Wolfe, Tom 1931–
Wolfe, Tom 1931–
(Thomas Kennerly Jr. Wolfe)
PERSONAL: Born March 2, 1931, in Richmond, VA; son of Thomas Kennerly (a scientist and business executive) and Helen (Hughes) Wolfe; married Sheila Berger (art director of Harper's magazine), 1978; children: Alexandra, Thomas. Education: Washington and Lee University, B.A. (cum laude), 1951; Yale University, Ph.D., 1957. Hobbies and other interests: Window shopping.
CAREER: Writer, journalist, social commentator, and artist. Springfield Union, Springfield, MA, reporter, 1956–59; Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter and Latin American correspondent, 1959–62; New York Herald Tribune, New York, NY, reporter and writer for New York Sunday magazine (now New York magazine), 1962–66, contributing editor, 1968–76; New York World Journal Tribune, New York, NY, writer, 1966–67; Esquire magazine, New York, NY, contributing editor, 1977–; Harper's magazine, New York, NY, contributing artist, 1978–81. Exhibitions: Has exhibited drawings in one-man shows at Maynard Walker Gallery, 1965, and Tunnel Gallery, 1974.
AWARDS, HONORS: Washington Newspaper Guild awards for foreign news reporting and for humor, both 1961; Society of Magazine Writers award for excellence, 1970; D.F.A., Minneapolis College of Art, 1971; Frank Luther Mott research award, 1973; D.Litt., Washington and Lee University, 1974; named Virginia Laureate for literature, 1977; American Book Award and National Book Award, both 1980, for The Right Stuff; Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for excellence in literature, American Institute of Arts and Letters, 1980; Columbia Journalism Award, 1980; citation for art history from National Sculpture Society, 1980; L.H.D., Virginia Commonwealth University, 1983, and Southampton College, 1984; John Dos Passos Award, 1984; Gari Melchers Medal, 1986; Benjamin Pierce Cheney Medal from Eastern Washington University, 1986; Washington Irving Medal for literary excellence from Nicholas Society, 1986; D.F.A., School of Visual Arts, 1987; L.H.D., Randolph-Macon College, Manhattanville College, 1988, and Longwood College, 1989; D.Litt., St. Andrews Presbyterian College, and John Hopkins University, 1990, University of Richmond, 1993; Quinnipiac College, St. Louis Literary award, 1990, presidential award, 1993; D.H.L., Duke University, 2002; Chicago Tribune literary prize, 2003.
(Self-illustrated) The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1965.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1968.
The Pump House Gang (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1968, published as The Mid-Atlantic Man and Other New Breeds in England and America, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1969.
Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor, with E.W. Johnson, and contributor) The New Journalism (anthology), Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1973.
(Self-illustrated) The Painted Word, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1975.
(Self-illustrated) Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, and Other Short Stories (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1976.
The Right Stuff (also see below), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1979.
(Self-illustrated) In Our Time (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1980.
From Bauhaus to Our House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1981.
(Self-illustrated) The Purple Decades: A Reader (collection), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1982.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (novel; also see below), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1987.
Two Complete Books (contains The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities), Wings (Belfast, ME), 1994.
A Man in Full (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
Hooking Up (essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
I Am Charlotte Simmons (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to The New York Spy, edited by Alan Rinzler, David White, 1967; and to Marie Cosindas, Color Photographs, edited by Susan Feldman, New York Graphic Society (New York, NY), 1978. Contributor of numerous articles to periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, and Rolling Stone. Cofounder of literary quarterly Shenandoah.
ADAPTATIONS: The Right Stuff was adapted for a film of the same title, Warner Bros., 1983; Bonfire of the Vanities, directed by Brian DePalma and starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis, was filmed and released in 1990.
SIDELIGHTS: "Those of you who are not aware of Tom Wolfe should—really—do your best to acquaint yourselves with him," wrote William F. Buckley in the National Review. "He is probably the most skillful writer in America. I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else." Satirist, caricaturist, social critic, coiner of phrases ("Radical Chic," "good ol' boy," "The Me Decade"), Wolfe has become known as a leading chronicler of American trends. His painstaking research and detailed accounts have made him a widely respected reporter; at the same time, his unorthodox style and frequently unpopular opinions have resulted in a great deal of controversy. Leslie Bennetts in the Philadelphia Bulletin has called him "a professional rogue," who has "needled and knifed at the mighty of every description, exposing in print the follies and foibles of superstars from Leonard Bernstein to the Hell's Angels. Gleefully ripping off every shred of disguise from anyone's pretensions, Wolfe has performed his dissections in New York Magazine, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, not to mention his earlier years on the New York Herald Tribune and the Washington Post."
