Paul Greenberg

I was going to catch your eye with the headline "A Conversation With Tom Wolfe," but decided that would be misleading even for a journalist. Because I was only reading an interview that The Wall Street Journal conducted with the iconic American novelist, essayist, social critic, man-about-town, fashion plate and aristocratic Luddite.

I'm not sure if all that covers it, but it's a start.

Almost from the first, the celebrated author and provocateur got my attention (and admiration) with a typically comprehensive Tom Wolfe blast at yet another modern inconvenience, e-mail. He begins by saying he has nothing against the Internet in theory, a sure indication he has everything against it in practice. He then fires verbal barrage after barrage with ever mounting effect till no computer terminal is left standing:

"Using the Internet is the modern form of knitting. It's something to do with idle hands. When you knitted, though, you actually had something to show for it at the end. Thomas Jefferson used to answer all his mail from the day before as soon as he got up at dawn. In his position, think of the number of e-mails he'd have had. He never would have been Thomas Jefferson if he'd been scrupulous about answering all these things. I think e-mail is a wonderful time-waster. It's peerless. Here it is, you can establish contact - useless contact - with innumerable human beings."

Bravissimo! You have to marvel at the completeness of the devastation wrought - even if I happen to be writing my compliments to Mr. Wolfe on a computer at the moment, after which I'll e-mail it to the syndicate that distributes my column. The Internet does have its uses.

By now even Tom Wolfe may recognize as much. For he's been reduced to using a computer instead of his trusty old typewriter. Maintaining the old machine, he discovered, "is pretty hard. It really is like owning a buggy. You have to have all these parts made, or else cannibalized from somewhere, and you have to have your ribbons re-inked. That tells you it's time to move on."

Newspapers determined to stick with the old Linotype machines were confronted by much the same necessity after a time. Progress marches on, often enough right over us and our favorite technologies. No doubt much the same lament was sung over the quill pen.

Tom Wolfe, bless him, has done his durndest to stick with the old ways. But it can be a losing struggle. The classic, antebellum white suit, for example, has become his trademark. You have to worry about his taste, however, when he tells his interviewer, the Journal's Joseph Rago:


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.