Matthew Continetti reflects at National Review Online on the late Tom Wolfe’s contribution to American intellectual debate.

America’s writers, artists, and thinkers, and their media manqué, continue to argue that our civilization is decadent, sexist, racist, torn asunder, on the verge of succumbing to authoritarianism or fascism, the population impoverished, the environment despoiled, the world made worse by our presence. The chorus of doom and gloom includes the latest issues of both The Atlantic, which chastises “the new American aristocracy” of the “9.9 percent” (the 1 percent being too exclusive!), and Time, which laments “How Baby Boomers Broke America.” And yet, as I write, the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, per capita disposable income is at a high, and according to Gallup more people are satisfied with the direction of the country than at any time in 13 years.

Tom Wolfe has been celebrated for his literary innovations and output, his sartorial panache, his gimlet eye, his unfailing gentility. But his reputation as a Grand Old Man of Letters should not obscure one of his most important themes: the inability of American intellectuals to understand and appreciate their country.

Educated at Washington and Lee University and Yale, Wolfe held a doctorate in American studies and could reference Weber, Veblen, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and Darwin with the best of them. But he resisted membership in the “herd of independent minds,” choosing instead to join the ranks of counter-intellectuals who problematized not middle-class society but its critics on campus, in media, and along the radical frontier of the Democratic party. Wolfe is often overlooked as a counter-intellectual because his method was not polemic but devastating, irresistible satire. He was Jonathan Swift in a white suit.