Tom Wolfe, 1930 - 2018
The ‘New Journalist’ who gleefully skewered the elite
Tom Wolfe sparked a literary movement almost by accident. Commissioned to write about California’s custom car scene for Esquire in 1963, the then little-known reporter found himself nearing deadline with stacks of material and a bad case of writer’s block. His editor told Wolfe to type up his notes, which he’d then fashion into an article, and Wolfe dutifully bashed out 49 pages in an all-nighter. But the editor was blown away by Wolfe’s verbal dexterity and sharp observations, and printed the notes virtually untouched. That story, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby…,” marked the beginning of New Journalism—the freewheeling, eccentrically punctuated, highly personal style of reportage that would be soon be championed by writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. Wolfe would remain the movement’s leading light, turning his travels aboard Ken Kesey’s LSD bus into 1968’s best-selling The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and telling the epic story of the first U.S. astronauts in 1979’s The Right Stuff. While Wolfe would eventually become a novelist, writing the sprawling 1980s satire The Bonfire of the Vanities, he always believed journalism held a key advantage over fiction—“the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.”
Born in Richmond, Va., Wolfe was the son of an agronomist father and a homemaker mother, said The Washington Post. At age 9 he tried to write a biography of Napoleon; his dissertation at Yale’s graduate school “was initially rejected in part because of its attention-getting style.” After starting his journalism career at the Springfield, Mass., Union News, Wolfe joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962 and “found his voice as a social chronicler,” said The New York Times. Charting the city’s “status wars,” he became one of the paper’s stars, and began writing long-form magazine features. He specialized in “lacerating the pretentiousness of others.” In June 1970, New York magazine dedicated an entire issue to “Radical Chic,” Wolfe’s 20,000-word account of a Black Panthers fundraiser hosted by wealthy Manhattan liberals. “Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way”? he mused.
Wolfe’s love of “pricking sacred cows was matched only by his fondness for distinctive clothing,” said The Wall Street Journal. Invariably dressed in a three-piece cream-colored suit, with a brightly colored tie and pocket square, Wolfe said his “neo-pretentious” outfit was vital to his job: “If people see that you are an outsider, they will come up and tell you things.” His dandyish appearance belied a “relentless work ethic.” Wolfe spent “months or years” gathering material, and forced himself to write 10 pages every day. “If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad,” he said. “I’ve got to do it.”
Having previously “attacked contemporary novelists for their limited ambitions,” Wolfe decided to “try the form himself,” said the Los Angeles Times. The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, was a stunning success. The story of a Wall Street trader and self-described “master of the universe” brought low, the novel encapsulated the greedy excesses and racial tensions of 1980s New York City. “Flush with success,” Wolfe issued a “cri de coeur” to his fellow writers, urging them to “reclaim” the American novel from the country’s navel-gazing literary elite. His remarks didn’t go down well. When Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, was published in 1998, Norman Mailer compared reading the 742-page tale of Atlanta’s nouveaux riche to “making love to a 300-pound woman… fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe dismissed his novelist critics in scathing fashion. “It must gall them a bit that everyone—even them—is talking about me,” he said.
The returns on Wolfe’s books “continued to diminish,” said The Times (U.K.). His third and fourth novels—2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons and 2012’s Back to Blood—both fared badly. But Wolfe never lost confidence in the power of his words. “I regard myself in the first flight of writers, but I don’t dwell on this,” he once said. “If anything, I think I tend to be a little modest.” ■