Considering Wolfe's body of work, Richard A. Kallan declared in Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Wolfe's writings have produced penetrating social and cultural insights, raised intriguing journalistic questions, and suggested the vast potential of nonfictional writing when exercised by a stylistically inventive, perceptive author committed to investigative reporting. For these accomplishments, Tom Wolfe ranks as one of the premier literary journalists in America."
Wolfe is generally recognized as one of the leaders in the branch of writing known as "New Journalism." Bennetts explained that while Wolfe did not invent the movement, "he at least became its stentorian spokesman and most flamboyant practitioner." Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel writer Margo Harakas believed that there are "only a handful of standouts among [New Journalists]—Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, and of course, Wolfe, with his explosive punctuation, name brand detailing, and kaleidoscopic descriptions." In a Writer's Digest article, Wolfe defines New Journalism as "the use by people writing nonfiction of techniques which heretofore had been thought of as confined to the novel or to the short story, to create in one form both the kind of objective reality of journalism and the subjective reality that people have always gone to the novel for." The techniques employed in New Journalism, then, include a number of devices borrowed from traditional fiction writing: extensive dialogue; shifting points of view; scene-by-scene construction; detailed descriptions of setting, clothes, and other physical features; complex character development; and, depending on the reporter and the subject, varying degrees of innovation in the use of language and punctuation.
Wolfe's association with New Journalism began in 1963, when he wrote his first magazine article, a piece on custom automobiles. He had become intrigued with the strange subculture of West Coast car customizers and was beginning to see these individuals as folk artists worthy of serious study. He convinced Esquire magazine to send him to California, where he researched the story, interviewed a number of subjects and, observed Harakas, "racked up a $750 tab at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (picked up by Esquire, of course)." Then, having returned to New York to write the article, he found that standard journalistic techniques, those he had employed so successfully during his years of newspaper work for the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune, among others, could not adequately describe the bizarre people and machines he had encountered in California.
Stymied, he put off writing the story until finally he called Byron Dobell, his editor at Esquire, and admitted that he was unable to finish the project. Dobell told him to type up his notes so that the magazine could get another writer to do the job. In the introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe writes: "About 8 o'clock that night I started typing the notes out in the form of a memorandum that began, 'Dear Byron.' I started typing away, starting right with the first time I saw any custom cars in California." In an attempt to provide every possible detail for the writer who was to finish the piece, Wolfe wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, including even some of his most garbled notes and random thoughts. "I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 A.M., and by this time it was forty-nine pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 A.M. About 4 P.M. I got a call from Byron Dobell. He told me they were striking out the 'Dear Byron' at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine."
It is the style developed during the writing of the custom car article—his unique blend of "pop" language and creative punctuation—that for many years remained Wolfe's trademark. He was a pioneer in the use of what several reviewers refer to as an "aural" style of writing, a technique intended to make the reader come as close as possible to experiencing an event first-hand. Wilfrid Sheed, in the New York Times Book Review, suggested that Wolfe tries to find "a language proper to each subject, a special sound to convey its uniqueness"; and Newsweek Jack Kroll felt that Wolfe is "a genuine poet" among journalists, who is able "to get under the skin of a phenomenon and transmit its metabolic rhythm…. He creates the most vivid, most pertinent possible dimension of his subject." F.N. Jones, in a Library Journal article, described Wolfe's prose as "free-flowing colorful Joycean, quote-slang, repetitive, cult or class jargon with literary and other reverberations."
Wolfe's style, combined with solid reporting and a highly critical eye, quickly gained a large audience for his magazine pieces. When his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of twenty-two of his best essays, was published in 1965, William James Smith wrote in Commonweal: "Two years ago [Tom Wolfe] was unknown and today those who are not mocking him are doing their level best to emulate him. Magazine editors are currently flooded with Zonk articles written, putatively, in the manner of Wolfe and, by common account, uniformly impossible…. None of his parodists—and even fewer of his emulators—has successfully captured much of the flavor of Wolfe…. They miss the spark of personality that is more arresting than the funny punctuation. Wolfe has it, that magical quality that marks prose as distinctively one's own."
In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe analyzes, caricatures, and satirizes a number of early-1960s American trends and pop culture heroes. His essays zero in on the city of Las Vegas, the Peppermint Lounge, demolition derbies, fashion, art galleries, doormen, nannies, and such personalities as Murray the K, Phil Spector, Baby Jane Holzer, and Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay). "He knows everything," wrote Kurt Vonnegut in the New York Times Book Review. "I do not mean he thinks he knows everything. He is loaded with facile junk, as all personal journalists have to be—otherwise, how can they write so amusingly and fast?… Verdict: Excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention."
