- For the early 20th century American novelist, see Thomas Wolfe
Tom Wolfe (born March 2, 1931) is an American author and journalist. He graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in American Studies. He went to Washington and Lee University as an undergraduate, after graduating from St. Christopher's School, one of Virginia's most elite private schools.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, 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 the 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 removed the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and published the notes as the article. This was the birth of the New Journalism, in which some journalists and essayists experimented with all sorts of literary techniques, including free association, italics, and exclamation marks (even multiple exclamation marks) within the construct of a non-fictional article or essay.
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 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. The book became a movie in 1983.
Several other books followed before Wolfe's first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published in 1987, having previously been serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. He received $5 million for the film rights to Bonfire of the Vanities, the most ever earned by an author. He followed this with a notorious 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.
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, which chronicles racial tension, the real estate market and investment banking in Atlanta during the 1990s, was finally published in 1998. The initial reception was positive, with glowing reviews of the book published in Time, Newsweek, New York Times Review of Books , The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. An enormous initial printing of 1.2 million copies was announced (and subsequently sold out), and the book stayed at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks.
Nevertheless, the book's reception was not universally positive. John Updike wrote a critical review of the book in The New Yorker, arguing that Wolfe was not an author but a journalist, and that his work was "entertainment", not literature. Other notables of the literary world agreed, including Norman Mailer. In a television interview in Toronto, John Irving criticized Wolfe, suggesting "he doesn't write novels — he writes journalistic hyperbole!" Wolfe replied to the comments of Updike, Mailer and Irving with an essay entitled "My Three Stooges." This article continued the themes of Wolfe's 1989 piece in Harpers: he argued that the three prominent authors represented the American literary tradition that he felt ought to be junked, and were critical of his work for that reason.
After publishing Hooking Up (a collection of short pieces) in 2001, he followed up with his third novel, 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons. The book chronicles sexual promiscuity on contemporary American college campuses and met with a mostly tepid response by critics, though its accuracy (though selective) and focus were praised by many college students. 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.
Wolfe is known for his trademark white suit, which he wears on the cover of Hooking Up .
- Hooking Up (2000)
- The Purple Decades (1982)
- From Bauhaus to Our House (1981)
- In Our Time (1980)
- The Right Stuff (1979)
- Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976)
- The Painted Word (1975)
- Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970)
- The Pump House Gang (1968)
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
- The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
Last updated: 05-18-2005 12:52:42