Tom Wolfe Hunts the Biggest of Prey in The Kingdom of Speech

Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.

What is the story? What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech? For half that time, as we will see, they formally and officially pronounced the question unsolvable and stopped trying. What is it they still don’t get after a veritable eternity?

—Tom Wolfe, in the introduction to his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, his first piece of non-fiction since his 2000 anthology, Hooking Up.

Nobody can say Tom Wolfe doesn’t enjoy hunting big game. Leonard Bernstein, a giant figure in classical music, looked awfully silly after Wolfe mocked him for fundraising for the Black Panthers in 1970’s "Radical Chic." As Wolfe later admitted, “I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, 'We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,' which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed.”

In the following years, Wolfe would similarly take down the reputation of Jackson Pollock and his champion, art critic Clement Greenberg, and the pioneers of modern architecture, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, not to mention the entire freeze-dried aesthetic of modernism itself.

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.