What Wolfe has done, according to Commonweal contributor Smith, "is simply to describe the brave new world of the 'unconscious avant-garde' who are shaping our future, but he has described this world with a vividness and accuracy that makes it something more than real." In a New Republic article, Joseph Epstein expressed the opinion that Wolfe "is perhaps most fatiguing when writing about the lower classes. Here he becomes Dr. Wolfe, Department of American Studies, and what he finds attractive about the lower orders, as has many an intellectual slummer before him, is their vitality. At bottom, what is involved here is worship of the Noble Savage…. Wolfe is much better when he writes about New York City. Here he drops his studied spontaneity, eases up on the rococo, slips his doctorate, and takes on the tone of the reasonably feeling New Yorker who has not yet been knocked insensate by the clatter of that city." A Newsweek writer concluded that "partly, Wolfe belongs to the old noble breed of poet-journalists, like Ben Hecht, and partly he belongs to a new breed of supereducated hip sensibilities like Jonathan Miller and Terry Southern, who see the complete human comedy in everything from a hair-do to a holocaust."
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe applies his distinctive brand of journalism to novelist Ken Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters," a West Coast group dedicated to LSD and the pursuit of the psychedelic experience. Joel Lieber said in Nation that in this book, Wolfe "has come as close as seems possible, with words, at re-creating the entire mental atmosphere of a scene in which one's understanding is based on feeling rather than verbalization … [The book] is nonfiction told as experimental fiction; it is a genuine feat and a landmark in reporting style." Lawrence Dietz, in a National Review article, called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test "the best work Wolfe has done, and certainly the most profound and insightful book that has been written about the psychedelic life…. [He] has elicited a history of the spread of LSD from 1960 (when Kesey and others got their first jolts in lab experiments) to 1967, when practically any kid with five dollars could buy some kind of trip or other." Dietz observed that Wolfe displays "a willingness to let accuracy take the place of the hysterical imprecations that have passed for reportage in most magazine articles and books" on this subject.
Kallan noted that The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test demonstrates "a frequent characteristic of Wolfe's style," namely, "a repetition of a single metaphor to synthesize his thesis." Kallen added that Wolfe "notes Kesey's battle cry, 'You're either on the bus or off the bus.'" As Kallen explained, the bus symbolizes "the entire trip, the quest for personal growth and self-discovery. To say one is either on the bus or off the bus is to say he is either committed to the search for identity or he is not."
Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers was made up of two lengthy essays. The first, "Radical Chic," elicited by far the most critical commentary. It deals with a fund-raising party given by Leonard Bernstein in his Park Avenue apartment in 1970, to raise money for the Black Panthers. Wolfe was at the party, and he became aware of the incongruity of the scene, distinguished, according to Melvin Maddocks in the Christian Science Monitor, by "white liberals nibbling caviar while signing checks for the revolution with their free hand." Thomas R. Edwards wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "For Wolfe, the scene in the Bernsteins' living room demonstrates his pet sociological thesis, here called nostalgie de la boue, the aristocrat's hankering for a proletarian primitivism. He shows us cultivated parvenu Jews, torn between cherished new 'right wing' lifestyles and the 'left wing' politics of their own oppressive history, ludicrously confused about how to take the black revolution."
A Times Literary Supplement reviewer commented that Wolfe "both defends and exonerates the Bernsteins, that is—their motives were sound, liberal, serious, responsible—while cocking an almighty snook at 'the essential double-track mentality of Radical Chic—nostalgie de la boue and high protocol' that can entertain Afro hair-styles with Roquefort cheese savouries in a Park Avenue duplex…. Such is this dazzling piece of trapeze work by the most practised social stuntman of them all."
Many reviewers were critical of Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers. As William F. Buckley explained in the National Review, Wolfe "has written a very, very controversial book, for which he has been publicly excommunicated from the company of the orthodox by the bishops who preside over the New York Review of Books." Edwards felt that Wolfe "humiliates and degrades everyone concerned, his pre-potent but child-like and shiftless blacks no less than his gutless, time-serving, sexually-fearful white bureaucrats." Timothy Foote noted in a Time article: "When a Time reporter recently asked a minister of the Panther Party's shadow government about the truthfulness of Wolfe's Radical Chic account, the reply was ominous: 'You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?'" Yet despite objections to the book, Foote insisted, the fact remains that it "is generally so accurate that even some of the irate guests at the Bernsteins' later wondered how Wolfe—who in fact used shorthand—managed to smuggle a tape recorder onto the premises."
