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REVIEW: A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (1998)
May 3, 2019

Wolfe, Tom. 1998. A Man in Full. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Word Count: 971

As the Digital Humanities Fellow at ECDS I serve on the editorial staff of Atlanta Studies, an interdisciplinary open access journal about the city. The journal has been a great opportunity to explore Atlanta as more than a scenic background: as a site rich with history, culture, and on-going tensions. It was here that Fiddlin’ Johnny Carson recorded the first “country music,” W.E.B. DuBois founded the first modern sociology department, and Martin Luther King Jr. was born and buried.

Spurred by multiple recommendations (and this Atlanta Studies blog post), I decided to pick up Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full – one of the few “great American novels” set in the southern city. The book centers around Charlie Croker, a former Georgia Tech quarterback and aging real-estate magnate (thought to be partly inspired by John Portman), whose navigation of a changing Atlanta provide fodder for a sweeping tale of intersecting storylines and competing agendas. While I won’t attempt a comprehensive review of this 700-page saga, three things stuck with me after reading.

First, the book provides a vivid description of the “blameless victim” archetype of the American underclass. I’ve always been drawn to these interpretive packages (Gamson and Modigliani 1989) and Wolfe’s account is tragic, sympathetic, and ultimately believable. Chapter eleven follows Conrad Hensley, a recently unemployed working-class man in his early twenties, who, on his way to job interview, finds himself at the whims of cascading misfortune. Upon failing the interview, he leaves to find his car towed. After a whirlwind of pocket change, pay phones, street vendors, money wiring, and bus schedules, the chapter ends with Conrad in custody. Sparing no detail, Wolfe methodically leads reader to agree: this is not right! Debates over poverty, misfortune, prison systems, and the welfare state clearly involve a tangle of circumstances and motivations, but if you’re looking for a Weberian ideal type of the blameless victim, Conrad fits the picture.

Second, while in prison, Conrad receives a book on ancient Stoicism which becomes his only thread of meaning and purpose in the chaotic world of psychotic inmates and prison violence. In a 1999 interview with William F. Buckley, Wolfe explains Conrad’s experience as indicative of many counter-culture hippies and their children (see 22:10 below). Socialized in a secular (if not aggressively atheist) household, these children must ultimately come to religion through non-traditional avenues. The fact that Conrad would stumble on an ancient school of thought in the bowels of the prison industrial complex is a starkly modern experience. Wolfe’s depiction brings to mind Steven Tipton’s Getting Saved From the Sixties (1982); a book about ex-hippies’ search for moral clarity. Based on in-depth interviews Tipton documents the inner lives of “Sixties youth caught between the devils of self-interest, law-and-order authority, and heartless rules on one side and the deep blue sea of boundless self-expression on the other.” (Tipton 1982: 234).

Lastly, Conrad’s prison experiences shed light on Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, or the culturally-specific shades of language we employ in order to function in our diverse social environment. To survive in the hyper-masculine prison ecosystem, Conrad’s cellmate instructs him how to “use da mouth” – or speak in an openly aggressive and confrontational manner. This is the social currency of the prison and it takes Conrad a while to sharpen this cultural toolkit. In a brilliant scene later in the book, Conrad has to dip into this cultural reservoir outside of prison to communicate with an aggressor who is taken by surprise at his ability to code-switch. Now the subject of NPR podcasts and Key and Peele skits, code-switching has a long tradition in the sociology of language. If language is the first social act, as George Herbert Mead (1934) asserts, and “the reality of the world hangs on the thin thread of conversation,” as Berger (1967:17) notes, one should expect these socially-dependent language systems to fluctuate as we navigate the multiple environments of a diverse society.

While not a part of the book itself, Tom Wolfe’s interview with William F. Buckley produced this notable exchange on the topic of sociology, Max Weber, and the novelist’s ability to depict complex social interactions:

In the American studies department I was forced – much against my predilections – to read some sociology. I had the typical liberal arts student’s disdain for sociology as this new and second-rate science – and was deeply impressed, as I remain today, by the work of Max Weber; the man who introduced the word status as we now use it, and status-seeking… I began to see that these things that seems so frivolous to us – like the way people dress, and the kind of cars they drive, and how they speak to servants or don’t speak to servants, how they conduct themselves in a restaurant or don’t – these are in fact an essential part of life. Every day and every moment we are constantly assessing the people that we meet and deal with to figure out in our own minds just where they rank in society and how they should be dealt with and what you might be able to get away with in their cases. So I think it becomes an essential part of the novelist’s arsenal. (18:00)

Triumphant sociology conversion notwithstanding, in Wolfe’s appreciation of Max Weber I saw a glimpse of a more concerted use of fiction in the sociology curriculum. Would this narrative form better communicate key insights of social life? Or should this remain the work of English departments? I suppose ethnography is sociology’s narrative form, and the success of books by Matt Desmond (2017) and Arlie Hochschild (2016) speak to their pedagogical effectiveness.

Of course, A Man in Full touches on much more: vanity, race relations, pride, tension, et al. While one should be careful reading it as Atlanta history, it is a complex and entertaining portrait of this multi-faceted southern metropolis.

  • Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Open Road Media.

  • Desmond, Matthew. 2017. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Broadway Books.

  • Gamson, William A. and Andre Modigliani. 1989. “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach.” American Journal of Sociology 95(1):1–37.

  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.

  • Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Tipton, Steven M. 1982. Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Copyright © 2018 John A. Bernau

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