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Chronicle of Higher Ed review of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech

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Kingdom of Speech.jpgThe Kingdom of Speech In “Piecing together a celebrity scientist,” Tom Bartlett writes re Tom Wolfe’s recent book,

The Kingdom of Speech might seem an unlikely project for a white-suited literary legend who hung out with Ken Kesey back in the day and later wrote best-selling novels in the social-realist vein. But it actually fits nicely alongside two other books in the Wolfe ouevre: The Painted Word, and From Bauhaus to Our House, both extended essays that send up pretension in the worlds of art and architecture, respectively. My paperback copy of The Painted Word bears the following cover blurb: “Another Blast at the Phonies!”

Wolfe is on the hunt for phonies here, too. In the first half of the book he takes aim at a past-his-prime Charles Darwin, then “sixty years old and more of a hopeless dyspeptic, or hypochondriac, than ever. Vomiting three or four times a day had become the usual. His eyes watered and dripped on his old gray philosopher’s beard.” Wolfe pokes at Darwin for thinking that language might have resulted in part from humans imitating birdsong, equating such speculation with Rudyard Kipling’s famous Just So Stories, like “How the Leopard Got Its Spots.” (For the record, a hunter paints them on the leopard to help it blend in).

Wolfe is courting a tsunami of hostility; only a literary giant would dare.

The response from linguists to an adapted excerpt of Wolfe’s book that ran in Harper’s Magazine was predictably scathing. One frequent Chomsky defender, Norbert Hornstein, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, referred to the piece in a blog post as “sludge at the bottom of the barrel.” Another tweeted that Wolfe is the “Donald Trump of linguistics.” Fredrik deBoer, an independent linguist and blogger, reacted with a 4,000-word post. “I might be in the market for a Chomsky reconsideration,” he allowed. “But Tom Wolfe is not the guy to do that.” More.

Much of the review addresses Chomsky and muses on the problem of the scientist who is a celebrity. Worth the read.

Prediction: Wolfe has damaged his reputation by blaspheming secular icons that are beyond reproach (Darwin, Chomsky) and thus will be remembered only among those who love facts and ideas.

See also: This time, Jerry Coyne is mad at NPR: Weren’t hard enough on Tom Wolfe, author of The Kingdom of Speech


NPR’s interview with Tom Wolfe on his new book

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Chomsky is not a celebrity but Wolfe is. Chomsky is useful because he also says language did not come from apes grunting up. Not grunts to grammer. He says a gene switch, I believe, did it. This also to explain, to him, why kids so easily learn language when they are dumb babies. So it must be innate in details. He would also deny primates having right now any ability to speak and its a waste of time to try. Otherwise however I don't see he has accomplished anything but indeed is probably in the way . Wolfe very likely can ignite interest and then progress. By the way i understand Chombsky is just a left wing critic who lost everything they stood for decades ago. its another case of someone tHOUGHT to have changed things and then given a SMART high quotient and then welcome to push ideas the left wing establishment wants. its sad but this cat should aim better, focus, and nail something important before its just words that found no soil for any subject. Robert Byers

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