Tom Wolfe Wolfe, Tom (Vol. 147) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Sheri F. Crawford (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Wolfe with George Plimpton (interview date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marshall W. Fishwick (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”


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Parke Rouse (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sheri F. Crawford (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lisa Stokes (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James N. Stull (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Card (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Jerry A. Varsava (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mikhail Epstein (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Chris Harvey (essay date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Tom Wolfe with Charlie Reilly (interview date Winter 1993–Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gary Konas (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Liam Kennedy (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Bing (essay date 7 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John O'Sullivan (review date January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


“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...

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