"Death the last voyage, the longest, and the best." -- Tom Wolfe
Thomas Kennerly "Tom" Wolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931, although his Who's Who entry gives his date of birth as March 2, 1930) is a best-selling American author and journalist. He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
"A cult is a religion with no political power.""A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.""America - It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.""At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: They were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan.""Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.""Frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting.""If a man has talent and can't use it, he's failed. If he uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he uses the whole of it, he has succeeded, and won a satisfaction and triumph few men ever know.""In Sleep we lie all naked and alone, in Sleep we are united at the heart of night and darkness, and we are strange and beautiful asleep; for we are dying the darkness and we know no death.""Is not this the true romantic feeling - not to desire to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you?""It is very comforting to believe that leaders who do terrible things are, in fact, mad. That way, all we have to do is make sure we don't put psychotics in high places and we've got the problem solved.""Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.""Not even the most powerful organs of the press, including Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, can discover a new artist or certify his work and make it stick. They can only bring you the scores.""On Wall Street he and a few others - how many? three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? had become precisely that... Masters of the Universe.""One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.""Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America - that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.""Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in Style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions.""The attitude is we live and let live. This is actually an amazing change in values in a rather short time and it's an example of freedom from religion.""The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art is merely romantic fiction. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.""The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.""The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.""The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.""There are some people who have the quality of richness and joy in them and they communicate it to everything they touch. It is first of all a physical quality; then it is a quality of the spirit.""There has been a time on earth when poets had been young and dead and famous - and were men. But now the poet as the tragic child of grandeur and destiny had changed. The child of genius was a woman, now, and the man was gone.""There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves.""This is the artist, then, life's hungry man, the glutton of eternity, beauty's miser, glory's slave.""We are always acting on what has just finished happening. It happened at least 1/30th of a second ago. We think we're in the present, but we aren't. The present we know is only a movie of the past.""We are now in the Me Decade - seeing the upward roll of the third great religious wave in American history."
Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia to Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr. and Helen Hughes Wolfe. His father had received a Ph.D. from Cornell University and was a professor of agronomy at Virginia Tech. He also owned two farms and was the director of a successful farmer's cooperative. Wolfe Sr.'s success as a businessman afforded the family a genteel lifestyle. Wolfe Sr. also found time to pursue work as an author and journalist. He edited a farming journal, The Southern Planter, and published books on similar topics. It was Wolfe's mother, however, who introduced him to the arts. She enrolled her son in tap dancing and ballet, taught him to sketch and read to him regularly. By the age of 9, Wolfe had started writing. Not yet a teenager, Wolfe attempted to write a biography of Napoleon, and wrote and illustrated a life of Mozart. Wolfe was raised a Presbyterian, but when he was "thirteen or fourteen... just kind of wandered off."
Wolfe was student council president, editor of the school newspaper and a star baseball player at St. Christopher's School, an Episcopalian all-boys school in Richmond, Virginia.
Upon graduation in 1947, he turned down admission at Princeton University to attend Washington and Lee University, both all-male schools at the time. Wolfe majored in English, and practiced his writing outside the classroom as well. He was sports editor of the college newspaper, and helped found a literary magazine, Shenandoah. Of particular influence was his professor Marshall Fishwick, a teacher of American Studies educated at Yale. More in the tradition of anthropology than literary scholarship, Fishwick taught his classes to look at the whole of a culture, even those elements considered profane. The very title of Wolfe's undergraduate thesis, "A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America," evinced his fondness for words and aspirations toward cultural criticism. Wolfe graduated cum laude in 1951.
Wolfe had continued playing baseball as a pitcher, and had begun to play semi-professionally while still in college. In 1952 he earned a tryout with the New York Giants, but was cut after three days, which Wolfe blamed on his inability to throw good fastballs. Wolfe abandoned baseball, and instead followed the example of his professor Marshall Fishwick, by enrolling in Yale University's American Studies doctoral program. His Ph.D. thesis was entitled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929-1942. While the thesis was historical, it was on a literary subject and for the thesis Wolfe interviewed many of the writers chronicled in his thesis, including Malcolm Cowley, Archibald MacLeish and James T. Farrell. A biographer remarked on the thesis: "reading it, one sees what has been the most baleful influence of graduate education on many who have suffered through it: it deadens all sense of style."
