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 New Journalism, 1973
The Painted Word, 1975
Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine, and Other Stories, Sketches, and Essays, 1976
The Right Stuff, 1979
In Our Time, 1980
From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981
The Purple Decades: A Reader, 1982
Hooking Up, 2000
The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987
A Man in Full, 1998
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., is a prominent and popular writer of fiction and social commentary. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1931, the son of Thomas Kennerly and Helen (Hughes) Wolfe. He received a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University (1951) and a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University (1957). In 1978 he married Sheila Berger, art director of Harper’s Magazine. While Wolfe was establishing himself as a writer of satirical essays on contemporary American culture, he worked as a reporter for various newspapers and magazines, beginning in the late 1950’s with the Springfield Union and continuing in the 1960’s with The Washington Post, New York Herald Tribune, New York Sunday magazine, and New York World Journal Tribune. Wolfe has served as a contributing editor for New York and Esquire magazines and contributing artist for Harper’s Magazine. As an artist, he has exhibited in one-man shows and illustrated many of his own works.
With the exception of an occasional short story, Wolfe wrote no fiction until The Bonfire of the Vanities. Until then, he was known for his witty and incisive social commentaries, written in a style characterized as “new journalism,” a term associated with Wolfe since the publication in Esquire of “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” New journalism is a blend of journalistic objectivity and fictional subjectivity, written in a colloquial style, often with the reporter intruding into the narrative. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of twenty-two essays including the celebrated Esquire piece, was published in 1965. It was followed in 1968 by The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the latter an account of Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters,” a group of counterculture hippies dedicated to the drug LSD and the pursuit of the psychedelic experience. Wolfe achieved notoriety in 1970 with Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, two long essays satirizing contemporary liberal sacred cows. Of the two, “Radical Chic” created the greatest furor because it ridiculed the so-called beautiful people of elite culture who catered to revolutionary Black Panthers.
What impressed most critics about “Radical Chic” was Wolfe’s thorough reporting and his total detachment. Although his style calls attention to his presence in the midst of what he observes, Wolfe lets the participants speak for–and thus incriminate–themselves. It was these same qualities that infuriated the targets of two later books, The Painted Word, an exposé of the world of contemporary art, and From Bauhaus to Our House, an attack on the patronizing socialist ideology that begat modern architecture. Insiders in both art and architecture accused Wolfe of ignorance and philistinism; others praised Wolfe for his painstaking research and persuasive logic. Critics were generally in agreement, however, on the virtues of The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s tribute to heroism as exhibited by the first American astronaut team.
Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, first appeared in serialized form in Rolling Stone. It was written in installments, recalling nineteenth century serial novels by Charles Dickens and others who saw the beginnings of their works published before they knew what the endings would be. The revised book version remained for more than a year on The New York Times best-seller list. Wolfe’s theme–the existence of class distinctions in a supposedly egalitarian society–is so thoroughly explored in the novel that Wolfe has been compared with Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. His second novel, A Man in Full, leaves Wolfe’s usual New York stomping grounds for Atlanta, Georgia, but again he depicts the upward and downward social trajectories of his characters as they struggle for power. Like Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full was a critical and commercial success.
Wolfe’s critics fall into two general camps: those who distrust the new journalism and those who deplore what they see as his neoconservatism. The former say that Wolfe blurs the traditional distinction between fiction and nonfiction to the detriment of both; the latter claim that Wolfe started out as a liberal critic of American society only to turn reactionary. His humor goes far toward explaining his appeal, yet Wolfe’s real talent lies in the invigorating energy of his style. Indeed, his admirers contend that he has breathed new life into both the fiction and nonfiction.