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Richmond, Virginia 2 March 1931 • American journalist and novelist
|Thomas Kennerly 'Tom' Wolfe is an American author and journalist, best known as one of the founders of the New Journalism. He 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.
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.
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 it. 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 the inception of 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 1975 and entitled 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.
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. He wrote on popular culture, architecture, politics, and other topics that interested him. His defining work from this era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 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 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 pop histories of painting and architecture, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus To Our House, in 1975 and 1981. The books mocked the excessive reliance by the art world on faddish critical theories.
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 Harpers, 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) 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.
|BOOKS BY TOM WOLFE:|
The Bonfire of the Vanities
One night in the Bronx a millionaire, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress have an accident. The next day a young black man is in the hospital in a coma, as McCoy heads for disaster. His humiliation is at the centre of a satire on the decaying class, racial and political structure of New York in the 1980s.
Charles Dickens, 1852-1853
The World According to Garp
John Irving, 1978
|A Man in Full|
Atlanta conglomerate king, Charles Croker, has expansionist ambitions and an outsize ego. He also has a young and demanding second wife and a half-empty office tower running up debts. When a football star from Atlanta's grimmest slum is accused of rape, the city's racial balance is shattered.
|I Am Charlotte Simmons|
America's 'peerless observer [and] fearless satirist' takes on the university - from jocks to mutants, dormcest to tailgating - plus race, class, sex, and basketball.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, email@example.com
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