Johnson to Wolfe; Wolfe to Johnson by Hannah Sheldon-Dean


Samuel Johnson to Tom Wolfe

Passage from Johnson's Adventurer No. 50

Other there are that amuse themselves with the dissemination of falsehood at greater hazard of detection and disgrace; men marked out by some lucky planet for universal confidence and friendship, who have been consulted in every difficulty, intrusted with every secret, and summoned to every transaction: it is the supreme felicity of these men, to stun all companies with noisy information; to still doubt, and overbear opposition, with certain knowledge or authentick intelligence. A liar of this kind, with a strong memory or brisk imagination, is often the oracle of an obscure club, and, till time discovers his impostures, dictates to his hearers with uncontrolled authority; for if a publick question be started, he was present at the debate; if a new fashion be mentioned, he was at court the first day of its appearance; if a new performance of literature draws the attention of the publick, he has patronized the author, and seen his work in manuscript; if a criminal of eminence be condemned to die, he often predicted his fate, and endeavoured his reformation: and who that lives at a distance from the scene of action, will dare to contradict a man, who reports from his own eyes and ears, and to whom all persons and affairs are thus intimately known?

Translation of above passage to Wolfe's prose: Liars lie. Liars lie to amuse themselves. Have-I-told-you-about...? And so it begins. These falsifiers or fibbers — all sorts of liars — do it for the feeling they get out of it. And, boy, are they lucky people believe them, that they were somehow marked out by some lucky planet for universal confidence. With a strong memory or brisk imagination, he can fool anyone. He's the oracle of a club, one of those major guys who can get people to eat lies right out of his hand. Nobody tells him they don't believe him. God, if he said he was there, he was. If debuted read a great new work, you know, he was there. A criminal is condemned to die? He called it first, knew the second he committed the crime that he would. Who would dare contradict him? Behind much of it is that he knows he will be believed. People will lean in the listen with a mere Have-I-told-you-about?

Tom Wolfe to Samuel Johnson

Passage from Wolfe's "The Pump House Gang," pages 22-23

But in California today surfers, not to mention rock 'n' roll kids and the hot-rodders or Hair Boys, named for their fanciful pompadours — all sorts of sets of kids — the don't merely hang around together. They establish who little societies for themselves. In some cases they live with one another for months at a time. The "Sunset Strip" on Sunset Boulevard used to be a kind of Times Square for Hollywood hot dogs of all ages, anyone who wanted to promenade in his version of the high life. Today "The Strip" is almost completely the preserve of kids from about 16 to 25. It is lined with go-go clubs. One of them, a place call It's Boss is set up for people 16 to 25 and won't let in anybody over 25, and there are some terrible I'm-dying-a-thousand-deaths scenes when a girl comes up with her boyfriend and the guy at the door at It's Boss doesn't think she looks under 25 and tells her she will have to produce some identification proving she is young enough to come in here and live The Strip kind of life and — she's had it, because she can't get up the I.D. and nothing in the world is going to make a woman look stupider that to stand around trying to argue I'm younger than I look, I'm younger than I look. [Wolfe, "The Pump House Gang." pp. 22-23]

Translation of above passage into Johnson's prose: Today in California, there are those who live in a culture passionate about youth, and little else; young men and women who choose to live together and establish little societies, who place trust in one another, though never in their elders: it is their only wish to keep "The Strip" as a preserve for those whose lives and happiness expire at age 25; to live without rules, especially from authorities, and glorify their fading youth. A young person in this elusive world, without respect for tradition or convention, is often the victim of her own shortsightedness, and, until time teaches her the most important lesson about their current lifestyle, is doomed to wander ignorantly from club to club until the day sun damage in her skin betrays her: If she dare argue otherwise, that in fact, she is under 25, she will only suffer an embarrassment greater than that of her age alone.


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2 October 2007