Tom Wolfe, with his perceptive eye and eloquent pen, was a Charles Dickens and Mark Twain for our time. He not only satirized patrician vices and eulogized plebeian virtues to devastating effect, but also created many unique expressions which enriched the language. Wolfe was born on March 2nd, 1930, in Richmond, Virginia. He was accepted to Princeton, but attended Washington and Lee because he wished to stay close to home, and when he left for graduate school at Yale, he hated it. Wolfe enjoyed writing and had already developed a signature style in college (his dissertation on the organizational activities of the Communist Party in American literature had to be rewritten because it was too colorful), but after doing some workmanlike reporting in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., he grew bored and moved to New York City. There, writing for The New York Herald Tribune and New York Magazine, was where he broke out and wrote some of his most iconic pieces. Articles such as “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” and “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” quickly turned Wolfe into the sort of writer that people bought whole publications just to read. Of all Wolfe’s journalism during this period, The Right Stuff (originally serialized but ultimately republished as a book) is the most impressive: he spent years traversing the country talking to whomever he could, and the result was not just a timely history of Project Mercury, but an intimate portrait of the lives of the first astronauts as well. Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was a critically acclaimed bestseller, as was his much-anticipated second novel, A Man in Full. In “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” published in Harper’s Magazine shortly after The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe responded to his critics, arguing that the role of a novelist was to “document” real life – an opinion popular with many readers but unpopular with many other writers. Sadly, but after a well-lived life stretched over 88 years and packed full of adventure, Wolfe died on May 14, 2018.
In Wolfe’s last novel, Back to Blood, he asked the question, “Could Miami with its clash of cultures be the American city of the future?” In an interview with The Telegraph, Wolfe explained his motives behind writing such a book:
Cubans are one of the largest immigrant groups to the U.S.A., comprising 3% of the entire immigrant population. Mass-immigration from Cuba began in 1959 after the Cuban Revolution. Cubans being refugees from a Cold-War enemy, the U.S.A. expedited their immigration. In the 1960s alone, the Cuban-immigrant population in the U.S.A. increased nearly 600% – from 79,000 to 439,000. The Cuban-immigrant population continued to rapidly increase, to 608,000 by 1980, 737,000 by 1990, 873,000 by 2000, and 1,105,000 by 2010. Between 1995 and 2015, when the “wet foot, dry foot” policy was in effect, 650,000 Cubans immigrated to the U.S.A. Today, there are approximately 1,272,000 Cuban immigrants living in the U.S.A., with 78% in Florida and 64% in Miami.
Originally, Back to Blood was going to be about the Vietnamese in Orange County, California (which has also been demographically transformed by virtue-signaling and pathologically altruistic immigration policies from the Cold War), but became interested in Miami when he learned about the scope of the population replacement that has taken place there and that its government is now entirely under the control of Cubans.
Wolfe brought his signature style of journalism-turned-fiction to Back to Blood, doing lots of legwork to learn about his subject from the bottom up; the result are lots of little details that make his big picture feel real. He was shown around the city by a Cubano reporter, an Anglo police chief, a Haitian anthropologist, and more. The reporter made a PBS documentary about Wolfe’s research process for the novel, “Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood.” Three of the novel’s most striking chapters – set in a regatta gala, an art show, and a strip club – are drawn from Wolfe’s own firsthand experiences.
Edward T. Topping IV, the Anglo editor of The Miami Herald, sets the stage as he recollects how and why he ended up in this city where he is so uncomfortable:
Indeed, the novel’s title and theme also come from Ed’s stream of consciousness:
Ed is a thoroughly conventional liberal who wallows in fear and self-hatred. In quasi-1984 fashion, Ed self-censors his politically incorrect thoughts, although as a writer, he often winces at the damage that political correctness has done to the English language. “Aw, shit, the kid is PC…the way he almost said ‘him’ and switched it to ‘person’ on the edge of a cliff…and then gave up on ‘person’ for ‘they,’ so he wouldn’t have to deal with the gender in the singular, the ‘hims’ and ‘he’s,’” Ed thinks when talking to a young reporter. “I fucking don’t want to believe it was Yale that made my man here mangle the goddamn English language this way.” When his wife gets into a racially charged shouting match with a Latina who stole their parking space, Ed cringes. “‘Herald Editor’s Wife in Racist Rant.’” he imagines the headlines. “He could write the whole thing himself.” Anglos like Ed are the only people in Back to Blood who have little to no sense of self-consciousness or self-confidence.
