Johnson to Wolfe; Wolfe to Johnson by Katherine Stoeffel


Samuel Johnson to Tom Wolfe

Passage from Johnson's Rambler No. 50

Others 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 uncontrouled 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?

This kind of falsehood is generally successful for a time, because it is practised at first with timidity and caution: but the prosperity of the liar is of short duration; the reception of one story is always an incitement to the forgery of another less probable; and he goes on to triumph over tacit credulity, till pride or reason rises up against him, and his companions will no longer endure to see him wiser than themselves.

Translation of above passage to Wolfe's prose:

Then there are those who get off on spreading lies. That cocky guy who lies boldly, through his shiny white teeth, and never gets caught. He lies capriciously, imaginatively. Yeah he knows the Virgin Islands like the back of his hand. He used to sail them with his ex-girlfriend, from prep school. You remember, the blond? You met at that weekend, that barbecue. Yeah St. John's is nice, but Saint Croix is better for fishing. And they have incredible local conch, the best in the Caribbean. No, trust him, he knows. He was there every March.

It's easy at first, embellishing accomplishments and exaggerating riches to fresh, oblivious acquaintances. Until he gets bolder, invents anecdotes and histories that reach further and further from his reality. Uncle Ashley lost the masterpiece paintings in a house fire. Unbelievable tragedy. Truly an invaluable loss. Yeah, he was insured but you can't really replace Andrew Wyeth originals. Especially uncatalogued ones. They were all gifts, you know? They were childhood friends. He was actually a huge influence on his early work, part of the reason he even got into art. The Wyeth Institute still invites our family to dinner a few times a year.

Suddenly no one's looking at him. Staring at their plates or their feet or out the window, avoiding his pleading eyes. They stopped believing, stopped caring, or maybe the just got sick of being one-upped. It's become embarrassing to even watch him carry on like that, thinking we buy it. Soon someone will get sick of him, have a little too much to drink and call him out on all his bullshitting.

Tom Wolfe to Samuel Johnson

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

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, girls and boys. Furniture it's like one means, you know appropriates furniture from here and there. It's like the Volkswagen buses a lot of kids now use as beach wagons instead of woodies, Woods 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 canÉ exchange motors in about three minutes. A good VW motor exchanger can go up to a parked Volkswagen, and a few ratchets of the old wrench here and its up and out and he has a new motor. There must be a few nice old black 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.

As it might have been told by Samuel Johnson :

The surfer youths are wildly optimistic regarding their financial condition, having grown up in a national era of utmost economic comfort and therefore lacking the prudence necessary to start out on one's own. The delinquents subscribe to a fantasy of complete surf utopia — loitering on beaches and joyriding the coast, chasing down the finest waves for their particular sport, with no concern for establishing secure assets. For shelter, these youths squat in a rented garage. Boys and girls alike, sometimes as many as twenty, sleeping on stolen furniture and makeshift hammocks; these youths know no decency, show no concern for civilized standards of living.

Their lax attitudes towards property ownership, as demonstrated by their housing habits, applies equally to their treatment of motor vehicles. It is well-known among California surfers like the "Pump House Gang" that the motors of one particular model of car, the Volkswagen bus, can be removed and replaced quite swiftly. They use this knowledge maliciously, skulking the streets of Southern California, changing the motors of innocent beach-goers with their own, old and crumbling motors, which they have probably failed due to lack of proper maintenance. Worse, these malevolent youths practice this duping with no remorse. They believe that their elders deserve to have their property violated, simply for being more aged, evidence of a strange psychology particular to these surfer gangs.


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2 October 2007