Biography

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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...

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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 Esquire, a benchmark for New Journalism, supplied the title for his first published collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965).

Other collections followed: The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test appeared in 1968. Wolfe continued to produce essay anthologies with flamboyant titles—Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) and Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine (1976). In 1973, along with E. W. Johnson, Wolfe edited an influential anthology titled The New Journalism, published by Harper & Row, in which he attempted to describe the style of the movement, which combined objective description with a sense of “the subjective or emotional life of the characters.”

Wolfe has always been obsessed with the icons of wealth, power, status, and fashion. In two books, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), he examined examples from painting and architecture. His work covers social and political as well as cultural criticism—the government-sponsored poverty program criticized in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” for example. Wolfe has been criticized for writing such lightweight articles as “The Girl of the Year” while the Vietnam War was in full swing, but he finally caught up with Vietnam in “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which concerned Navy pilots who flew missions over North Vietnam; it was first published in Esquire in October of 1975 and was later included in Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine.

Wolfe’s major achievement during the 1970’s was The Right Stuff (1979), an animated history of the American space program and the esprit de corps of the first astronauts, which won both the Columbia Journalism Award and the American Book Award for 1980. This nonfiction achievement was later matched by his sprawling satirical novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which became a best seller. It was followed by two more novels, also heavily plotted in the Victorian manner: A Man in Full (1998) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). Hooking Up (2000) is a collection of short pieces, taking its title from the term for the casual sexual encounters that have replaced dating among America’s young people.

Biography

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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.

Biography

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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 articles chronicling the youth culture of the mid-1960’s, was followed by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), his in-depth study of author Ken Kesey and his drug-indulging band of Merry Pranksters. In 1979 Wolfe published the quintessential volume of New Journalism, The Right Stuff, a history of the formative years of the U.S. space program.

In 1984 Wolfe embarked on a daring and risky adventure, writing a novel to be published in successive issues of Rolling Stone magazine. Much as English writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray had done, Wolfe committed himself to producing chapters on a tight deadline. The first installment of The Bonfire of the Vanities first appeared in Rolling Stone in July, 1984; the twenty-seventh and final installment appeared almost exactly one year later. Wolfe subsequently revised the work substantially, and it was published in hardcover in 1987. The novel became a best seller that also won great critical acclaim. An unsuccessful and much-criticized motion-picture adaptation of the novel was released in 1990.

For almost a decade following The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe returned to journalism. It was not until 1998 that he again turned to fiction, publishing A Man in Full, about Atlanta real estate entrepreneur Charlie Croker. Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, the novel was embraced by critics and the reading public; it too became a best seller and further confirmed Wolfe’s ability to write successfully, even brilliantly, in both nonfictional and fictional genres.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Tom Wolfe is famous for his incisive portrayals of society and subcultures in New York and California. One reason for this may be that he is an outsider to both places. His Southern background affords him the detached perspective from which he ironically views, for example, the incongruous spectacle of New York’s upper crust entertaining Black Panther revolutionaries. He has also described the attempts of young surfers to live a Peter Pan existence in California in The Pump House Gang. His background also has provided him with a love for and proficiency in recording the rhythms of spoken and written language, which result in his unmistakable style.

Wolfe’s career as a writer has been a constant redefining and refining of identities. Before completing a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University, he spent a short time experiencing working-class life by loading trucks. He then eschewed the expected academic career path to become a journalist for a series of newspapers in Springfield, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

The restrictions of conventional journalism, however, did not appeal to him, and in the early 1960’s he, under the initial influence of New York Times writer Gay Talese, applied the techniques of fiction to traditional reporting to create the hybrid form that was soon labeled new journalism. Using these techniques, Wolfe examined how the outpouring of economic wealth in the United States after World War II enabled people from every level of society to form new social groups and cultural identities. Depicting the journeys various Americans take up and down through what he calls the “statusphere,” Wolfe was focused at times on an even more exclusive class, based on deeds, not birth or money: that of the true hero, the subject of The Right Stuff.

At the height of his journalistic success, he turned to a new genre, the novel. Moreover, he turned to the unfashionable realistic novel, because of its capacity to describe every level of society. The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicles how the politics of greed, race, and class mix together and then erupt in New York.

Wolfe’s individualistic choice of subject matter and genre is characteristic: He is unique even in the way he dresses. He is the observer in the white suit whose meticulous descriptions of the way Americans look and think remain among the most accurate, troubling, and humorous portraits of American identities in the twentieth century.

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