Today in Literary History – March 2, 1930 – Tom Wolfe is born

Tom Wolfe, one of the founders of the “New Journalism” movement and a best-selling novelist, was born on March 2, 1930 in Richmond, Virginia.

Wolfe’s early journalistic works in the 1960s, collected in such books as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, broke most of the rules of the “old journalism” by using the present tense and by making the author a participant in the story in an immersive way.

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He also wrote a highly influential book about the astronauts and their families in the early days of the US space program, The Right Stuff in 1979.

His journalism hit all of the hot buttons of 1960s American culture, like hot rods, the Beats, the hippies, drugs, technology, race relations and class snobbery.

He coined or popularized such famous phrases as “catching flak,” “the ‘Me’ decade,” “social X-ray,” “radical chic,” “good ol’ boy,” “the right stuff,” and “masters of the universe.”

Later in his career he turned to fiction, scoring big with his massive satirical novel Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. In nearly 700 pages Wolfe took on the New York of the 1980s with its greed, ambition, class and race wars, and its unbridled Wall Street excesses.

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Wolfe earned a PhD. from Yale University in 1957 with a dissertation titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929-1942.

Turning his back on academia Wolfe took reporting jobs on the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune.

According to a famous story Wolfe’s idiosyncratic style began by accident in 1963, when he contracted with Esquire magazine to write an article about the southern California drag racing culture. Wolfe was stuck on how to approach the subject and on the eve of deadline he sent his notes to his editor along with a letter explaining how he’d been unable to get an angle on the story and what he had wanted the article to have gotten across, and suggested that another writer take on the task.

The magazine decided to run the letter and the notes as they were, under the title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Thus, Wolfe’s non-journalism became the New Journalism, with as many fans as detractors.

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Wolfe himself called his method “saturation reporting,” saying “To pull it off, you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches . . . long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.”

He wrote about what he saw and heard in excited rapid-fire prose, with plenty of exclamation marks, sound effects and capitalization, that gave his writing a vivid sense of urgency.

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In his public presentation Wolfe played up the southern aristocratic dandy persona, always wearing expensive white suits, homburgs or Panama hats, and shirts with detachable collars. He was also a vocal supporter of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Wolfe died in 2018 at the age of 88.

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