Tom Wolfe’s essays are as flamboyant as his dress. His signature white suits, stepped collar vests, and spats reveal his homage to—and gentle tweaking of—the English Victorian man-of-letters tradition he has elaborated; yet his high-speed, highly exclamatory, exuberantly punctuated writing style marks him all-American and late 2oth century. Wolfe is best known as a chronicler of American popular culture, which he renders in a sophisticated essay-and-reportage form he has christened “the New Journalism.” Today he is increasingly recognized, not only as one of America’s leading prose stylists, but as a social critic (and satirist), although he demurs at the latter label.
From the beginning of his newspaper and magazine article writing career, Wolfe’s range has been impressive. He wrote hundreds of traditional feature articles for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union (1956–59), Washington Post (1959–62), and New York Herald Tribune (1961–66) before a 1963 assignment to cover the California custom car culture for Esquire magazine led to “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” Wolfe’s breakthrough article in his dazzlingly punctuated kinetic style. Since then, he has written profiles of cultural heroes, portraits of cultural lifestyles, travel essays (such as “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!,” 1964), and political satire. Wolfe is best understood as a cultural critic. He has made a career of challenging establishment views, of being the bad boy of arts and letters. His early assault on the New Yorker and its venerable former editor, William Shawn, in the 1965 articles “Tiny Mummies” and “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” occasioned spirited defenses of that magazine. His attacks on the worlds of art and architecture in two book-length essays, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), have stirred similar debates. A wicked phrasemaker, Wolfe has seen his terms “radical chic” and “the right stuff” become part of the cultural landscape, as has his name for the 1970s, “the me decade.” Like Max Beerbohm, Wolfe illustrates many of his essays and has published an entire collection of satirical drawings entitled In Our Time (1980).
Although holding a doctoral degree in American studies from Yale University, Wolfe has eschewed academic writing for the wider, general audience which reads newspapers and popular magazines. This audience has made him a bestselling writer. He was a contributing editor to New York magazine through 1976 and remains to this day a contributing editor to the men’s magazine Esquire. Indeed this graduate of (then) allmale Washington and Lee University in Virginia is most at home celebrating masculine heroes.
The components of Wolfe’s distinctive writing style can be traced to his reading. He borrowed several narrative techniques and his dynamic punctuation from a group of early 20th– century Soviet writers (Evgenii Zamiatin, Boris Pilniak, and the Serapion Brothers), whom he read in translation at Yale. In We (1924), the novel upon which George Orwell based 1984, Zamiatin often breaks off thoughts with a dash in midsentence and uses many exclamation points. This style attempts to imitate the human mind, which operates, not in elegant sentences, but in fragmentary, often emotional, fits and starts. Wolfe’s kinetic style should be seen as his attempt to imitate sensory and cognitive processes—and to decrease the distance between author, reader, and subject.
Through frenetic fragments and picturesque punctuation he tries to give readers a vicarious sense of the experience he is re-creating, be it the rush of psychedelic drugs (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), or supersonic space travel (The Right Stuff, 1979). This highly sensory style matches best with highly sensory subjects.
Wolfe joined these narrative techniques with others gleaned from fellow New York journalists in the early 1960s. His 1973 anthology The New Journalism, which argues that the New Journalism “can no longer be ignored in an artistic sense,” identifies four traits which characterize the form: scene-byscene construction; dialogue in full; third- person point of view; and the detailing of status life. Wolfe acknowledges that he learned to write scenes from Gay Talese and dialogue from Jimmy Breslin. His penchant for what he calls “status detail” can be traced to Honoré de Balzac, who enjoyed dropping the names of furniture into his novels. Social status and social humiliation are prominent themes in Wolfe’s writings; his brilliant capturing of details of dress and decor allows him to pinpoint his subjects precisely in the social strata.
Wolfe’s most original stylistic trait, however, is his extension of Henry James’ notions of point of view. Wolfe acknowledges that he tries to create his scenes from a triple perspective: the subject’s point of view, that of other people watching, and his own.
