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Tom Wolfe’s writings have produced penetrating social and cultural insights, raised intriguing journalistic questions, and suggested the vast potential of nonfiction writing when exercised by a stylistically inventive, perceptive author committed to investigative reporting. For these accomplishments Tom Wolfe ranks as one of the premier literary journalists in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wolfe was born on March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia, to Helen Hughes and Thomas Kinnerly Wolfe Sr., an agronomist, college professor, and editor of the Southern Planter. Raised in a traditional and stable Southern family structure, the younger Thomas would later say: ”I was lucky, I guess, in my family in that they had a very firm idea of roles: Father, Mother, Child. Nothing was ever allowed to bog down into those morass like personal hang-ups.”
Sports and Education
Wolfe attended public school until the seventh grade, when he entered Saint Christopher’s School, where he achieved academic honors, coedited the campus newspaper, and chaired the student council. In 1947 he entered Washington and Lee University, where he divided his extracurricular time between pitching for the baseball team and writing for the school newspaper. An English major, he graduated cum laude in 1951. That same year, after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to become a professional baseball player, Wolfe enrolled at Yale University, where he earned a doctorate in American studies in 1957.
Newspaper Reporting—United States and Latin America
In December 1956 he began as a reporter on the Springfield Union in Massachusetts. For ten years he worked for newspapers, including a six-month assignment in 1960 where he served as Latin American correspondent for the Washington Post and won the Washington Newspaper Guild’s foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba.
In 1962 Wolfe became a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and New York magazine, and the following year he began an article about custom-car aficionados in Southern California for Esquire magazine. He had great difficulty trying to arrange his notes into a traditional article, and when he reached his deadline, he simply provided his notes as they were—a mixture of fact, personal observation, opinion, and literary-style description—to the magazine editor. The editor ran the notes untouched, and a new style of journalism—referred to as ”New Journalism”—was born. Quite by accident, Wolfe realized that what would otherwise have been a bland and structurally rigid form-magazine article was transformed into an exciting and creative literary journalism that, while still factual, sounded like a novel. By applying the stylistic techniques usually associated with fiction writing to factual data collected from exhaustive research, Wolfe could produce an audience-involving, realistic nonfiction.
Wolfe continued to create sensation when in 1968 he published two bestsellers on the same day: The Pump House Gang, composed of articles about life in the sixties, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a nonfiction story of a LSD-fueled, cross-country trip in the summer of 1964 aboard a psychedelic-painted school bus during the hippie era. His highly controversial book about racial friction in the United States, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, was published in 1970. The book described a party, given by Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers—formed in 1966 by African Americans to promote black power and self-defense—in his Park Avenue duplex, juxtaposed with a portrayal of the inner workings of the government’s poverty program.
Again, Wolfe generated additional furor with the 1975 release of his book on the American art world, The Painted Word. Wolfe’s depiction of the ”art village” as a network of no more than three thousand people, with hardly more than three hundred living beyond the New York metropolitan area, was highly controversial. In 1976 he published his well-known essay ”The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” in the collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.
The Right Stuff
In 1979, a year after his marriage to Sheila Berger—art director of Harper’s Magazine—Wolfe completed a book he had been at work on for more than six years. The book recounted the early American space program and its goal, set by President Kennedy, of landing a man on the moon before Soviet Russia. This work focused on the psychology of the rocket-plane pilots and the astronauts, and the competition between them. The book, The Right Stuff, became a best-seller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award. In 1983, the work formed the basis of a feature film starring Sam Shepherd and Dennis Quaid.
”The right stuff,” ”radical chic,” and ”the Me Decade” (sometimes altered to ”the Me Generation”) all became popular phrases, but Wolfe has expressed the most pride in ”good ol’ boy,” which he contributed to written language in a 1964 article in Esquire called ”The Last American Hero,” about a North Carolina stock car racing driver.
Wolfe began illustrating his own work in newspapers and magazines in the 1950s, and in 1977 he launched a monthly illustrated feature for Harper’s Magazine. In Our Time, published in 1980, the birth year of his first child, daughter Alexandra, featured these drawings and many others. In 1981 he wrote a companion to The Painted Word entitled From Bauhaus to Our House, about the world of American architecture.
Writing for Rolling Stone
In 1984 and 1985 Wolfe wrote his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in serial form for Rolling Stone magazine. It was published as a book in 1987, whereupon it became number one on the New York Times bestseller list for two months and remained on the list for more than a year.
Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, published in November 1998, has as its protagonists an aging man from Atlanta whose real estate empire has begun a dismal slide toward bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer in Alameda County, California, working at a property owned by the developer. These men come to face the question of what is it that makes ”a man in full” now, in view of the beginning of a new millennium. With the tremendous commercial (if not critical) success of A Man in Full ,Wolfe appeared on the cover of Time magazine in his trademark white suit, white homburg hat, and white kid gloves.
