Tom Wolfe, shown here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005, trains his eye on the "human being's... concern for status."
"Ladies and gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together... everything you will ever need to know about the human beast."
So begins the address that author Tom Wolfe delivered last Wednesday at the National Endowment for the Humanities' annual Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C. Never one to shy away from a sweeping literary pretext, Wolfe employed references to everyone from Emile Zola ("my idol") to an obscure pop song by The Bloodhound Gang to illustrate his point that "evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech!"
Wolfe is the perennially white-suited author of novels such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Each of those books, in one way or another, reflects his interest in the human concern over status. Citing the work of Max Weber, Wolfe explores how status informs the cultures of hip-hop, the military and any other human collective you might name.
"Virtually all people live by what I think of as a 'fiction-absolute,'" Wolfe writes. "Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world — so ordained by some almighty force — would make not that individual but his group... the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles." Wolfe expands upon his argument in an interview with Scott Simon.