In Back to Blood, figurative human sacrifices are necessary to keep the peace in Miami. For following orders, risking his life, and saving the life of a Cuban refugee, Nestor Camacho (a Cubano cop), is actually punished in just to appease the outraged Cubanos, to whom any deportation of one of their own is an unforgivable offense.
In one of the novel’s most striking passages, the mayor, Dionisio Cruz (who is Cubano), explains to the police chief, Cyrus Booker (who is black), Miami’s conflict between democracy and diversity:
Nestor is, privately, medaled for his bravery and reassigned from the Marine Patrol to the Crime Suppression Unit. When a recording of Nestor insulting a subdued black criminal spreads online, Dio demands his head. Cy, however, argues that the recording was taken out of context: Nestor had just saved the life of another cop, whom the criminal had nearly killed. “You know very well that one of the main reasons you were made chief was that we thought you were the man to keep the peace with all these – uh, uhhh – communities,” Dio snaps back at Cy. “So you think I’m gonna stand by and let you turn racial friction into a goddamn conflagration on my watch?”
Cy knows that amongst themselves, Cubanos like Dio differentiate themselves from the Anglos, but amongst other races – such as “African-Americans” like Cy – the Cubanos define themselves as white:
Miami is now known as “the Capital of Latin America,” or as Wolfe puts it, “Plan B for everyone in Latin America.” When Ed’s wife yells at the Spanish-speaking Latina that she is in America and so should speak English, the Latina laughs in reply, “No, mia malhablada puta gorda [you impudent fat bitch] – we een Mee-ah-mee now! You in Mee-ah-mee now!” Later, when the Cubano cop Nestor and an Anglo reporter John Smith, drive out of Miami into Broward County (which is hardly the American heartland), they can both sense a change:
(By the way, the character “John Smith” is always referred to by his full name, “John Smith” – never “John” or “Smith.” It is not just that it is an archetypical name among “Anglos” (i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but that it is also name of the original American and Virginian, Captain John Smith.)
In Back to Blood, everybody does indeed hate everybody, as Mayor Dio explained. Everybody does not just hate everybody, but everybody hates everybody over everything, too – not just over cultural and social differences or economic and political conflicts, but even over the most superficial things, such as how other races dress or speak. Nestor, for instance, is irritated by the clothes that his partner, John Smith, wears. “The Americano stood there dressed so Americano, it was annoying,” he thinks to himself. This instinctive awareness of and animus toward other races is exemplified by Magdelana Otero, a Cubano nurse who is prejudiced against any Americano she meets, no matter how friendly or helpful:
Wolfe’s portrait of Miami’s Cubans makes a mockery of Americano confidence in immigrant assimilation, particularly Republicans’ belief that Latinos are “natural conservatives.” If any Latinos were going to assimilate, it would be the Cubans, who are given extra-preferential immigration status (they are automatically legalized as soon as they enter the U.S.A., even illegally), are eligible for affirmative-action privileges (originally intended as one form of reparations to blacks for white discrimination), and are one of the most powerful foreign-policy lobbies in the U.S.A. (as vengeful to their homeland as the Israel Lobby is to the Palestinians). Yet Wolfe shows that these Cuban-“Americans” do not identify as Americans at all. “Americano” is not a term that they ever apply to themselves – they are Cubanos! – but is basically a racial epithet against “Anglos.”
While patrolling Biscayne Bay with two other cops – Americanos – Nestor considers the irrationality of these racial categories:
As far as Miami’s Cubanos are concerned, the sole business of the U.S. government should be to transfer the population of Cuba to Miami and overthrow the Cuban government (and, as a voter bloc, they present a united and uncompromising front on this issue). There is no gratitude toward the Americanos for rescuing them, however, just entitlement and resentment.
Indeed, Ed not-so-fondly recalls the Cubano blowback to one of his first big stories at The Miami Herald:
Amongst themselves, moreover, the Cubanos expect and enforce tribal loyalty. When Nestor saves the life of a Cuban refugee (but, in the process, deprives him of automatic asylum due to the U.S.A.’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy), he is cast out not just by other Cubanos, but by his own family as well. “DETENIDO! 18 METROS DE LIBERTAD,” announces the front page of the El Nuevo Herald. “A Cuban refugee, reportedly a hero of the dissident underground, was arrested yesterday on Biscayne Bay just eighteen meters from the Rickenbacker Causeway – and asylum – by a cop whose own parents had fled Cuba and made it to Miami and freedom in a homemade dinghy.” Nestor briefly takes some pride in The Miami Herald’s more neutral headline (which highlights the fact that what happened was a “rescue,” after all) only to remember what the Cubanos say: “Yo no creo el Miami Herald” – “I don’t believe The Miami Herald.”
