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Spring Edition
Volume 100, Number 4

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Donovan Roberts Witmer '97

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The 'Me' Decade

Tom Wolfe encapsulates 1970s society in a collection of colorful non-fiction

The decade of the ’70s is of great significance to me. I graduated from both high school and undergraduate school and was married during that decade. To say the least, this was a defining time in my own life—and a time in history I believe is best chronicled by Tom Wolfe. I first became aware of Wolfe’s writings in college while studying both sociology and studio art. But to be fair, it was not until the early 1980s that I really began to read his work. That’s when I came across The Purple Decades: A Reader, a collection of essays that Wolfe later fleshed out into books such as The Right Stuff (1979).

The Purple Decades includes some of Wolfe’s most insightful writings of this time. Rereading “The Apache Dance” chapter reminded me of where my own stylistic bias as an artist may have taken root. In that chapter, Wolfe describes an “aha moment” he had after reading a review by Hilton Kramer, art critic-in-chief of The New York Times. Kramer stated that Realism lacks a persuasive theory and “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.” Wolfe explains that statement completely changed the way he looked at Modern Art—finally allowing him to understand thousands of paintings he’d viewed over the years.


Another chapter, “These Radical Chic Evenings,” is a glimpse into a party hosted by maestro Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, a couple trying to raise money for the imprisoned Black Panthers. The collision of cultures offers an abundance of racial, social, and political complexities.             


Rereading Wolfe reminds us of the “me decade” (a phrase that Wolfe coined), which is bookended by the turbulent ’60s and by the prosperity of the ’80s. With his background as a journalist, he gives shape to the seeming oddities of our culture that define that period. As David Bellamy in the introduction describes Wolfe’s writing, “Tom Wolfe is first to last, with every word and deed, a comic writer with an exuberant sense of humor, a baroque sensibility, and an irresistible inclination towards hyperbole.” The Purple Decades captures the tone of the 1970s and some of Wolfe’s best writing.

Christine Forsythe

—Christine Forsythe has taught in the Department of Visual Arts since 1982 and has been the department chair since 2002.


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