Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 147)
Tom Wolfe 1930-
(Born Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.) American essayist, journalist, editor, critic, novelist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Wolfe's career through 1999. See also, Tom Wolfe Criticism and volumes 2, 9 and 15.
Considered among the most original prose stylists in contemporary American literature, Wolfe is credited with developing New Journalism, a form of expository writing that unites traditional newspaper reportage with such techniques of fiction as stream-of-consciousness narration, shifting point of view, extended dialogue, character description, and detailed scene-setting. According to Wolfe, the intention of New Journalism is “to achieve a nonfiction form that combines the emotional impact usually found only in novels and short stories, the analytical insights of the best essays and scholarly writing, and the deep factual foundation of hard reporting.” Wolfe's witty and informative books and essays reflect a critical yet tolerant approach toward icons and trends of popular American culture. Although his subjects, techniques and opinions have generated a great deal of literary debate, Wolfe is widely respected for his astute observations on contemporary culture.
Wolfe was born on March 2, 1930, in Richmond, Virginia, to Helen Hughes and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Sr., an agronomist, college professor, and editor of the Southern Planter. 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. After receiving his doctorate in American Studies from Yale University in 1957, Wolfe worked as a reporter for the Springfield Union and the Washington Post, later becoming a feature writer for the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. He quickly garnered acclaim for his reports on such disparate subjects as New York socialites, crime figures, and fashion trends. In 1963, after several weeks of researching a California customized car and hot rod show for Esquire magazine, Wolfe was unable to meet his deadline because he found traditional journalistic techniques inadequate to evoke the frenzied, garish subject of his article. Wolfe sent his notes to Esquire editor Byron Dobell to pass on to another writer who could complete the piece. Dobell accepted Wolfe's notes unedited, which resulted in “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Baby,” a seminal document of the literary style known as New Journalism. In the following years, Wolfe continued to develop a portfolio built around his provocative writing style, observations, and thoughts, in works ranging from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) to The Painted Word (1975). In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, which won an American Book Award and a National Critics Circle Award, both for non-fiction. During the 1980s, Wolfe focused on writing his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which originally appeared as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine between 1984 and 1985. The novel was eventually adapted into a film of the same name in 1990. More than ten years passed before Wolfe completed his next novel, A Man in Full (1998), a bestseller that garnered Wolfe a cover story in Time magazine. In 2000, Wolfe published the essay collection Hooking Up.
Wolfe's first collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), examines the lifestyles of unconventional groups and public figures in contemporary culture. The essays incorporate street slang, obscure terminology, and eccentric punctuation to convey the sensory perceptions, random thoughts, and impressions of the subjects. The Pump House Gang (1968), his next collection, continues Wolfe's examination of the subcultures of southern California, London, and New York City. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, generally regarded as a definitive portrait of the drug culture of the 1960s, relates the experiences of author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a group of young people who attempted to introduce American society to hallucinogenic drugs because they believed that people would be liberated from the limitations of objective and subjective reality. Drawing on extensive interviews and personal observations, Wolfe used an elliptical, surreal style to convey the drug experience, comparing the group's fanaticism to similar occurrences in ancient religious cults. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers consists of two essays which examine extremist politics and liberal philosophy. The first piece, “Those Radical Chic Evenings,” is a satirical sketch of a fund-raising party hosted by composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers, a militant African-American organization. The second essay, “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” describes how some urban African Americans feigned militancy to intimidate the bureaucrats of government and social programs. The Painted Word mordantly attacks the modern art world, impugning such experimental painters as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack, as well as such prominent New York art critics as Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg. The Right Stuff, Wolfe's most widely respected book, examines the rhetoric surrounding the early years of the American space program. Besides being meticulously researched, the work delves beneath the public image of astronauts. From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) assails modernist architecture, particularly the Bauhaus school associated with Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Wolfe believed that Bauhaus represented a lamentable departure from American architecture with its emphasis on function over form. The Bonfire of the Vanities, described by Wolfe as “a Vanity Fair book about New York, á la Thackeray,” focuses on the downfall of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond salesman whose mistress strikes an African-American youth with McCoy's car while the two are lost in Harlem. Blamed for the accident, McCoy is publicly scorned and ridiculed as he becomes embroiled in the bureaucracy of New York City's legal system. In A Man in Full, a sixty-year old Atlanta real estate developer whose empire totters on bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer who works in a food warehouse owned by the developer confront the notion of being “a man in full” at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. Hooking Up collects both new and previously published pieces, including “My Three Stooges,” in which Wolfe attacks American literary critics John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving for their negative reviews of A Man in Full.
