Tom Wolfe

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For the early 20th century American novelist, see Thomas Wolfe.

Dr. Thomas Kennerly "Tom" Wolfe (born March 2, 1931) is an American author and journalist, best known as one of the founders of the new journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Wolfe graduated from St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia before attending Washington and Lee University as an undergraduate. He then went on to graduate from Yale University with a Ph.D. in American Studies.


[edit] Career

[edit] Journalism and New Journalism

Wolfe took his first newspaper job in 1956 and eventually worked for the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune among others. While there he experimented with using fictional techniques in feature stories [citation needed].

During a New York newspaper strike, he approached Esquire Magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California. He struggled with writing the article and editor Byron Dobell suggested that Wolfe send his notes to him so they could work together on the article. Wolfe sat down and wrote Dobell a letter saying everything he wanted to say about the subject, ignoring all conventions of journalism. Dobell simply removed the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and published the notes as the article. The result was The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

This was what Wolfe called New Journalism, in which some journalists and essayists experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispassionate, even-handed reporting. One of the most striking examples of this idea is Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The book, while being a narrative account of the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, is also highly experimental in its use of onomatopoeia, free association, and eccentric use of punctuation - such as multiple exclamation marks and italics - to convey the manic ideas and personalities of Ken Kesey and his followers.

As well as his own forays into this new style of journalism, Wolfe also edited a collection of New Journalism with EW Johnson, published in 1973 and titled simply The New Journalism. This book brought together pieces from Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer and several other well-known writers, with the common theme of journalism that incorporated literary techniques and could be considered literature.

[edit] Non-fiction

In 1965 a collection of his articles in this style was published under the title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Wolfe's fame grew. A second volume of articles, entitled The Pump House Gang, followed in 1968. He wrote on popular culture, architecture, politics and other topics that underscored, among other things, how American life in the 1960s was transformed as a result of post-WWII economic prosperity. His defining work from this era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (published the same day as "The Pump House Gang"), which epitomized the decade of the 1960s for many. Although a conservative in many ways and certainly not a hippie, Wolfe became one of the notable figures of the decade.

In 1970 he published two essays in book form: Radical Chic, a biting account of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panther Party, and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, about the practice of using racial intimidation ("mau-mauing") to extract funds from government welfare bureaucrats ("flak catchers"). The phrase "radical chic" soon became a popular derogatory term for upper class leftism. In 1977, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine hit bookstores; embodying one of Wolfe's more famous essays, The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.

In 1979 Wolfe published The Right Stuff, an account of the pilots who became America's first astronauts. Famously following their training and unofficial, even foolhardy, exploits, he likened these heroes to "single combat champions" of an earlier era, going forth to battle on behalf of their country. In 1983 the book was adapted as a film.

Wolfe also wrote two highly critical social histories of modern art and modern architecture, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus To Our House, in 1975 and 1981, respectively. The books mocked the excessive insularity of the art world and its dependence on faddish critical theory.

[edit] Fiction

Several other books followed before Wolfe's first satirical novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published in 1987, having previously been serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. This book chronicles the spectacular rise and fall of a New York bond trader named Sherman McCoy against a backdrop of 1980s New York. Critics praised the book in particular for its vivid evocation of New York's social, racial, and economic tensions. It was a runaway popular success, becoming one of the bestselling and most widely talked about books of the 1980s. Wolfe received $5 million for the film rights to Bonfire of the Vanities, the most ever earned by an author at that time. In 1984, Wolfe won the prestigious Dos Passos Prize for literature from Longwood University.

He followed this with a notorious and controversial 1989 essay in Harper's Magazine entitled Stalking the Billion-footed Beast, which criticized modern American novelists for failing to fully engage with their subjects, and suggested that the only thing that could save modern literature was a greater reliance on journalistic technique. This essay was widely seen as an attack on the mainstream literary establishment, and a thinly veiled boast that Wolfe's work was vastly superior to many more highly regarded authors.

