An insightful observer of American culture across decades, Tom Wolfe, who died aged 88, revitalized journalism and shook up the US literary scene with an inimitable style that has inspired a generation of authors.
"Somebody has to be the pioneer and leave the marks for others to follow," Tom Wolfe wrote in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And though he was writing about pop culture icon Ken Kesey and his bus filled with his Merry Pranksters, Wolfe may very well have been prophesying his own role in the American writing scene.
Published in 1968, the book was not a first for Wolfe, who had been working as a journalist since 1956 – first as a local beat reporter in a small Massachusetts town and later as an award-winning Latin America correspondent for The Washington Post. But it was indeed groundbreaking, considered by The New York Times one of the greatest books of all time.
In relating the tale of a group of hippies who crisscrossed the country while high on LSD, with their ultimate destination a meeting with Timothy Leary (that never came to fruition), Wolfe won praise for detailing a counter-cultural movement at a time of great political upheaval in the U.S. He also appeared to be revolutionizing journalism by using stylistic elements usually reserved for fiction, telling their story in a way that is less neutral and objective than traditional reporting.
In lieu of dry facts and expert quotes, Wolfe used multiple points of view as he created scenes, using extensive dialogue and unusual punctuation marks to mirror the nonsensical speech being spewed by people high on drugs. It was the embodiment of a new style of reporting being employed by writers like Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson – a style Wolfe went on to label New Journalism when compiling an anthology of the same name just a few years later.
A scathing cultural critic
Even before The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe's literary experiments had been known in the New York publishing world thanks to his colorful, bestselling debut, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. A collection of essays, the book grew out of an article of the same name that Wolfe had written for Esquire about the love affair many Los Angelenos had with their cars.
The essay and subsequent book became a breakthrough both for what they did and didn't do. In covering a scene from everyday life, Wolfe presented the lives of ordinary Americans to the New York City literary establishment so far removed from it. In a time when air travel was still a luxury and vacations for many people meant a short trip to the nearest lake, Wolfe connected his readers to communities they may never have otherwise seen. All the while he also related to them by focusing on people like you and me. He saw himself as a purveyor of contemporary non-literary American life, with all its warts and eccentricities. Covering the rise of stock car racer Junior Johnson in "The Last American Hero" for Esquire in 1964, for example, Wolfe uncovered a southern history of whiskey bootlegging.
A Yale-educated 'good old boy'
And who better to document these lives than a "good old boy" from Richmond, Virginia?
Despite being educated at Yale and taking a seat in New York high society, in his writing, Wolfe had set his gaze on the problems of class and elitism in America from the beginning. In 1963, the newly established New York magazine printed Wolfe's detailed takedown of The New Yorker and its editor William Shawn – a magazine that had been (and still is) considered the pinnacle publication of the literary establishment. Wolfe claimed it was for the faux-intellectual, a ruse to make bored suburban housewives who read it feel as though they were on par with the French elite. Thus began a very public exchange of criticism with his contemporaries, including John Updike and Norman Mailer, which continued up to Wolfe's death on May 15, 2018.
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In 1970, Wolfe detailed a party that Leonard Bernstein had held in his Park Avenue duplex for the Black Panthers; touching on the race issues from the time, the resulting book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, also scathingly portrayed the government's poverty program from the inside. Nothing could be taken for granted with Wolfe; no part of American life seemed safe in his gaze.
Frustrated by the lack of revolution to come about in the 1960s, Wolfe labeled the 70s the Me Decade in a collection of essays that argued that a revolution of the self was the only thing left, an "alchemical dream." The essays exemplified what Wolfe does best: while neither sugar-coating the problems of contemporary American life nor showing its protagonists in a positive light, the writer coined turns of phrase that have become a permanent part of our vocabulary. With Wolfe, it's not only about the cultural critiques that arise while focusing on an unusual subject but also very much about language.
This unique combination – a strong story combined with Wolfe's sharp wit – comes to life again in 1979, with the release of The Right Stuff. The account of the early space program and semi-biography of Chuck Yeager and the other Mercury 7 astronauts, went on to receive the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style and the Columbia Journalism Award.
A best-selling novel: Bonfire of the Vanities
With a downturn in magazine sales and a shift towards television heavily influencing the media scene in New York, Wolfe set his sights in the 1980s on producing fiction. He negotiated a contract with Rolling Stone that would allow him to serialize a novel and over the course of two years, Wolfe put out the first draft of what would later become Bonfire of the Vanities, his debut novel and perhaps the work he is best known for.
Later turned into a movie, Bonfire captured the absurdity of society life in the go-go 80s. In highlighting the contrasts of living in the city where Wall Street was making a massive resurgence just as crime and homelessness were on the rise, Wolfe captured greed and ambition in a way that had audiences enthralled. The movie has become something of a cult classic, the name of its protagonist, Sherman McCoy, becoming synonymous in slang with someone without any scruples.
Wolfe's sharp eye combined with unsurpassed humor and a penchant for recreating unbelievable scenarios with over-the-top characters lent him a voice unlike any other before or since. His style, critic James Woods, later went on in the New Yorker to say, is "Big and Tall Prose – big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration. No one of average size emerges from his shop."
You're never too old to go undercover
Although Wolfe has continued writing since the runway bestseller was released, none of his books have proven as successful. That hasn't stopped him from producing works that turn a critical eye to contemporary society. Nor has it convinced him to change his technique of embedding in the youthful culture he is looking at so critically.
A grandfatherly figure, Wolfe spent weeks in sorority houses in the U.S. South to do research for his 2001 novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, the tale of an ambitious, virginal teenager who loses her way after heading off to college. It read like a fictional follow-up to his Hooking Up, a collection of essays on contemporary youth culture. Despite, or perhaps because of, his older age, Wolfe has continued to raise eyebrows with boundary-pushing books detailing aspects of American life that leave readers squirming.
A lady never tells, but what about a gentleman?
Yet, by all appearances, Tom Wolfe is a typical southern gentleman. He adopted the fashion of his native Virginia back in 1962 New York when he started a new job that required business attire; the writer purchased a white suit that he wore daily, despite its cloth being too warm for steamy summer days in the city. It became something of a trademark; to this day, the writer is only seen in public in a white suit, sometimes paired with a blue oxford, sometimes accessorized with a hat, harlequin-print socks or a gilded walking cane.
Although his contemporary Norman Mailer has remarked, "There is something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York," the suit has become an integral part of Wolfe's legend. It feels befitting of a man his age – an age which, even until his death, was confused. Even after his death on Tuesday, some sources were reporting Wolfe as dying at the age of 87. Yet the New York Public Library, which houses a collection of his letters, put his year of birth at 1930, making the dapper southern gentleman 88 at the time of his death. Either way, the pioneer of New Journalism, whose influence is still felt in the non-fiction and literary worlds, and his eye for the unusual characters in American life, will be sorely missed.