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


Samuel Johnson to Tom Wolfe

Passage from Johnson's Rambler No. 182, "The history of Leviculus, the fortune-hunter"

From the hope of enjoying affluence by methods more compendious than those of labour, and more generally practicable than those of genius, proceeds the common inclination to experiment and hazard, and that willingness to snatch all opportunities of growing rich by chance, which, when it has once taken possession of the mind, is seldom driven out either by time or argument, but continues to waste life in perpetual delusion, and generally ends in wretchedness and want.

The folly of untimely exultation and visionary prosperity, is by no means peculiar to the purchasers of tickets; there are multitudes whose life is nothing but a continual lottery; who are always within a few months of plenty and happiness, and how often soever they are mocked with blanks, expect a prize from the next adventure.

Among the most resolute and ardent of the votaries of chance, may be numbered the mortals whose hope is to raise themselves by a wealthy match; who lay out all their industry on the assiduities of courtship, and sleep and wake with no other ideas than of treats, compliments, guardians and rivals. One of the most indefatigable of this class, is my old friend Leviculus, whom I have never known for thirty years without some matrimonial project of advantage. Leviculus was bred under a merchant, and by the graces of his person, the sprightliness of his prattle, and the neatness of his dress, so much enamoured his master's second daughter, a girl of sixteen, that she declared her resolution to have no other husband. Her father, after having chidden her for undutifulness, consented to the match, not much to the satisfaction of Leviculus, who was sufficiently elated with his conquest to think himself entitled to a larger fortune. He was, however, soon rid of his perplexity, for his mistress died before their marriage.

Translation of above passage to Wolfe's prose: The next one. The next one'll be the big one, the one we've been waiting for. It'll all be worth it because this time is going to be different. They don't have jobs, this type, or plans even, and they don't need them, because for them, it's all up to chance. Everything is a new opportunity to get rich, to get the money that they deserve because, you see, they've been waiting such a long time, trying and hoping for years and years. Sitting at a sidewalk café, outside some respectable office building in some big respectable city, watching the hard-working world go by, some dreamer like Dan Steele here, with his fake silk tie and almost-shined shoes, sees so much more than the suits and the briefcases. Dan's been here before — there was the time he stuck up a conversation with the friendly lawyer to see whether he might need a . . . right-hand man, of sorts, or the time he was certain that that tall classy lady walking by was a talent scout for a modeling agency — but even after all that, all those big disappointments, Dan still sees chance on every face that sits up so proud on top of an expensively dressed figure. Dan Steele, and others like him, are going to hit it big, and they are not about to — well, no, it's that they can't really — let that idea go.

These kinds of people are everywhere. It's not just the ones that you see at the gas station buying ticket after ticket, scratching and scratching with their shiny little pennies. No, for people like Dan Steele and his compatriots who frequent places like the Corporate Café, which sits on the ground floor of the prosperous law firm Hallman & Glaston here in midtown Manhattan, life is one big, never-ending lottery.

"Hey, don't worry about that last one, Ricky," says Dan, button-down shirt tucked in, looking all business. "That old lady looked like she had a lot of money to leave to someone, how were you supposed to know she found that fur coat in a Dumpster?"

"Yeah, yeah you'll find something soon," chimes in another guy.

"We all will."

No matter how many times they come up unrewarded, these people know that the next time is the time, the time that the rich old lady or the lonely young heiress or the jovial up-and-coming professional will enter into their lives and make it all worthwhile. They can almost taste the filet mignon. There is a special class of fortune-hunters, though, with more stick-to-itiveness and determination than any of the others. These are the ones who circulate uninvited around the hors d'oeuvres at the wealthier weddings, who scan the bars near the most expensive apartment buildings, who always notice that the girl in that dress — oh, Lord, that was the priciest dress in the fall line — is looking right at me and she looks just like the daughter of the man who was on the cover of Forbes this week and now, yes, she's coming this way — If any man spent his whole life that way, it's my old friend Leviculus. I've known him for thirty years, and never, not even for a month, has there been a time when he wasn't going on about some Sarah-the-shipping-heiress or Ann Marie-the-daughter-of-Fortune 500 number eight's CEO. Always picking out a ring, always down on one knee. He worked for a used car salesman when he was nineteen or so, and he was so good-looking and quick with a joke that one day the salesman's daughter Chloe, only sixteen, decides that yes, it'll have to be him whom she marries. At first Leviculus thinks that well, man, don't panic yet, the old man, will never agree, there's no way, she's so young and — well, next thing he knows he's engaged. To a girl with nothing, like, we're talking maybe some twenties from babysitting stashed in a pillowcase and that's it. And since he was so charming and clever and all to get her to love him just like that, then chances were he could do so much better, get a girl who really has something to offer, monetarily speaking, that is. Only a few weeks later, however, Leviculus's worries were all solved, because Chloe, the poor girl, died in a freak accident long before the wedding date.

