Tom Wolfe, Best-Selling Author And Genre-Breaking Journalist, Dies At 88

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 1:24 pm

In a career that spanned more than half a century, Tom Wolfe wrote fiction and nonfiction best-sellers including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Along the way, he created a new type of journalism and coined phrases that became part of the American lexicon. Wolfe died Monday in Manhattan. He was 88.

Wolfe didn't start a novel with a character or a plot, but rather, with an idea. In 1987, wearing his signature white suit, Wolfe told me how he began his first novel, a panoramic story of New York Society:

"I looked at the whole city first," he said. "I wanted to do New York High and Low. I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and also some of the life on Park Avenue. And at the low end, there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. Once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters."

The novel that grew out of Wolfe's research — The Bonfire of the Vanities — was the tale of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader who loses everything after a wrong turn in the South Bronx with his mistress in the passenger seat. It was a huge critical and commercial success. Wolfe had written the novel from the same "you are there," stream-of-consciousness, first-person perspective that he pioneered in his nonfiction 20 years earlier.

"I've always contended on a theoretical level that the techniques ... for fiction and nonfiction are interchangeable," he said. "The things that work in nonfiction would work in fiction, and vice versa."

Wolfe began working as a newspaper reporter, first for The Washington Post, then the New York Herald Tribune. He developed a unique style, incorporating literary techniques — interior monologues, amped-up prose and eccentric punctuation. It was called the "New Journalism."

"When Tom Wolfe's voice broke into the world of nonfiction, it was a time when a lot of writers, and a lot of artists in general, were turning inward," says Lev Grossman, book critic for Time magazine. "Wolfe didn't do that. Wolfe turned outwards. He was a guy who was interested in other people."

Wolfe was interested in how they thought, how they did things and how the things they did affected the world around them.

"He showed us how to walk into a cocktail party, a NASA training center — how to walk down the street and see in front of us this incredible drama of amazing richness, and amazing significance," Grossman says.

In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, an account of the military test pilots who became America's first astronauts. Four years later, the book was adapted as a feature film.

"The Right Stuff was the book for me," says Grossman. "It reminded me, in case I'd forgotten, that the world is an incredible place."

In The Right Stuff, Wolfe popularized the phrase "pushing the envelope." The title of Wolfe's nonfiction essay (later published as part of a book) about Leonard Bernstein's fundraiser for the Black Panthers, Radical Chic, became a catchphrase for leftist liberals. In a New York magazine article, Wolfe dubbed the 1970s "The 'Me' Decade." Grossman says these phrases became part of the American idiom because they were dead on.

"He was an enormously forceful observer, and he was not afraid of making strong claims about what was happening in reality," Grossman says. "He did it well, and eloquently. And people heard him. And they repeated what he said because he was right."

To get it right, Wolfe said he first did extensive research, then he made an exhaustive outline — and then he started "having fun."

"I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance," he explained. "I'll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene that I'm going to write about. Once you know what you're going to say — I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on the typewriter. And that comes out for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That's not all that hard to do."

All those words started a revolution in nonfiction that is still going on, says Grossman.

"Everything that bloggers have done for journalism — and I personally think they've done a lot — Wolfe did it first, he did it 30 years earlier, and he did it better," Grossman says. "And I think we're still catching up to him."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tom Wolfe created a new type of journalism over the course of his half-century career. Wolfe coined phrases that became part of the American lexicon in such nonfiction bestsellers as "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," his account of fellow author Ken Kesey's psychedelic adventures, also "The Right Stuff" about the early years of the space program. Wolfe also wrote the best-selling novel "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." Wolfe died yesterday in a Manhattan hospital of undisclosed causes. He was 88 years old. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Tom Wolfe was an original. He was a star baseball player in his hometown of Richmond, Va., who had a tryout with the New York Giants. He was a novelist who didn't start with a character or a plot but an idea. In 1987, wearing his signature white suit, Wolfe told me how he began his first novel, a panoramic story of New York society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOM WOLFE: I looked at the whole city first. And I wanted to do New York high and low. And I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and at the low end there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. And that once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters.

VITALE: The novel that grew out of Wolfe's research was the tale of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader who loses everything after a wrong turn in the South Bronx with his mistress in the passenger seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLFE: (Reading) Two figures, two young men, black, on the ramp coming up behind him. Boston Celtics - the one nearest him had a silvery basketball warm-up jacket with Celtics written across the chest. He was no more than five or six steps away, powerfully built. His jacket was open, a white T-shirt, tremendous chest muscles, square face, wide jaws, a wide mouth. What was that look? Hunter. Predator.

VITALE: "The Bonfire Of The Vanities" was a huge critical and commercial success. Tom Wolfe had written the novel from the same you-are-there, stream of consciousness, first-person perspective that he pioneered in his nonfiction 20 years earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLFE: I've always contended, honestly, on a theoretical level that the techniques for fiction and nonfiction were interchangeable, and that the things that work in nonfiction would work in fiction and vice versa.

VITALE: Tom Wolfe began working as a newspaper reporter first for The Washington Post, then the New York Herald Tribune. He developed a unique style, incorporating literary techniques, interior monologues, amped-up prose, eccentric punctuation. It was called the New Journalism.

LEV GROSSMAN: It was a time when a lot of writers and a lot of artists in general I think were turning inward. And Wolfe didn't do that. Wolfe turned outwards.

VITALE: Lev Grossman is the former book critic for Time magazine.

GROSSMAN: He was a guy who was interested in other people - how they thought and how they did things and how the things they did affected the world around them.

VITALE: Grossman says Wolfe not only wrote about other people...

GROSSMAN: He showed us how to walk into a cocktail party, a NASA training center, how to walk down the street and see in the world around us this incredible drama. And "The Right Stuff" was the book for me. It reminded me, in case I'd forgotten, that the world is an incredible place.

VITALE: In 1979, Wolfe published "The Right Stuff," an account of the military test pilots who became America's first astronauts. Four years later, the book was adapted as a feature film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIGHT STUFF")

DAVID CLENNON: (As Liaison Man) Pretty soon every fighter jock, ever rocket ace, every rat-racer in the country will be headed this way, each one of them wanting to push the outside of the envelope and get to the top of the pyramid.

VITALE: In "The Right Stuff," Wolfe popularized the phrase pushing the envelope. The title of Wolfe's nonfiction book about Leonard Bernstein's fundraiser for the Black Panthers, "Radical Chic," became a catchphrase for leftist liberals. In a New York magazine article, Wolfe dubbed the 1970s the Me Decade. Critic Lev Grossman says these phrases became part of the American language because they were dead-on.

GROSSMAN: It was because he was an enormously forceful observer. And he was not afraid of making strong claims about what was happening in reality. And people heard him, and they repeated what he said 'cause he was right.

VITALE: To get it right, Tom Wolfe said, first he did extensive research. Then he made an exhaustive outline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLFE: Then you can - I think you can start having fun. I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance. I'll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene. I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on a typewriter. And that comes out to - for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That's not all that hard to do.

VITALE: All those words started a revolution in nonfiction that's still going on, says critic Lev Grossman.

GROSSMAN: Everything that bloggers have done for journalism - and I personally believe they've done a lot - Wolfe did it first. He did it 30 years earlier. And he did it better. And I think we're still catching up to him.

VITALE: Author Tom Wolfe died yesterday. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CONTI'S "THE RIGHT STUFF (SINGLE VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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