||Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.
March 2, 1931
Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
||The Painted Word, 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, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Back to Blood
Thomas Kennerly “Tom” Wolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931) is an American author and journalist, best known for his association with and influence over the New Journalism literary movement, in which literary techniques are used extensively and traditional values of journalistic objectivity and evenhandedness are rejected. He began his career as a regional newspaper reporter in the 1950s, but achieved national prominence in the 1960s following the publication of such best-selling books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (a highly experimental account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), and two collections of articles and essays, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, was met with critical acclaim, became a commercial success, and was adapted as a major motion picture (directed by Brian De Palma).
Early life and education
Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Louise (née Agnew), a landscape designer, and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr., an agronomist.
Wolfe grew up on Gloucester Road 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 1947, he turned down admission to Princeton University to attend Washington and Lee University, both all-male schools at the time; at Washington and Lee, Wolfe was a member of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. Wolfe majored in English and practiced his writing outside the classroom as well. He was the 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 his professor Fishwick’s example, 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. In the course of his research, Wolfe interviewed many writers, including Malcolm Cowley, Archibald MacLeish, and James T. Farrell. 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.” His thesis was originally rejected but he finally passed by rewriting it being objective instead of subjective. Upon leaving Yale he wrote a friend explaining through expletives his personal opinions about his thesis.
Journalism and New Journalism
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.
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. 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 1963, 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.
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. Of status symbols, Wolfe has said, “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.”
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.” 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.”
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.
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) 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.”
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.
In 2016 Wolfe published The Kingdom of Speech, which is a controversial critique of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.
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.
Made for TV movie
A fictional television movie appeared on PBS in 1977, “Tom Wolfe’s Los Angeles”, a suitably satirical story set in Los Angeles. Wolfe appears in the movie himself.
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 installments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work. 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 installment. Wolfe was later not happy with his “very public first draft” 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, and his The Bonfire of the Vanities was published 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.
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 Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the London-based Literary Review, a prize established “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. 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.”
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.
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 The 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 venomous 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 The Bonfire of the Vanities, reappears in A Man in Full as the designer of Charlie Croker’s home.
A fictional sexual practice called “that thing with the cup” appears in several of his writings, including The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and a (non-fiction) essay in Hooking Up.
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
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. 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.”
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.
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.) After this fact emerged in a 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.”
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, and his depiction of the Black Panther Party in Radical Chic led to a member of the party calling him a racist. 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.”
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.
Wolfe lives in New York City with his wife Sheila, who designs covers for Harper’s magazine. They have two children, a daughter, Alexandra, and a son, Tommy.
A writer for Examiner Magazine who interviewed Wolfe in 1998 said, “He has no computer and does not surf, or even know how to use, the Internet”, adding, however, that Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full does have a subplot involving “a muckraking cyber-gossip site, à la the Drudge Report or Salon.”
Wolfe is credited with introducing the terms “statusphere,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic,” “the Me Decade,” “social x-ray,” and “pushing the envelope” into the English lexicon. 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”. 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.
Terms coined by Wolfe
List of awards and nominations
- 1961 Washington Newspaper Guild Award for Foreign News Reporting
- 1961 Washington Newspaper Guild Awards for Humor
- 1970 Society of Magazine Writers Award for Excellence
- 1971 D.F.A., Minneapolis College of Art
- 1973 Frank Luther Mott Research Award
- 1974 D.Litt., Washington and Lee University
- 1977 Virginia Laureate for literature
- 1979 National Book Critics Circle Finalist General Nonfiction Finalist for The Right Stuff
- 1980 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Right Stuff[a]
- 1980 Columbia Journalism Award for The Right Stuff
- 1980 Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award of the American Institute of Arts and Letters
- 1980 Art History Citation from the National Sculpture Society
- 1983 L.H.D., Virginia Commonwealth University
- 1984 L.H.D., Southampton College
- 1984 John Dos Passos Award
- 1986 Gari Melchers Medal
- 1986 Benjamin Pierce Cheney Medal from Eastern Washington University
- 1986 Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence
- 1987 National Book Critics Circle fiction Finalist for The Bonfire of the Vanities
- 1987 D.F.A., School of Visual Arts
- 1988 L.H.D., Randolph-Macon College
- 1988 L.H.D., Manhattanville College
- 1989 L.H.D., Longwood College
- 1990 St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates
- 1990 D.Litt., St. Andrews Presbyterian College
- 1990 D.Litt., Johns Hopkins University
- 1993 D.Litt., University of Richmond
- 1998 National Book Award Finalist for A Man in Full
- 2001 National Humanities Medal
- 2003 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for Lifetime Achievement
- 2004 Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the Literary Review
- 2005 Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award
- 2006 Jefferson Lecture in Humanities
- 2010 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
- Wolfe was featured as an interview subject in the 1987 PBS documentary series Space Flight.
- In July 1975 Wolfe was interviewed on Firing Line by William F. Buckley, Jr., discussing “The Painted Word”.
- Wolfe was featured on the February 2006 episode “The White Stuff” of Speed Channel‘s Unique Whips, where his Cadillac‘s interior was customized to match his trademark white suit.
- Wolfe guest-starred alongside Jonathan Franzen, Gore Vidal and Michael Chabon in The Simpsons episode “Moe’N’a Lisa“, which aired November 19, 2006. He was originally slated to be killed by a giant boulder, but that ending was edited out. Wolfe was also used as a sight gag on The Simpsons episode “Insane Clown Poppy“, which aired on November 12, 2000. Homer spills chocolate on Wolfe’s trademark white suit, and Wolfe rips it off in one swift motion, revealing an identical suit underneath.
- “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” Esquire, March 1965.
- “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” New York Herald-Tribune supplement (April 11, 1965).
- “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” New York Herald-Tribune supplement (April 18, 1965).
- “The Birth of the New Journalism: Eyewitness Report by Tom Wolfe.” New York, February 14, 1972.
- “The New Journalism: A la Recherche des Whichy Thickets.” New York Magazine, February 21, 1972.
- “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore.” Esquire, December 1972.
- “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” New York, August 23, 1976.
- “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast“, Harper’s. November 1989.
- “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died.” Forbes 1996.
- “Pell Mell.” The Atlantic Monthly (November 2007).
- “The Rich Have Feelings, Too.” Vanity Fair (September 2009).