Wolfe's Machine-Gun Prose

William Bostwick '07, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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That Tom Wolfe is a versatile writer cannot be denied — he changes style and tone often to convey his multiple roles as a narrator (anthropologist, insider, critic, etc.). However, there is a certain universal feeling that permeates his work, regardless of the tone in which it is written, that makes it undeniably "Wolfian."

. . . in the X-I, the X-IA, the X-2, the D-558-I, the horrible XF-92A, the beautiful D-558-2 . . . [p. 49]

. . . testing the F3H, the F8U, the F4D Skyray, the F11F Tigercat, the F2H3 Banshee, and the F5D Skylancer. . . [p. 135]

In these lines, Wolfe adopts the declarative, impartial voice of a journalist by presenting the reader with a list of facts with minimal embellishment. In the context of the book The Right Stuff, however, these lines do not feel stale, droning and boring, (like they would, perhaps, in a different setting) but rather they add to the feeling of rapid-fire excitement that characterizes Wolfe's work.


First of all, do these factual interjections work at all? Has Wolfe effectively changed tone without losing the overall feeling of his work?

Perhaps one benefit of these lists is that they add to the spirit of mystery that pervades the book. The planes have ambiguous names that, like the term "the right stuff" do little to explain their function. But has Wolfe gone too far? With so little explanation, do these lists serve any function besides furthering Wolfe's exciting, rapid-fire style?

Does the lack of explanation add to Wolfe's credibility, or subtract from it? On the one hand the reader might assume that Wolfe knows all about these planes but chose not to include that information. On the other, the reader might feel like Wolfe is simply name-dropping.


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe Victorian courses

Last modified 13 April 2005