Throughout his career Wolfe's subject matter, eccentric literary technique, and bold opinions have aroused much controversy concerning the significance of both New Journalism and his own work. After the publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, some critics objected to Wolfe's unorthodox prose style, although many argued that the work contained innovative studies of popular trends. The critical reaction to The Pump House Gang was predominantly positive; several reviewers singled out Wolfe's portrayal of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner as among his most trenchant studies of class structure and America's obsession with status. Critics widely acclaimed The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for its surreal and vivid descriptions of the 1960s drug culture. C. D. D. Bryan called the book “an astonishing, enlightening, at times baffling, and explosively funny book.” Several reviewers faulted Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, for degrading the integrity of the black power movement and accused Wolfe of biased reporting, while others saw the book as a vigorous critique of liberal naivete. Both The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House met with sharply mixed reviews, but The Right Stuff received almost unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. “That Wolfe can weave together [the] ragged strands of the astronaut story without minimizing the extraordinary courage, the sometimes incredible technical virtuosity, of these hand-picked space explorers,” one reviewer remarked, “… is a tribute to his skill as a journalist and his sensibility as a student of humanistic values.” Although some reviewers considered Wolfe's characterizations in The Bonfire of the Vanities superficial, many praised his incisive examination of New York's criminal justice system and the city's turbulent social and ethnic divisions. A Man in Full was met with generally favorable reviews. Some complained of the book's length and Wolfe's tendency to indulge in cultural stereotypes, with several major critics voicing disappointment, such as John Updike who called the novel “entertainment, not literature.” Despite the critical contention that Wolfe's exuberant prose style and his use of fictional devices distort or overwhelm the events he reports, many agree with Joe David Bellamy's assessment that Wolfe is “the most astute and popular social observer and cultural chronicler of his generation. … No other writer of our time has aspired to capture the fabled Spirit of the Age so fully and has succeeded so well.”
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (essays) 1965
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (non-fiction) 1968
The Pump House Gang (essays) 1968 [published in England as The Mid-Atlantic Man and Other New Breeds in England and America]
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (essays) 1970
The New Journalism [Editor with E. W. Johnson, and contributor] (anthology) 1973
The Painted Word (non-fiction) 1975
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1976
The Right Stuff (non-fiction) 1979
In Our Time (essays) 1980
From Bauhaus to Our House (non-fiction) 1981
The Purple Decades: A Reader (essays) 1982
The Bonfire of the Vanities (novel) 1987
A Man in Full (novel) 1998
Hooking Up (essays) 2000
(The entire section is 102 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe: Outlaw Gentleman,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 39–50.
[In the following essay, Crawford analyzes how Wolfe's protagonists often exhibit the characteristics of an “outlaw gentleman,” a rogue who clothes himself in respectability.]
Dedicated to “all sorts of outlaws, and outcasts, by necessity or choice.” (from The Pump House Gang, p. 3)
and to all incendiary poets: “I am absolutely convinced that all poets, real poets, are rebels. I don't demand that all poets write political poetry, political declarations. Any kind of honesty is rebellion.” —Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Dangerious Dossiers, p. 239
The quintessential hero in Tom Wolfe's writings is the outlaw disguised as gentleman. In search of the heroic, he celebrates the lone adventurer—whether it's the last frontier in bootlegging, space, or the electronics industry. Each investigation has always led him into murky waters. He has pursued the Holy Grail of Truth while others have chased the pot of gold. As each turn occurred in his “holy calling,” he has remained undaunted in his definition of the true American hero. Early in his career, Wolfe selected assignments of seemingly mundane subject matter only to transform them into multi-faceted jewels through which we can glimpse human endeavor. His perceptions have antagonized, but that's what the...
(The entire section is 9053 words.)
SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction CXXIII,” in Paris Review, Vol. 33, Spring, 1991, pp. 92–121.
[In the following interview by Plimpton, Wolfe discusses how he became a journalist, the influences and inspirations behind his various works, why he chose to write novels, and his work habits as a professional writer.]
