From Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes at the New York Times:
In the end it was his ear — acute and finely tuned — that served him best and enabled him to write with perfect pitch. And then there was his considerable writing talent.
“There is this about Tom,” Mr. Dobell, Mr. Wolfe’s editor at Esquire, told the London newspaper The Independent in 1998. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. More.
The Kingdom of Speech generally follows the outline of The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House. Here, at age 85, Wolfe is still hunting the biggest of big game—the Bernstein-esque (or even god-like) figures of Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin himself.
Making a documentary on intelligent design in 2008 slammed many doors shut on economist/pundit Ben Stein’s part-time Hollywood career as a deadpan commercial pitchman and TV guest star. Perhaps as a result, given what sacred cows Darwin and Chomsky are in the intertwined worlds of leftwing academia and pop culture intellectualism, Wolfe knows he needs to walk a fine line.
Or as Wolfe writes in The Kingdom of Speech after comparing Darwin’s The Descent of Man to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, after noticing both men certainly did a lot of anthropomorphizing of primitive animals, “Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to. But Darwin did. The first person to refer to Darwin’s tales as Just So Stories was a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, in 1978. Orthodox neo-Darwinists never forgave him. Gould was not a heretic and not even an apostate. He was a simple profane sinner. He had called attention to the fact that Darwin’s Just So Stories required a feat of fiction writing Kipling couldn’t compete with. Darwin’s storytelling power soared in The Descent of Man precisely where it had to, i.e., in accounting for this perplexing business of language.” More.
Darwin, unlike Kipling, has career ruin to offer, via his followers, to aspiring scientists who step out of line. Wolfe had the guts to understand that and proceed.
In The Kingdom of Speech, he said,
By now, 2014 [when Chomsky’s critic Everett appeared], Evolution was more than a theory. It had become embedded in the very anatomy, the very central nervous system of all modern people. Every part, every tendency, of every living creature had evolved from some earlier life form—even if you had to go all the way back to Darwin’s “four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere” to find it. A title like “The Mystery of Language Evolution” was instinctive. It went without saying that any “trait” as important as speech had evolved… from something. Everett’s notion that speech had not evolved from anything—it was a “cultural tool” man had made for himself—was unthinkable to the vast majority of modern people. They had all been so deep-steeped in the Theory that anyone casting doubt upon it obviously had the mentality of a Flat Earther or a Methodist. (pp. 253–54) More.
See also: Tom Wolfe on how speech let humans rule planet: Yet no one has any idea how language started.
Tom Wolfe: What we think we know re evolution wrong
Scientific American: Chomsky largely overturned It’s hard not to see this in relation to Tom Wolfe’s recent The Kingdom of Speech, where he sends up Chomsky along with Darwin.