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, noted that "Radical Chic" first appeared as a magazine article, wrote: "When the news got out that it would be published as a book eventually, one began to prepare a mental review of it. One had certain questions—the usual Tom Wolfe questions: Where exactly was Wolfe located when all those things occurred? Just how did he learn Leonard Bernstein's innermost fantasies? At exactly what points did Wolfe's imagination impinge on his inferences, and his inferences on his facts?" The book, Lehmann-Haupt concluded, "represents Wolfe at his best, worst, and most. It has his uncanny eye for life-styles; his obsessive lists of brand names and artifacts; his wicked, frequently cruel, cartoon of people's physical traits; his perfect mimicry of speech patterns. Once again, Wolfe proves himself the complete chameleon, capable of turning any color. He understands the human animal like no sociologist around."
The Painted Word is another of Wolfe's more controversial works. T. O'Hara, in a Best Sellers review, introduced the book's thesis: "About 10,000 people constitute the present art world. Artists, doing what they must to survive, obey orders and follow the gospel as written by the monarchs." Among these monarchs, in Wolfe's opinion, are three influential and well-respected art critics: Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg (the "kings of cultureburg," according to Wolfe). In a Time article, Robert Hughes suggested that "the New York art world, especially in its present decay, is the easiest target a pop sociologist could ask for. Most of it is a wallow of egotism, social climbing and power brokerage, and the only thing that makes it tolerable is the occasional reward of experiencing a good work of art in all its richness, complexity and difficulty." Hughes continued: "Take the art from the art world, as Wolfe does, and the matrix becomes fit for caricature. Since Wolfe is unable to show any intelligent response to painting, caricature is what we get…. Wolfe seems to know virtually nothing about the history of art, American or European."
New York Times art critic John Russell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, stated: "If someone who is tone-deaf goes to Carnegie Hall every night of the year, he is, of course, entitled to his opinion of what he has listened to, just as a eunuch is entitled to his opinion of sex. But in the one case, as in the other, we on our side are entitled to discount what they say. Given the range, the variety and the degree of accomplishment represented by the names on Mr. Wolfe's list [including artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Warhol, Newman, Rauschenberg, and Stella], we are entitled to think that if he got no visual reward from any of them … the fault may not lie with the art."
As Ruth Berenson of the National Review pointed out, however, response to the book is generally dependent on the extent to which an individual is involved in the world of modern art. She maintained that The Painted Word "will delight those who have long harbored dark suspicions that modern art beginning with Picasso is a put-on, a gigantic hoax perpetrated on a gullible public by a mysterious cabal of artists, critics, dealers, and collectors aided and abetted by Time and Newsweek. Those who take modern art somewhat more seriously will be disappointed."
In From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe does to modern architecture what he did to modern art in The Painted Word, and the response was similar: Readers close to the subject tended to resent the intrusion by an "outsider," while those further from the subject often enjoyed the author's perspective. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, in a New York Times Book Review article, wrote: "Mr. Wolfe wants to argue that ideology has gotten in the way of common sense…. We are told how the International Style became a 'compound'—a select, private, cult-like group of ideologues … whose great mission, as Mr. Wolfe sees it, was to foist modern design upon an unwilling world…. The problem, I think … is that Tom Wolfe has no eye. He has a wonderful ear, and he listens hard and long, but he does not seem to see…. He does precisely what he warns us against; he has listened to the words, not looked at the architecture."
In a Washington Post Book World review, Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey said that Bauhaus "is a case of crying Wolfe for one more time. Bauhaus is distinguished by the same total loathing of modern culture that motivated The Painted Word…. Wolfe's explanation is that modernism has been a conspiracy. In place of the New York critics who foisted abstract art upon us, we have the European giants of architecture … and their abject American followers." Forgey felt that "there is some truth in this, but it makes for a thin book and a narrow, limited history of architecture in the twentieth century."
New York Times literary critic Lehmann-Haupt made the point that even many architects have been unhappy with the structures created by proponents of the Bau-haus school. Thus, according to Lehmann-Haupt, "Wolfe has not really come up with anything very startling when he laments the irony that four-fifths of the way into the American Century … what we still see inflicted upon us [are] the anti-bourgeois, socialist, pro-worker ideas that arose from 'the smoking rubble of Europe after the Great War.' But the explication of this notion is done with such verve and hilarity by Mr. Wolfe that its substance almost doesn't seem to matter." John Brooks, in a review for Chicago's Tribune Books, called the book "a readable polemic on how in our architecture over the past few decades things have gone very much as they have in the other visual arts—a triumph of conformity over true innovation … From Bauhaus to Our House is lucidly and for the most part gracefully written."
