From Bauhaus to Our House

 

Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction works best in essay form, I think. “Hooking Up” was a great collection, and “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was a great collection, and even “The Right Stuff” (supposedly a nonfiction novel) felt like a collection of short nonfiction narratives pieced together to tell the story of America’s fascination with the Space Age. His fiction, of course, works best on the gigantic sprawling canvas of “the social novel,” told over 600-800 pages, but his nonfiction needs to be constrained…give him too much space, and he’ll write “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a nice experiment but not a very compelling narrative.

So if these were the opinions I’d already formed before ever cracking open “From Bauhaus to Our House,” it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this slender 110-page volume. Each chapter again feels like an individual essay that tells a short narrative about America’s surrender to bland socialist architecture, and taken together, they trace a half-century of art and architecture theory and conflict. And it works brilliantly because it is so brief.

Tom Wolfe, as a nonfiction writer, is a bit like an intellectual stand-up comedian. His writing style (or the method of delivery, in the case of a stand-up) and his stories and anecdotes are both funny in small doses, but because he’s usually detailing the stories with incredulity, not with the sensitive and compassionate eye of most fiction and memoir writers, the shtick grows old. Imagine listening to a stand-up comedian for three hours; what was once funny now begins to wear on you; the shock-value jokes now feel mean-spirited; this guy suddenly feels less like a funnyman and more like an asshole. That’s Tom Wolfe. When he writes about America’s architectural inferiority complex, the country’s eager adoption of all things Europe, he is writing with an I-can’t-believe-these-idiots-did-this tone. And if the book goes on too long, it just sounds cruel.

But “Bauhaus,” of course, is the perfect length, and read today (decades after its initial release) it still holds up very well. In fact, I’d love to see a sequel. Wolfe holds a PhD in “American Studies,” a degree created in the 1950s as a result of the American Inferiority Complex, and so a great deal of his work targets America’s silly reactions (and unquestioning loyalty) to European art and thought. But I think that this is a very 20th-century concept, an attitude that has now turned by 180 degrees. Now, I think that the average American frowns upon all-things-Europe, believes American culture to be vastly superior (an opinion formed, no doubt, by the simple fact that Hollywood is the undisputed center of the Film World), believes European thought to be pretentious, and holds that view of “American Exceptionalism.” We are #1! Etc.

This book, then, documents a strange little-brother period in our history. Definitely a contrast to the current “bully” period in which we are living.

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