He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charges stock cars 175 m.p.h. Mother dog! He is the lead-footed chicken farmer from Ronda, the true vision of the New South.
So wrote New York City dandy Tom Wolfe, who died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 88 from pneumonia. The quote is the ostentatious Wolfe’s description of the hometown area’s own Junior Johnson in a 1965 “Esquire” magazine article considered a journalistic classic. The title:“The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”
I can probably count on one hand the number of hometown folks who’ve read Tom Wolfe, not to be confused with Asheville-born and bred writer Thomas Wolfe from a different generation.
I cannot count myself. Wolfe’s Manhattan redolence turned me off. And in school I dismissed the first-person, egocentric New Journalism that he championed as quirky magazine pap.
But I did see the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff,” about the early jet test pilots and astronauts, bewildered that a gadfly like Wolfe could have penned such an inspiring story.
Following Wolfe’s broadly eulogized passing, I finally looked up his old, lengthy “Esquire” depiction of early Southern stock-car racing, Wilkes County moonshining and Johnson, the one-time Ingle Hollow hooch runner from the foot of the Brushy Mountains who rose to early NASCAR glory.
And I braced myself for an unflattering critique by a New Yorker’s New Yorker. A critique of us, the hometown area, Wilkes County, the South.
For instance, here’s Wolfe version of fundamentalist, Sunday-morning preaching that he heard on local radio:
They are greedy dogs. Yeah! They ride around in big cars. Unnh- hunhl And chase women. Yeahl And drink liquor. Unnh-hunbl And smoke cigars. Oh yes! And they are greedy dogs. Yeahl Unh-hunhl Oh yes! Amen!
I felt like getting some Wilkes good ol’ boys — Wolfe is credited with introducing the pejorative term to the nation – to show the fancy-pants New Yorker some real Southern hospitality.
Forgive me. I was harsh and ignorant. People seemed to like Wolfe. Junior seemed to like him. Johnson played host to Wolfe in ‘65, took him to dinner in North Wilkesboro and gave Wolfe a tour of his home.
Johnson liked Wolfe enough to pay a visit to the writer’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment on the 50th anniversary of the “Hero” article. After all, Wolfe was a fellow Southerner, born in Richmond, Va.
That should be good enough for me.
“He done more for me than anybody. He done more for NASCAR than anybody,” Johnson told “Esquire” during the 2015 reunion with Wolfe that was made into a documentary.
“Junior, that’s what I did. I was drafting on your bumper,” Wolfe replied.
“We was drafting on each other,” Johnson added.
In his famous ‘65 essay on the hometown area, amid the blather and the cussing, Wolfe did quite well, thank you. He hit the nail on the head at times. Take his description of the emergence of the post-war automobile culture here that birthed mid-20th Century stock-car racing:
To millions of good old boys, and girls, the automobile represented not only liberation from what was still pretty much a land-bound form of social organization but also a great leap forward into twentieth-century glamor, an idea that was being dinned in on the South like everywhere else.
Wolfe based his classic work on viewing a NASCAR race at the old North Wilkesboro Speedway, drivers arriving at the old Wilkesboro airstrip, having a post-race dinner with Johnson and paying a visit to Ingle Hollow.
The essay has earned a prominent place in local lore alongside the 1950 “The American Magazine” essay “Millions In Moonshine” by New York journalist Vance Packard that proclaimed Wilkes as the moonshine capital of the world.
Wolfe’s hometown newspaper, “The New York Times,” praised “his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.”
And don’t forget his outlandish clothes. Back in ‘65, Wolfe showed up in Ingle “Holler” in southeast Wilkes wearing a green tweed suit and Borsalino (fedora) hat. “Casual, I thought,” he once told “Esquire.”
But the good ol’ boys at the old country store there asked, “Junior, who’s that strange little green man following you around?”
He was Tom Wolfe. A hero in his own, odd way.
“Last American Hero”: You can read Wolfe’s famous essay on the internet at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/twolfe.html.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.