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If you like Tom Wolfe's story, you might also like:
Nora Ephron,
Henry R. Kravis,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Norman Mailer,
James Michener,
Vincent Scully,
John Updike,
Edward O. Wilson
and Chuck Yeager

Related Links:
The New York Times: Wolfe's Southern Roots

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Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
Profile of Tom Wolfe Biography of Tom Wolfe Interview with Tom Wolfe Tom Wolfe Photo Gallery

Tom Wolfe Biography

America's Master Novelist

Tom Wolfe Date of birth: March 2, 1931

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  Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe Biography Photo
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. His family had deep roots in the region, and though they were far from wealthy, placed a high value on education. His father was an agricultural scientist, and his mother was in her first year of medical school when she dropped out to have her first child.

As a boy, Tom Wolfe was an avid reader, and early in life he formed an ambition to become a professional writer. He has always written under the short form of his name, and is not related to the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, who died in 1938. Tom Wolfe graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1951 and earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University. His doctorate was granted in 1957; by then, he was already working as a general assignment reporter at the Springfield Union newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts.

By 1960 Wolfe was a Latin American correspondent for the Washington Post. He earned the Newspaper Guild's foreign news prize for his coverage of the Cuban revolution. In 1962, Wolfe signed on with the New York Herald Tribune. With reporter Jimmy Breslin, he was one of two staff writers assigned to the paper's Sunday supplement, which later became New York magazine.

Tom Wolfe Biography Photo
During the New York newspaper strike of 1962-63, Wolfe proposed an article on the Southern California hot rod and custom car culture to the editors of Esquire magazine. When he found himself stumped for an angle, his editor suggested he send him his notes as a starting point for discussion. Wolfe replied with a long, spontaneous letter, dispensing with traditional journalistic conventions and describing the whole scene in a vivid, personal voice. The editor deleted the salutation and ran the rest of the letter verbatim. The essay was one of the first examples of what came to be known as "the New Journalism." Wolfe had invented a distinctive exclamatory style, replete with pitch-perfect mimicry, rhythmic repetitions and transcribed sound effects to capture the manic energy and day-glo pop art colors of the era. In "The Last American Hero," a 1964 Esquire article on stock car racing driver Junior Johnson, Wolfe introduced the term "good ol' boy" for the first time to the general public outside the South. It was the first of many catchphrases that Wolfe would either popularize or coin outright.

These and other essays were collected in the book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, which became an instant bestseller. Wolfe was now the most talked-about young journalist in America, and his days as a daily newspaper reporter were over. He traveled the country, recording the dramatic changes in lifestyle taking place in America in the 1960s; his essays appeared regularly in Esquire, New York and Harper's. In 1968, two new Tom Wolfe books were published on a single day. The Pump House Gang was a new collection of essays, while The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was a novelistic account of the counterculture, centering on a coast-to-coast bus trip with author Ken Kesey and his band of psychedelic adventurers known as the Merry Pranksters.

Wolfe's 1970 book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, provoked controversy with its ridicule of politics-as-fashion among the New York celebrity set, and its portrayal of street-wise hustlers manipulating government anti-poverty programs. By now, Wolfe was becoming a celebrity himself; his trademark white suit made him one of the most recognizable figures on the literary scene. He continued to provoke the assumptions of fashionable elites with The Painted Word (1975), a challenge to the critical assumptions of the modern art world.

Tom Wolfe Biography Photo
The following year saw the publication of another collection of essays, Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter & Vine, which included a celebrated essay, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Wolfe's coinage, "the Me decade," was soon transformed into "the Me generation" in popular parlance.

For six years, Wolfe researched a book on the beginnings of the American space program and the subculture of military test pilots that preceded it. The Right Stuff, published in 1979, was a sensation. It returned test pilot extraordinaire Chuck Yeager from obscurity to national prominence and contributed a new set of phrases to the popular vocabulary, including "pushing the envelope" and the book's title itself.

For years, Wolfe had made satirical drawing to illustrate his work; a selection of these appeared in his first book as "Metropolitan Sketchbook." Since 1977, he had drawn a monthly illustrated feature in Harper's magazine. The drawings were collected in a 1980 book, In Our Time.

The Right Stuff had brought Wolfe a whole new audience, but he was not done ruffling the feathers of the critical establishment. From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) was a full frontal assault on the critical orthodoxy of modern architecture. Having had his say on critical fashions in art and architecture, Wolfe called the literary world to account for its absorption in formal experimentation and the minutiae of undramatic lives, and for its relative neglect of the larger society's public dramas.

Tom Wolfe Biography Photo
Wolfe had long dreamed of writing a big novel of contemporary life; he now set out to do so in the most public way possible. Like the great novelists of the 19th century, he would publish his work in serial form, one chapter at a time as he wrote them. Throughout 1984 and 1985, a new chapter of Wolfe's tale appeared in Rolling Stone magazine every two weeks. Although his critics conceded that the individual chapters were entertaining, they insisted that a work written in this fashion would never hold together when assembled between hard covers. Wolfe gave himself time to prepare the work for publication. When The Bonfire of the Vanities finally appeared in book form in 1987, it was his greatest success to date. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year, and sold millions of copies. Its portrayal of New York's "money culture" of the 1980s has made it a touchstone of the era. Wolfe was paid a record-setting $5 million for the movie rights.

Wolfe's next novel, A Man in Full (1998), was a hugely ambitious panorama of American life at the turn of the 21st century. It outsold even The Bonfire of the Vanities in hardcover. A collection of essays and short fiction, Hooking Up, appeared in 2000, and included the novella "Ambush at Fort Bragg," previously serialized in Rolling Stone.

Tom Wolfe's third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, was published in 2004. Now in his 70s, Wolfe set himself the difficult task of anatomizing the sexual mores of American college students. The result was simultaneously sobering and hilarious. From his pioneering work at the Herald Tribune to his latest fiction, Tom Wolfe has been an incomparably entertaining and insightful chronicler of the changing American scene.

This page last revised on Oct 08, 2005 22:31 EDT
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