Johnson to Wolfe; Wolfe to Johnson by Dee Xiong

Samuel Johnson to Tom Wolfe

The common charge against those who rise above their original condition, is that of pride. It is certain that success naturally confirms us in a favourable opinion of our own abilities. Scarce any man is willing to allot to accident, friendship, and a thousand causes, which concur in every event without human contrivance or interposition, the part which they may justly claim in his advancement. We rate ourselves by our fortune rather than our virtues, and exorbitant claims are quickly produced by imaginary merit. But captiousness and jealousy are likewise easily offended, and to him who studiously looks for an affront, every mode of behaviour will supply it; freedom will be rudeness, and reserve sullenness; mirth will be negligence, and seriousness formality; when he is received with ceremony, distance and respect are inculcated; if he is treated with familiarity, he concludes himself insulted by condescensions.

It must however be confessed, that as all sudden changes are dangerous, a quick transition from poverty to abundance can seldom be made with safety. He that has long lived within sight of pleasures which he could not reach, will need more than common moderation, not to lose his reason in unbounded riot, when they are first put into his power.

Every possession is endeared by novelty; every gratification is exaggerated by desire. It is difficult not to estimate what is lately gained above its real value; it is impossible not to annex greater happiness to that condition from which we are unwillingly excluded, than nature has qualified us to obtain. For this reason, the remote inheritor of an unexpected fortune, may be generally distinguished from those who are enriched in the common course of lineal descent, by his greater haste to enjoy his wealth, by the finery of his dress, the pomp of his equipage, the splendour of his furniture, and the luxury of his table.

A thousand things which familiarity discovers to be of little value, have power for a time to seize the imagination. A Virginian king, when the Europeans had fixed a lock on his door, was so delighted to find his subjects admitted or excluded with such facility, that it was from morning to evening his whole employment to turn the key. We, among whom locks and keys have been longer in use, are inclined to laugh at this American amusement; yet I doubt whether this paper will have a single reader that may not apply the story to himself, and recollect some hours of his life in which he has been equally overpowered by the transitory charms of trifling novelty.

Some indulgence is due to him whom a happy gale of fortune has suddenly transported into new regions, where unaccustomed lustre dazzles his eyes, and untasted delicacies solicit his appetite. Let him not be considered as lost in hopeless degeneracy, though he for a while forgets the regard due to others, to indulge the contemplation of himself, and in the extravagance of his first raptures expects that his eye should regulate the motions of all that approach him, and his opinion be received as decisive and oraculous. His intoxication will give way to time; the madness of joy will fume imperceptibly away; the sense of his insufficiency will soon return; he will remember that the co-operation of others is necessary to his happiness, and learn to conciliate their regard by reciprocal beneficence. [From Rambler 172]

There's just no winning with those guys. Everything will insult them. If a guy is open with them, they say he's rude. If he's quiet, they say he's moping. Happy? Careless. Serious? Cold. No winning in sight!

It's not like they did it all themselves either. Maybe it was an accident, or their friends helped them, or a thousand things coulda just happened, but they'll say it was all them. If they have the moolah, then they must have the know-how.

That's what the gripe is about rich people anyways — rich people who have just gotten rich, not those old-money people with grand-mammy and grand-pappy giving them cars and houses and stuff. But hey, any sudden change is tough, and if a guy has been living his whole life in the dumps, just wishing for that nice hot rod, then when he finally gets it, of course he's gonna enjoy it! Duh!

Everything he has is cool cause it's new to him, and everything he does is wicked cause he's been wanting it so bad. That blue-tinted nightshade lamp? Cool! Eating caviar at three in the morning? Wicked! Not that he would since that stuff is nasty and not like it's gonna quell the munchies since it's is so puny. But the richies who have always had that stuff don't see it as anything special — they've been eating caviar since they were in mammy's womb. That's how you tell if the guy's just gotten rich or not: he's gonna enjoy that money as much as he can, and he's gonna wear expensive-ass crap, and stick fancy furniture in his house, and too much food at his table.

All the useless things that no one pays attention to cause they're always there — like scissors or notebooks or toothbrushes — can still fascinate a guy if he's never seen them before. Like how this one Virginian dude, when some European guy stuck a lock on his door, totally spazzed that he could keep people out of his room, so he spent all day just turning that key. Of course, the rest of us have got locks and keys, so we might laugh at the poor dude, but I bet all of you guys have stayed up late fascinated by some silly thing. Like, hey, how many things can be stapled or glued or melted together? Or look at that ball just going back and forth and back and forth and just never stopping! Man!

So let the guy enjoy his lock. Let the guy be happy now that he's got a new life with sparkly rings to dazzle his eyes and nasty caviar to go with his pizza. Don't judge him and say he's lost in lavishness just because he forgets about the people around him for a while. No one can expect the guy to be smart and level-headed with money if he's never had it before, or that he'll be careful and practical about buying stuff he never could before. Sooner or later, he's gonna figure it out and all that delirium will fade away. He's gonna realize how silly he's been and he'll remember to thank good ol' aunt Sally for her help and his best friend Tom for always being there.

