In Partnership with the Pan-thuhs: the Commodification of a So-Cal Surfer Aesthetic

Emma Bellamy, English 118, Creative Nonfiction in Electronic Environments, Brown University, 2007, Brown University

Wolfe describes the commercialization of the surfer lifestyle, which, by its very counter-culture ethos, would seem to be innately anti-commercial. His use of surfer idiom — and the quotations, italicization and capitalization of key phrases, such as "surfer style" "The Life" and "look" — conveys not only that he is attempting to describe this commercialization as a surfer would. It also suggests, that, underlying the potentially sarcastic emphasis placed on these key phrases, the surfers may be fetishizing (in a manner not unlike the commercialization of their lifestyle) their own lifestyle until it becomes another commodity object; a symbol of beauty and youth and disinterested ease in an affluent, white community. The actual act of surfing, the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean, the obliviousness to authority (epitomized in the outing to Watts), and lack of financial considerations, are perhaps less tantamount in the Pump House gang's self-righteous exclusivity. They mock the black pan-thuhs not because they so not abide by a particularly liberated surfer ideology, but because they are old, unattractive and hopelessly bourgeois. In exclusively guarding their lifestyle, they perhaps commodify it no less than the pan-thuhs who trudge to an office everyday.

"But exactly! Watts just happened to be going on at the time, as far as the netherworld of La Jolla surfing was concerned, and so one goes there and sees what is happening and comes back and tells everybody about it and laughs at the L.A Times. That is what makes it so weird when all these black pan-thuhs come around to pick up "surfing styles," like the clothing manufacturers. They don't even know what any of it means. It's like archaeologists discovering hieroglyphics or something, and they say, God, that's neat — Egypt! — they don't even know what the hell it is. They don't know anything about… The Life. It's great to think of a lot of old emphysematous pan-thuhs in the Garment District in New York City struggling in off the street against a gummy 15-mile-an-hour wind full of soot and coffee-brown snow and gasping in the elevator to clear their old nicotine-phlegm tubes on the way upstairs to make out the invoices on a lot of surfer stuff for 1966, the big nylon windbreakers with the wide, white horizontal competition stripes, nylon swimming trunks with competition stripes, bell-bottom slacks for girls, the bug hairy sleeveless jackets, vests, the blue "tennies," meaning tennis shoes, and the… look, the Major Hair, all this long lank blond hair, the plain face kind of tanned and bleached out at the same time, but with big eyes. It all starts in a few places, a few strategic groups, the Pump House gang being one of them, and then it moves up the beach, to places like Newport Beach and as far up as Malibu." pp. 28-29.


1. What is the Pump House aesthetic? Youth, beauty and carelessness? Or is it really something more?

2. What actually bothers the Pump House gang about the pan-thuhs?

3. Do you think there is a double-sided sarcasm in the way words like "The Life", "look" and "surfer style" and surfer jargon like "tennies" are emphasized? By Wolfe? Do the surfers share this sarcasm?

4. Where does Wolfe fit into this scheme? Is he also commodifying the Pump House gang by writing about them, letting us buy a little piece of the surfer lifestyle in the few minutes we spend reading his explanations and emulations of it?

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 1 February 2007