In 1979 Wolfe published the book that many critics consider his finest piece of extended journalism: The Right Stuff, a 1980 National Book award-winning study of the early years of the U.S. space program. At one point in the book Wolfe attempts to define the "ineffable quality" from which the title is taken: "It obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life … any fool could do that…. No, the idea … seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day."
The main characters in the book are, of course, the first U.S. astronaut team: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Wolfe assiduously chronicles their early careers as test pilots, their private lives, their selection for the astronaut program and their subsequent medical processing and training. But, as Commonweal correspondent Thomas Powers pointed out, The Right Stuff "is not a history; it is far too thin in dates, facts and source citations to serve any such pulse. It is a work of literature which must stand or fall as a coherent text, and its subject is not the Mercury program itself but the impulse behind it, the unreflecting competitiveness which drove the original astronauts to the quite extraordinary lengths Wolfe describes so vividly." That the author goes beyond mere reportage of historical fact was confirmed by Mort Sheinman in a Chicago Tribune article: "The Right Stuff is a dazzling piece of work, something that reveals much about the nature of bravery and celebrity and—yes—patriotism."
Time writer R.Z. Sheppard said that the book "is crammed with inside poop and racy incident that nineteen years ago was ignored by what [Wolfe] terms the 'proper Victorian gents' of the press. The fast cars, booze, astro groupies, the envies and injuries of the military caste system were not part of what Americans would have considered the right stuff. Wolfe lays it all out in brilliantly stated Op Lit scenes." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times wrote, "What fun it is to watch Mr. Wolfe put the antiseptic space program into the traces of his inimitable verbal cadenzas."
Former test pilot and astronaut Michael Collins (a member of the Gemini 10 flight and command module pilot on the Apollo 11 moon flight) wrote in a Washington Post Book World review: "I lived at Edwards [Air Force Base, site of the Air Force Flight Test Center] for four years, and, improbable as some of Tom's tales seem, I know he's telling it like it was. He is the first gifted writer to explore the relationship between test pilots and astronauts—the obvious similarities and the subtle differences."
In a review of The Right Stuff for the Lone Star Book Review, Martha Heimberg noted that for the most part, "Wolfe's reporting, while being marvelously entertaining writing, has also represented a telling and trustworthy point of view. His is one of those finely critical intelligences that can detect the slightest pretention or falsification in an official posture or social pose. And, when he does, he goes after the hypocrisy—whether large or small, left or right—with all the zeal of the dedicated reformer." Like Collins, Heimberg felt that The Right Stuff "represents a departure for the satirist whose observant eye and caustic pen have impaled on the page a wide range of American social phenomena." She concluded that "the book represents a tremendous accomplishment and a new direction for a writer who figures among the top stylists of his generation."
By the mid-1980s Wolfe had a new ambition for his writing. As he told the New York Times: "I was curious, having spouted off so much about fiction and nonfiction, and having said that the novelists weren't doing a good job, to see what would happen if I tried it. Also, I guess I subconsciously had the suspicion that maybe, what if all this to-do I've made about nonfiction is because I really, secretly think I can't do a novel. So I said, well, I've got to prove this to myself." The result was The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about New York City in the 1980s.
The Bonfire of the Vanities ignited a veritable firestorm of critical commentary. Some hailed the novel as a stellar example of what fiction about late-twentieth-century America should be; others derided it as exaggerated, stereotyped, and even mean-spirited. Much of the negative analysis centered on the novel's depiction of race relations, stemming from the implication of a smug Wall Streeter named Sherman McCoy in the hit-and-run traffic death of a young black man. But race is only one of the novel's huge themes; it also takes on, in the words of Boston Globe reviewer Mark Feeney, "money … politics, the courts, Wall Street, the press: New York at its grandest and most wretched." Many critics felt that Wolfe's treatment of African Americans in the book is insensitive at best. As Feeney observed, "they comprise either a great silent majority … or, worst of all, self-aggrandizing hustlers" whose inner lives Wolfe never begins to reveal. "Cheap accusations of racism are almost as contemptible as racism itself," Feeney concluded, adding that "a novel as good as The Bonfire of the Vanities—as vivid, as acute, as deeply intelligent—should not have its rancid streak, however narrow, pass unnoticed." Wolfe, however, defended his take on race. "There's been the occasional murmur that there's something wrong with my depiction of these various ethnic and racial elements, these hostilities," he admitted in an interview with Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe. "To which I say, anyone who doesn't think this is exactly the way it is, you go out and take a look, and come back with your notes and tell me what you saw. And I think you'll come back with the same picture I did."
Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley was among those who found Wolfe's picture in The Bonfire of the Vanities to be stunningly accurate. He called the book "a superb human comedy and the first novel ever to get contemporary New York, in all its arrogance and shame and heterogeneity and insularity, exactly right." This opinion stood the test of time; in a later Washington Post Book World piece on Wolfe's second novel, Yardley declared Bonfire to be "the benchmark American novel of the 1980s, a book that added phrases to the language … and significantly altered the way Americans, or at least those who read books and take them seriously, see themselves and their country. It was a book the popularity and influence of which are beyond measure."
After The Bonfire of the Vanities became a major bestseller, Wolfe issued what he called a "literary manifesto" in Harper's magazine, prompting expected controversy from the literary establishment. He urged fellow novelists to abandon the esoteric literary experiments that have characterized fiction for much of the twentieth century and use realism to chronicle the bizarre and astounding world around them. "At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature," he wrote, "we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours and reclaim its literary property."
Wolfe attempted such a task in his sprawling second novel, A Man in Full. It presents the same vast canvas as Bonfire and confronts the same themes—greed, power, race, class—this time against the backdrop of 1990s Atlanta, where, as Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder observed, "boom is shadowed by bust and the party-givers rub shoulders with the party-poopers: in this case a bank collection team that coldly asset-strips a real estate tycoon with debts of more than half a billion dollars." The novel's plot centers on Charlie Croker, the man to which the title refers—an uncouth ex-college-football star who has made a fortune in shady real estate deals and has elbowed his way into the upper echelons of Atlanta society. Now, however, Charlie is in deep trouble: he's late in paying back the millions he borrowed to finance even grander ambitions. As Charlie scrambles to save face and fortune, a vast array of secondary characters are drawn into the mix, including high-ranking members of "White Establishment" Atlanta: Roger White II, a member of the black elite disparagingly known as "Roger Too White" behind his back; Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, a star athlete at Georgia Tech who grew up in one of Atlanta's toughest neighborhoods and is handling his success with obnoxious arrogance; Conrad Hensley, an unskilled worker laid off from Croker's wholesale food business; and mild-mannered Raymond Peepgass, an ambitious underling at the bank that is threatening to destroy Croker. Eder enjoyed Wolfe's "comically squalid and megalomaniacal characters, drawn with an acutely detailed realism that blurs into hyper reality," and pointed out that the author "works into a coolly penetrating understanding of the life of some of America's underclasses and the way in which even hope is stacked against them." Yet even so, in Eder's view, Wolfe's sympathy "fights a losing battle with his irony." Accusing Wolfe of heartlessness an d some "incoherence of intent and tone," Eder concluded that his huge novel is too cold and unwieldy to succeed as satire. John Leonard, in the Nation, chastised Wolfe as "a right-wing Andy Warhol" whose satire of gay issues in the novel reveals even more nastiness than in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Others, however, felt that the flaws in A Man in Full are relatively insignificant compared to its strengths. "The novel contains passages as powerful and as beautiful as anything written not merely by contemporary American novelists but by any American novelist," declared Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review. Yardley hailed the novel as "an expansive, energetic, ambitious, bumptious book, flawed in much the same way its predecessor was, but big in the same way, too." The novel's triumph, according to New Criterion writer James Bowman, is its ability to "put the circus of business and civic life in late twentieth-century America into a moral context which does not sound foreign or artificial in spite of its provenance in ancient Rome." And Matthew Cooper in Washington Monthly observed that "this is an extraordinary novel: for its comedy, for its scope, for the way it evokes the Clinton '90s, a time and place of prosperity but relative unease. Bonfire of the Vanities was a warmup act. A Man in Full represents Wolfe at his best."
Wolfe returned to the essay form in Hooking Up, a collection of miscellaneous pieces on topics from neuroscientific breakthroughs to the contemporary art scene, and including a response to the criticism of A Man in Full. A Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed the book "arch, vengeful and incisive as ever," while South Florida Sun-Sentinel critic Chauncey Mabe commented that it shows Wolfe "at his best and at his worst, often in the same piece." To quote Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, "Wolfe may have made millions off his fiction, but at heart he is and always will be a reporter. 'Hooking Up' provides a great introduction to Wolfe the nonfiction stylist."
