Wolfe in the fold

The natty novelist goes on the prowl at Stanford while researching his next book.


Joshua Robin
June 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

When Tom Wolfe arrived at Stanford University last month to scour the
campus for material for a new novel on college life, he told professors
that he had already publicized his latest novel, "A Man in Full," and
did
not want to draw attention to his visit.

But his tradition of wearing the swankiest of clothes hasn't helped his
cause. On this ubiquitously casual campus, where students wear
flip-flops or even walk barefoot to class, Wolfe, the man in the
white suit, stands out like a professor transported from the
university's early days at the turn of the century.

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Nowhere was this more glaring than at a recent morning media ethics
class. Students, used to unshaven classmates with hair matted from
sleep,
were caught off-guard by the visitor taking notes in the front row. One
drowsy-eyed student, coffee cup in hand, dashed a note to a neighbor:
"Tom
Wolfe?" with an arrow pointing to the gentleman who could be none other.

He was wearing a double-breasted navy blazer, slacks, a shirt with a stiff
Victorian collar and black and white bucks.

But given Wolfe's penchant for biting satire, what's even more
surprising
than seeing him in an ethics class or walking alone across the
campus
is seeing people at Stanford trip over each other to talk with
him -- knowing full well that if his other books are any indication, they
could end up in a bestseller, portrayed in a most unflattering light.

Jim Tankersley, the editor the Stanford Daily, spent an hour with Wolfe
over
coffee and hot cocoa at the Stanford coffeehouse. Flushed with
excitement, he called his father back home in McMinnville, Ore., and
told
him how he spent the afternoon. His dad's response: "That's great.
Maybe."

It's as if this normally laid-back campus (where students like Chelsea
Clinton and actor Fred Savage are granted their desired space) has been overcome by a spring crush. Graduate students in journalism rushed
to
respond to an e-mail asking for a volunteer to pick up Wolfe at the airport
and clamored over who would get the chance to go to lunch with him. The university's public relations department tried to schedule a photo
shoot with him (only to be turned down).

And after Wolfe gave a lecture on the history of American writing to a
freshmen humanities course, he was mobbed by dozens of students holding
pens and copies of his books. One of their professors gushed, "Wasn't he
wonderful?" as another professor hustled Wolfe away from talking to a
student so that he could take him to dinner.

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Before that, several students wrangling for Wolfe's flamboyant
signature managed to provide the writer with considerable fodder for
interesting scenes on contemporary college attitudes. Tai Li, 19, asked
Wolfe for the notes that he used in his lecture, so that he could frame
them (Wolfe obliged). Clark Durant, in a Hawaiian shirt, asked Wolfe
to sign one of his books "To Mr. Thompson: You're a damned fool." Mr.
Thompson, he explained, was his high school baseball coach (Wolfe declined).

Brent Barton had Wolfe put his initials on a sweaty beach hat, next to
the initials "KK." The reason? On a summer road trip with friends to Tijuana,
Mexico, Barton had looked up Ken Kesey, the author and main character in Wolfe's "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test," and Kesey had signed his
initials on that hat. "Quite frankly, I've never actually read one of
Wolfe's books," Barton said. "I'm actually a Kesey fan."

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Officially, no one will admit to being nervous about what Wolfe might
make
of Stanford. Theodore L. Glasser, a professor in the department of communication, said he was "pleased" that Wolfe "thought what was
going on here was interesting."

But asked whether he was anxious about what Wolfe might write after
digesting his time at Stanford, Glasser said: "I have no reason to try to intervene in decisions concerning what he wants to write about. In
the end, who knows and who really cares? I don't think that's anything that
should be occupying anybody's time."


Joshua Robin

Joshua Robin is a graduate student in journalism at Stanford University and will be a reporting intern at the Queens bureau of Newsday this summer.

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