Thomas Kennerly “Tom” Wolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)
I think it was 2004 (when he was in Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.
Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.
Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.
What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the excitement I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Time’s Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good, interesting, and thee would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.
Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.
Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.
Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.