Tom Wolfe Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. in Richmond, Virginia, 1930. Education: Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, A.B. (cum laude) 1951; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, Ph.D. 1957. Career: Reporter, Springfield Union, Massachusetts, 1956-59, Washington Post, 1959-62, and New York, Herald Tribune, 1962-66; writer, New York World Journal Tribune, 1966-67. Awards: American Book award, 1980; Columbia award, for journalism, 1980; National Sculpture Society citation for art history, 1980; John Dos Passos award, 1984; Gari Melchers medal, 1986; Benjamin Pierce Cheney medal, Eastern Washington University, 1986; Washington Irving medal, St. Nicholas Society, 1986; Theodore Roosevelt medal, Theodore Roosevelt Association, 1990; Wilbur Cross medal, Yale Graduate School Alumni Association, 1990; St. Louis Literary award, 1990; Quinnipiac College Presidential award, 1993. D. Litt.: Washington and Lee University, 1974; St. Andrews Presbyterian College, 1990; Johns Hopkins University, 1990; University of Richmond, 1993. Honorary D.F.A: Minneapolis College of Art, 1971; School of Visual Arts, 1987. L.H.D: Virginia Commonwealth University, 1983; Southampton College, 1984; Randolph-Macon College, 1988; Manhattanville College, 1988; Longwood College, 1989. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York, Farrar Straus, 1987; London, Cape, 1988.
A Man In Full. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Commercial," in Esquire (New York), October 1975.
"2020 A.D.," in Esquire (New York), January 1985.
Almost Heroes (with Mark Nutter and Boiyd Hale). Warner Brothers, 1998.
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1965; London, Cape, 1966.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.
The Pump House Gang (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1968; as The Mid-Atlantic Man and Other New Breeds in England and America, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; London, Joseph, 1971.
The Painted Word. New York, Farrar Straus, 1975.
Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine, and Other Stories (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1976.
The Right Stuff. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1979. In Our Time (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1980.
From Bauhaus to Our House. New York, Farrar Straus, 1981; London, Cape, 1982.
Editor, with E.W. Johnson, The New Journalism. New York, Harper, 1973; London, Pan, 1975.
"Tom Wolfe's Vanities" by Joseph Epstein, in New Criterion (New York), February 1988; Tom Wolfe by William McKeen, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1995.
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In a world concerned with high tech gadgetry, the Internet, and the latest IPO, Tom Wolfe is a true literary superstar. His 1998 novel, A Man in Full, had a first printing of 1.2 million copies and was nominated for the National Book Award a month before it was even released. The subsequent buzz surrounding Wolfe's tale of high society life in Atlanta reached deafening levels and propelled the book to the top of every bestseller list.
But, the inevitable backlash against someone with Wolfe's selling power is intense. In fact, some of America's foremost writers, including John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving, all took Wolfe to task for A Man in Full. Their comments centered on whether Wolfe's work was literature or merely entertainment. For his part, Wolfe responded with his typical acerbic wit, telling the New York Post, "The lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass." The literary feud is one that will assuredly be played out for years to come.
Perhaps part of Wolfe's enduring popularity is that he exudes charisma, style, and an inherent coolness that most authors cannot duplicate. He is a master at spotting the next trend or finding the perfect words to describe the big picture and big events, like dubbing the 1970s "The Me Decade." He made his reputation by investigating subjects that have since become part of the national popular culture pantheon, like the acid tripping days of the 1960s and fighter pilots in The Right Stuff.
By the early 1960s, Wolfe was already the most famous journalist of his day and chief proponent of "New Journalism," which held that good reporting should have as much style and flair as a work of fiction. In fact, Wolfe lambasted novelists for studying their own "gullets," instead of tackling the larger issues that make up the grand spectacle of modern life. Decades later, assessing his criticism of the modern novel, Wolfe said, "I said if the novel is to survive, it will have to be a form that will be known as a documentary or journalistic novel, based on deep and heavy reporting. In my humble opinion, I have been absolutely right."
Leaving journalism behind, Wolfe joined the novelists to show them how it should be done. In 1987, he debuted with The Bonfire of the Vanities, a work every bit as wide in scope and weighty in content as some of the heavy-wrought productions against which he had once railed. The book though, represents more an exploitation of the novel form than a homage to it, and, in its hurtling Technicolor progress through a world in which the horrible maxim is "All for one and one for all and lots for oneself!" settled a few unanswered questions about the nature of Wolfe's output.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, upon which his original reputation rested, was not so much reportage as biographical improvisation. While it relied more heavily on historical fact than most novels, and was every jumpy inch as distorted and disjointed as the hallucinogenically-induced experiences it sought to describe.