Tom Wolfe to Samuel Johnson

Passage from Wolfe's "The Pump House Gang," pages 22-23: But exactly! This beach is verboten for people practically 50 years old. This is a segregated beach. They can look down on Windansea Beach and see nothing but lean tan kids. It is posted "no swimming" (for safety reasons), meaning surfing only. In effect, it is segregated by age. From Los Angeles on down the California coast, this is an era of age segregation. People have always tended to segregate themselves by age, teenagers hanging around with teenagers, old people with old people, like the old men who sit on the benches up near the Bronx Zoo and smoke black cigars. But before, age segregation has gone on within a larger community. Sooner or later during the day everybody has melted back into the old communit network that embraces practically everyone, all ages.

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 — they don't merely hang around together. They establish whole 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 called It's Boss, is set up for people 16-25 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 than to stand around trying to argue I'm younger than I look, I'm younger than I look. So she practically shrivels up like a Peruvian shrunken head in front of her boyfriend and he trundles her off, looking for some place you can get an old doll like this into. One of the few remaining clubs for "older people," curiously, is the Playboy Club. There are apartment houses for people 20 to 30 only, such as the Sheri Plaza in Hollywood and the E'Questre Inn in Burbank. There are whole suburban housing developments, where only people over 45 or 50 can buy a house. Whole towns, meantime, have become identified as "young": Venice, Newport Beach, Balboa — or "old": Pasadena, Riverside, Coronado Island.

Translation of above passage into Johnson's prose: Some have observed that a person of a certain age is unrestricted in his actions except by whatever limitations of class and wealth society might impose on him, but I find that differences in the number of years a man has lived do indeed have the power to sever the social arena into fragments, and to cause places of common enjoyment to be restricted in patronage to only those who are, strange to say, young enough to belong there.

I have myself seen the situation at nearby Windansea beach, and have heard similar accounts from many reliable men besides, and I conclude that the area is quite effectively divided according to age. Certainly, it is nothing uncommon to consider that people of an age appreciate and seek out one another's society, but there is the assumption that all men and women, no matter how long or short the time they have spent roaming this earth, are part of one great and all-encompassing society. But it has come to pass that, through some odd transmutation of the social order, groups of young people — who once would have taken up work under a master, perhaps, or otherwise integrated themselves into the world that is their birthright — have formed for themselves distinct and divided communities, according to whatever hobbies or fashion suits their fancies.

Some young men group together because of their liking for fanciful coiffures, others because of their enthusiasm for some athletic pursuit, and often they live together as brothers, or as extended and unorthodox families, frequently even with members of the fairer sex amongst them at all times. The venues of society have in fact come to support this preposterous fragmentation of activity according to age, and it is not uncommon, though many would suppose the notion ridiculous, to encounter a place of gathering where patrons must not be a day older than the tender age of twenty-five in order to gain entry. I have a young man in my acquaintance who attempted to bring a lady who was nearly thirty into such a very place, and although the woman did beg and cry, and the young man do all that his youth and standing might permit to alleviate her woe, she was turned away from its doors, and left in such a state of humiliation that it would be a heartless act not to feel pity for the poor soul.

The realm of the residential has little gone untouched by this disturbing trend toward the firm separation of the ages, and it is true that there are some residences which, although they may suit a man of any age quite comfortably, may not be let to anyone who has passed the mark of thirty years. How unfortunate, how very absurd, that the worthy son of a nobleman could be turned away from a place of lodging, though he be good and true and well able to pay, for the simple reason that he is a year too much advanced in life!

It will not be long until entire villages and even counties come to be identified by the age of the people who live there, and a submission to this new and peculiar form of segregation will only speed the process. He who knows the inner value of a man will little care how many years he has lived, and this wisdom by which we have so long lived must be recalled now, now that we face the peril of becoming a fragmented society, one in which to live past the age of twenty-five is to enter an entirely different, and perhaps hostile, world.


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2 October 2007