Although there can be no question that Wolfe has achieved a reputation as a superb stylist and skillful reporter, no discussion of Wolfe would be complete without some mention of his famous wardrobe. Philadelphia Bulletin writer Leslie Bennetts tells of an encounter with the author when he lectured at Villanova University: "The legendary sartorial splendors were there, of course: the gorgeous three-piece creamy white suit he has been renowned for … not to mention the navy suede shoes, dark as midnight, or the jaunty matching suede hat, or the sweeping midnight cashmere coat of the exact same hue, or the crisp matching tie on which perched a golden half-moon pin to complement the glittering gold watch chain that swung gracefully from the milky vest." Wolfe told Bennetts that he began wearing the white suits in 1962: "That was when I had a white suit made, started wearing it in January, and found it annoyed people tremendously. Even slight departures in dress at that time really spun people out. So I liked it. It's kind of a harmless form of aggression, I guess." But Wolfe's mode of dress has also been an important part of his journalism, serving as a device to distance him from his subject. He told Susan Forrest of the Fort Lauderdale News: "A writer can find out more if he doesn't pretend to be hip…. If people see you are an outsider, they will come up and tell you things. If you're trying to be hip, you can't ask a lot of naive questions." This technique has been effective for Wolfe in interviewing stock car racers, Hell's Angels, and—particularly—astronauts. He feels that at least part of the success of The Right Stuff was due to the fact that he did not try to get too close to that inner circle. Wolfe told Janet Maslin in the New York Times Book Review: "I looked like Ruggles of Red Gap to them, I'm sure…. But I've long since given up on the idea of going into a situation trying to act like part of it."
A writer for Time called Wolfe's form of dress "a splendiferous advertisement for his individuality. The game requires a lot of reverse spin and body English but it boils down to antichic chic. Exclaims Wolfe proudly: 'I own no summer house, no car, I wear tank tops when I swim, long white pants when I play tennis, and I'm probably the last man in America to still do the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises.'"
Wolfe's next novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, takes on the American university. Much like his previous works, however, the book focuses on the status-based interplay of its characters. The title character is an Appalachian honor student who earns a scholarship to the exclusive (yet fictional) Dupont University. Her religious country upbringing has left Charlotte ill-prepared for Wolfe's version of the college experience. The three men she dates at Dupont are male archetypes, the jock, the frat-guy, and the intellectual. The plot thus revolves around Charlotte's relationships with these men, the men's relationship to one another, and the conflict between the characters' baser desires and supposedly higher minds.
Many critics felt that the book was not as successful as Wolfe's other efforts. Wolfe is renowned for his aural writing, yet critics lamented the curse-laden dialogue and felt the country patois of Charlotte and her family was overwrought. Sam Leith, writing in Spectator noted that this resulted in "patronising descriptions of Charlotte's hick family." Critics also felt the characters were too stereotypical, and that Charlotte was not a fully realized character. According to Village Voice critic Joy Press, Wolfe "defines" his protagonist "more by which guys are in love with her than by anything that springs out of her mouth."
Nevertheless, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the juxtaposition of the university as a place of ideas that is simultaneously a place of debauchery. Stereotypical or not, "each of the characters discovers that, for better or worse, ideas really do move the world," noted Sam Schulman in Commentary. While Wolfe may be known for a journalistic style that illuminates American subcultures, Schulman noted that the author departs from this tradition. He stated, "Wolfe's earlier novels were about human passions and frailties, illuminated against a sharply observed social background. I Am Charlotte Simmons, is different. It is a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel."
"Whatever his future literary offerings, Wolfe thus far has delivered a bursting portfolio of provocative observations and thoughts," mused Kallan. "When students of American culture look back on the last third of the twentieth century, Wolfe may well be the person toward whom they turn. More than any other fiction or nonfiction writer, he has recorded in detail the popular mentality of the period. For this reason his essays seem certain to be restudied. Already, signs of reevaluation and discussion of his work are evident: once criticism focused on Wolfe's writing style and his school of journalism, but now it looks more to the meaning and implications of his message." In Commentary, Midge Decter commended Wolfe for his "enormous intelligence and cultivation," adding that, over the course of the author's career "it all began to come together: the fearless inquiring mind, the wicked eye, and the cooling—though never to be really cooled—prose." The critic concluded that, especially as a novelist, Wolfe has "finally broken through from a very high order of shrewdness to a deep and truly affecting intelligence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1974.
Bestsellers 89, Issue 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 35, 1985, Volume 51, 1989.
Dennis, Everette E., The Magic Writing Machine: Student Probes of the New Journalism, School of Journalism, University of Oregon (Eugene, OR), 1971.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 152: American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, 1995, pp. 299-307, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, First Series, 1997, pp. 334-342.
Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1977.
Hellmann, John, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1981.
McKeen, William, Tom Wolfe, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1995.
Scura, Dorothy, editor, Conversations with Tom Wolfe, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1990.
Wolfe, Tom, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (essays), self illustrated, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1965.
Wolfe, Tom, A Man in Full, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
America, February 5, 1977; April 2, 1988; January 30, 1999, Ronald Wendling, review of A Man in Full, p. 29.
