Nannies have a higher standing than a nursemaid, since they have the power to impose discipline and manners on the child. But they have a lower standing than a governess, in that they undertake no real education. But mainly, in Europe and the United States, they have become a symbol of the parents’ status. First of all, parents who have nannies to look after the children have to have money. That is one thing. And parents who have nannies lead their own lives. This gives them more status even in front of their children. They don’t have to appear in the ridiculous role of martyred, harried creatures, forever ill-kempt and ill-humored, waiting on the children like servants.
—Tom Wolfe, “The Nanny Mafia”
In an essay in Tom Wolfe’s first book, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” a Manhattan socialite, Charlotte, frets over incurring the disapproval of the nannies in her circle: She has forgotten to secure champagne for them at her little boy’s birthday party. But at least she has a nanny to begin with. “A mother who has to bring her own baby into the playground,” she confides, “is absolutely nothing!”
In the book, signature elements of Wolfe’s future body of work are already in place. There’s his wake-the-dead prose style, with its incongruous details, its detonating exclamation-point grenades and a host of devices that simply defy categorization (a profile of Las Vegas begins with 57 repetitions of the word “hernia”). Several of the big ideas that have animated Wolfe’s work over the years are also in place, including his celebration of the American middle class. But above all, Wolfe shows his early and enduring fascination with the drive for social status.
With her obsession over her place in the social order, Charlotte is a familiar figure to any of Wolfe’s readers. She is Leonard Bernstein in his Park Avenue duplex in “Radical Chic,” conversing with the Field Marshal of the Black Panthers before a crowd of rich guests and proclaiming, “I’m hip”; she is Morris Lapidus, architect of flamboyant Miami Beach hotels in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” vainly seeking acceptance from the elite of his profession; she is Sherman McCoy in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” sweating over the realization that if his $1-million income stopped coming in, his family would lose its position in society.
Wolfe’s nonfiction and fiction alike treat status competition as the mover of just about all human actions. Even many of the phrases he has contributed to American vernacular — like “good old boy,” “masters of the universe” and “pushing the envelope” — have their origins in status competition. (The latter phrase, originally “pushing the outside of the envelope,” made its way into “The Right Stuff” after he heard test pilots using it.)
I wanted to know: Where did this fascination of his come from?
I had the chance to ask him last fall, when we talked about his influences for a couple of hours in his home on the Upper East Side.
He told me it all started with an encounter with a dead German intellectual.
When he was pursuing a doctorate in American Studies at Yale in the 1950s, he was required to study four subjects: American history, American literature, economics and sociology. For the last of these, he had low expectations. “I had a typical English major’s disdain for sociology,” he says.
That changed during his first sociology course, when he read an essay of Max Weber’s called “Class, Status, and Party.” It countered the thinkers who sought to attribute everything to economic class.
“Weber’s theory of status was something new,” he says. “It replaced the idea of class systems. When Marx wrote about classes, he was really thinking about England. He was sitting there in the British Library with England’s classes all around him. But it never has been a good way to look at the United States.
“After I discovered Max Weber,” he recalls, “I began to think sociology was the king of the subjects.”
Wolfe’s nonfiction and fiction alike treat status competition as the mover of just about all human actions. Even many of the phrases he has contributed to American vernacular — like “good old boy,” “masters of the universe” and “pushing the envelope” — have their origins in status competition.
Wolfe’s refinement was what he calls the “statusphere.” Everyone isn’t directly competing for status with everyone else; rather, they pursue status within a distinct sphere — and regard their own statusphere as the best of all.
“That has more or less been my system of approaching any subject,” Wolfe says. “For instance, ‘The Right Stuff’ is not a book about space, it’s a book about status competition among pilots.”
Today, no less than in Wolfe’s grad-school days, the lure of what Weber termed “status honor” is all around us. If anything, the age of the Internet has opened up frontiers of status competition undreamed-of half a century ago. Thanks to social media, people edit — sorry, “curate” — versions of their lives to friends and strangers and compete for a dopamine-releasing tally of “likes.” And did Victorian England have anything on modern social media in its capacity for enforcing social conformism through shaming?
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Wolfe about an unrelated topic, his appearances in Marvel comics. How had they come about? He remembered that in the spring of 1969, the year after “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” came out, he was killing time before an appointment in a store with a display of comic books. He flipped through a copy of Marvel’s “Dr. Strange” when, to his surprise, there he was — depicted as an old friend of the doctor himself. (Apparently, someone working on the comic had seen a passage in Wolfe’s book in which its protagonist, the novelist Ken Kesey, is engrossed in a Dr. Strange story.)
“I thought, ‘I’ve really arrived now,’” he says.
And Tom Wolfe smiles at the memory of a long-ago jolt of status.