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Awards & Honors: 2006 Jefferson Lecturer

Tom Wolfe Biography

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2006 cover

May/June 2006

Tom Wolfe

"I think every living moment of a human being's life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status," Tom Wolfe has said. As the man in the iconic white suit with a swaggering pen, Wolfe has spent the past fifty years chronicling America's status battles and capturing our cultural zeitgeist.

After earning a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1957, Wolfe plunged into a decade-long career as a newspaperman, beginning with a stint at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union. A tour as The Washington Post's Latin American correspondent followed in 1960, earning him an award from the Washington Newspaper Guild for his coverage of the Cuban revolution.

Like other writers before him, Wolfe yearned to test his talents in New York. In 1962, he became a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and a staff writer for New York magazine, pounding out stories alongside Jimmy Breslin. Wolfe also produced a series of articles for Esquire and New York that laid the foundation for the New Journalism, a style of writing that combined journalistic accuracy with a novelist's eye for description, theme, and point of view. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) assembled these articles into book form and gave Wolfe his first best seller. Others followed: The Pump House Gang (1968) featured more observations about Sixties culture and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) captured the LSD-infused antics of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

In 1979, Wolfe published The Right Stuff, a hefty account of the launching of the American space program after World War II. The book, which focused on the competition between the pilots and astronauts for glory and girls, not only became a best seller, but also earned Wolfe the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.

Although Wolfe's talent for observation and thick description had served him well as a nonfiction writer, he had yet to make the jump to fiction. Taking a page from Charles Dickens, one of his favorite writers, Wolfe pounded out The Bonfire of the Vanities as a serial for Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985. The tale, which appeared as a book in 1987, portrayed New York as a money-obsessed, sex-seeking, power-hungry, appearance-driven urban cocktail of a city. Sherman McCoy, investment banker and "Master of the Universe," learns just how mercurial and bitter-tasting the city can be after a wrong turn sends his high-flying life into a nosedive.

Along with Tom Wolfe the Journalist and Tom Wolfe the Novelist, one cannot overlook Tom Wolfe the Provocateur. Wolfe has never hesitated to challenge prevailing notions. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) delved into race relations, offering both a raucous account of the Leonard Bernstein's party for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue duplex, and a searing look at the mechanics of government's war on poverty. In The Painted Word (1975), Wolfe focused his status-calibrated eye on the contemporary art world, portraying it as an insular village of tastemakers. From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) tackled twentieth century architecture, with Wolfe charging that architects were more interested in theory than in buildings. In the wake of Bonfire's success, Wolfe stirred up the literary community, via an article in Harper's, when he suggested that the future of the American novel lay in the novelist functioning as reporter, not psychoanalyst.

Wolfe practiced what he preached with his next two novels, conducting extensive research on everything from quail farms to prisons to college keggers. A Man in Full (1998), set in Atlanta, the jewel of the rising New South, wades into racial politics and explores the consequences of 1980s greed. Wolfe's latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), offers a critique of campus life, in which sex, not educational goals, defines social status.

The key to Wolfe's enduring success lies in his ability to convey the nuances of his subjects or characters--the way they walk, what they drive, how they hold their fork--while providing a modern exhortation on the seven deadly sins. Given his ability to capture a cultural moment, it is no coincidence that contemporary language is sprinkled with Wolfian phrases: "statusphere," "the right stuff," "radical chic," "the Me Decade," and "good ol' boy."

Wolfe was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. He lives in New York City with his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Alexandra, and his son, Tommy.

-- Meredith Hindley