Without Tom Wolfe's literary innovations you probably wouldn't be reading this...
In the 1960s and 70s, Tom Wolfe was a pioneer of what was then called New Journalism but which today is known as journalism by some, narrative, creative, or literary non-fiction by others. Tom married an incredible eye for detail with an ear for voice to capture an era — or a moment. There's nothing new anymore about wedding traditional reporting with the flair of a novelist, but when Tom and like-minded writers, such as Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, burst on the scene, it was revolutionary.
In the decades to come, Tom Wolfe's characters — both real and invented — will outlast him. But first, let's take a moment to recall the great writer who died just last week, 14 May 2018.
Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, March 2, 1930, the son of an agronomy professor and a garden designer. After earning his Ph.D. at Yale University in 1957, he took the only job offer to come his way: at The Springfield Union newspaper, in Massachusetts. Before long, he was in New York City, working for the Herald Tribune newspaper and then its weekly magazine insert, called New York.
It was at there that Wolfe discovered the subject that he rode to fame and fortune: "The vanities, extravagances, pretensions and artifice of America two decades after World War II, the wealthiest society the world had ever known," wrote Richard Kluger in "The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune" in 1986.
A satirist as much as a reporter, perhaps Wolfe's most widely quoted article was published by New York Magazine in which he coined — or at least popularized — the term "radical chic." The legendary 1970 piece described a fancy fund-raiser for the Black Panthers, hosted by the composer Leonard Bernstein in his fabulous Park Avenue apartment.
At the opposite end of the decade, he published The Right Stuff, a 1979 history of the first U.S. astronauts that was later made into a hit movie. While all of his characters were household names already, it made a pop star out of one in particular: Chuck Yeager, who has remained a celebrity for decades — and outlives his literary doppelganger.
Since most ambitious journalists consider themselves incomplete unless they publish a novel, Wolfe eventually turned to fiction. He didn't fail. His 1987 book Bonfire of the Vanities was regarded as an authoritative depiction of the cross-currents that buffeted New York in the 1980s. The intersection of the high and mighty with the opposite end of the spectrum was embodied by one of the most celebrated confections of the era — a Wall Street trader named Sherman McCoy. His saga began when he got lost and stranded in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The book was later turned into a movie and the one-two punch of Wolfe's success in nonfiction and fiction solidified his place in the world of letters.
Since the author wrote in the latter half of the 20th century United States, he eventually became a celebrity, nurturing an image that made him almost as famous as the characters he created. He was known, mostly, for his appearance: wearing white suits and shoes with white spats. He described his own image as "neo-pretentious."
Ultimately, though, it's his writing that will endure and critics — while never unanimous — were typically bountiful in their praise.
"He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else," wrote one. Here's another: "He is without peer in the Western world."
He certainly influenced this writer. As I wrote above, "without Tom Wolfe's literary innovations you probably wouldn't be reading this." RIP Tom Wolfe and thank you. I'm proud to honor you as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.