Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., was born on March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia, to businessman and scientist Thomas Kennerly and Helen (Hughes) Wolfe. Wolfe graduated cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1951 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University in 1957. From 1956 until 1959, he was a reporter for The Union in Springfield, Massachusetts, then worked at The Washington Post from 1959 to 1962. During the 1960’s, he began to chronicle the foibles of his generation in a breathless, exciting style that was exuberant and distinctively his own, working as contributing editor for two major magazines: New York and Esquire.
In 1978, he married Sheila Berger, the art director of Harper’s magazine, where he has also worked as a contributing artist. His drawings and caricatures, some of which are reproduced in his first collection of essays, have been exhibited. Wolfe studied creative writing at Washington and Lee (a classmate has remembered Wolfe’s then preference for writing baseball stories and a fascination with Gray’s Anatomy) before turning to American studies at Yale.
Wolfe’s involvement with New Journalism began in 1963, after he had been assigned to write a newspaper story on the Hot Rod and Custom Car Show at the coliseum in New York. Esquire later sent him to cover the custom car scene in California; the essay he wrote for...
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Wolfe revitalized American journalism with his first collections of essays. With Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons, he has attempted to reform postmodern fiction by imitating the nineteenth century realist masters in a manner that has more in common with eighteenth century satire. Like his earlier essays, Wolfe’s first novel is fascinated with what he has called “status details,” but the result of accumulating such details in a “realistic” setting is finally a novelistic comedy of manners pushed to the threshold of bitter satire. Though skilled as a storyteller, Wolfe’s major contribution to American letters is that of a supreme stylist and satirist. After the publication of A Man in Full, he engaged in a spirited, and sometimes acrimonious, literary debate with several of America’s most prestigious novelists. Undeterred by their reputations, Wolfe attacked—as he saw it—the vapidity of their minimalist fiction.
Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., enjoyed a childhood that exposed him to the world of the arts, especially literature. After graduating from Washington and Lee University, he enrolled at Yale University, where he majored in American studies. Before completing his dissertation but after finishing his course work, he left Yale to work at the Springfield Union newspaper, where he began as a city hall reporter. He received his doctorate from Yale in 1957.
In 1959 Wolfe took a position with The Washington Post, and then, in 1962, joined one of the most literate and well-written newspapers in the nation, the New York Herald-Tribune, as a staff writer for its Sunday magazine supplement. Wolfe quickly established a reputation as one of the paper’s finest reporters, with a style that was innovative, energetic, and unique. In 1965 Wolfe angered the literary establishment with a scathing, accurate, and enormously funny dissection of the sacrosanct New Yorker magazine.
During these years Wolfe, along with such writers as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson, was establishing what would become known as New Journalism, a genre that blurred or even erased the boundaries between the reporter and the story, and that reveled in subjective and highly idiosyncratic styles. Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), a collection of...
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