Though Wolfe was offered teaching jobs in academia, he opted to work as a reporter. In 1956 while still working on his thesis, Wolfe became a reporter for the Springfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wolfe finished his thesis in 1957 and in 1959 was hired by The Washington Post. Wolfe has said that part of the reason he was hired by the Post was his lack of interest in politics. The Post's city editor was "amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted." He won an award from the newspaper guild for foreign reporting in Cuba in 1961, and also won the guild's award for humor. While there he experimented with using fiction-writing techniques in feature stories.
In 1962 Wolfe left Washington for New York City, taking a position with the New York Herald Tribune as a general assignment reporter and feature writer. The editors of the Herald-Tribune, including Clay Felker of the Sunday section supplement New York magazine, encouraged their writers to break the conventions of newspaper writing. During the 1962 New York City newspaper strike, Wolfe approached Esquire Magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California. He struggled with the article, until finally a desperate editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that Wolfe send him his notes so they could piece the story together.
Wolfe procrastinated until, on the evening before the article was due, he sat down at his typewriter and banged out a letter to Dobell explaining what he wanted to say on the subject, ignoring all journalistic conventions. Dobell's response was to remove the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and publish it intact as reportage. The result, published in 1964, was "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." The article was widely discussed...loved by some, hated by others...and helped Wolfe publish his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of his writings in the Herald-Tribune, Esquire and elsewhere.
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, a narrative account of the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, a famous sixties counter-culture group, was 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.
In addition to his own forays into this new style of journalism, Wolfe 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, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, 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. A second volume of articles, The Pump House Gang, followed in 1968. Wolfe wrote on popular culture, architecture, politics and other topics that underscored, among other things, how American life in the 1960s had been 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 for many epitomized the decade of the 1960s. Although a conservative in many ways and certainly not a hippie (in 2008, he claimed to have never used LSD and had only tried marijuana once ) Wolfe became one of the notable figures of the decade.
In 1970 he published two essays in book form as Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers: "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 a by-gone era, going forth to battle in the Space Race on behalf of their country. In 1983 the book was adapted as a successful feature 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 Painted Word mocked the excessive insularity of the art world and its dependence on faddish critical theory, while From Bauhaus to Our House explored the negative effects of the Bauhaus style on the evolution of modern architecture.
He has championed the book A Fragile Union, a biography of the early 20th-century artist Louise Herreshoff, an eccentric Impressionist painter. In his introduction to the book, Wolfe says her story would have been envied by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton.
Throughout his early career, Wolfe had planned to write a novel that would capture the wide spectrum of American society. Among his models was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which described the society of 19th century England. Wolfe remained occupied writing nonfiction books on his own and contributing to Harper's until 1981, when he ceased his other projects to work on the novel.
Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. While the research came easy, the writing did not immediately follow. To overcome his writers' block, Wolfe wrote to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to propose an idea drawn from Charles Dickens and Thackeray. The Victorian novelists that Wolfe viewed as his models had often written their novels in serial installments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work. The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he'd hoped for, and from July 1984 to August 1985 each biweekly issue of Rolling Stone contained a new installment. Wolfe was not happy with his "very public first draft", and thoroughly revised his work. Even Sherman McCoy, the central character of the novel, changed...originally a writer, the book version cast McCoy as a bond salesman. Wolfe researched and revised for two years. The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn.
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 favorable, though it received glowing reviews 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. In 2001, Wolfe published 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), which chronicles the culture clash between a poor, scholarship student from Appalachia and the class prejudice, materialism and sexual promiscuity she finds at a prestigious contemporary American university. The novel met with a mostly tepid response by critics, but won praise from many social 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.
Wolfe has written that his goal in writing fiction is to document contemporary society, in the tradition of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens and Emile Zola.
In early 2008 it was announced that Wolfe left his longtime publisher Farrar, Strauss. His fourth novel, Back to Blood is set to be published in 2012 by Little, Brown. According to The New York Times Wolfe will be paid close to US$7 million for the book. According to the publisher, Back to Blood will be about "class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition in Miami, the city where America's future has arrived first."