Because of the success of Wolfe's first novel, there was widespread interest in his second work of fiction. This project took him more than eleven years to complete; A Man in Full was published finally in 1998. The book's reception was not universally positive, despite glowing reviews published in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. An enormous initial printing of 1.2 million copies was announced and the book stayed at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks. John Updike wrote a critical review for The New Yorker, in which he wrote that the novel "amounts to Entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form." This touched off an intense war of words in the print and broadcast media between Wolfe and Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer. Wolfe would later publish an essay referring to these three authors as "My Three Stooges."

After publishing Hooking Up (a collection of short pieces, including the 1997 novella Ambush at Fort Bragg) in 2001, he followed up with his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). The book chronicles sexual promiscuity on contemporary American college campuses and met with a mostly tepid response by critics, though its accuracy and focus were praised by many college students. The book also won praise from many political conservatives who saw the book's disturbing account of college sexuality as revealing moral decline. The novel won a dubious award from the London-based Literary Review "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel," though the author later explained that such sexual references were deliberately clinical.

[edit] Trivia

Wolfe is known for his trademark white suit, which he wears on the cover of the paperback edition of Hooking Up. In an episode of The Simpsons where he appeared as a guest star, his white suit is splattered with chocolate; immediately Wolfe rips the suit off as if it were tissue paper, revealing another pristine white suit underneath. Critics have noted that the "white suit" was actually Wolfe's attempt to suggest that he was the "good guy" in American literature.[citation needed]
Tom Wolfe (third from left) in a promotional image for Moe'N'a Lisa.

Tom Wolfe guest starred alongside Jonathan Franzen, Gore Vidal and Michael Chabon in the Simpsons episode Moe'N'a Lisa, which aired November 19, 2006. He was originally slated to be killed by a giant boulder, but that ending was editted out. [1]

Wolfe was reported erroneously as being deceased by major news media in 2003, however his telephone call to Larry King included the phrase "I ain't dead yet, give me a little more time and no doubt it will become true!"[citation needed]

He is a fan of George W. Bush and is proud to say he voted for him. (Apparently Bush reciprocates the admiration. [2]) Indeed when this emerged in an interview, he reveled in the reaction of the literary world. He said their reaction was as if he had said "I forgot to tell you - I'm a child molester". Because of this incident he now wears an American Flag pin on his suit, which he compared to "holding up a cross to werewolves". [3]

On May 10, 2006, Tom Wolfe delivered the 35th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (entitled "The Human Beast") at the Warner Theatre. [4], coining the phrase Homo Loquax, which means Talking Human.

Wolfe has been a leading advocate for the preservation of 2 Columbus Circle, an iconic building in New York City that was slated to be radically altered and occupied by the Museum of Art and Design in 2005.

Wolfe is known for his contributions of words and phrases to the American lexicon, including "good old boy," "radical chic," "The Me Decade," "trophy wife,"[citation needed] "the right stuff," "stark raving mad,"[citation needed] "Masters of the Universe" (as it refers to movers-and-shakers within the financial world), and many others.

Wolfe is mentioned in the 2005 animated film Madagascar where Mason the monkey says "I hear Tom Wolfe's speaking at Lincoln Center." (the other monkey, Phil, signs frantically) and Mason responds, "Well, of course we're going to throw poo at him!"

[edit] Quotes

  • "Every person on this earth has a great story to tell."
  • "There's probably not much else in the world that you can do that's more important than writing."
  • "I became involved in what eventually was known as "the New Journalism" as soon as I got to New York. I still had in my mind I was going to write novels. For the way I wanted to write a novel, I had to go out and do reporting just like the reporting that I did for "The Right Stuff", for the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test", or anything else that I had written."
  • "A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested."
  • "A cult is a religion with no political power."
  • "You can be denounced from the heavens, and it only makes people interested."
  • "The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it."

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Fiction

[edit] Non-fiction

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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Tom Wolfe

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