Louis Menand injects literary criticism and a little theory into an obituary.
Wolfe was a satirist. Politically, satire is a conservative genre. Satire is highbrow populism.
Voltaire, Heine, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Orwell were all conservative populists.
The novel for which he will be remembered is “The Bonfire of the Vanities”… The title is an homage to the Victorian satirist William Makepeace Thackeray.
The title is a direct reference to the public immolation of various objects considered conducive to sinfulness, such as happened in Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto in the second half of the 15th century. Sure enough, it’s also a reference to Vanity Fair – “vanity” is in both titles, and “fire” is somewhat close to “fair” in spelling and pronunciation.
Wolfe’s novel is unpleasant, as a book that mocks liberal pieties is bound to be. But it is not completely successful satire. Wolfe had a soft spot for his hero, the young investment banker Sherman McCoy… He imagined Sherman could be redeemed; Thackeray would have had no pity for him.
One man’s pleasure is another one’s nausea. Thackeray seems to have pity for everyone but Becky; loads of it for Dobbin and Amelia. The term “satire,” for the typical Anglo-American critic, is a euphemism for unpigeonholeable: “Some f—ed up sh-t here. Must be satire.”
Wolfe put an unholy fool at the center of the action in The Bonfire of the Vanities. It can be read as the story of Sherman’s disillusionment and education in the ugly ways of the world. If one insists on a “conservative” approach, the hero is reverting to the fighting character of his (presumably) Scots-Irish forefathers. Or, perhaps, he’s falling back on the cold stoicism that is the soul’s last resort. Surely the book didn’t come with a “Caution! Satire! All Characters Rotten!” warning sticker.
Going back to my first sentence, we have an unlikely fighter for genre purity in Louis Menand.