Tom Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe
Wolfe at White House.jpg
Wolfe at the White House on Monday, March 22, 2004
BornThomas Kennerly Wolfe
(1931-03-02) March 2, 1931 (age 82)
Richmond, Virginia, USA
OccupationJournalist, Author
Period1959–
Literary movementNew Journalism
Notable work(s)The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, A Man in Full, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Back to Blood
 
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Tom Wolfe
Wolfe at White House.jpg
Wolfe at the White House on Monday, March 22, 2004
BornThomas Kennerly Wolfe
(1931-03-02) March 2, 1931 (age 82)
Richmond, Virginia, USA
OccupationJournalist, Author
Period1959–
Literary movementNew Journalism
Notable work(s)The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, A Man in Full, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Back to Blood

Thomas Kennerly "Tom" Wolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)[1] is an American author and journalist, best known for his association and influence over the New Journalism literary movement in which literary techniques are used in objective, even-handed journalism. Beginning his career as a reporter he soon became one of the most culturally significant figures of the sixties after the publication of books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and his collections of articles and essays, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His first novel entitled The Bonfire of the Vanities, released in 1987, was met with critical acclaim and was a great commercial success.

He is also known, in recent years, for his spats and public disputes with other writers, including John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.

Early life and education[edit]

Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Louise (née Agnew), a landscape designer, and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr., an agronomist.[2][3]

Wolfe grew up on Gloucester Avenue in the historic Richmond North Side neighborhood of Sherwood Park. He recounts some of his childhood memories of growing up there in a foreword to a book about the nearby historic Ginter Park neighborhood.

Wolfe was student council president, editor of the school newspaper and a star baseball player at St. Christopher's School, an Episcopalian all-boys school in Richmond, Virginia.

Upon graduation in 1949, he turned down admission to Princeton University to attend Washington and Lee University, both all-male schools at the time. Wolfe majored in English and practiced his writing outside the classroom as well. He was sports editor of the college newspaper and helped found a literary magazine, Shenandoah. Of particular influence was his professor Marshall Fishwick, a teacher of American Studies educated at Yale. More in the tradition of anthropology than literary scholarship, Fishwick taught his classes to look at the whole of a culture, including those elements considered profane. The very title of Wolfe's undergraduate thesis, "A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America," evinced his fondness for words and aspirations toward cultural criticism. Wolfe graduated cum laude in 1951.

Wolfe had continued playing baseball as a pitcher and had begun to play semi-professionally while still in college. In 1952 he earned a tryout with the New York Giants but was cut after three days, which Wolfe blamed on his inability to throw good fastballs. Wolfe abandoned baseball and instead followed the example of his professor Marshall Fishwick by enrolling in Yale University's American Studies doctoral program. His PhD thesis was titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942.[4] In the course of his research, Wolfe interviewed many writers, including Malcolm Cowley, Archibald MacLeish, and James T. Farrell.[5] A biographer remarked on the thesis: "Reading it, one sees what has been the most baleful influence of graduate education on many who have suffered through it: it deadens all sense of style."[6]

Journalism and New Journalism[edit]

Though Wolfe was offered teaching jobs in academia, he opted to work as a reporter. In 1956, while still preparing his thesis, Wolfe became a reporter for the Springfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wolfe finished his thesis in 1957 and in 1959 was hired by The Washington Post. Wolfe has said that part of the reason he was hired by the Post was his lack of interest in politics. The Post's city editor was "amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted." He won an award from The Newspaper Guild for foreign reporting in Cuba in 1961 and also won the Guild's award for humor. While there, he experimented with fiction-writing techniques in feature stories.[7]

In 1962, Wolfe left Washington for New York City, taking a position with the New York Herald Tribune as a general assignment reporter and feature writer. The editors of the Herald Tribune, including Clay Felker of the Sunday section supplement New York magazine, encouraged their writers to break the conventions of newspaper writing.[8] During the 1962 New York City newspaper strike, Wolfe approached Esquire magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California. He struggled with the article until finally a desperate editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that Wolfe send him his notes so they could piece the story together.

