Both writers address generational divisions and the inevitability of reaching what Wolfe refers to as "the horror dividing line" (p. 38). But, of course, the two are approaching the matter from fundamentally different perspectives: Wolfe as a journalist with an extremely localized subject; Johnson as a universalizing social commentator. These roles demand ostensibly different stylistic approaches, but Wolfe and Johnson still use many of the same tools to manipulate their readers.

With hopes like these, he sallies jocund into life; to little purpose is he told, that the condition of humanity admits no pure and unmingled happiness; that the exuberant gaiety of youth ends in poverty or disease; that uncommon qualifications and contrarieties of excellence, produce envy equally with applause; that whatever admiration and fondness may promise him, he must marry a wife like the wives of others, with some virtues and some faults, and be as often disgusted by her vices, as delighted by her elegance; that if he adventures into the circle of action, he must expect to encounter men as artful, as daring, as resolute as himself; that of his children, some may be deformed, and others vicious; some may disgrace him by their follies, some offend him by their insolence, and some exhaust him by their profusion. He hears all this with obstinate incredulity, and wonders by what malignity old age is influenced, that it cannot forbear to fill his ears with predictions of misery. [p. 2]

Simmons was a fantastic surfer. He was fantastic even though he had a bad leg. He rode the really big waves. One day he got wiped out at Windansea. When a big wave overtakes a surfer, it drives him right to the bottom. The board came in but he never came up and they never found his body. Very mysterioso. The black panthers all talked about what happened to "the Simmons boy." But the mysterioso thing was how he could have died at all. If he had been one of the old pan-thuhs, hell, sure he could have got killed. But Simmons was, well, one's own age, he was the kind of guy who could have been in the Pump House gang, he was — immune, he was plugged into the whole pattern, he could feel the whole Oh Mighty Hulking Sea, he didn't have to think it out step by step. But he got wiped out and killed. Very mysterioso.

Immune! If one is in the Pump House gang and really keyed in to this whole thing, it'sówell, one is — immune, one is not full of black pan-thuh panic. [p. 27]

Looking closely at these thematically similar passages from the two authors will offer a unique opportunity in analyzing their stylistic motivations.


1. How do each use repetition of language and grammatical structures?

2. Johnson lays out his argument point by point in a very logical manner; Wolfe presents things in a more cyclical, self-aware manner. What are the effects of these differences on the reader?

3. Johnson's youth is an unidentified "he," while Wolfe immediately presents us with the legendary Simmons. How do Wolfe and Johnson both establish credibility with such different approaches? Does Wolfe perhaps earn more by approaching the matter with such concreteness?

4. Is Wolfe dealing with an essentially new phenomenon that demands such an approach or do Johnson's broad maxims apply to the Meda kids?

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Last modified 3 December 2006