One of Tom Wolfe's favorite restaurants in New York City is the Isle of Capri on the East Side, specializing, as one might expect, in Italian cuisine; indeed, the menu does not condescend to non-Italian speaking customers: an extensive list of choices is not identified in English. The table set aside for Wolfe is in a corner of a patio-like glassed-in enclosure facing Third Avenue. Clusters of potted plants hang from its rafters. The author arrived wearing the white ensemble he is noted for—a white modified homburg, a chalk-white overcoat—but to the surprise of regular customers looking up from their tables, he removed the coat to disclose a light-brown suit set off by a pale lilac tie. Questioned about the light-brown suit, he replied: “Shows that I'm versatile.” He went on to point out that his overcoat only had one button—rare in overcoats, quite impractical, obviously, in a stiff wind. “One must occasionally suffer for style.” At the table he ordered bottled water and calamari. Squid. His accent is more cosmopolitan than southern though he grew up in the South (Richmond,...
(The entire section is 8489 words.)
SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 1–10.
[In this essay, Fishwick gives an overview of Wolfe's life and career, focusing on the segments of American culture that Wolfe profiles in his work.]
The Big Bad Wolfe is loose on the land—providing America with her most articulate and controversial winter in our generation. From the Good Ole Boys and Bad Ole Hippies of the 60s to the self-serving pols and Yuppies of the 90s, Tom Wolfe has held the mirror up to America: our fads, follies, cravings, crazies, architects, astronauts: “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours.”
His 1988 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, seemed after a full year at the top of the best seller list to have won tenure; in 1991 it became a high budget Hollywood movie. By then his trademark outfit (white suit, stiff collar, spats) bedecked magazine covers, talk shows, “serious” TV and radio panels. He was, envious critics screamed, a Wolfe in fop's clothing.
In this issue of the Journal of American Culture we hope to show that he is much more.
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931—his father, Thomas Wolfe Sr. was a Cornell Ph.D. who edited the influential magazine Southern Planter—young Tom was from the first an over-achiever. At the local private academy, St....
(The entire section is 3892 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe Unchanged By Fame,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 11–12.
[In the following essay, Rouse recalls a personal meeting with Wolfe, while also discussing the writer's early years and development into a journalist.]
It was in the 1960s. My wife and I were flying to England and we had just boarded the airplane. Down the aisle came a thin young man. He wore a white suit despite the fall weather.
“Aren't you Tom Wolfe?” I asked.
He was, and we were soon in conversation about our alma mater, Washington and Lee, and mutual journalistic friends.
“Excuse the white suit,” Tom said, “My p.r. man insists I wear it. I'm having an interview with the British press when we reach the airport to promote my new book.”
Wolfe had just made a hit with his Esquire piece, “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about California custom-car designers.
That was the beginning. Since then, he's become perhaps the most celebrated non-fiction writer in America. His novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a best-seller.
Wolfe is now 59, but he's still trim, dapper, and dresses like a Delta dude. I saw him last in November at a W & L alumni reception here in Williamsburg, where he'd come as a W & L trustee. He was deep in...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)
SOURCE: “Rebel-Doodle Dandy,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 13–18.
[In the following essay, Crawford dissects the typical Wolfe protagonist, portraying them as well-tailored anti-heroes and heroic outlaws who only have allegiance to themselves.]
Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence.1
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life
In 1974 Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby appeared on the screen with Robert Redford as Gatsby, a twenties racketeer. Wolfe complained that the novel had been reinterpreted by the garment industry.2 Redford's Hollywood wardrobe tailor failed to fit him properly in white linen suits. The suits looked awful and appeared uncomfortable for Redford.
Deja vu. In 1990, Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities appeared on the screen with Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy. He wore tailored ＄4,000 Saville Row suits made from ＄200 a yard wool. Nevertheless, Hanks’ suits did not appear to look or fit better than Redford's suits. Without genuine clothing that pays attention to the details, the movie fell short of the graphic realism in Wolfe's novel. When he sold the rights to the book, he sold McCoy and everyone in the cast, to an inferior tailor and screenwriter.
Wolfe's fascination for the...
(The entire section is 4316 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Narratives as Stories of Growth,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 19–24.
