In Our Time

The Thousand Faces of “Me”

How can I be Me?  Let Me count the ways . . .

In 1976 New York published a lengthy essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” by the reporter and novelist Tom Wolfe, who died last year, aged 88.  Wolfe argued that mass prosperity in the postwar era had erased the historical American proletariat and replaced it with a lower-middle class whose members, exaggeratedly aware of their status as individuals, formed a national culture centered on the quest for self-development and self-perfection.  Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism credited Wolfe with having “inadvertently [provided] evidence that undermines a religious interpretation of the consciousness movement.”  (Reviewing Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, the collection of essays in which “The ‘Me’ Decade” was reprinted, for National Review I attempted to write the notice in the author’s own style and thought myself it was a rave.  Tom obviously disagreed, because he refused to speak with me after its appearance and even severed his relationship with Bill Buckley.  It was only many years later, when I looked into a volume by the 20th century French novelist Céline, whose work had a major influence on Wolfe, that I understood the reason for his anger.  Céline’s style, like Tom Wolfe’s,...

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