New Works in the New Millennium
In October 2000 Wolfe published Hooking Up, a collection of fiction and nonfiction pieces concerning the turn of the new century. His novel I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) was followed by the 2005 publication of Carves Down-Home Angels. His latest novel, Back to Blood, is scheduled for a 2009 release.
Works in Literary Context
Wolfe’s works reveal familiarity with a modern literary tradition, spanning influences from the naturalism popularized by French journalist and novelist Emile Zola (18401902) to candid journalism and newspaper reporting.
Writing with an eye to examining characters in the context of natural and social history, literary naturalists focus on influences of heredity and environment, unflinchingly portraying the darker side of life while “scientifically” offering insight on the determinants and underlying forces that shape human behavior. Wolfe has argued that the only hope for the future of the American novel is a Zolaesque naturalism in which the novelist becomes the reporter, as Wolfe had done in writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was recognized by many as the seminal novel of America in the 1980s.
The “New Journalism
Wolfe brought a new style of writing to the forefront of American literature, a style that blends fictional techniques with journalistic writing. According to Wolfe, New Journalists are motivated by their desire to provide a fuller, more realistic prose than traditional journalism—a style that both excites and informs readers. Theoretically, a writer can practice New Journalism neutrally on any topic; the form prescribes neither a subject matter nor a posture of advocacy. New Journalists, Wolfe explains, ”do analyze and evaluate their material, although seldom in a moralistic fashion.”
Works in Critical Context
The foremost theorist and best-known practitioner of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe has become almost synonymous with the journalistic movement he helped foster in the mid-1960s. After several books and numerous articles, Wolfe’s writings continue to provoke and sustain debate. Whatever his future literary offerings, Wolfe thus far has delivered a bursting portfolio of provocative observations and thoughts. When students of American culture look back on the last third of the twentieth century, Wolfe may well be the person toward whom they turn. More than any other fiction or nonfiction writer, he has recorded in detail the popular mentality of the period.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities garnered praise for his incisive portrayal of New York’s criminal-justice system and the city’s turbulent social and ethnic divisions. Infused with immensely realistic detail, The Bonfire ofthe Vanities is, according to Chris Katterjohn of the Indianapolis Business Journal, ”at its best, art that throws a mirror up to humanity and challenges us to take a look at ourselves.”
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times writes, The plot of Bonfire is an astonishingly intricate machine that manages to mesh at every turn despite its size and complexity.” He also applauds the author’s ability to create characters that remain sympathetic enough when it matters to hold our interest and keep us rooting, an amazing feat considering how contemptible most of them can be.” Lehmann-Haupt notes that the novel is in some ways ”what Mr. Wolfe has been doing all along. But in other important ways his embrace of fiction has liberated him. All things considered, it allows him to outperform himself.”
The Right Stuff
Of The Right Stuff, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times writes: ”What fun it is to watch Mr. Wolfe put the antiseptic space program into the traces of his inimitable verbal cadenzas.” Many other critics found both positive and negative in the book. Laurie Stone, writing for The Village Voice compliments the splendid opening chapters on aviation history and the birth of the space program,” but notes that the middle of the book sags dully.” Michael Collins, in his review for Washington Post Book World, suggests that the book displays the work of a less experimental and daring writer than previous works: To a large extent the Wolfe has been tamed, his fangs worn down to the gumline.” However, Collins does note that Wolfe excels at portraying the individual personalities of the astronauts, as well as the details of the space program. Regardless of critical opinion, The Right Stuffremains Wolfe’s most commercially successful nonfiction work.
- Weingarten, Marc. Who’s afraid of Tom Wolfe?: How New Journalism Rewrote the World. London: Aurum, 2005.
- Shomette, Doug, ed. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Collins, Michael. ”So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” Washington Post Book World (September 9,1979): 1,8.
- Crawford, Sheri F. ”Tom Wolfe: Outlaw Gentleman.” Journal of American Culture13 (Summer 1990): 39-50.
- Harvey, Chris. ”Tom Wolfe’s Revenge.” American Journalism Review (October 1994): 40-46.
- Katterjohn, Chris. ”Welcome to Wall Street, the Sequel.” Indianapolis Business Journal 29.30 (Sept 29, 2008): 10.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. ”Books of the Times.” The New York Times 16 (October 27, 1987).
- Macdonald, Dwight. ”Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine.” New York Review of Books (August 26, 1965): 3-5.
- Newfield, Jack. ”Is There a New Journalism?” Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 1972): 45-7.
- Stone, Laurie. ”Spaced Out.” The Village Voice vol. XXIV, no. 37 (September 10, 1979): 71, 73, 76.
- Tom Wolfe. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from www.tomwolfe.com.
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