Wolfe reciving honors from then-President George W. Bush

Wolfe receiving honors from then-President George W. Bush/photo courtesy of AP

Reflections on the Passing of Tom Wolfe

| published May 16, 2018 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

At the typewriter, he truly had the right stuff. Tom Wolfe, one of the 20th century’s undeniably great writers, has died at the age of 88. The late editor William F. Buckley, Jr., himself a prolific author and columnist, called Wolfe one of the best American writers ever to place words upon the printed page.

Wolfe, whose bestselling and often groundbreaking books include The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, From Bauhaus to Our House, and The Right Stuff, passed away on May 14 in New York City after a brief period of declining health. He was 88. Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1930, Wolfe’s love of journalism began early, as a kid writing and rewriting his own variations on legends of knights, kings, and wizards, and authoring short biographies of his childhood icons; as a teenager he was the editor of his high school’s newspaper, and later—while attending Washington and Lee University—he was sports editor of the campus newspaper. While in college, he was also instrumental in the founding of the literary magazine Shenandoah. Among his classmates at Washington and Lee was future novelist Tom Robbins, who remembered that Wolfe's writing skills were substantial.

Upon graduation, Wolfe made his first love journalism. After a short stint as a reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union, Wolfe went to work for the Washington Post, shocking his editors by insisting that he be allowed to cover metro news and the city beat instead of Capitol Hill, the State Department or The White House (as was the case with almost all ambitious newcomers to the paper). Wolfe instead said he found greater interest in the local stories and subjective interactions of average people. Later, in 1961, The Post sent Wolfe to Cuba, where he be began to develop and tune his lifelong love of non-conventional journalism.

There were few boundaries in Wolfe’s passion for the printed word.

As a journalist, he wrote prolifically about the vast social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, becoming a central member of what was then—and is still now—loosely called New Journalism, a somewhat vague term used to describe the experimental and sometimes rule-breaking devices of reporting and writing developed alongside many of the very social changes such writers examined in lavish detail. A style widely copied over the decades, he had few peers of his caliber: Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese come easily to mind. For many years in the 1960s he wrote for the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, which indulged—even encouraged—his interest in rule-breaking and non-conventional journalism.

As an essayist—often for magazines as diverse as Rolling Stone, Esquire and The New Yorker—he examined many of his journalistic interests in deeper detail, including a series of long-form articles which were later collected into two of his best-selling books, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby (1965), and The Pump House Gang (1968). Later, in 1970, another series of essays would form the book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. All three books and collections remain classics of the form: decidedly nonconventional, saturational, contextual, and committed to deeply subjective points of view—often seen or told through the lens of the subject, not the reporter.

At least one of his longest long-form pieces became one of the biggest selling books of the last century. The Right Stuff, published in book form in 1979, told the story of the early American space program, including an up-close look at the original Mercury astronauts, the test pilots whose flew experimental aircraft being developed during the 1950s, and the wives of those aviators and flyers. The book used as its central touchstone the experiences of Chuck Yeager, who in the late 40s and throughout the 1950s was regarded as the penultimate test pilot, though ironically he never travelled into space. The book, which sold slowly at first, quickly gained steam and eventually became a huge success.

With The Right Stuff, Wolfe became one of the first practitioners of the so-called non-fiction novel—deeply examined, fact-based investigations retold not in straight journalistic fashion, but in the more lavish style of the novel (a form widely credited to its earliest artisan, Truman Capote). The story is largely told from within the personal perspective of the pilots, astronauts and wives, giving it the feel and texture of experiential and subjective memory. The Right Stuff eventually became something of a literary sensation, and remains required reading for anyone who wants to understand both the space race at the fever pitch of the Cold War, and the groundbreaking impact on journalism which the book spawned.

In addition to its commercial success and its critical achievements, The Right Stuff was also made into a 1983 motion picture of the same name. Directed by Philip Kaufman, the film (starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Quaid) is widely considered one of the best screen adaptations of a non-fiction book. The success of both book and the epic film sparked a renewed media and entertainment interest in the great space race, and was at least in part responsible for later big-budget re-examinations of the American space program (films like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Tom Hanks’ massive HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, to name two examples).

But Wolfe’s diverse styles and passions did not stop there.