When Nestor comes home to Hialeah after he is on the news, he is told that he has dishonored the family name:
Later, at his grandmother’s birthday party, Nestor is berated even by distant relatives:
Back to Blood, though about race in the main, also includes the other American anxieties of class and sex which Wolfe so often satirized. Magdalena, a Cubano nurse, is an ambitious social climber who uses her body to get what she wants from men, yet is unaware that men are only using her for her body to get what they want. While Magdalena is having sex with Nestor, she starts having sex with Norman, and while she is with Norman, she starts having sex with the gangster-turned-philanthropist Sergei Korolyov, and after she realizes that Sergei has disposed of her, she tries to get back with Nestor again. Norman, an Americano psychiatrist who treats sexual disorders, is an ambitious social climber who uses his rich and famous clients to increase his own public profile. Norman is cocky, petty, and creepy: he lies to make himself seem like more of a celebrity than he is, puts down Magdalena’s weaker grasp of the English language, and is in denial about his own sex addiction. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Professor Antoine Lantier, a light-skinned Haitian-American linguist. Lantier, who identifies as French (he is apparently descended from old Norman aristocracy) and considers himself to be a bearer of Western Civilization, is disgusted with the primitive black Haitians from whence he came. Lantier’s greatest hope is for his light-skinned daughter, Ghislaine (who is cultured, educated, and innocent), to “pass” as white, while his greatest disappointment is that his darker-skinned son, Philippe, identifies as black. “Right now he wants to be a Neg, a black Haitian,” Ghislaine says of Philippe, “and they want to be like American black gangbangers…and I don’t even know what American black gangbangers want to be like.”
Wolfe’s journalism, in addition to influencing how he wrote, also influenced what he wrote. For years, Wolfe followed the emerging field of “sociobiology” as well as rapid advances in the field of neuroscience (e.g. “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” and “Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill”). Wolfe, who had himself been the target of ideological purges by the literati (because of his populist literary philosophy which criticized elitist literature), took particular pleasure in ridiculing the malcontents of neuroscientific progress. “If I were a college student today,” admitted Wolfe, “I don’t think I could resist going into neuroscience.” Accordingly, in I Am Charlotte Simmons, published a few years after these essays, the title character takes classes on neuroscience, which she sees as the most cutting-edge and wide-open field of study.
Likewise, parts of Back to Blood are clearly influenced by Wolfe’s earlier journalism on the faddishness of modern art and architecture, summed up in his books, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House. In his chapter on Art Basel Miami Beach, “The Super Bowl of the Art World,” ignorant wealthy collectors, advised by self-interested art dealers, mindlessly compete for tasteless and otherwise worthless works of art. Maurice Fleischmann, a pornography-addicted Jewish billionaire, spends $17 million in 15 minutes on “No-Hands” and “De-Skilled Art” –an artist hired someone else to take pictures of him having sex with a prostitute, then hired someone else to etch the photographs into glass, and did not even touch the photographs when they were sent or the etchings when they were received. “And there you’ve got the very best, the most contemporary work of the whole rising generation,” Fleischmann’s art dealer, “A.A.” tells him. “Maurice…you…have…really…scored this time.” Magdalena thinks to herself, “Fleischmann looked very pleased, but his smile was the baffled smile of someone who can’t explain his own good fortune.”
Wolfe was sometimes labeled a reactionary railing against changes which he did not understand. Oftentimes, however, his critics did not understand the changes that they were idly accepting and applauding. For instance, Slate’s Stephen Metcalf denounced I Am Charlotte Simmons as “an eminently foolish book, by an old man for whom the life of the young has become a grotesque but tantalizing rumor.” Metcalf, with all the wit of the sophomore-cum-philosopher, pronounced, “The stupidity here may actually be boundless.” What Metcalf seems not to have known, however (probably because, to him, any moral criticism of anything is puritanical), is how degenerate campus life had actually become. By contrast, when the judge-turned-professor Richard Posner first read The Bonfire of the Vanities, he commented that “it didn’t strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say.” Yet after the Tawana-Brawley rape hoax, the arrest of the bond-trader Michael Milken, the Crown-Heights riot, the Rodney-King riot, and the O.J.-Simpson trial (all of which Wolfe had anticipated in some form in that 1987 novel), Posner changed his opinion, admitting that he had been “ungenerous and unperceptive.”