Wolfe procrastinated until, on the evening before the article was due, he typed a letter to Dobell explaining what he wanted to say on the subject, ignoring all journalistic conventions. Dobell's response was to remove the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and publish it intact as reportage. The result, published in 1964, was "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." The article was widely discussed—loved by some, hated by others—and helped Wolfe publish his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of his writings in the Herald-Tribune, Esquire, and other publications.[9]

This was what Wolfe called New Journalism, in which some journalists and essayists experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispassionate, even-handed reporting. More specifically, Wolfe experimented with four literary devices not normally associated with feature writing—scene-by-scene construction, extensive dialogue, multiple points of view, and detailed description of one's status-life symbols (the materialistic choices one makes)—to produce this stylized form of journalism, which would later be commonly referred to as literary journalism.[10]

Wolfe also championed what he called “saturation reporting,” a reportorial approach where the journalist “shadows” and observes the subject over an extended period of time. “To pull it off,” says Wolfe, “you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches . . . long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.”[11] Saturation reporting differs from “in-depth” and “investigative” reporting, which involve the direct interviewing of numerous sources and/or the extensive analyzing of external documents relating to the story. Saturation reporting, according to communication professor Richard Kallan, “entails a more complex set of relationships wherein the journalist becomes an involved, more fully reactive witness, no longer distanced and detached from the people and events reported.”[12]

One of the most striking examples of New Journalism is Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The book, an account of the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, a famous sixties counter-culture group, was highly experimental in its use of onomatopoeia, free association, and eccentric punctuation—such as multiple exclamation marks and italics—to convey the manic ideas and personalities of Ken Kesey and his followers.

In addition to his own forays into this new style of journalism, Wolfe edited a collection of New Journalism with E.W. Johnson, published in 1973 and titled The New Journalism. This book brought together pieces from Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and several other well-known writers with the common theme of journalism that incorporated literary techniques and that could be considered literature.[13]

Non-fiction books[edit]

In 1965, a collection of his articles in this style was published under the title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and Wolfe's fame grew. A second volume of articles, The Pump House Gang, followed in 1968. Wolfe wrote on popular culture, architecture, politics, and other topics that underscored, among other things, how American life in the 1960s had been transformed by post-WWII economic prosperity. His defining work from this era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (published the same day as The Pump House Gang in 1968), which for many epitomized the 1960s. Although a conservative in many ways and certainly not a hippie (in 2008, he claimed never to have used LSD and to have tried marijuana only once[14]) Wolfe became one of the notable figures of the decade.

In 1970, he published two essays in book form as Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers: "Radical Chic," a biting account of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panther Party, and "Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers," about the practice of using racial intimidation ("mau-mauing") to extract funds from government welfare bureaucrats ("flak catchers"). The phrase "radical chic" soon became a popular derogatory term for upper-class leftism. Published in 1977, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine included one of Wolfe's more famous essays, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening."

Back Row – Shepard, Grissom, Cooper; Front Row – Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter.
The astronauts of the Mercury Seven were the subject of The Right Stuff.

In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, an account of the pilots who became America's first astronauts. Famously following their training and unofficial, even foolhardy, exploits, he likened these heroes to "single combat champions" of a bygone era, going forth to battle in the space race on behalf of their country. In 1983, the book was adapted as a successful feature film.

Art critiques[edit]

Wolfe also wrote two highly skeptical social histories of modern art and modern architecture, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, in 1975 and 1981, respectively. The Painted Word mocked the excessive insularity of the art world and its dependence on what he saw as faddish critical theory, while From Bauhaus to Our House explored the negative effects of the Bauhaus style on the evolution of modern architecture.[15]

Novels[edit]

Throughout his early career, Wolfe had planned to write a novel that would capture the wide spectrum of American society. Among his models was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which described the society of 19th century England. Wolfe remained occupied writing nonfiction books and contributing to Harper's until 1981 when he ceased his other work to concentrate on the novel.

Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. While the research came easily, the writing did not immediately follow. To overcome his writer's block, Wolfe wrote to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to propose an idea drawn from Charles Dickens and Thackeray. The Victorian novelists that Wolfe viewed as his models had often written their novels in serial instalments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work.[16] The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he had hoped for, and from July 1984 to August 1985 each biweekly issue of Rolling Stone contained a new instalment. Wolfe was later not happy with his "very public first draft"[17] and thoroughly revised his work. Even Sherman McCoy, the novel's central character, changed: originally a writer, the book version cast McCoy as a bond salesman. Wolfe researched and revised for two years. The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn.[18]

Because of the success of Wolfe's first novel, there was widespread interest in his second. This novel took him more than 11 years to complete; A Man in Full was published in 1998. The book's reception was not universally favorable, though it received glowing reviews in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. An enormous initial printing of 1.2 million copies was announced and the book stayed at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks. John Updike wrote a critical review for The New Yorker complaining that the novel "amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form." This touched off an intense war of words in the print and broadcast media between Wolfe and Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer. In 2001, Wolfe published an essay referring to these three authors as "My Three Stooges."

