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Awards & Honors: 2001 National Humanities Medalist

Tom Wolfe

“I would hope that I have given readers a fresh understanding of how life is lived in different areas,” says author Tom Wolfe, “whether it’s the world of test pilots, or hippies, or people with highly urban ambitions of the sort you always encounter in New York.” As a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, and a novelist, his in-depth reporting provides details of his characters and their worlds.

Wolfe became a leading figure in the New Journalism movement after he came to New York in 1962 to work as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. He noticed newspaper colleagues Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin applying techniques associated with fiction—long stretches of dialog, detailed descriptions, use of theme and point-of-view—while adhering to the rules of journalistic accuracy.

“I figured, I’d like to get in on this, too,” Wolfe recalls. So he tried his hand at the new approach to nonfiction. His facility with the style led some to designate him “the father of New Journalism.”

After a newspaper strike left him jobless, he launched a magazine-writing career, beginning with the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for Esquire magazine. He went on to write The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. His stories, written for Esquire and New York, capture the chaotic spirit of the sixties and are still widely read in anthologies.

Wolfe has always sought to reveal the context of his characters, in the belief that social status shapes the psychology of each individual. He provokes discussion and some disagreement from his literary peers with his assertion that the future of the American novel lies in realistic social observation.

Wolfe’s nonfiction work reflects his interest in social interaction. The Painted Word, an account of the contemporary art world, was not a critique, he says, but a history of status battles. The Right Stuff, about the U.S. space program, was “not so much about space, but about competition among military pilots to reach the top,” he says. The book became a best-seller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.

Wolfe turned to novel writing late in his career. In 1987, he published The Bonfire of the Vanities, which he hoped would “show New York high and low.” Wolfe offered a tale about Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader whose moneyed existence clashes with the impoverished world of the Bronx. The novel leapt to the top of best-seller lists and became one of the top ten bestselling books of the decade. Just as Wolfe’s magazine pieces epitomized the sixties, The Bonfire of the Vanities became the defining novel of the eighties. Wolfe’s goal as a writer is to inform the reader about how life is lived. “I think the great purpose of novels or nonfiction is to discover something,” he says. “I’ve never been interested in getting across a political or moral point. I’ve always wanted to discover something I didn’t know about before.” Now seventy-two, Wolfe is working on a novel about college life, which is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2003.

By RW