[In the following essay, Stokes focuses on the relationship between the narrator and the subject of Wolfe's works, and the effect that relationship has on the reader.]
“What a feast was spread out before every writer in America! How could any writer resist plunging into it? I couldn't.”
So admits Tom Wolfe in his recent manifesto “for the new social novel” which appeared in Harper's.1 Wolfe didn't simply plunge—he cannonballed into the literary scene with the publication in 1965 of his collected essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and the resounding waves have continued to be felt with his non-fiction novels The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff and his social novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. His splashes get attention—whether the reader loves or hates Wolfe, all respond to the energy and liveliness of his language and the strong persona created by his writing.2
Curiously enough, however, little notice has been given to Wolfe's narratives, including the special relationship which exists between narrator and subject and narrative and reader.3 Much Wolfe criticism addresses the satirical elements of Wolfe's writing; however, my...
(The entire section is 3955 words.)
SOURCE: “The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 25–30.
[In the following essay, Stull criticizes Wolfe for his stereotypes of women and minorities, and for his generalizations about status and politics. Stull believes that Wolfe's “detached observer” writing style removes him from his characters, making them passive participants in Wolfe's literary “games.”]
The examination of arcane worlds and societies is one of the central appeals of the new journalism and a fundamental part of Tom Wolfe's writing. While Wolfe ostensibly makes overtures to explain subcultures on their own terms, he in fact describes and understands them all with a strikingly similar method of cultural analysis. Wolfe believes, as he explained in an interview with Tony Schwartz, that “the fundamental unit in analyzing behavior is not the individual, but some sort of status group or status structure.”1 Wolfe privileges an omniscient authorial self and attends to the nuances of status and power within the construction of his carefully controlled literary and social worlds. He is the master gamesman in the white suit whose journalistic performance is predicated upon his ability to establish the rules of the social game and lead the reader to believe that they (the rules) are actually part of the reality they signify.
(The entire section is 4403 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe and The ‘Experimental’ Novel,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 31–34.
[In the following essay, Card discusses Wolfe's development of the social-realist novel and his belief that highly-detailed realism is “the future of the fictional novel.”]
Tom Wolfe's essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” (subtitled “A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel”)1 urging American writers to produce novels that will convey a sense to readers of what life is truly like in “the American century” (i.e. the Twentieth century) through “a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him” has its counterpart in “Le Roman expérimental” (“The Experimental Novel”) set forth in 1880 by a writer whom Wolfe admires, Emile Zola.
Zola's essay was a manifesto for the scientific novel or, more accurately, for the kind of novel that Zola wrote which, in its depiction of life in the Second Empire, often offended certain readers because of its frankness. Called “sixty pages of mumbo-jumbo” by one of Zola's literary critics,2 the essay nonetheless delineates what Zola thought a novelist should do. Modeled directly on Claude Bernard's “L'Introduction à la médicine expérimentale”...
(The entire section is 2728 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Defense of the New (Old) Social Novel; Or, The Perils of the Great White-Suited Hunter,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 35–41.
[In the following essay, Varsava compliments Wolfe on the realism of The Bonfire of the Vanities, but states that the novel doesn't live up to the values of the social-realist novel that Wolfe himself outlined in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.”]
Our response to things in life is determined in great measure by our expectations. Knowing whether our dinner is supposed to be a West Texas taco or a Beijing spring roll will get us off to a good start in deciding if our meal is good Texmex fare or passable Chinese. Having served up one profundity to hungry minds, let me turn to the matter at hand. Is Tom Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” a taco or Chinese roll? Is it journalism or literary criticism (or even some crossgeneric mutation)? Our response to this question determines in large measure, I think, how we will greet the views he advances in the essay, whether with enthusiasm, or without it? And precisely what expectations do we bring to the perusal of yet another essay by one of America's most celebrated contemporary journalists? Do we expect a quick, assured (new) journalistic glance at several grand themes drawn from literary history, past and present, a collection of easily...
(The entire section is 5404 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe and Social(ist) Realism,” in Common Knowledge, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 147–60.
[In this negative review of Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” Epstein criticizes the essay for its suggestion that “realistic fiction” is the future of the fictional novel. Epstein goes on to compare the essay to the 1855 dissertation of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, entitled The Esthetic Relationship of Art to Reality.]
