Tom Wolfe Made Everyone Talk About Him

His journalism was unlike any I’d ever read, sympathetic and evocative and inventive, but also sharp-eyed and precise and acerbic.

Comments: 26

  1. I read 'Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' after returning to college in Oregon in 1969, after discharge from the Army having done my year in the purgatory of Vietnam. Tom Wolfe's comic yet admiring sensitivities to the Kesey/Grateful Dead counter-culture on the Left Coast caused me to directly read 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest' and check out this adolescent rebellion happening from Eugene to San Francisco. Wolfe could make the sun shine and his subjects cavort and laugh on the page. Amazing writing. He had the right stuff.

  2. I posted this comment on an earlier obit for Tom Wolfe. I hope the Times editors will allow it here: I called it Tom Wolfe's Revenge. Historian David Potter (of Yale and later Stanford) once told me about supervising Tom Wolfe's undergraduate thesis when Wolfe attended Yale (I think it was his senior thesis and and not a grad thesis). Potter said that it was brilliant--and also funny, biting, and iconoclastic. The thesis committee rejected it. Not enough citations, not sufficiently academic. So Wolfe, according to Potter, rewrote the thing, this time including the usual scholarly paraphernalia and removing every colorful sentence. He turned the thesis into a routine and crushingly dull academic exercise. And that was Wolfe's farewell to Yale's history department.

  3. It was his Ph.D. thesis. He told me this himself in 1962, when it was something that had fairly recently happened. He said they were nice about it in the department but explained that it wasn't stylistically okay. ("After you leave here you can do anything you want.")

  4. Having read—or tried to read—the thesis, I can believe this story.

  5. According to the Wolfe obituary elsewhere in today's paper, he attended college at Washington & Lee. At Yale he was a student in the American Studies program, not History. So it would have been his Ph.D. dissertation, not his undergraduate senior thesis, that was rejected - at least if it was directed by a Yale professor. So many misstatements of fact make the anecdote you report somewhat suspect, but I've heard the gist of it somewhere before, so it may be true.

  6. Tom Wolfe, in addition to his skill and talent as a writer, had great enemies. I'm surprised that various encomiums have not mentioned Gore Vidal, who like Wolfe, was a great dandy-flaneur with good enemies.

    The Pop Era was described by by writers who invited the reader to take on their perspectives as theatrical personae. Since the digital age has destroyed the temporal remove that forced us to see through the eyes of print journalists, I doubt we will see another generation of out-sized personalities covering other out-sized personalities.

    What we have instead is Fox and Friends, buffoons covering clowns.

  7. Whoa! Are you a good writer!!

  8. Tom Wolfe and the other writers from the original New York Magazine were really the last vestige of the Herald Tribune--"Who says a great newspaper has to be dull." It is ashamed how we forget the great writing that paper turned out in its final days.

  9. Imagine today, someone actually sticking with a story long enough to understand what's going on instead of rushing to get a story out first with no prespective only ratings dancing before their eyes. Time out of mind.

  10. One of the assigned readings for my feature writing class in journalism school in the mid-sixties was Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." Oh, did that ever blow our student minds! We knew nothing of white suits or two-toned shoes, but we realized there was something special here. And barely a year later, just as we were coming to grips with Wolfe's style, we were faced with another type of journalism when Capote's "In Cold Blood" came out. Those were amazing times.

  11. Wow! Just read about half of his piece cited here, The Me Decade, and am blown away. Do I sound like someone from that era? I am. Mr Wolfe explains and chronicles it with a wit and insight that leaves me almost speechless. Read it for yourself. I plan to print it and savor at my leisure.

  12. Tom Wolfe was, at least in some regard, as important a writer in my youth as any of them in the mid 60’s. While my college profs made me read "The Republic," I delighted in this guy, in his white suit, elbowing me in the ribs with his vignettes. (His description of the Bernsteins' party for the Black Panthers in his apartment in "Radical Chic" was priceless!)

    Wolfe was very important in the formation of my own ideas about what it was to be an American in those days, when we youngsters thought we might change the world. “No so fast,” stated Wolfe in the three or four of his books I read. “The whole thing is just a joke and we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.”

