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.”