Virginia Born Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies at 88

tom-wolfe
Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wizard of “New Journalism” who exuberantly chronicled American culture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race before turning his satiric wit to such novels as The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, has died. He was 88.
 tom-wolfe-1526397098

Wolfe’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, told the Associated Press that he died of an infection Monday in a New York City hospital. Further details were not immediately available.

 

An acolyte of French novelist Emile Zola and other authors of “realistic” fiction, the stylishly attired Wolfe was an American maverick who insisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.

 

His hyperbolic, stylized writing work was a gleeful fusillade of exclamation points, italics and improbable words. An ingenious phrase maker, he helped brand such expressions as “radical chic” for rich liberals’ fascination with revolutionaries; and the “Me” generation, defining the self-absorbed baby boomers of the 1970s.

 

Wolfe was both a literary upstart, sneering at the perceived stuffiness of the publishing establishment, and an old-school gentleman who went to the best schools and encouraged Michael Lewis and other younger writers. When attending promotional luncheons with fellow authors, he would make a point of reading their latest work.

 

“What I hope people know about him is that he was a sweet and generous man,” Lewis, known for such books as Moneyball and The Big Short, told the AP in an email Tuesday. “Not just a great writer but a great soul. He didn’t just help me to become a writer. He did it with pleasure.”

 

Wolfe scorned the reluctance of American writers to confront social issues and warned that self-absorption and master’s programs would kill the novel. “So the doors close and the walls go up!” he wrote in his 1989 literary manifesto, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. He was astonished that no author of his generation had written a sweeping, 19th century style novel about contemporary New York City, and ended up writing one himself, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

 

His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job and endured for decades.

 

Wolfe, the grandson of a Confederate rifleman, began his journalism career as a reporter at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union in 1957. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s, while a magazine writer for New York and Esquire, that his work made him a national trendsetter. As Wolfe helped define it, the “new journalism” combined the emotional impact of a novel, the analysis of the best essays, and the factual foundation of hard reporting. He mingled it all in an over-the-top style that made life itself seem like one spectacular headline.

in 2012. “The Latin American population has increased enormously since Bonfire and Wall Street has changed enormously. I’ll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what happens.”

 

Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy:  AP
Follow us on Twitter @HighlightHwd or @LightfootinHwd