Wolfe was never a reactionary, however, neither a nativist nor a xenophobe. On the contrary, Wolfe, like many members of the Baby-Boomer generation, celebrated the U.S.A.’s post-1965 immigration wave as proving, once and for all, that Americans were not the racists that American “Rococo Marxists” (or “sweaty little colonials forever trying to keep up with Europe and, above all, France”) claimed that they were:
In fact, Wolfe celebrated mass-immigration as a natural outgrowth of “The American Idea,” reified in the open, equal seating arrangements at Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s state dinners (described by the British ambassador and his wife as “pell-mell”):
Ironically, however, the “Rococo Marxists” whom Wolfe so deftly ridiculed got the last laugh, benefiting enormously from the worldwide immigration wave to the U.S.A. If mass-immigration discredited their paranoia about non-existent American “isms” and “phobias,” as Wolfe rather optimistically predicted, then they have been too busy enjoying the importation of loyal activists and obedient voters to realize it.
As a recent article in The New York Times, “Why the Announcement of a Looming White Minority Makes Demographers Nervous” notes, the policies that are changing the U.S.A.’s demographics have made the Left complacent and triumphalist about the future:
The new Rococo-Marxist Congress (which, if not “the blue wave” of expectation, is still “the most diverse ever”) is a prelude to that “demographic destiny,” with the Rococo-Marxist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as its arrogant, ignorant face. Conservatives and libertarians criticize Ocasio-Cortez’s “Democratic Socialism,” “Green New Deal,” and “Modern Monetary Theory” as if she is driving these ideas herself, but she is merely representative of the demographic shift that is driving the political shift. Now that “all politics is identity politics” (this is a truth which diversity brings to light), it does not really matter if Ocasio-Cortez represents a “rotten borough,” lies about her upper-middle-class background, and dismisses any criticism as prejudice. All that really matters, in her own words, is whether she represents her tribe (“intersectional working-class Ocasio voters”) against other tribes (“homogenous working-class Trump voters”). If Back to Blood is correct that Miami is “the city where America’s future has arrived first,” then America’s future has arrived in Ocasio-Cortez. (Ocasio-Cortez, whose high opinion of herself actually seems to increase with each passing blunder, would have made a memorable character in one of Wolfe’s novels.)
Only late in his life, in Back to Blood, did Wolfe seem consider the consequences of “people of every land, every color, every religion…pouring into the United States.” As Wolfe put it, “This is a book about immigrants in America and the way in which immigrants change life in America.” Yet the question is why would anyone want to live in such a city, let alone such a country?
What took place, perhaps, with Wolfe (and what is certainly taking place with Americans), is a “great relearning” on the issue of immigration – a vital issue which has, lately, been governed more by schmaltz than sense. In “The Great Relearning,” Wolfe argued that the 20th century was defined by intellectual movements and political activism which “swept aside all rules and tried to start from zero.” In architecture, there was the Bauhaus School, which resulted in sterile buildings ugly at which to look and uncomfortable in which to live. In culture, there was the hippy subculture, the communal living of which quickly resulted in rare disease outbreaks. In morality, there was the Sexual Revolution, which resulted, frankly, in AIDS. In politics, there was Communism, which resulted in dysfunction and repression. Optimistically, as was his nature, Wolfe predicted that Americans were looking back on “the amazing confidence, the Promethean hubris, to defy the gods and try to push man’s power and freedom to limitless, god-like extremes” and learning their lesson.
Likewise, in 1965, the qualitative and quantitative regulations which had controlled immigration since 1924 were ceremoniously abolished. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, itself the culmination of a series of increasingly selective and restrictive acts from the late-1800s and early-1900s, established a system of national-origins quotas which ensured that the immigrants would be of assimilable character and number. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act repealed some of the outright racial discrimination in the 1924 act (citizenship was limited to whites only), but otherwise retained the national-origins quota system. Yet by 1965, the idea that a foreign country’s immigrant quota should be proportional to the percentage of its people among the host country’s population was considered “discriminatory,” at least according to the politicians. Not so much the people, however: “U.S. Public is Strongly Opposed to Easing of Immigration Laws,” reported The Washington Post, citing a Harvard-Harris survey of 58% to 24%, but the politicians had already set their brains to zero.
It was not all a “Great Unlearning,” however; there was plenty of base politicking. For one, there was Rep. Michael A. Feighan of Ohio, who as chairman of the House’s immigration subcommittee agreed to stop obstructing the act in exchange for prioritizing family reunification over skills, so that he could pander to the labor unions (which did not want to compete with skilled foreign labor) and Eastern-European blocs (which wanted to import more of their own people) in his district. For another, there was Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee also agreed to stop obstructing the act, seemingly for no other reason than as a personal favor to the President and the Kennedys. More common, however, was the well-meaning gullibility and high-minded sanctimony typical of a “Great Unlearning.” Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, for example, declared that while the act was “a recognition of the great contribution made to the development of our nation by peoples from all regions of the world” and “reflects a fundamental principle in our laws and traditions: that of the equality of nature of all men,” he also believed that it “would not greatly increase the number of immigrants, but it would provide that those admitted would be judged on the basis of a national-origins quota.” (McCarthy later admitted that he and his colleagues had “never intended to open the floodgates” and that they had made a terrible mistake.) In a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act into law with reassuring words. “The bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he explained. “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to our wealth or power.” According to Johnson, “The days of unlimited immigration are past, but those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung.” (In the same speech, Johnson announced that Cuban refugees would continue to receive their privileged treatment.)