    The first of his books I read was “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” followed over the next few years by “Radical Chic…” (which forever made me skeptical about Bernstein's non-musical genius!) and then “From Our House to the Bauhaus” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.” I imagined the guy simply looked at the world and thought, "What the hell?" He saw fatuousness everywhere and stuck pins in it. To my lifelong delight. If any one person had an critical impact on my own attitudes about American society in general it was Tom Wolfe.

    If only he could have stuck around and written about the Trump years.


  13. Wow, what a great homage to...Kurt Anderson! Just goes to show you the "me" decade ethos lives on, as in "let's make this tribute more about ME--and my grandeur and importance, and those nutty, nutty hijinks Graydon and I cooked up, dontcha know"-- than subject of the article.

  14. Your take on Kurt Anderson's tribute is puzzling. Mr. Anderson speaks to those who discovered Tom Wolfe in their youth. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with Mr. Wolfe's writings in which case you can look forward to an awakening.

  15. Hmm, hard to get past his concept that women are retired from sexual consideration by 35. Or that communication between married people is about picking at each other's faults rather than expressing one's needs instead of letting them turn to resentments that turn dark and nasty. Women beating which was much more common then being to my mind worse than 'wife shucking'.

    And what is wrong with the woman going and getting an operation to deal with her hemorrhoids instead of pretending all is well?

    Contempt seemed to be the dominant observation here not humor.

  16. Wolfe inspired me, too, to become a journalist, a profession that lasted 10 years before imploding due to declining readership, recessions, and the dumbing down of daily newspapers. I read Wolfe and the other new journalists in late 70's college years, and was blown away by their narratives. But I quickly discovered that daily newspapers were not exactly open to that sort of writing. And as time went on, through the 80's and the advent of USA Today, short, punchy writing at a 6th grade level became the primary currency of the profession, much to my chagrin. RIP Tom Wolfe, and RIP the new journalism.

  17. Nowadays, it's RIP journalism. Our city still has a decent newspaper, but many larger cities do not. And much of the public prefers Faux News to balanced news coverage.
    But it sure was fun to read Tom Wolfe back in the day. I went on many of the kinds of adventures he wrote about. Somehow survived, so far.

  18. I hated every book of his that I tried to read. And I am not kidding when I say "tried to read." I got further with some than with others, but I never finished one that I can remember. And I don't remember enjoying the parts I read of those I did try to read. I admit I have rather unique tastes ( I don't like anything that Woody Allen ever produced either), but . . . .

  19. Your comment might make sense if you would please include an example, or several, of your "unique tastes." Please enlighten your dear readers....

  20. Pat Norris, will you marry me? Gender unimportant.

  21. As a fellow admirer of Tom Wolfe (not to mention an admirer of Kurt Andersen), I thank you for your wonderful reminiscences. I can't imagine any writer of our generation failing to be influenced, however subtly or even negatively, by Tom Wolfe. He was the elephant in the salon who could not be ignored.

  22. I have been an avid reader my entire life (60+ years.) Reading Bonfire when it was first published was nothing less than transformational. Since, I've read them all and loved them all. His incisive ( literally and figuratively) take on social mores and morays is always right on the money-as funny as it is spot on. Mr. Wolfe was a luminary, in the same ilk as Philip Roth. To think otherwise is to do him an injustice. I am grateful that he shared his gift with me. He enriched my life and made me laugh. RIP.

  23. Wow, all this to-do over an author that I, for one, found unreadable.

    You go, E.B. White!

  24. Yeah, TWolfe made "everyone talk about him". And so did Paris Hilton. And and the Kardashians.

    Manufactured celebrity was a sorta-talent in the 1980s. Maybe into the '90s. Now its clear that all that smoke was mere promo manipulation, a manufactured hype that dispensed with depth and breadth in favor of spectacle and provocation. He wrote a lot of words - and every one of them was about celebrating HIM, the writer, not the America he claimed was so interesting.

    TWolfe's writing will hold up as a beacon of promotional illusion. Read the books. And read other books, folks. This guy was a charming huckster. Nobody's gonna read his stuff in 30 years. Lots of heat. Light? Not so much.

    But I hear he was great a parties.

  25. Mr. Wolfe inspired me not for his touching around the edges his writing mirrored his narcissistic couture. both made of 'fingerdipping' rather than immersion with recovery or death. and he had not a proffer to offer of emphatic guidance only subliminal submersion, a death hold initiated by a bravura unearned!

  26. How did he keep his clothes ( shoes especially) so clean in NYC?