Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Along with such writers as Hunter S. Thompson and Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe is credited with founding what is known as the New Journalism, a style of writing that seeks to combine the objectivity of journalism with the subjectivity and verbal freedom of fiction. This style began in earnest in the early 1960’s and in many ways hit its stride with Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, the story of a brutal multiple murder in rural Kansas. Though far removed from Wolfe’s normally lighthearted tone and subject matter, In Cold Blood makes use of many of the same fictional techniques as The Right Stuff: frequent shifts in point of view, strong characterization, heavy emphasis on setting and physical description, and dialogue.
If Capote, along with Norman Mailer in such books as The Executioner’s Song (1979), is the tragedian of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe has often been its chief satirist. With the publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), a collection of essays devoted to the popular culture of the early 1960’s, Wolfe proved himself to be one of the most comically accurate observer-critics of American culture. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which treats the West Coast drug culture of the 1960’s, further established Wolfe’s reputation as both a cultural critic and a prose stylist of the first order. In the 1970 Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, his subject is fashionable political radicalism among the American ruling classes, while The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1982) take on, respectively, the worlds of art and architecture.
The Right Stuff, which won both the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, remains Wolfe’s most honored book. Its colorful diction, its astute reading of the national psyche, and its bold sense of the absurd and the simply comic all make it vintage Wolfe. In some ways, though, The Right Stuff is unlike Wolfe’s other books, for in it the author seems willingly to relinquish some of the critical detachment that characterizes much of the rest of his work. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe joins the rest of the American public in unabashed admiration for the men who daily put their lives on the line in their quest for the stars.