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Last week, just as summer was slipping into September—
bango!—the latest book by Tom Wolfe landed in bookstores across the country. A new book … by Tom Wolfe … Tom Wolfe, the literary luminary known for his trademark white suit and electric prose … Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers of his generation, of our time! Such an occurrence is something … something special … something especially special … a literary event.
(The previous paragraph notwithstanding, I will resist the reviewer’s impulse to take on the writing style of the author under review. More on that writing style in a moment.)
For the uninitiated—and, really, it is time to get initiated—some background. Tom Wolfe burst onto the literary scene in the 1960s as a journalist, an avant-gardist of New Journalism—that is, journalism enlivened and enlightened through innovative approaches to the journalistic craft, especially the use of dramatic devices normally reserved for fiction. Later, in the 1980s, after having established himself as an acclaimed journalist and essayist, he became an acclaimed novelist. His oeuvre spans seventeen books and includes such chefs-d’œuvre as Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), The Right Stuff (1979), and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Wolfe’s writing style is nonpareil, pulsating with energy, employing inventive rhetorical and typographical effects (ellipses, exclamations, italics, repetition, onomatopoeia, etc.), brimming with colorful phraseology, mixing colloquial turns of phrase with formal terms of art—in short, reveling in the whole of human language. It is apt, then, that his new book, The Kingdom of Speech, focuses on just that: human language, the enigma thereof.
What is language? Wolfe notes that this question “has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled.” The 150 years after the theory of evolution was announced, he writes, “proved to be the greatest era ever in solving the riddles of Homo sapiens, but not in the case of Homo loquax, man speaking.” Wolfe chronicles the history of attempts at finding an answer, focusing on four major figures: Alfred Russel Wallace, who first propounded the theory of evolution through natural selection; Charles Darwin, who popularized the theory, but was never able to come up with a convincing explanation as to how it accounted for human speech (his hypothesis is lampooned by Wolfe as “How the Birds Gave Man His Words”: birdsong elided into elocution after “man began imitating the birds, a cappella”); Noam Chomsky, who ordained the current wisdom that language is hardwired in humans at birth; and Daniel Everett, who challenged the current wisdom with his conclusions from thirty years of studying the Pirahã, a tribe of indigenous people, isolated deep in the Amazon basin of Brazil, whose primitive civilization remained preserved without change for thousands of years.
Wolfe has great fun limning this history, especially with his hilarious (and devastating) critiques of Darwin and Chomsky. But the book has a bigger argument. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal,” writes Wolfe, “a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.” He concludes: “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.”
A thoroughly entertaining and illuminating read, The Kingdom of Speech is also thought-provoking. It is sure to spark debate, yet ought to settle one: the theory of evolution is not a theory of everything.