Like two people facing opposite sides of a wall, Eastern and Western cultures have opposite views of left and right. The idea of a free market economy, an established reality in the United States, is staunchly defended by “conservative” economists and politicians. In the Soviet Union, this same idea was championed by the “radical” forces. Likewise, Tom Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel” makes a stunning impression on a reader from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Wolfe tilts at the “literary establishment” of modernist literature, offering in its stead the kind of “class approach” which has served as the literary establishment in the Soviet Union. Once unleashed by Lenin and Stalin, the beast named Socialist Realism stalked the Russian artistic mind and held it captive for many decades.
Since Wolfe himself holds up Russian...
(The entire section is 5967 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe's Revenge,” in American Journalism Review, October, 1994, pp. 40–46.
[In the following essay, Harvey discusses the origins of the “New Journalism” that Wolfe helped to create and the effect that it has had on the world of American journalism.]
A few decades ago, feature writer Tom Wolfe was pilloried in print for having “the social conscience of an ant” and a “remarkable unconcern” for the facts. Only a visionary could have predicted his impact on journalism would be lasting.
Yet today, elements of the New Journalism that Wolfe so tirelessly promoted have become as commonplace as the pie chart in many newspapers, ranging from the New York Times to the Oregonian to the weekly Washington City Paper.
Practitioners don't call it New Journalism any more. They prefer the terms “literary” or “intimate” journalism or “creative nonfiction.” But their stories are marked by the same characteristics that distinguished Wolfe's work at Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune: They're written in narrative form, with a heavy emphasis on dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details.
Jon Franklin, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes at the Evening Sun in Baltimore, says the growing interest in literary journalism can be explained as easily as a pendulum swing. Now a journalism professor at the...
(The entire section is 3884 words.)
SOURCE: “Interview: Tom Wolfe,” in On The Bus, Vol. 6, No. 1, Issue 13, Winter 1993–Spring 1994, pp. 226–29.
[In the following interview by Reilly, Wolfe discusses the research and the work that went into creating his account of Ken Kesey's travels across America, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.]
Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published the very same day as his The Pump House Gang. In one of it's more trenchent reviews, The New York Times said, “Two Books!!!!!!!! HeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeWACK! The Same Day!!!!! TOO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O Freaking Much!” Most recently, Wolfe's novel, Bonfire of the Vanities was made into a major motion picture.
Wolfe's chronicle of the hippie generation in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was an account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who took a now legendary psychedelic bus trip from California to New York in 1964. To be “on the bus” meant you were part of that new generation, and later the term came to mean you were part of whatever movement was happening. If you're “off the bus,” you're not in the know, not with it. If you're “on the bus,” you're part of the group, going forward, one of the gang. “Are you on the bus or off the bus?—Are you with us or against us?”
[Reilly:] Could we talk about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Could we, if I may,...
(The entire section is 1840 words.)
SOURCE: “Traveling ‘Furthur’ with Tom Wolfe's Heroes,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28.3, Winter, 1994, pp. 177–91.
[In this essay, Konas analyzes the mythic, rebellious heroes of subculture that Wolfe focuses on in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff.]
During the past quarter century Tom Wolfe has written about a motley crew of Americans who are in some ways emblematic of our culture—or at least a significant subculture. His subjects have ranged from such lightweight celebrities as Baby Jane Holzer to heavyweight heroes like Cassius Clay (shortly before he became Muhammad Ali). In these short slice-of-life profiles Wolfe shows that the Girl of the Year socialite can tell us as much about what we value as can the era's most recognizable man in the world. Although Wolfe, like other New Journalists, enjoys writing about “little people” in America in order to get the big picture, he also looks at famous Americans to see what they say about us.
On at least three occasions, Wolfe has studied American mythical heroes in some depth. The Right Stuff examines what lies beneath the façades of the cool test pilot and the (ostensibly) squeaky-clean Mercury astronauts. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test looks beyond the Day-Glo messages painted on a bus to examine the relationship between...
(The entire section is 6779 words.)
SOURCE: “‘It's the Third World Down There!’: Urban Decline and (Post)National Mythologies in Bonfire of the Vanities,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 93–111.
[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses how Wolfe portrays urban realism in The Bonfire of the Vanities and how the novel uses New York City as “a microcosm of contemporary American society.”]
