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Summary Article: WOLFE, TOM
from The Encyclopedia of American Journalism

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe (March 2, 1931– ) was one of America's leading literary journalists and popular novelists in the second half of the twentieth century. A flamboyant stylist and satirical chronicler of American mores and manners, he often focused on the pursuit of status, clashing social stratums and what he perceived as the intellectual poverty of liberal pieties. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson, Wolfe was one of the better-known members of a loose-knit and influential school of American literature known as the New Journalism, a genre of non-fiction writing that employed fiction devices, such as interior monologue, long passages of dialogue, and shifting points-of-view, with the traditional fact-gathering techniques of a newspaper reporter. Writing in Harold Hayes’ Esquire and Clay Felker's New York magazines, Wolfe gained particular attention as for his sharp-eyed coverage of the 1960s and 1970s’ colorful cultural landscape. Later, as a novelist, he garnered fame—and a considerable fortune—limning the excesses of Wall Street in the 1980s.

Wolfe, who is of no relation to the novelist Thomas Wolfe, was born in Richmond, Virginia; his father was an agronomist and agriculture magazine editor; his mother quit medical school to stay at home and raise a family. Wolfe was graduated from the prestigious St. Christopher's School in Richmond and, in 1951, from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Vorginia. He earned a PhD in American studies at Yale University in 1957; his dissertation: “The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity among American Writers, 1929–1942.

While in graduate school, Wolfe took a position as a general assignment reporter with the Springfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1959, he joined the Washington Post, where he was a general assignment reporter, feature writer, illustrator and foreign correspondent. In 1960, he won the Newspaper Guild's award for foreign reporting for his coverage of the Cuban revolution. In 1962, he moved to New York, where he worked for the New York Herald-Tribune as a general assignment reporter and a writer for the newspaper's Sunday magazine, New York. During his first year in New York, he also began freelancing for Esquire magazine. His first story for the magazine, on the custom car culture of Southern California, was stymied by writer's block. But Wolfe, at an editor's behest, typed up his rough notes, which the editor decided to publish, largely unedited. The article's exclamatory, overly punctuated, onomatopoetic style soon became Wolfe's trademark as a journalist and helped spawn the “New Journalism.” Later, Wolfe often cited the Serapion Brothers, a group of experimental writers in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, as an additional influence on his writing.

Wolfe's articles from the early 1960s were collected in the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby in 1965. He published several other collections: The Pump House Gang (1968); Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976) and The Purple Decades (1982). His first booklength work of journalism was The Electric Kool-Acid Test (1968), a innovative account of novelist Ken Kesey, his friends, known as the Merry Pranksters, and their role in the early days of the psychedelic movement. Later, in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers (1970), Wolfe displayed his conservative leanings by skewering a fundraiser for the Black Panthers hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Wolfe also co-edited, with E.W. Johnson, an anthology of magazine articles and book excerpts by numerous journalists called The New Journalism (1973). Besides journalism, Wolfe published two books of criticism: The Painted Word (1975), a critique of modern art, and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), an attack on modern architecture. He also published his illustrations, which often ran in Harper's magazine, in a book called In Our Time (1980). Throughout much of the 1970s, Wolfe worked on a book about the astronauts, The Right Stuff (1979), which became a popular motion picture. During the early and mid-1980s, as the interest in the New Journalism faded, Wolfe began a serialized novel in Rolling Stone magazine, and a substantially revised version of that work became The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a Trollope-like saga of the downfall of a wealthy philandering bond salesman, Sherman McCoy; it also became a motion picture. Wolfe's bestselling fiction did not impress more serious literary minds, however. Novelists John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer, described Wolfe's fiction as more entertainment than literature. Wolfe responded by calling the three novelists “the Three Stooges.’’ Wolfe further damaged his reputation with the literary establishment when, in 1989, he published an essay in Harper's called “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast.” In the article, he argued that American novelists were mired in their own minds and needed to return to the social realism and naturalism of writers such as Emile Zola, as Wolfe himself had done in The Bonfire of the Vanities and would do again in his second novel, A Man in Full (1998), which concerned the growth of Atlanta, Georgia, and the modern South. Later, Wolfe published a collection of essays and short fiction, Hooking Up (2000), which included the novella Ambush at Fort Bragg, previously serialized in Rolling Stone, and Tiny Mummies, a famous 1965 article in New York magazine that mocked The New Yorker magazine. The article, when it was originally published, ignited fierce debates among journalists about the accuracy and ethics of Wolfe and the New Journalism, which critics at the time derided as “parajournalism.”

Like several of the New Journalists, Wolfe became a celebrity often profiled in the media; he cultivated the role by making frequent speeches and public appearances, as well as by wearing only tailor-made white suits, often with a matching homburg. He also coined or made popular such phrases as “good ol’ boy,” the right stuff,” “pushing the envelope,” “the Me Decade” and “masters of the universe.” Wolfe's novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) concerned college life at the end of the twentieth century. By mid2006, Wolfe, in his mid-seventies, said in interviews that he was researching a novel on immigration in the United States.

Further Reading
  • Bloom, Harold Tom Wolfe. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
  • McKeen, William, Tom Wolfe. New York: Twayne's, 1995.
  • Ragen, Brian Abel. Tom Wolfe, A Critical Companion . Westport , CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Shomette, Doug The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • Weingarten, Mark The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight. New York, Crown, 2005.
  • Nick Ravo
    © 2008 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

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