After publishing Hooking Up (a collection of short pieces, including the 1997 novella Ambush at Fort Bragg) in 2001, he followed up with his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), which chronicles the decline of a poor, bright scholarship student from Alleghany County, North Carolina, in the context of snobbery, materialism, institutionalised anti-intellectualism and sexual promiscuity she finds at a prestigious contemporary American university. The novel met with a mostly tepid response by critics but won praise from many social conservatives, who saw the book's account of college sexuality as revealing of a disturbing moral decline. The novel won a dubious award from the London-based Literary Review "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel". Wolfe later explained that such sexual references were deliberately clinical.

Wolfe has written that his goal in writing fiction is to document contemporary society in the tradition of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Émile Zola.

In early 2008, it was announced that Wolfe was leaving his longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His fourth novel, Back to Blood, was published in October 2012 by Little, Brown. According to The New York Times, Wolfe was paid close to US$7 million for the book.[19] According to the publisher, Back to Blood is about "class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition in Miami, the city where America's future has arrived first."[20]

Recurring themes[edit]

Several themes are present in much of Wolfe's writing, including his novels. One such theme is male power-jockeying, which is a major part of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons as well as several of his journalistic pieces. Male characters in his fiction often suffer from feelings of extreme inadequacy or hugely inflated egos, sometimes alternating between both. He satirizes racial politics, most commonly between whites and blacks; he also highlights class divisions between characters. Men's fashions often play a large part in his stories, being used to indicate economic status. Much of his recent work also addresses neuroscience, a subject which he admitted a fascination with in "Sorry, Your Soul Just Died," one of the essays in Hooking Up, and which played a large role in I Am Charlotte Simmons—the title character being a student of neuroscience, and characters' thought processes, such as fear, humiliation and lust, frequently being described in the terminology of brain chemistry. Wolfe also frequently gives detailed descriptions of various aspects of his characters' anatomies.[21]

Two of his novels (A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons) feature major characters (Conrad Hensley and Jojo Johanssen, respectively) who are set on paths to self-discovery by reading classical Roman and Greek philosophy.

Law and banking firms in Wolfe's writing often have satirical names formed by the surnames of the partners. "Dunning, Sponget and Leach" and "Curry, Goad and Pesterall" appear in Bonfire of the Vanities, and "Wringer, Fleasom and Tick" in A Man in Full. Ambush at Fort Bragg contains a law firm called "Crotalus, Adder, Cobran and Krate" (all names or homophones of venemous snakes).

Some characters appear in multiple novels, creating a sense of a "universe" that is continuous throughout Wolfe's fiction. The character of Freddy Button, a lawyer from Bonfire of the Vanities, is mentioned briefly in I Am Charlotte Simmons. A character named Ronald Vine, an interior decorator who is mentioned in Bonfire of the Vanities, reappears in A Man in Full as the designer of Charlie Croker's home.

The surname "Bolka" appears in three Wolfe novels—as the name of a rendering plant in A Man in Full, as a partner in an accounting firm in Bonfire of the Vanities, and as a college lacrosse player from the Balkans in I Am Charlotte Simmons.

The white suit[edit]

Wolfe adopted the white suit as a trademark in 1962. He bought his first white suit planning to wear it in the summer in the style of Southern gentlemen. However, he found that the suit he purchased was too heavy for summer use, so he wore it in winter, which created a sensation.[22] Wolfe has maintained this uniform ever since, sometimes worn with a matching white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes. Wolfe has said that the outfit disarms the people he observes, making him, in their eyes, "a man from Mars, the man who didn't know anything and was eager to know."[23]

Views[edit]

In 1989, Wolfe wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine titled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast", which criticized modern American novelists for failing to engage fully with their subjects, and suggested that modern literature could be saved by a greater reliance on journalistic technique. This attack on the mainstream literary establishment was interpreted as a boast that Wolfe's work was superior to more highly regarded authors.[24]

Wolfe was a supporter of George W. Bush and said he voted for him for president in 2004 because of what he called Bush's "great decisiveness and willingness to fight." (Bush apparently reciprocates the admiration, having read all of Wolfe's books, according to friends in 2005.[25]) After this fact emerged in a The New York Times interview, Wolfe said that the reaction in the literary world was as if he had said, "I forgot to tell you—I'm a child molester." Because of this incident, he sometimes wears an American flag pin on his suit, which he compared to "holding up a cross to werewolves."[26]

Wolfe's views and choice of subject material, such as mocking left-wing intellectuals in Radical Chic and glorifying astronauts in The Right Stuff, have sometimes led to his being labeled conservative or reactionary,[27] and his depiction of the Black Panther Party in Radical Chic led to a member of the party calling him a racist.[28] Wolfe rejects such labels; in a 2004 interview, he said that his "idol" in writing about society and culture is Émile Zola, who, in Wolfe's words, was "a man of the left" but "went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not—and was not interested in—telling a lie."[27]