That's one thing to keep in mind when thinking about the ones who just got powerful and rich. If you think it's their own fault for being that way, then man, you must not get out very much.

Tom Wolfe to Samuel Johnson

Something will pan out. It's a magic economy — yes! — all up and down the coast from Los Angeles to Baja California kids can go to one of these beach towns and live the complete surfing life. They take off from home and get to the beach, and if they need a place to stay, well, somebody rents a garage for twenty bucks a month and everybody moves in, girls and boys. Furniture — it's like, one means, you know, one appropriates furniture from here and there. It's like the Volkswagen buses a lot of kids now use as beach wagons instead of woodies. Woodies are old station wagons, usually Fords, with wooden bodies, from back before 1953. One of the great things about a Volkswagen bus is that one can... exchange motors in about three minutes. A good VW exchanger can go up to a parked Volkswagen, and a few ratchets of the old wrench here and there and it's up and out and he has a new motor. There must be a few nice old back panthers around wondering why their nice hubby-mommy VWs don't run so good anymore — but — then — they — are — probably — puzzled — about — a — lot of things. Yes.

Cash — it's practically in the air. Around the beach in La Jolla a guy can walk right out in the street and stand there, stop cars and make the candid move. Mister, I've got a quarter, how about 50 cents so I can get a large draft. Or, I need some after-ski boots. And the panthers give one a Jello smile and hand it over. Or a guy who knows how to do it can get $40 from a single night digging clams, and it's nice out there. Or he can go around and take up a collection for a keg party, a keg of beer. Man, anybody who won't kick a quarter for a keg is a jerk. A couple of good keg collections — that's a trip to Hawaii, which is the surfer's version of a trip to Europe: there is a great surf and great everything there. Neale spent three weeks in Hawaii last year. He got $30 from a girl friend, he scrounged a little here and there and got $70 more and he headed off for Hawaii with $100.02, that being the exact plane fare, and borrowed 25 cents when he got there to . . . blast the place up. He spent the 25 cents in a photo booth, showed the photos to the people on the set of Hawaii and got a job in the movie. What's the big orgy about money? It's warm, nobody even wears shoes, nobody is starving.

It has been observed that, should hardships or complications arise in the course of life, one can simply head up or down the coast to the beach cities of Los Angeles or Baja California, and live the surfer life, relaxing, drinking, and having fun. In this magic economy, where serendipity is the rule and mirth is a requirement, some thing or some opportunity will always present itself if one is open-minded, easy-going, and self-contented. If someone leaves home and needs lodging, then someone will rent a garage and girls and boys will move in and settle down on the borrowed space; just as tables and chairs can be found here and there, though not so quite unexpectedly, unintentionally, or innocently as occupying mere legroom; just as Volkswagen buses, that lie on the beach full to bursting with people, can, of an ill-mannered engine, be easily remedied with a few ratchets and some wrenches, by a quick exchange with the unsuspecting Volkswagen buses that lie in the parking lots, and street corners, and others' garages. The dilapidated old men and old women, sitting in their living rooms or working in their studies, can only, when they bother to drive out, wonder in amazement and confusion as to why their Volkswagens no longer run as smoothly, quietly, or efficiently as before.

Money floats through the air as carelessly and abundantly as the seeds of the dandelions in the wild fields in the height of summer, or the leaves of the oaks in the parks in the twilight of autumn. Around the sunny and breezy beach in La Jolla, anyone and everyone can walk out to a car in the street, whether it is parking or passing, and candidly ask for a quarter for beer, or some dollars for a keg, or a bit of money for boots; with a weak and painted smile, the old men and women, who have more than their share of steady wealth, have little choice but to acquiesce to such an innocent, trifling, and light-hearted request. A person, with nothing but their hands and a pail, can spend a night digging clams, and easily make $40; or take collections for a keg party, for who but the stingiest would not give up a quarter for the merriment of a keg party? A couple good keg collections will more than suffice for a trip to Hawaii, which is as distant and grandiose to the surfer as Europe or Asia is to the salary man, the aging suburbanite, or the retired crone. To further illustrate and illuminate the ease with which the boys and girls of the beaches live, just last year, Neale, a good acquaintance of mine, had the fortune and ingenuity, by getting $30 from his girlfriend and scrounging up another $70 in little pieces, totaling $100.02, the exact plane fare, to fly away to Hawaii and wile away three weeks. When he arrived, he borrowed 25 cents to use in a photo booth, printed his pictures, showed them to the people on the set of Hawaii, and acquired a job in the movie. What is there to fuss over when it comes to money, that which unravels and torments so many men who come to depend on and obsess over the excesses, the extravagances, and so-called necessities of life? In the best of lives and happiest of times, that which the pure and the wise know to aim for, everyone partakes of the sun's warmth, everyone walks barefoot about the soft sand, and everyone cooperates so that no one is left to starve. ["Pump House Gang," pp. 24-26]

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9 October 2007