Ultimately, Wolfe's first novel-length outing was utterly dependent on his own imaginative vibrancy. Valuable not only as an insight into the addled consciousness of fellow experimentalist Ken Kesey, Wolfe's tract remains, in all its fragmentary, speeding glory, the outstanding document of 1960s counterculture. Not only an exploration into the wild lifestyle of Kesey's Merry Pranksters, but a catalogue of the pressures which caused the embryonic hippie movement to self-combust.
Wolfe's writing in subsequent years honed new journalism's thick stew of style and content. The reader is invited to trace the growth of Wolfe's technique and the development of a highly intuitive perceptive gift, whether it is eyeing California's junior surf bums as they chill out on the extra-good vibe of being independent at 14 and living in low-rent garages, journeying through America's car-customizing shops and small-town racetracks, or cresting the adrenal wave of being very young and hip in swinging London.
During the 1970s, Wolfe's inquisitive ardor seems to have diminished somewhat. Fixing his attention on other areas of criticism, Wolfe turned in some surprisingly flat period pieces. In Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine, however, he enjoyed a renaissance. Kicking off with a ritual dismemberment of a major author, and ending with a prophetic tale about the selfishness and ruthlessness of Manhattan cab-hailers, Wolfe roamed, among other things, through a dissertation on one woman's hemorrhoids, the story of a Navy pilot risking his life on a daily basis over North Vietnam, and a genuinely funny piece of short fiction concerning one black athlete's efforts to make a conscionable perfume commercial.
In 1979, entering yet another brain-warping space, Wolfe produced an effortless and enthralling, warts and all history of America's launch into the stars. The Right Stuff, borne out of Wolfe's "ordinary curiosity" remains his best-written and most complete book, consummately encapsulating, in all seriousness, the adventurous spirit of the age. As in previous works, functioning on the intimate level of fraternity tale—Tom, the clever brother, is the wise spectator, while the rest of the gang goes off running and jumping into colorful and phenomenal dangers; in this case, sitting atop a huge stick of dynamite, waiting "for someone to light the fuse." A must for vicarious thrill seekers everywhere (although not as appealing, probably to animal rights activists), The Right Stuff is Wolfe's second absolutely indispensable book—as vital to the social historian as the reader with only the most limited interest in space flight.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, like everything Wolfe has done, seeks to hold up a mirror to contemporary life and shout "There! That's what it's like." Sherman McCoy's noisy descent from a cloud of privilege and wealth into the purgatorial netherworld of New York's criminal justice system is fitting reward for his participation in "the greed storm" of the consumerist 1980s.
Wolfe's incisive political awareness, his desire to penetrate the "thickening democratic façade" is equally as urgent as in his earlier denunciation of white liberal angst Radical Chic (further, his understanding of what makes the underclasses tick is piercing). McCoy, a cartoon-like central character is pitched on a spiraling express ride into the deepest, most decrepit tunnels of urban deprivation, becoming the victim of the startling contrast between what he is capable of possessing and what others cannot hope to touch. McCoy's culpability matters little: it is significant only that he is suitably placed to become a totemic sacrifice in a political game. For this fact alone, Wolfe finally offers him a ragged salvation while damning most everyone else.
A Man in Full is the story of Atlanta real estate magnate Charlie Croker, who has overextended his means building an edge-city tower to himself, "Croker Concourse," that no one wants to rent. Croker stands on the verge of losing everything. The story also intertwines the fates of a blue-collar worker in one of Croker's plants, a black Georgia Tech football star, and plenty of lawyers, bankers, and politicians.
Like all of Wolfe's oeuvre, A Man in Full attacks the 1990s with vigor. Wolfe's satirical eye is fixed on Croker's 29, 000-acre quail-hunting plantation, his trophy wife, and vacuous associates. But, throughout the book, the author also tackles race relations, the decline of urban neighborhoods, rap music, and suburban life. In short, Wolfe allows the reader to glimpse the modern world as it exists, both its foibles and triumphs.
Wolfe has held tenure as arbiter of style, master of the idiom, observer and interpreter of signs, symbols, and portents for more than four decades. He is a rare individual who actually laid out a bodacious blueprint for changing modern literature, and then showed us that it could be done through his own masterful works.
Despite the ongoing quarrel with his colleagues, Wolfe must be regarded as one of the top novelists of the twentieth century. It will be interesting to see whether young writers take his advice and move toward journalistic novels. While the book world eagerly anticipates the next big author, it will be difficult for someone to duplicate the success of Wolfe.
updated by Bob Batchelor
- Dianne Wolfer (1961–) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
- Gene Wolfe (1931–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
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