There are several themes which are shared throughout much of Wolfe's writing, including his novels. One such theme is male power jockeying, which is a major part of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons as well as several of his journalistic pieces. Male characters in his fiction often suffer from feelings of extreme inadequacy or hugely inflated egos, often alternating between both. He often satirizes racial politics, most commonly between whites and blacks; he also frequently highlights class divisions between characters. Men's fashions often play a large part in his stories, being used to indicate economic status. Much of his recent work also addresses neuroscience, a subject which he himself admitted a fascination with in "Sorry, Your Soul Just Died," one of the essays in Hooking Up, and which played a large role in I Am Charlotte Simmons - the title character being a student of neuroscience, and characters' thought processes, such as fear, humiliation and lust, frequently being described in the terminology of brain chemistry. Wolfe's writing also frequently goes into exaggerated detail describing characters' anatomy.
Two of his novels (A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons) feature major characters who are set on a path to self-discovery by reading classical Roman and Greek philosophy (Conrad Hensley and Jojo Johanssen, respectively.)
Law and banking firms in Wolfe's writing often have humorous, satirical names, formed by the surnames of the partners. "Dunning, Sponget and Leach" and "Curry, Goad and Pesterall" appear in Bonfire of the Vanities, and "Tripp, Snayer and Billings" and "Clockett, Padett, Skynnham and Glote" in A Man in Full. In Ambush at Fort Bragg, there is even a law firm called "Crotalus, Adder, Cobran and Krate" (all names of poisonous snakes.)
Some characters appear in multiple novels, creating a sense of a "universe" which is continuous throughout Wolfe's fiction. The character of Freddy Button, a lawyer from Bonfire of the Vanities, is mentioned briefly in I Am Charlotte Simmons. A character named Ronald Vine, an interior decorator, who is mentioned in Bonfire of the Vanities, shows up again in A Man in Full as the designer of Charlie Croker's home.
The surname "Bolka" appears in three Wolfe novels - the name of a rendering plant in A Man in Full, a partner in an accounting firm in Bonfire of the Vanities and a college lacrosse player from the Balkans in I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Wolfe adopted the white suit as a trademark in 1962. He bought his first white suit planning to wear it in the summer in the style of Southern gentlemen. The suit he purchased, however, was too heavy in the summer for his tastes and so he wore it in winter instead. He found wearing the suit in the winter created a sensation and adopted it as his trademark. Wolfe has maintained the uniform ever since, sometimes worn with a matching white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes. Wolfe has said that the outfit disarms the people he observes, making him, in their eyes, "a man from Mars, the man who didn't know anything and was eager to know."
In 1989 Wolfe wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine entitled Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, which criticized modern American novelists for failing to engage fully with their subjects, and suggested that modern literature could be saved by a greater reliance on journalistic technique. This essay was seen as an attack on the mainstream literary establishment, and a boast that Wolfe's work was superior to more highly-regarded authors.
Wolfe was a supporter of George W. Bush and voted for him for President in 2004, due to what he calls Bush's "great decisiveness and willingness to fight". Bush apparently reciprocates the admiration, having read all of Wolfe's books, according to friends. After this fact emerged in a New York Times interview, Wolfe said that the reaction in the literary world was as if he had said "I forgot to tell you...I'm a child molester." Because of this incident he sometimes wears an American flag pin on his suit, which he compared to "holding up a cross to werewolves".
Wolfe's views and choice of subject material, such as mocking left-wing intellectuals in Radical Chic and glorifying astronauts in The Right Stuff, have sometimes led to him being labeled reactionary or even racist, labels that he rejects. He has said that his "idol" in writing about society and culture is Emile Zola, who, in Wolfe's words, was "a man of the left" but "went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not ... and was not interested in ... telling a lie."
Asked to comment by the Wall Street Journal on blogs in 2007, to mark the tenth anniversary of their advent, Wolfe wrote that "the universe of blogs is a universe of rumors", and that "blogs are an advance guard to the rear." He has also criticized Wikipedia, saying that "only a primitive would believe a word of" it. He noted a story about him in his Wikipedia entry at the time, disputing its veracity.
Wolfe is credited with introducing the terms "statusphere," "the right stuff," "radical chic," "the Me Decade," "social x-ray," and "good ol' boy" into the English lexicon. He is sometimes credited with inventing the term "trophy wife" as well, but this is incorrect: he described emaciated wives as "X-rays" in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, but did not use the term "trophy wife". According to journalism professor Ben Yagoda, Wolfe is also responsible for the use of the present tense in magazine profile pieces; before he began doing so in the early 1960s, profile articles had always been written in the past tense.
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 edited out. Crisis on Infinite Springfields: "Tom Wolfe Is Screaming"