CRB: Woman in full

Today we conclude our preview of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Subscribe here for the heavily subsidized, ridiculously low price of $19.95 and get immediate online access thrown in for free.

With our previews this week I have tried to convey some sense of the range of pieces on offer in the issue. On Wednesday we looked at Bill Voegeli’s essay on the uprising against political correctness from within liberalism. Yesterday we checked out Allen Guelzo’s demolition of a work of “new history” condemning capitalism as a form of slavery, or vice versa.

Today we turn our attention to hard truths lightly given in the massively entertaining novels of Tom Wolfe. Our guide in this endeavour is regular CRB contributor (and expert on “Socrates as Pickup Artist”) Michael Anton. In the essay “Woman in Full,” Anton unpacks Wolfe’s troubling insights into what women want. Wolfe’s “heterodox insights on women have been entirely ignored,” Anton argues, for his “depiction of women is yet another instance of his trying to tell us something we don’t want to hear.”

What is this something? Anton points to Wolfe’s consistent and penetrating understanding of what social scientists call hypergamy, the deceptively simple observation that women nearly always “marry up”. Long thought to result from man’s insistence on preserving his line, Wolfe saw instead that the phenomenon is driven more by female desires. As Anton writes:

When properly channeled, hypergamy can be individually and socially beneficial. It encourages young ladies to become worthy of a worthy man, and vice versa. Yet off the leash, it spurs women in unhappy and self-indulgent directions.”

This truth our culture cannot abide. That there are vices characteristic of men and not widely shared by women (violence, crudeness, skirt-chasing) is not merely acknowledged but rubbed in our faces. But any assertion of the converse is met with incomprehension, denial, and sometimes persecution. The writings of Tom Wolfe—who figured all this out on his own—are just about the only mainstream cultural product of the last 50 years to present an alternative view.

It is a a critical insight that sheds new light on Wolfe’s work. Anton details the presence and permutations of the drive to marry up in Bonfire of The Vanities, Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back to Blood, arguing for both a development in Wolfe’s ability to portray his female characters and in his understanding of their virtues and vices:

From Helene to Magdalena — and many others in between — Wolfe’s women are not, alas, in their every action paragons of every known virtue. But they are real women — with real strengths, desires, and failings. Tom Wolfe lifts the lid off their ids to reveal that what motivates them is consistent and comprehensible—and quite different from what drives men.

There is much more in Anton’s piece that makes it of interest to those of us who have enjoyed Wolfe’s fiction, or that might give us an occasion to revisit it.