As a critic of modern art and contemporary architecture, Wolfe wrote articles, essays, and published at least two books, The Painted Word—a biting critique of modern art and what he saw as its often circular reasoning and constantly-shifting “schools” and theories—and From Bauhaus to Our House, a broad, nearly satirical overview of the rapid evolutions in 20th century architecture which transformed the look and style of urban buildings (particularly the skyscraper and the tower) from the visual exuberance and ornamentation of early designs (such as the Chrysler Building) to the featureless and banal styles of later years (such as Lever House). Like The Painted Word, From Bauhaus to Our House was openly disdainful of the almost universality of thought which consumed modern architecture during the period from 1940 to the middle 1980s, a time in which most tall buildings (and many small ones) mirrored the “glass box” style, with architectural deviations frowned upon by the leading proponents of the Bauhaus school of thought, and with ornamentation or decoration of any kind frowned upon by the design enforcers.

From Bauhaus to Our House became a staple among students in architecture colleges, urban planning schools, and design classes, even as it was understood to be an overt rejection of many of the same values being taught in the 1970s and 1980s.

Wolfe’s biggest challenge as a writer came when he made the decision to tackle fiction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While researching the state of criminal justice in New York City, including spending long days in the offices and courtrooms of Manhattan, Brooklyn and The Bronx, Wolfe concluded he wanted to write a grand, sweeping novel about American life, most especially its obsessions with social stratification, materialism, consumerism, and cultural and political tribalism. And though Wolfe was collecting and collating vast amounts of material and nuggets of ideas for his novel, he found himself largely unable to write.

Partly to jumpstart his writing, Wolfe forged a collaboration with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. Offered roughly $200,000 by Rolling Stone to use the magazine as a vehicle to publish a first draft in serialized form, Wolfe accepted the challenge, writing chapters quickly during the intervening two weeks between editions. Published as a serialized novel between the summers of 1985 and 1985, Wolfe crafted The Bonfire of the Vanities in the style and tone of the most famous works of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. The tale tells the story of Sherman McCoy, a married, highly successful bond and stock trader in New York City who—while in the midst of an affair with a beautiful Southern woman—accidentally kills a young black pedestrian, then participates in a cover-up of the incident even as political and cultural controversy swirls around him.

That first serial form draft, which Wolfe wrote at his typewriter, became the backbone of the later book version of The Bonfire of the Vanities, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1987 (after its last chapter appeared in Rolling Stone, Wolfe reorganized and rewrote to story). The book was a huge success, both in bookstores and among the critics. Later, it was adapted into film form by director Brian De Palma, who cast Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall and Alan King in lead roles.

Wolfe also wrote another sprawling novel, A Man in Full, centered on many of the same themes but located—instead in Atlanta in the city’s great economic heydays of the 1990s. It tells the story of a gregarious, ego-driven, high-society, real estate mogul Charlie Croker, who despite his political clout and his substantial business empire, now faces the possibility of bankruptcy and social ignominy. The novel includes subplots involving SEC football, popular franchises such as gyms, and the complex race politics of big cities in the Deep South. And like The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full includes extensive use of some of Wolfe’s central and ongoing writing themes: cultural and material status, political and cultural sectarianism, and the deeply-embedded American ideal of status in the eyes of others.

Wolfe’s other novels include I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), set in a fictional elite university, and Back to Blood (2012), set in Miami in the aught years. Though not as well received by the critics as his previous books, both nevertheless sold well; both these later novels also included elaborate, overlapping tapestries of race, social-economic status, materialism and consumerism, criminal justice, and politics.

Wolfe’s groundbreaking writings and books, coupled with his constant desire to penetrate the themes which he believed were central to the American experience—often placed his works at, or very near, the cutting edge of important social changes and cultural re-examinations. Wolfe is widely credited with coining and popularizing several terms and phrases, including “Me Generation” and the “Me Decade,” the moniker generally assigned to late Baby Boomers and early Baby Busters who indulged in the hedonism and economic self-centeredness of the late 1970s through the early 80s), “Radical Chic” (a term which Wolfe applied to the predisposition of many wealthy elitists and well-known artists and musicians to become easily radicalized into left-wing political views and circles), and “the right stuff,” the term which Wolfe himself developed to explain that intangible set of qualities and components—fearlessness, stoicism, irreverence, coolness, operational professionalism, mental steadiness—which enabled test pilots, astronauts, and others in high risk professions to succeed and survive.

Though still a subject of debate among American literary and lexicon historians, Wolfe may have been the first writer to use the phrase “good ole boy” in print in a 1964 Esquire essay about North Carolina stock car racing and the driver Junior Johnson.

Wolfe was honored scores of times for his works in practially every genre in which he wrote, and Random House includes The Right Stuff on its list of the most important and essential 20th century books to read.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Post Brings News and Political History to Life; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 8, 2018.

The Golden Age of Space Exploration: 30 Years After The Right Stuff; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Archives 2012.