I’ve been kicking myself ever since I read the news that the New York Public Library recently purchased the archives of writer Tom Wolfe for $2.15 million. Like a fool, I’ve been throwing out material related to previous columns for years. Who knew I could have sold it to supplement my Social Security check when it’s retirement time?
Wolfe is probably best known for his habit of wearing white suits (giving him a appearance not unlike Mark Twain without the mustache) and his two most famous books “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.” I’m probably best known for...wait, give me a minute, I’ll think of something.
According to The New York Times, the Wolfe archive is comprised of about 190 boxes of material or “about 100 linear feet.” Don’t ask—I don’t have a clue what that means, either. The purchase includes “drafts, outlines and research materials for his four novels and 12 other books as well as his uncollected journalism.”
That sounds just like the kind of things I’ve been tossing out for years. I didn’t count the total amount as I went, but even if it was only 50 boxes, which seems low to me, that would be about a half million dollars worth of, excuse me, right stuff. Who it would be worth a half million to is another question altogether.
I’ve been writing this column for nearly 14 years and about 350 or so installments, which means a fair amount of “research material” has been involved. Some of it I still have, most of it I don’t. For example, I still own an empty Red Devil energy drink can, left over from my first-ever regular column on March 22, 2000. For lack of a more appropriate spot, it’s sitting on the table that holds my computer. I’ll bet the Tom Wolfe archive doesn’t have a Red Devil can.
Then there’s the Miracle Box of Donuts, first written about on May 31, 2000. The big attraction at the time was the fact that they were five months past their expiration date and still looked just-baked. The last time I checked their place of honor in the Observer back room, they were still defying time and local varmints. I’ll have to look and make sure some treasure hunter hasn’t carried them off. I’m sure the New York Public Library would pay big bucks for them, wouldn’t they? Or maybe the Extremely Outdated Pastry Hall of Fame, presuming there is such a thing.
Luckily, I still have a fair amount of material from covering NASCAR for several publications here and there for nearly 40 years (since 1997, mostly here). Oddly, this is where Mr. Wolfe and I have a bit of a connection.
One of Wolfe’s earliest successes was a story he did on moonshiner turned stock car racer Junior Johnson. Wolfe dubbed his subject “The Last American Hero.” Hollywood came calling, and a movie of the same name was made, with Jeff Bridges playing a Junior-like character. Lawyers being lawyers, his name was changed in the movie.
In the 1980s, I became acquainted with Johnson as team owner for driver Darrell Waltrip and our paths crossed a few times until he retired in the mid-1990s. Readers with long memories may recall a 1984 photo I took of Junior and Waltrip which ran in the Observer in 2000. If you do remember, congratulations. Wouldn’t the original copy of that photo make a great display piece to accompany whatever Wolfe’s archives contain about Junior?
Wolfe is generally given credit for creating the literature genre called “The New Journalism,” which was also the name of an English course I took in college. The textbook was loaded with pieces by Wolfe and his friend, the late Hunter S. Thompson. There must be a copy of the book in Wolfe’s archives, so it doesn’t matter whether or not I can find mine.
One thing I’m positive Wolfe’s archive lacks is a computer, as Wolfe doesn’t use one. He does all his writing by hand or on a typewriter. I’ll have to find out if the ancient Macintosh I used to use is still in the Observer’s basement. That should be worth at least a dollar, if it still exists.
How about it, libraries and museums? I still have a photo of Mike the Headless Chicken, matches from Hell, Mich., and an interesting, if small, batch of other notes, papers and souvenirs. Who wants to make the first bid?