Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well.
The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities, and countless articles, Wolfe died Tuesday in New York City after being hospitalized for pneumonia. He was 88.
For more than five decades, Wolfe’s writing was both an influential part of American culture and a sharp-focus mirror turned upon it. A brilliant observer, a dazzling writer and a dedicated contrarian, he was a progenitor and one of the finest practitioners of the game-changing approach to nonfiction writing called New Journalism.
Wolfe himself, a dapper figure in bespoke white suits (he called them "neo-pretentious"), became almost as well known for his public persona as for his work. Kurt Vonnegut called him "a genius who will do anything to get attention," a double-edged compliment Wolfe might have wished he thought of first.
Because he wrote four bestselling novels later in his career, many readers think of Wolfe as a novelist. But for my money his nonfiction work is his major achievement, not only because much of it is terrific but because it had so much impact on so many other writers.
Wolfe’s early work (along with Hunter S. Thompson’s) made me want to be a journalist. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, reading The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (his account of a road trip with hallucinogen enthusiast and author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters) felt like grabbing a live wire — or taking a hit of that acid. I wanted to seize my mild-mannered high school journalism teacher by the arm and shout, "Can we do that?!!?"
(Ah, that exuberant Wolfean punctuation. He might just be the original source of the metastasis of exclamation points on social media. "People complain about my exclamation points," he once said, "but I honestly think that’s the way people think. I don’t think people think in essays; it’s one exclamation point to another.")
Wolfe is one of those pop culture figures whose influence is so pervasive it’s hard to explain to people who weren’t born in time for the ’60s how profound it was — sort of like trying to explain to them how much the Beatles changed music, because they’ve always lived in the time after the change.
It was a 1963 article for Esquire that catapulted Wolfe into a national spotlight he never left, the one that became the title essay in his first book. "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)… " is a story that was born with its own legend: Assigned to write about wildly creative California custom car designers like George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and the subculture that had grown up around them, Wolfe found himself with tons of material and a bad case of writer’s block.
Intending to hand off the story to another writer, in a single night Wolfe typed up 49 pages of notes from his reporting and took them to Esquire editor Byron Dobell — who simply removed the "Dear Byron" at the top and published the notes. A star was born.
The ’60s and ’70s were a golden age of magazine feature writing, and Wolfe was one of the major reasons. His work appeared so often in New York, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other publications (although not the New Yorker, which he savaged in an epic 1965 takedown, "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!") that readers might have wondered when he slept.
At the same time, other writers were adopting similar approaches to journalistic writing: lively and literary language, immersive reporting rather than one-off interviews, stacks of vivid details, dramatic scenes incorporating long stretches of dialogue and subjects treated with a depth and intimacy previously granted only to fictional characters.
The New Journalism umbrella came to cover a lot of writers — Wolfe, Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron, Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Gay Talese and others — but perhaps the most powerful common element in their writing was that each developed a highly personal voice. No reader would mistake Wolfe for Thompson, or either one for Didion.
Wolfe wrote so often and incisively about the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s that he came to be identified with it, but he never drank that electric Kool-Aid, and he was no baby boomer. (It never occurred to me when I was a teenager, but Wolfe was about the same age as my father.)
Born in Richmond, Va., Wolfe was raised in a genteel Southern family, no doubt an upbringing that nurtured his keen sense of social hierarchy and status markers. He earned a degree in English at Washington and Lee and a Ph.D. from Yale in American studies, and all his life he remained a distinctively American writer, focused on American subjects.
But most of the people he wrote about came from very different worlds. "My entire career," he said, "in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me."
His fascination with both all things American and with people different from himself reached its apogee with his riveting 1979 book The Right Stuff, an uplifting hero’s tale with test pilot Chuck Yeager at its center.
Wolfe spent seven years researching and writing the book about military test pilots and the first Mercury astronauts. His best-known work (its title runs through most of the headlines on his obituaries), it won the National Book Award and was the basis for the 1983 movie.
In the 1980s, after several decades of bringing novelistic technique to nonfiction, Wolfe turned to writing fiction himself. He did so with a characteristic huge splash, the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. A sprawling story of Wall Street excess, income inequality and racial conflict in New York City, it was compared to the fiction of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola (whom Wolfe called his "idol"). It was an enormous bestseller and the source for a 1990 movie.
In his later years, Wolfe became the kind of cultural icon he might have tweaked mercilessly a few decades before. He received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2001 and sold his voluminous archives to the New York Public Library in 2013 for $2 million.
He continued to write, although his last few novels received decidedly mixed reviews. His last, Back to Blood, published in 2014 and set in Miami, had both knockout passages and wince-inducing examples of tone deafness. That once infallible eye for status markers had dulled.
Although the New Journalism label has faded away, Wolfe’s influence continues — the popular form variously called creative nonfiction and long-form narrative is New Journalism’s direct offspring.
Since Wolfe’s death, such nonfiction writers as Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short) and Kurt Anderson (Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History) have memorialized his influence on them. If you enjoy books by writers like Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, Rebecca Skloot, Sarah Vowell, Buzz Bissinger, Jon Krakauer and many more, you’re benefitting from Wolfe’s impact. A few weeks ago, reviewing Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas, I heard Wolfe’s echo in the book’s distinctive voice, quirky characters and dramatic scenes.
In a 2008 interview with Time, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe said, "I still believe nonfiction is the most important literature to come out of the second half of the 20th century." If pressed, he might have admitted that much of the credit for that belongs to him.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.