His technical virtuosity in shifting among these conflicting perspectives, often from sentence to sentence, adds to the postmodern zest of his writing. No essayist switches point of view more rapidly than Wolfe. However, this rapidfire multiple perspective carries with it certain risks. It tends to frustrate readers seeking to isolate Wolfe’s own view of his subjects. Wolfe relishes this confusion. As John Hellmann (1981) has noted, Wolfe’s “insistent choices of hyperbolic, kinetic, or baroque words and phrases make his descriptions as much an assault as a representation… These stylistic traits work like those of the cubists to break up the reader’s usual modes of perception.”
Wolfe does, however, possess a social vision. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church, and uniting all his work is his lament for waning Protestant morality (The Right [eous] Stuff), and his implicit call for its renewal. Wolfe’s inspired transformation of that oldest of American literary forms, the Puritan sermon, into Menippean satire represents an intelligent man’s recognition of the unpopularity of his old-fangled, Calvinistic views were he to express them forthrightly in his own voice in the traditional forms of the formal or familiar essay. Let the bonfire of vanities burn, Wolfe cries instead, for he is an American jeremiah in camouflage, both criticizing vice and encouraging American expansion and revolution toward grace.
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. Born 2 March 1930 in Richmond, Virginia. Studied at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, A.B. (cum laude), 1951; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, Ph.D., 1957. Wrote for the Springfield Union, Massachusetts, 1956–59, Washington Post, 1959–62, New York Herald Tribune, 1962– 66, and New York World Journal Tribune, 1966–67; contributing artist, Harper’s, 1978– 81. Married Sheila Berger, 1978: one daughter and one son.
Awards: several, including the American Book Award, 1980; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1980; Columbia/Columbus Award, for journalism, 1980; John Dos Passos Award, 1984; President Award, 1993; honorary degrees from 11 universities.
Essays and Related Prose
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1965
The Pump House Gang, 1968; as The Mid-Atlantic Man and Other New Breeds in England and America, 1969
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, 1970
The Painted Word, 1975
Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine, and Other Stories, 1976
The Right Stuff, 1979
From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981
The Purple Decades: A Reader, 1982
Other writings: the novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and the collection of drawings In Our Time (1980). Also edited the anthology The New Journalism (1973).
Anderson, Chris, “Tom Wolfe: Pushing the Outside of the Envelope,” in his Style as Argument: Contetnporary American Nonfiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987: 8–47
Cohen, Ed, “Tom Wolfe and the Truth Monitors: A Historical Fable,” Clio 16 (Fall 1986): 1–11
Dundy, Elaine, “Tom Wolfe… But Exactly, Yes!,” Vogue, 15 April 1966:124, 152–55
Gilder, Joshua, “Creators on Creating: Tom Wolfe,” Saturday Review, April 1981:40, 42–44
Hellmann, John, “Reporting the Fabulous: Representation and Response in the Work of Tom Wolfe,” in his Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981:101–25
Hollowell, John, “Life in Edge City: Wolfe’s New Journalism,” in his Fact & Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977: 126–46
Kallan, Richard A., “Tom Wolfe,” in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre, edited by Thomas B.Connery, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992
Lounsberry, Barbara, “Tom Wolfe’s Negative Vision,” South Dakota Review 20 (Summer 1982):15–31
Lounsberry, Barbara, “Tom Wolfe’s American Jeremiad,” in her The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990:37–64
Macdonald, Dwight, “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine,” New York Review of Books, 26 August 1965: 3–5
Macdonald, Dwight, “Parajournalism II: Wolfe and The New Yorker,” New York Review of Books, 3 February 1966:18–24
Sheed, Wilfrid, “A Fun-House Mirror,” New York Times Book Review, 3 December 1972:2, 10
Stull, James N., “The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe,” Journal of American Culture 14 (Fall 1991):25–30
Weber, Ronald, “Subjective Reality and Saturation Reporting,” in his The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980:89–110
Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud, “The Contingent Donnée: The Testimonial Nonfiction Novel,” in his The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976:131–53
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