American Journalism Review, October, 1994, pp. 40-46.
American Journal of Sociology, November, 1983, pp. 739-741.
American Libraries, July-August, 1990, p. 644.
American Spectator, January, 1999, John O. O'Sullivan, review of A Man in Full, p. 64.
Atlantic, October, 1979; December, 1987.
Best Sellers, August, 1975.
Booklist, October 1, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of Hooking Up, p. 291.
Books and Art, September 28, 1979.
Books in Canada, April, 1988.
Boston Globe, October 18, 1987, Mark Feeney, review of The Bonfire of the Vanities, p. A11; November 13, 1987, Gail Caldwell, "Vanities, the Novel, & Wolfe: The Social Chronicler Turns His Hand to Fiction," p. 51.
Business Week, November 23, 1987.
Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1979; September 15, 1979; January 16, 1983; November 4, 1987.
Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 1970; November 3, 1987.
Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2004, Elaine Showalter, review of I Am Charlotte Simmons, p. B14.
Columbia Journalism Review, winter, 1966, pp. 29-34; July-August, 1972, pp. 45-47.
Commentary, March, 1971; May, 1977; February, 1980; February, 1988; February 1999, Christopher Caldwell, review of A Man in Full, p. 61; January, 2001, Midge Decter, review of Hooking Up, p. 62; January, 2005, Sam Schulman review of I Am Charlotte Simmons, p. 67.
Commonweal, September 17, 1965; December 20, 1968; March 3, 1978; October 12, 1979; February 26, 1988; May 7, 1999, Rand Richards Cooper, "Tom Wolfe, Material Boy," p. 11.
Communication Monographs, number 46, 1979, pp. 52-62.
Critical Studies in Mass Communication, March, 1984, pp. 51-65.
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Economist, December 22, 1990, p. 120.
Encounter, September, 1977.
Entertainment Weekly, November 1, 1999, Jeff Gordinier, "The 100 Greatest Entertainers," p. 93; November 10, 2000, Benjamin Svetkey, review of Hooking Up, p. 78.
Esquire, September, 2000, Sven Birkerts, "Tom Wolfe. (What?) Tom Wolfe. (Can't Hear You.) Tom Wolfe!!!!," p. 118.
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Listener, February 11, 1988.
London Review of Books, February 18, 1988.
Lone Star Book Review, November, 1979.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1979; November 22, 1987; October 12, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 2, 1980; October 25, 1981; October 17, 1982; January 23, 1983; October 25, 1987; November 8, 1998, Richard Eder, review of A Man in Full, p. 2.
Nation, March 5, 1977; November 3, 1977; January 28, 1991, p. 100; January 11, 1999, John Leonard, review of A Man in Full, p. 32.
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New Criterion, January, 1999, James Bowman, review of A Man in Full, p. 67.
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New Statesman & Society, November 20, 1998, William Geordiades, review of A Man in Full, p. 49.
Newsweek, June 28, 1965; August 26, 1968; June 9, 1975; September 17, 1979; October 26, 1987; December 28, 1998, Malcolm Jones and Ray Sawhill, review of A Man in Full, p. 82; March 15, 1999, "Crying Wolfe," p. 8; November 13, 2000, Malcolm Jones, "Ace Reporter," p. 84.
New York, September 21, 1981; March 21, 1988; January 7, 1991, p. 64.
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New York Times, November 25, 1970; May 27, 1975; November 26, 1976; September 14, 1979; October 9, 1981; December 20, 1981; October 13, 1987; October 22, 1987; November 21, 1987; December 31, 1987; January 3, 1988; March 11, 1988; October 28, 1998, Michiko Kakutani, review of A Man in Full.
New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1965, pp. 4, 38; August 18, 1968; November 29, 1970; December 3, 1972; June 15, 1975; December 26, 1976; October 28, 1979; October 11, 1981; October 10, 1982; November 1, 1987; November 8, 1998, Michael Lewis, review of A Man in Full; November 5, 2000, Maureen Down, review of Hooking Up, p. 45; November 28, 2004, Jacob Weisberg, review of I Am Charlotte Simmons, p. 13.
Observer (London, England), February 7, 1988.
Partisan Review, number 3, 1969, pp. 535-544; number 2, 1974.
People, December 24, 1979; November 23, 1987; November 20, 2000, review of Hooking Up.
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Writer's Digest, January, 1970.
Tom Wolfe Home Page, http://www.tomwolfe.com/ (January 30, 2001).
"Wolfe, Tom 1931–." Concise Major 21st Century Writers. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/wolfe-tom-1931
"Wolfe, Tom 1931–." Concise Major 21st Century Writers. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/wolfe-tom-1931
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