Remembering Tom Wolfe
NEW YORK • 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.
Wolfe’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, said 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 selfabsorbed 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, said 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’s 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.
Born in Richmond, Va., the grandson of a Confederate rifleman, Wolfe began his journalism career as a reporter 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.