Tom Wolfe’s Third Great Awakening: Revisited and Revamped


Please allow me to slip into my white suit and affect a mellifluous Virginian accent because it’s been 40 years since Tom Wolfe penned the “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” and here we are, steeped in the type of navel gazing that not even the savviest 1970s social scientist could have imagined.

Sure Wolfe noted that, “Whatever the Third Great Awakening amounts to…will have to do with this unprecedented post-World War II American luxury: the luxury enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self.”

But in those pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube days he couldn’t have seen just how far we’d take this. He couldn’t have known just how crucial it would become to not only dwell upon the self, but to express our minutiae to the great, teeming masses.

Unlike the Me Decade, it’s not enough to bare your soul to your yogi or guru, gather in a roomful of likeminded primal screamers or mumble Woody Allen style to your girlfriend. It has to reach millions now. Via social networking sites, cable air waves, Podcasts and mass-produced T-shirts. So that everyone; nameless, faceless people will know who has daddy issues, hates lime Jell-O, or forces cats to wear funny costumes.

This is no intimate confessional over escargot anymore.

Our obsession with other people’s unimportant details is rivaled only by our need to expose our own unimportant details. We are not interested in how we fit into our communities. We want our communities to take interest in us.

It’s not enough to whisper around the water cooler what a cruel taskmaster your boss is anymore. It has to be turned into a meme, Tweeted and added as your Facebook status update. Forget about that heart-shaped lock on your big sister’s pink journal; we actually want our diaries read now. We leave them wide open, begging you to peruse them.

Maybe this is why many people aren’t more outraged about our civil rights being squashed “for security purposes”. We expect to be filmed while taking out our last twenty at the ATM or picking out honeydew melons at the grocery store. We expect cookies to track which sites we visit on the Internet. Life is lived to be recorded, saved, analyzed and viewed by all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and beyond. Otherwise, how can you prove it happened?

It isn’t the event that matters, it’s the evidence.

In defining the Me Decade, Tom Wolfe opined that years of excess leisure time produced excess introspection. Most people didn’t want to sacrifice their own wants and needs, and distanced themselves from the issues of posterity that bogged down their parents. Worn down by fears of war and economic problems, people wanted to seize the moment on their own terms.

These days fear-mongering is a multi-media sport, and there are plenty of fears to choose from: terrorism, school shootings and people in sprawling, forest-encroaching exurbs finding bears taking a dip in their swimming pools. Their swimming pools that they cannot afford anymore. Pick a channel, and you’ll find we are awash in fear. But in the midst of all these fears, what we seem to fear most isn’t death, but death in obscurity.

Death in obscurity is a fate worse than death.

Forty years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote about a woman sharing the pain of her hemorrhoids with 249 other people during an EST session at the Ambassador Hotel. What would he say he if knew that all these years later those 250 people writhing on the floor of that hotel would become 250,000,000 people, all clicking on the hemorrhoid-removal YouTube link, Tweeting about hemorrhoids, and buying celebrity hemorrhoids off of E-bay?

He might call this the Exhibitionist Decade.

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2 thoughts on “Tom Wolfe’s Third Great Awakening: Revisited and Revamped

  1. Hi, I really like this article and want to reference it in my dissertation. Except I can’t find your name or the date this was published which proves problematic. If you could write that information, it would be great and very helpful! Great insightful analysis on Wolfe by the way!

  2. Hi Sophie!
    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ve been a Tom Wolfe fan for many years. My name is Saara Dutton (you can check out my credentials at SaaraDutton.com) and this piece was published on January 24th, 2012. Thanks for reading and good luck with your dissertation!

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