Discussion Topics

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Does Tom Wolfe appear to be a “conservative” writer, as some have characterized him? If so, in what ways?

Should actual events, such as those in The Right Stuff, be enhanced for literary effect? If not, why not?

Wolfe writes very long books. Do his subjects warrant the extensive treatment that he gives them?

Would you agree with Wolfe’s assertion that the realistic novel should still be the major fictional form in the twenty-first century?

The eighteenth century satirists believed that their purpose was to identify and to correct through ridicule human error. Is their evidence in Wolfe’s work that he, like these satirists, is a moralist?

Some have argued that a seventy-three-year-old writer was ill prepared to write about contemporary college life in I Am Charlotte Simmons. How well do you think Wolfe accomplished this task?

In what ways, if any, does The Right Stuff predict the form of Wolfe’s later fiction?

Wolfe has often introduced black characters into both his fiction and his nonfiction. What does his work seem to say about race relations in America?

Other literary forms

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Tom Wolfe is known as one of the most original and influential of the New Journalists to come to popular attention during the mid-1960’s. His collections of essays and original drawings on contemporary American lifestyle include The Pump House Gang (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), and Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine, and Other Stories, Sketches, and Essays (1976). In these and other works, Wolfe skewered the foibles of a period he named the me decade. In The Painted Word (1975), he addressed what he saw as the false pretensions and theory-driven impulses of modern art, and he took on the similar hoaxing of the general public by architects in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981).

Prior to his venture into long fiction, Wolfe’s most extensive and successful work was The Right Stuff (1979), a lengthy, well-researched, and engrossing study of the manned spaceflight efforts of the United States from their beginnings through the end of the original Mercury program. The book has been widely recognized for its incisive and penetrating exploration of the unique worldview of test pilots and astronauts and for its explanation of the almost inexpressible concept of “the right stuff.”


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During his career, although often attacked by cultural critics, Tom Wolfe has become one of the most recognized and honored of American writers. In 1973, he received the Frank Luther Mott Award for research in journalism, and in 1977 he was named Virginia Laureate for Literature. After the publication of The Right Stuff, he was widely recognized, winning the Award in Excellence in Literature from the American Institute of Arts and Letters, the Columbia Journalism Award, and the American Book Award. In 1986 he was given the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.

An even more important mark of Wolfe’s achievement, however, is the fact that he is largely credited with launching an entire literary movement, that of New Journalism, which emerged during the 1960’s and 1970’s and influenced not only nonfiction writing but also fiction itself.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Tom Wolfe. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. Part of Bloom’s Modern Critical Views series, this book collects important critical responses to Wolfe’s work, as well as providing a thorough introduction by Bloom himself.

McKeen, William. Tom Wolfe. New York: Twayne, 1995. Provides students and general readers with an introduction to Wolfe’s life and career. Especially good in discussing Wolfe’s career as a practicing journalist, including his articles, such as his piece on The New Yorker which so outraged traditionalists.

Ragan, Brian Abel. Tom Wolfe:...

(This entire section contains 246 words.)

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A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Intended as a guide for students, this book contains a biographical chapter, a contextual chapter introducing the concept of “new journalism” and Wolfe’s role in it, and then analyses each of his major works.

Salamon, Julie. The Devil’s Candy: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” Goes to Hollywood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Although primarily about the making of the film version of Wolfe’s novel, this study helps the reader better understand and appreciate the many artistic nuances and insights in Wolfe’s carefully layered work, which were lost in its translation to the big screen.

Scura, Dorothy, ed. Conversations with Tom Wolfe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Shomette, Doug, ed. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Contains a variety of critical responses to Wolfe’s writings over the years, with a section devoted to the early responses and criticisms of The Bonfire of the Vanities.


Critical Essays