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Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr.

American journalist and novelist Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. (born 1931), was a major figure in the "New Journalism" which began in the 1960s.

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1931, the son of Thomas Kennerly and Helen (Hughes) Wolfe. He graduated from Washington and Lee University (1951) and earned a doctorate in American studies at Yale University in 1957, with a dissertation on "The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity among American Writers, 1929-1942." Wolfe married Sheila Berger (art director of Harper's magazine) in 1978. They had two children: Alexandra and Thomas.

He began his career as a journalist, including positions at the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union, The Washington Post, and the New York Herald Tribune, where he was a feature writer. In 1963 Wolfe won recognition for a series of articles in Esquire and New York, the Sunday magazine of the Herald Tribune. Some of Wolfe's articles were collected in his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, whereupon he was generally acknowledged as a master of the New Journalism.

Wolfe described his version of the New Journalism as an appropriation of the techniques of realistic fiction writers, building a nonfiction account of a person or group after an intense period of observation and interviews, mixing exposition with reconstructed dramatic "scenes" that rely upon dialogue and access to the interior experience of the subjects. Wolfe experimented with a flamboyant style, switching freely between the point of view of the narrator and his subjects, employing an energetic vocabulary that mixed the subject's colloquialisms with his own vivid and esoteric diction, and constructing a detailed awareness of the subject's social status. At its best, the New Journalism opened a new world to nonfiction writing, both enriching the reader's sense of the lived experience of the subject and expanding the range of interpretation open to the writer, whose voice had an entirely new range. By abandoning the rules of objectivity, stylistic simplicity, authorial distance, and decorum of contemporary journalism, Wolfe also made of New Journalism a vehicle for parody and social criticism, freed from the responsibility for connected argument or earnest sobriety—which he implicitly blamed for turning conventional journalism into a tame creature.

In Wolfe's hands, the New Journalism was a celebration for life as lived, and at the same time an instrument for the disparagement of pretension and self-destructiveness. In his story on Junior Johnson, a race driver schooled in back-country whiskey running, Wolfe described an escape from revenue agents: "They had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes—but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think it's another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and the— Ggghhzzzzzzzhhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong!— gawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson! with a gawdam agent's si-reen and a red light in his grille!"

In 1968 Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an account of novelist Ken Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters, on a drug-saturated cross-country bus tour. In 1973 he published his manifesto on "The New Journalism," along with an anthology of other new journalists he admired, with special praise and acknowledgement of such figures as Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, Hunter Thompson, and Garry Wills.

In 1979 Wolfe published The Right Stuff, which is about the Apollo 7 astronauts, a work with greater intellectual sweep and less satirical attitudes than his earlier work. In the book he tells the story of the Apollo mission within the frame of the "right stuff," an ethos epitomized by fighter ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager, who never became an astronaut. The astronauts, in Wolfe's account, were at first regarded as human guinea pigs—"spam in a can." The Right Stuff describes their attempts to achieve the status of true test pilots. This book earned Wolfe both the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980.

Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is a sweeping satirical novel about New York City in which a rich, young Wall Street bond salesman becomes the object of a criminal investigation and trial motivated by a venal media and self-serving descendants of the civil rights movement. The novel was a best seller. But although it was praised by critics as a good read, it was criticized for the flatness of its characterizations, driven by Wolfe's polemical intentions. In 1989 Wolfe published a manifesto in Harper's magazine, echoing his 1973 essay on the New Journalism in his claims that America's major novelists had abandoned realistic fiction and, in effect, claiming the mantle of America's chief realistic novelist—just as he had, in the earlier essay, declared the realistic novel dead and claimed for New Journalism the inheritance of the 19th-century realistic novel.

Further Reading

The works of Tom Wolfe include The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Pump House Gang (1968), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), The Painted Word (1975), Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine and Other Stories, Sketches, and Essays (1976), The Right Stuff (1979), Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," Harper's Magazine (November 1989), and Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, editors, The New Journalism (1973).

For commentaries and critiques of Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism, see Marshall Fishwick, editor, New Journalism (1975); John Hellmann, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (1981); John Hollowell, Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel (1977); Nicholas Mills, editor, The New Journalism (1974); Ronald Weber, The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing (1980); and W. Ross Winterowd, The Rhetoric of the "Other" Literature (1990). □

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