The “Great Relearning” began when the character of immigrants started changing and the number of immigrants started rising, which was not ever supposed to happen. The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York and Sen. Philip A. Hart of Michigan, along with many other confident Congressmen, had predicted that their reform would have no such effect and had dismissed their opponents as mere contrarians and cynics. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York had made an effort to “set to rest any fears that this bill will change the ethnic, political, or economic makeup of the United States,” while also attacking criticism of the bill as “emotional, irrational, and with little foundation in fact…out of line with the obligations of responsible citizenship.” LBJ-Administration officials, such as Attorney-General Nicholas D. Katzenbach, Secretary of State D. Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, had been called to the Congress to testify the same: there would be no noticeable difference in the quality or quantity of immigrants, and anyone who suggested so was suspicious.
John F. Kennedy himself, in his highly romanticized and sentimentalized Nation of Immigrants (published by the Anti-Defamation League in 1958), had avowed that he “does not seek to make over the face of America.” Yet the Hart-Celler Act that is remembered today for exactly that – for making over the face of America. The Pew Research Center’s timeline of the racial composition of the American population, “The Changing Face of America,” begins in 1965, the year Hart-Celler became law. In a report on Hart-Celler, “1965 Immigration Law Changed Face of America,” NPR’s Jennifer Luden described how “it marked a radical break with previous policy and has led to profound demographic changes in America.” At the Migration Policy Institute’s 2015 symposium in honor of Hart-Celler, Muzaffar Chisti explained that it “literally changed the face of America.” According to Chisti, Hart-Celler “ushered in far-reaching changes that continue to undergird the current immigration system, and set in motion powerful demographic forces that are still reshaping the United States today and will in the decades ahead.” A recent book by Peggy Orchowski on the 50th anniversary of Hart-Celler, “The Law that Changed the Face of America,” argues that “this historic law that made the United States the highly diverse nation of immigrants that it is today.”
The American people quickly learned about the unintended consequences of policies such as “birthright citizenship,” “chain migration,” “diversity lotteries,” “refugee protocols,” “workers visas,” and more. Reforms were passed in 1986 and 1996, but they were half-hearted and simple-minded, and only worsened the problems by delaying the necessary solutions. Further reforms were attempted in 2007 and 2013, but these were so transparently exploitative that they did not even manage to pass. In 2012, Pres. Barack Obama took it upon himself to decree amnesty for the children of all illegal immigrants, resulting in a surge of illegal immigration at the southern border still ebbing and flowing seasonally. In 2016, Donald Trump (a world-famous businessman, celebrity, and demagogue) ran a self-funded presidential campaign with an “isolationist,” “protectionist,” and “nativist” message, including not only the revocation of Obama’s amnesty but also the construction of a wall along the southern border. Since his stunning victory, however, he has struggled against bipartisan resistance at every turn, even in his by-the-book efforts to enforce the law at the national border. Early in 2018, when Pres. Trump was making a major attempt to negotiate a deal with the Congress, a Harvard-Harris poll found that not only did a substantial majority of 65% (cutting across dividing lines of class, race, and sex) support his position of trading amnesty for reforming the system and boosting border security, but also that an even greater majority of 81% supported reducing immigration levels. One year later, just days before Pres. Trump caved on the government shutdown, another Harvard-Harris poll found that immigration, at 38%, was the single most important issue to the public (and while his proposed border wall was opposed by 55% to 45%, there was more support for other border-security measures, including a “security barrier”). Yet when it comes to immigration reform, the Democrats and the Republicans are less responsive to and less representative of public opinion than the Bourbons and the Romanovs.
What the American people are “relearning” – and Back to Blood is a sign of the times – is that nothing comes free, especially not immigration. Like every other policy, immigration has costs as well as benefits, losers as well as winners, and so on. Indeed, how could a policy which literally determines the composition of a country’s population – and populations are not merely interchangeable masses – be anything less?
James Rutledge Roesch lives in Florida. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, as well as the author of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States' Rights in the Old South.