Tom Wolfe, acclaimed journalist and writer, has died at the age of 88. In his honor, we revisit his life and work today. The prospect of writing a blog post on Tom Wolfe and his influence is daunting. The man who has been such a presence in the world of American letters these past forty years, having authored The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), looms large, not just over a new generation of writers and journalists, but over the blogosphere in particular. He did, after all, call out blogs for being "a universe of rumors," citing Wikipedia in particular as being an institution that only "a primitive could believe a word of." How a primitive could successfully navigate all the way to Wikipedia may be a good inquiry for another time, but the pressing question still remains: how do you blog about the man who hated blogs?
An answer, no doubt, after Wolfe’s own heart, is to start with the facts. Born in Virginia in 1931, Wolfe attended school at Washington and Lee University where he graduated cum laude in 1951. He then earned a PhD in American Studies at Princeton before going on to work as a journalist, first with Massachusetts’ Springfield Union and subsequently with The Washington Post. His tenure at the latter found him developing a style that he himself would codify in his treatise, The New Journalism (1973). The tract described the sort of reporting, influenced by novelistic literary techniques and underscored by a belief that proper attention to style and aesthetics would only serve to bolster journalistic truth, that would come to define not only Wolfe’s books but also the styles of such luminaries as Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson.
This, it seems, is where the man ends and the myth begins. The coming decades saw not just the release of his arguably timeless and undoubtedly polarizing novels, from 1983's The Right Stuff and 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to, more recently, Back to Blood (2012), but the ascension of an innovative journalist to a literary celebrity, replete with longstanding feuds and an unmistakable signature outfit.
For a man, again skeptical of blogs and blogging, who proclaimed that the goal of his fiction was to document the truth of American society, in the spirit of realism and naturalism, Wolfe leaves the public with a dilemma regarding what, exactly, constitutes the truth for his life and career. Should we consider discussions of his feuds with John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving (stemming, famously, from accusations that Wolfe’s work was ‘entertainment’ rather than literature) to be merely gossip of the sort the author so maligned? Should we do the same with his trademark, year-round white suit, or his notorious support of George W. Bush and his foreign interventions? Or, are these seemingly personal details really so easy to disentangle from the content of Wolfe’s writing? Decades from now readers will be tasked with explaining either Wolfe’s longevity or his lack thereof; personal details might go a long way towards explicating his contentious relationship with the literary establishment.
With his New Journalism treatise, Tom Wolfe advocated for journalism that read more like literature. As he gravitated toward fiction, he began to call for novels that more closely resembled journalism. This trajectory reflects an aesthetic confidence that’s hard to find in today’s literati. ‘There is a sweet spot on the journalism-literature continuum,’ Wolfe seemed to say, ‘I live there and so should you.’
His surety, however much it contributed to books that have delighted many, comes at a price. The exact nature of his legacy will likely take time to solidify, but when it does it will be at the hands of those he most mistrusted.
Portions of this post were previously published on our blog.