Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931 in Richmond, Virginia), known as Tom Wolfe, is a best-selling American author and journalist. He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Upon graduation in 1947 he turned down admission at Princeton University to attend Washington and Lee University, then an all-male school. Wolfe majored in English, and practiced his writing outside the classroom as well. He was the sports editor of the college newspaper and helped found a literary magazine, Shenandoah. Of particular influence was his professor Marshall Fishwick, an American Studies professor educated at Yale. More in the tradition of anthropologists than literary scholars, Fishwick taught his classes to look at the whole of a culture, even those elements considered profane. The very title of Wolfe's undergraduate thesis, "A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America," evinced his fondness for words and aspirations toward cultural criticism. Wolfe graduated cum laude in 1951.
Wolfe had continued playing baseball as a pitcher and had begun to play semi-professionally while still in college. In 1952 he earned a tryout with the New York Giants, but was cut after three days, which Wolfe blamed on his inability to throw good fastballs. Wolfe abandoned baseball, and instead followed the example of his professor Marshall Fishwick, by enrolling in Yale University's American Studies doctoral program. His Ph.D. thesis was entitled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929-1942. While the thesis was historical, it was on a literary subject and for the thesis Wolfe interviewed many of the writers chronicled in his thesis, including Malcolm Cowley, Archibald MacLeish and James T. Farrell. Ragen said of Wolfe's thesis, "reading it, one sees what has been the most baleful influence of graduate education on many who have suffered through it: it deadens all sense of style.
In 1962 Wolfe left Washington for New York City, taking a position with the New York Herald-Tribune as a general assignment reporter and a feature writer. The editors of the Herald-Tribune encouraged their writers to break the conventions of newspaper writing. During a New York newspaper strike in 1963, Wolfe approached Esquire Magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California. He struggled with the article until finally a desperate editor Byron Dobell suggested that Wolfe send him his notes so they could iron it out together. Wolfe procrastinated until finally, on the evening before the article was due he sat down at his typewriter and banged out a letter to Dobell explaining what he wanted to say on the subject, ignoring all journalistic conventions. Dobell's response was to remove the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and publish it intact as reportage. The result, published in 1964, was "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." The article was widely discussed—loved by some, hated by others—and helped Wolfe publish his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of his writings in the Herald-Tribune, Esquire and elsewhere.
This was what Wolfe called New Journalism, in which some journalists and essayists experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispassionate, even-handed reporting. One of the most striking examples of this idea is Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The book, a narrative account of the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, a famous sixties counter-culture group, was highly experimental in its use of onomatopoeia, free association, and eccentric use of punctuation—such as multiple exclamation marks and italics—to convey the manic ideas and personalities of Ken Kesey and his followers.
In addition to his own forays into this new style of journalism, Wolfe edited a collection of New Journalism with EW Johnson, published in 1973 and titled simply The New Journalism. This book brought together pieces from Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and several other well-known writers, with the common theme of journalism that incorporated literary techniques and could be considered literature.
In 1970 he published two essays in book form in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers: "These Radical Chic Evenings," a biting account of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panther Party, and "Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers," about the practice of using racial intimidation ("mau-mauing") to extract funds from government welfare bureaucrats ("flak catchers"). The phrase "radical chic" soon became a popular derogatory term for upper class leftism. In 1977, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine hit bookstores; embodying one of Wolfe's more famous essays, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening."
In 1979 Wolfe published The Right Stuff, an account of the pilots who became America's first astronauts. Famously following their training and unofficial, even foolhardy, exploits, he likened these heroes to "single combat champions" of a by-gone era, going forth to battle in the Space Race on behalf of their country. In 1983 the book was adapted as a successful feature film.