The symbolic order of American nationalism has been profoundly fissured by socio-economic transformations which connect local cultures in the United States to the global system. “Globalization” has become a catch-all term for diverse restructurings characterized by the acceleration of global flows of people, capital, and information.1 This acceleration has propelled what Frederick Buell describes as “the movement from a period of globally disseminated nationalism, which reinforced the construction of national identities as objects of faith and focuses for social organization, to a period of globalism, in which the stereotypical national culture has become increasingly strained, fractured and demystified” (144). The idea of a “national culture,” once deeply encoded in the concept of the American Creed as civil religion and in its master narrative of exceptionalist ethnogenesis, has lost its power to describe a collective, national experience and evoke a shared historical...
(The entire section is 6727 words.)
SOURCE: “Tom Wolfe on Top,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 49, December 7, 1998, pp. 37–39.
[In the following essay, Bing profiles the research, time, and massive marketing campaign that went into the publication of Wolfe's A Man in Full.]
It took a decade to write. It is the panoramic saga of a hothouse Atlanta society on the verge of being burned to the ground. Its headstrong protagonist is an enduring symbol of American enterprise. It received rave reviews but was such a popular sensation that it demolished the barrier that traditionally separates literary from commercial fiction. The book is of course Gone with the Wind, but if you were to mistake the above description for that of Tom Wolfe's new novel from FSG, A Man in Full you wouldn't be far off the mark.
Lest you think that this eminent social satirist, known for his savage critiques of American pomp and pretension and for his ferocious, era-capping pronouncements, is ill-served by a comparison to the author of the most beloved potboiler of all time, rest assured; it's a comparison that he encourages. “I love being in the same paragraph as Margaret Mitchell,” he says over breakfast at the Ritz in Atlanta. “In literary circles, you're not supposed to say that. But you could argue, and I would if anyone would listen, that Gone with the Wind is the greatest American novel ever written.” Just...
(The entire section is 2928 words.)
SOURCE: “Honor Amid the Ruins,” in American Spectator, Vol. 32, No. 1, January, 1999, pp. 64–68.
[In the following review of A Man in Full, O'Sullivan compliments Wolfe's comic set-pieces and looks at the novel's general critical reception in an attempt to identify the basic theme of the work.]
“Nothing has been lost save honor,” said the great nineteenth-century swindler Jay Gould about one of his failed enterprises. And the remark has not lost its power to shock and amuse. It derives its hard cynical charge from the fact that most people in most ages feel a natural concern about their reputation both in their own eyes and in those of the world. It inspires them to perform decent, even heroic, acts and restrains them from selfish or ignoble ones. And if we should act ignobly, then conscience rebukes us. We are, so to speak, honor-bound.
For that reason the man who rises above honor by sinking below it, like Gould, has an advantage over the rest of us. He can exploit our virtues as well as our vices. With the best will in the world, he is almost destined to regard honorable men and women as so many sheep waiting to be sheared. Social rules and customs are traditionally supposed to protect us from these human wolves. But what happens when such rules decay? Or when there is such a multicultural proliferation of them that no one feels confident in asserting any particular...
(The entire section is 4132 words.)
“Atlanta Burnt Again.” Economist 349, No. 8093 (7 November 1998): 89.
This review of Wolfe's A Man in Full compares the novel to Wolfe's earlier The Bonfire of the Vanities, calling it “equally good.”
“Tom Wolfe throws down a glove: Back to Reality.” Economist 313 (11 November 1989): 111–12.
This essay discusses Wolfe's “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and how it relates to his “literary manifesto for the new social novel.”
Edwards, Brian. “Wolfe's Bonfire and Barth's Tidewater: An Essay in Cultural Politics.” Australian Journal of American Studies 10, No. 1 (July 1991): 31–38.
Edwards analyzes the effect that cultural context has on literary works, specifically Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and John Barth's The Tidewater Tales.
Grunwald, Lisa. “Tom Wolfe Aloft in the Status Sphere.” Esquire 114, No. 4 (October 1990): 146–54.
Grunwald profiles Wolfe's career and discusses the importance that Wolfe places on status in society today.
Updike, John. “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT! Tom Wolfe Looks Hard at America.” New Yorker 74, No. 34 (9 November 1998): 99–102.
In this review of A Man in Full, Updike calls the work a...
(The entire section is 230 words.)