By Mary Lou Beatty
"For all the comedy he generates in his prose," Paul Fussell once wrote, "Mr. Wolfe is a serious admonitor of contemporary folly, and in another age he might be a minister or a prophet or an outright moral philosopher, instead of an 'entertainer.'"
Tom Wolfe's penchant for satire led him to coin some of the catchphrases of the sixties and seventies--the Me Decade and Radical Chic and "the right stuff." Wolfe was one of the New Journalists, pursuing a craft that combined the old journalism of note-taking and observation with a new one of using fiction techniques to probe the psyches of the people involved. He skewered the pretentious at Leonard Bernstein's party for the Black Panthers; he retraced the acid-dropping odyssey of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
After twenty years of these pursuits, Wolfe went a step further. In the fall of 1987, he became Tom Wolfe the novelist. As he did so, he kept a lifeline to his journalism past. He proposed to write a novel chapter by chapter--as Dickens and Zola had once done--for serialization in Rolling Stone. Jan Wenner took him up on the offer, and a year and some months later Wolfe had the first draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Then, he rewrote it, and the hero changed from a novelist into the rapacious bond salesman Sherman McCoy.
The book showed a connoisseur's touch for the urban language. "I want you to show the whole city a New York"--Yawk--"what you just saw"--sawwwwr--"in there"--in'eh, a defense attorney tells the courtroom.
"It's outrageous the way people conduct their lives in New York," Wolfe commented to New York Times writer Mervyn Rothstein. "And yet I don't want to live anywhere else. I don't despair because I find the comedy so rich. At the same time that people do vile things, they also create hilariously funny spectacles."
For his second novel, A Man in Full, Wolfe shifted focus from the seamy allure of New York to Atlanta, where the economic boom-and-bust was altering political and racial attitudes. For his latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons, he visited college campuses around the country and created a mythical university bearing a strong resemblance to Duke.
Wolfe is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. It is the highest honor bestowed by the federal government in the field of the humanities. Wolfe has written fourteen books, among them The Painted Word about modern art, From Bauhaus to Our House about modern architecture, and The Right Stuff about America's early astronauts. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, and educated at Washington and Lee University and at Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in American Studies. Wolfe worked for a time for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union and the Washington Post before heading for New York and the Herald Tribune, where he and columnist Jimmy Breslin were soon to become the voices of the paper's new Sunday magazine, New York. When a strike closed New York's newspapers, Wolfe branched out to other magazines, including Esquire and Harper's.
"It's important to note that Wolfe is one of the great reporters," Marc Weingarten reminds us. "It is his empathic skill as a researcher and interviewer that enables him to write the last word about whatever he chooses to write about. When I interviewed some of the Merry Pranksters a few years ago for a book I was researching about Wolfe and other journalists of the sixties, they were all still amazed some forty years later by the fact that Wolfe managed to capture the essence of their story without resorting to the immersive tactics of an interactive writer like Hunter Thompson. Without participating in a single acid test or changing out of his suit, Wolfe wrote the definitive account of sixties counterculture.
"His prose," Weingarten adds, "like his ice-cream suit, is an instantly recognizable trademark."