Authors: Tom Wolfe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist and novelist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

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

Long Fiction:

The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987

A Man in Full, 1998

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810000793}{$I[A]Wolfe, Tom}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wolfe, Tom}{$I[tim]1931;Wolfe, Tom}

Tom Wolfe

(Nancy Crampton)

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.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Tom Wolfe. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. Part of Bloom’s Modern Critical Views series, this book collects important critical responses to Wolfe’s work, as well as providing a thorough introduction by Bloom himself.McKeen, William. Tom Wolfe. New York: Twayne, 1995. Provides students and general readers with an introduction to Wolfe’s life and career. Especially good in discussing Wolfe’s career as a practicing journalist, including his articles, such as his piece on The New Yorker which so outraged traditionalists.Ragan, Brian Abel. Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Intended as a guide for students, this book contains a biographical chapter, a contextual chapter introducing the concept of “new journalism” and Wolfe’s role in it, and then analyses each of his major works.Salamon, Julie. The Devil’s Candy: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” Goes to Hollywood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Although primarily about the making of the film version of Wolfe’s novel, this study helps the reader better understand and appreciate the many artistic nuances and insights in Wolfe’s carefully layered work, which were lost in its translation to the big screen.Scura, Dorothy, ed. Conversations with Tom Wolfe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.Shomette, Doug, ed. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Contains a variety of critical responses to Wolfe’s writings over the years, with a section devoted to the early responses and criticisms of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
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