He has championed the book A Fragile Union, a biography of the early 20th-century artist Louise Herreshoff, an eccentric Impressionist painter whose work was almost never exhibited during her lifetime. Herreshoff donated her oeuvre, and a massive collection of priceless Chinese export porcelain that she and her husband had amassed, to Washington and Lee, Wolfe's (and her husband's) alma mater. Herreshoff married a cousin but quickly threw him out of their home. She almost married another cousin, but instead, in her sixties, married a man 28 years younger. They lived agreeably ever after, until they both died almost simultaneously more than quarter-century later. In his rollicking introduction to the book, Wolfe says their story would have been envied by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton.
Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. While the research came easy, the writing did not immediately follow. To overcome his writers' block, Wolfe wrote to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to propose an idea drawn from Charles Dickens and Thackeray. The Victorian novelists that Wolfe viewed as his models had often written their novels in serial installments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work. The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he'd hoped for, and from July 1984 to August 1985 each biweekly issue of Rolling Stone contained a new installment. Wolfe was not happy with his "very public first draft, and thoroughly revised his work. Even Sherman McCoy, the central character of the novel, changed—originally a writer, the book version cast McCoy as a bond trader. (Wolfe used his own experience as a hedge fund investor to gain insight into the world of arcane financial transactions and Wall Street egos.) Wolfe researched and revised for two years. The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn.
Because of the success of Wolfe's first novel, there was widespread interest in his second work of fiction. This project took him more than eleven years to complete; A Man in Full was published finally in 1998. The book's reception was not universally positive, though it received glowing reviews in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. An enormous initial printing of 1.2 million copies was announced and the book stayed at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks. John Updike wrote a critical review for The New Yorker, in which he wrote that the novel "amounts to Entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form." This touched off an intense war of words in the print and broadcast media between Wolfe and Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer. In 2001, Wolfe published an essay referring to these three authors as "My Three Stooges."
After publishing Hooking Up (a collection of short pieces, including the 1997 novella Ambush at Fort Bragg) in 2001, he followed up with his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), which chronicles the culture clash between a poor, scholarship student from Appalachia and the class prejudice, materialism and sexual promiscuity she finds at a prestigious contemporary American university. The novel met with a mostly tepid response by critics, but won praise from many social conservatives who saw the book's disturbing account of college sexuality as revealing moral decline. The novel won a dubious award from the London-based Literary Review "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel," though the author later explained that such sexual references were deliberately clinical.
In early 2008 it was announced that Wolfe left his longtime publisher Farrar, Strauss. His fourth novel, Back to Blood is set to be published in 2009 by Little, Brown. According to The New York Times Wolfe will be paid close to US$7 million for the book. According to the publisher, Back to Blood will be about "class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition in Miami, the city where America's future has arrived first."
Wolfe is a fan of George W. Bush and voted for him for President in 2004, due to what he calls Bush's "great decisiveness and willingness to fight." (Bush, in turn, reciprocates the admiration, having read all of Wolfe's books.) After this fact emerged in a New York Times interview, Wolfe said that the reaction in the literary world was as if he had said "I forgot to tell you—I'm a child molester." Because of this incident he sometimes wears an American flag pin on his suit, which he compared to "holding up a cross to werewolves [sic]."
Wolfe's views and choice of subject material, such as mocking left-wing intellectuals in Radical Chic and glorifying astronauts in The Right Stuff, have sometimes led to him being labelled conservative or reactionary, labels that he rejects. He has said that his "idol" in writing about society and culture is Emile Zola, who, in Wolfe's words, was "a man of the left" but "went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not—and was not interested in—telling a lie.
Asked to comment by the Wall Street Journal on blogs in 2007, to mark the tenth anniversary of their advent, Wolfe wrote that "the universe of blogs is a universe of rumors," and that "blogs are an advance guard to the rear." He also criticized Wikipedia, which he said "only a primitive would believe a word of," noting a story about him that was in his Wikipedia entry at the time, which he said never happened.
On May 10, 2006, Tom Wolfe delivered the 35th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (entitled "The Human Beast") at the Warner Theatre.