Tom Wolfe, creator of the New Journalism and author of The Right Stuff, dies at 87
The white-suited ‘dandy’ and literary game-changer was on the best-seller lists for decades, starting with his first novel turned Oscar-winning film, The Bonfire of the Vanities
New York — Tom Wolfe, the ice-cream-suited dandy and prose provocateur who took a new mixture of journalism and literary techniques to mind-bending heights in works such as Radical Chic and The Right Stuff, has died. He was 87.
He died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital, in New York where he lived, according to the New York Times, citing his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Wolfe had been hospitalised with an infection.
A founding father of what became known as New Journalism, Wolfe added the terms "pushing the outside of the envelope" and "good ol’ boy" to the American lexicon. He branded the navel-gazing 1970s the "Me Decade" and dubbed high-flying Wall Street bond traders "Masters of the Universe" in his first work of fiction, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
His non-fiction work, most prominently in New York magazine and Esquire, followed a path laid in reporting by Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin. Recalling a Breslin piece with admiration, Wolfe wrote in New York magazine in 1972: "There it was, a short story, complete with symbolism, in fact, and yet true-life, as they say."
These practitioners of the New Journalism — a term Wolfe said he didn’t like — considered novels the highest form of writing. In the early 1960s, Wolfe said, they stumbled on the realisation that journalism could be written to "read like a novel". "They never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next 10 years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event," Wolfe recalled.
Fireworks of prose
His own writing was characterised by fireworks of words and punctuation marks to express exhilaration and a giddy sense of surprise.
His first magazine article, in 1963 for Esquire on the custom-car sub-culture, was called, "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) ......" It and other essays were collected in a 1965 book that Kurt Vonnegut reviewed for the New York Times: "Verdict: Excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention."
Marc Weingarten, in his 2005 book about the New Journalism, wrote: "By side-stepping conventional reporting and embracing prose that zinged and zoomed with the same gale force of the movements he was covering, Wolfe’s work embodied the dynamism of the culture itself."
It also inflamed a debate over the nature of literature and the boundaries of journalism.
A daughter of conductor Leonard Bernstein said her family was never the same after Wolfe’s acidic 1970 report on a penthouse fundraiser for the Black Panthers
In two 1965 reports in New York, Wolfe declared William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, a "minimomaniac" who had "embalmed" the magazine; JD Salinger called the articles "inaccurate and sub-collegiate and gleeful and unrelievedly poisonous".
A daughter of conductor Leonard Bernstein said her family was never the same after Wolfe’s acidic 1970 report on a penthouse fundraiser for the Black Panthers, titled Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.
The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s non-fiction masterpiece, was a best-seller, won an American Book Award, ensured pilot Chuck Yeager’s rightful place in aviation history and was made into a movie that won four Academy Awards.
In 1984, Wolfe began writing fiction in a serial published in Rolling Stone. His story of the collision of Wall Street with Bronx justice, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was released in book form in 1987. It was on the Times’s best-seller list for a year and sold more than 800,000 copies in hardcover, according to Wolfe’s website.
His second novel, A Man in Full (1998), about class and cultures in modern-day Atlanta, sold almost 1.4-million copies in hardcover. His third, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), about a sex-crazed college campus, generated middling reviews.
Long recognisable in his vanilla-white suits, Wolfe was drawn to stories that seemed to encapsulate the times. "My highest admiration is for Balzac, who called himself the social secretary of French society," Wolfe said in a 2004 interview with Bloomberg News. "I’m just here to tell you what’s going on, what has happened. That’s the way I feel. I’m not Paul Revere. I’m more of a recording secretary."
Becoming a journalist
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr was born on March 2 1931 in Richmond, Virginia. His father was an agronomist and his mother attended medical school before dropping out to have a family. He was an avid reader and began thinking of a writing career while in grade school.
He became a semi-pro baseball player in college, at one point earning a pitching try-out with the then-New York Giants before being cut after three days because of an underwhelming fast ball.
He graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, as an English major, then received a PhD in American studies from Yale University. His career as a journalist began in 1957, with a job as a general assignment reporter at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts before moving to the Washington Post, where he covered Latin America.
In 1962, he went to New York to become a reporter for the Herald-Tribune, which had a Sunday supplement that eventually became New York magazine. Along with Breslin, he spent his working days writing for the daily and his free time writing for New York and other magazines where editors were willing to take risks with form and content.
He spent his working days writing for the daily and his free time writing for New York and other magazines where editors were willing to take risks
It was a heady time for non-fiction. Truman Capote published the groundbreaking In Cold Blood, which he presented as a "non-fiction novel". Breslin was filling his columns with detail gathered from first-hand reporting and turning them into something "literary", Wolfe recalled.
Shaking high culture
Wolfe’s first assault on high culture was a two-part series in 1965 about William Shawn’s New Yorker called Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead! and Lost in the Whichy Thickets. Denunciations came from Salinger, columnist Walter Lippman and President Lyndon Johnson’s speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, among others.
"Thanks to their rage, within 18 months New York magazine became the hottest magazine in America," Jim Bellows, then editor of the Herald Tribune, recalled in a 2002 memoir. Wolfe said he and New York’s editor, Clay Felker, were "invited to parties by rich and famous people we had never laid eyes on before".
"In New York," Wolfe wrote, "a party was something to which you invited people you didn’t know but figured you should."
Bashing Lenny Bernstein
One such party was a fundraiser at Bernstein’s home to support 21 associates of the Black Panther Party who were facing criminal charges. Wolfe’s article for New York magazine contributed to a backlash against the conductor, whom Wolfe lampooned as "the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr Let’s Find Out".
Wolfe didn’t limit his observations to the New York elite. He wrote about Nascar driver Junior Johnson (The Last American Hero), author Ken Kesey and his LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and, in The Right Stuff, test pilots and astronauts in the formative days of the US space programme.
Established as a novelist after The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe wrote a 1989 essay for Harper’s magazine arguing that the future of American literature depended on novelists getting out of their towers and doing more observing, reporting and writing about the real world around them.
Updike on Wolfe
His fellow novelists John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving had their say nine years later, dismissing Wolfe’s A Man in Full as a work of entertainment, made for the marketplace and journalistic hyperbole, respectively. Updike said Wolfe’s writing didn’t constitute literature even "in a modest aspirant form".
Wolfe shot back in a 2001 book, Hooking Up. In a chapter called My Three Stooges, he claimed that the originality of his second novel had frightened Updike, Mailer and Irving:
"A Man in Full was an example — an alarmingly visible one — of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-20th and early-21st-century literature," he wrote. "The intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of American today, right now — a revolution in content rather than form — that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant."
With his wife, Sheila, Wolfe had two children, daughter Alexandra and son Tommy.