Tom Wolfe, the best-selling author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test among many other works of fiction, non fiction, and journalism, has died at age eighty-eight after a bout of pneumonia. His death was confirmed by his agent Lynn Nesbit. Nesbit described Wolfe as “not just an American icon… he had a huge international literary reputation. All the same, he was one of the most modest and kindest people I have ever met. I never exchanged a cross word with him in our many years of working together.”
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1930, Wolfe started his career as a reporter for the Washington Post, later working for the New York Herald Tribune. According to NPR, “he developed a unique style, incorporating literary techniques — interior monologues, amped-up prose and eccentric punctuation… called New Journalism.” The Wall Street Journal describes New Journalism as “a bracing watershed in immersive reporting and visceral writing that removed the authorial distance and plunged readers into situations such as the early years of America’s space program.”
His novels, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, examined vast concepts. NPR’s obituary for Wolfe includes a quote from the author on how he began writing his first novel:
I looked at the whole city first. I wanted to do New York High and Low. I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and also some of the life on Park Avenue. And at the low end there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. Once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters.
Of his writing habits, Wolfe was quotes as saying,
I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance. I’ll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene that I’m going to write about. Once you know what you’re going to say — I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on the typewriter. And that comes out for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That’s not all that hard to do.
He is credited with coining many phrases which have entered the every day lexicon, such as ‘radical chic,’ and ‘pushing the envelope.’ Lev Grossman, book critic for TIME magazine, told NPR that he credits Wolfe with being one of the first to document society in the way that bloggers do now. “Everything that bloggers have done for journalism — and I personally think they’ve done a lot — Wolfe did it first, he did it 30 years earlier, and he did it better. And I think we’re still catching up to him.”
Wolfe was famed for his tailored white suits and biting humor. His final book, Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016.
Featured Image Via Wall Street Journal.