Asked to comment by the Wall Street Journal on blogs in 2007 to mark the tenth anniversary of their advent, Wolfe wrote that "the universe of blogs is a universe of rumors" and that "blogs are an advance guard to the rear." He also took the opportunity to criticize Wikipedia, saying that "only a primitive would believe a word of" it. He noted a story about him in his Wikipedia entry at the time, which he said had never happened.[29]

Personal life[edit]

Wolfe lives in New York City with his wife, Sheila; his daughter, Alexandra; and his son, Tommy. [30]

Influence[edit]

Wolfe is credited with introducing the terms "statusphere," "the right stuff," "radical chic," "the Me Decade," and "social x-ray" into the English lexicon.[31][dubious ] He is sometimes credited with inventing the term "trophy wife" as well, but this is incorrect: he described emaciated wives as "X-rays" in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities but did not use the term "trophy wife".[32] According to journalism professor Ben Yagoda, Wolfe is also responsible for the use of the present tense in magazine profile pieces; before he began doing so in the early 1960s, profile articles had always been written in the past tense.[33]

List of awards and nominations[edit]

Television appearances[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Non-fiction[edit]

Novels[edit]

Notable articles[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ This was the award for hardcover "General Nonfiction".
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual awards for hardcover and paperback books in many categories, including several nonfiction subcategories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including the 1980 General Nonfiction.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bloom, Harold. Tom Wolfe, Infobase Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-7910-5916-2, pg. 193.
  2. ^ Rolling Stone interview on May 2, 2007 samharris.org (Retrieved November 15, 2008)
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Available on microform from the Yale University Libraries, Link to Entry
  5. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 6–10
  6. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 9
  7. ^ Rosen, James (2006-07-02). "Tom Wolfe's Washington Post". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-03-09. 
  8. ^ Mclellan, Dennis (July 2, 2008). "Clay Felker, 82; editor of New York magazine led New Journalism charge". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  9. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 11–12
  10. ^ Wolfe, Tom; E. W. Johnson (1973). The New Journalism. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. pp. 31–33. ISBN 0-06-014707-5. 
  11. ^ Wolfe, Tom (September 1970). "The New Journalism". Bulletin of American Society of Newspapers: 22. 
  12. ^ Kallan, Richard A. (1992). "Tom Wolfe". In Connery, Thomas B. A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre (New York: Greenwood Press): 252. 
  13. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 19–22
  14. ^ "10 Questions for Tom Wolfe". Time. August 28, 2008. Retrieved May 25, 2010. 
  15. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 22–29
  16. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 31
  17. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 32
  18. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 30–34
  19. ^ Rich, Motoko. "Tom Wolfe Leaves Longtime Publisher, Taking His New Book", The New York Times, January 3, 2008. Retrieved January 3, 2008.
  20. ^ Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. "Tom Wolfe Changes Scenery; Iconic Author Seeks Lift With New Publisher, Miami-Centered Drama", The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2008. Retrieved January 3, 2008.
  21. ^ Muscle-Bound: Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood.” by James Wood October 15, 2012 The New Yorker
  22. ^ Ragen 2002, pp. 12
  23. ^ "In Wolfe's clothing", John Freeman, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 18, 2004
  24. ^ Wolfe, Tom (November 1989), "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast", Harper's Magazine
  25. ^ Bumiller, Elisabeth (February 7, 2005), "Bush's Official Reading List, and a Racy Omission", The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2010
  26. ^ Rago, Joseph (March 11, 2006), "Status Reporter", The Wall Street Journal
  27. ^ a b Vulliamy, Ed (November 1, 2004), "'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'", The Guardian
  28. ^ A Black Panther's Reaction to Wolfe's Satire
  29. ^ Varadarajan, Tunku (July 14, 2007), "Happy Blogiversary", The Wall Street Journal
  30. ^ SF Gate – 'Southern Man'
  31. ^ Tom Wolfe – Jefferson Lecturer Biography, Meredith Hindley, 2006
  32. ^ "On language; Trophy Wife", William Safire, The New York Times, May 1, 1994
  33. ^ When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, Ben Yagoda, 2007, p. 228
  34. ^ "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
  35. ^ "National Book Awards – 1998". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
  36. ^ "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11. (With acceptance speech by Wolfe.)
  37. ^ Plot Summary for "Unique Whips" The White Stuff (2006), Internet Movie Database
  38. ^ Crisis on Infinite Springfields: "Tom Wolfe Is Screaming"

External links[edit]