In Memoriam

Tom Wolfe (1931-2018): An American Icon

Tom Wolfe (1931-2018): An American Icon
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He made a bonfire of human vanities with gusto

WHO IS A great writer? Someone who sees the future while writing of today? Someone who can coin terms and phrases for posterity? American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who died recently, ticks both those boxes. The terms he used to describe the excesses of the late 70s, such as the ‘Me Decade’, could easily be applied to the selfie-obsessed culture of today.

Wolfe was not the unshaven rumpled journalist padding around in shorts; instead, he was the Man in the Suit, and a white one at that, occasionally accompanied by a gilt-tipped walking cane. When asked to describe his fashion style, he replied ‘neo-pretentious’. Which is a perfect description for much of what we see in today’s malls and on ramps. He popularised phrases such as ‘aw-shucks’, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘expressing genial self-deprecation or gratified embarrassment’; mau-mauing, ‘to terrorise or threaten’, and ‘balls-out’, meaning ‘without moderation or restraint’.

Wolfe has more than a dozen non-fiction books and four novels to his name. He is best known for his novels The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and Back to Blood (2012), and for reconfiguring the basics of journalism. Along with other ace reporters such as Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion, he featured in an anthology titled The New Journalism (1973). The common thread in their work was plenty of legwork and a sense of style. But Wolfe identified four basic devices of New Journalism— scene-by-scene construction; lots of dialogue; a marked point of view within the story; and the recording of ‘status life’, defined by Wolfe as ‘the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be’. While these seem like the basics of most feature stories, Wolfe had a greater vision in mind. He was waging a battle ‘against the old journalism and above all against the novel’, as noted by the 1973 New York Times review of The New Journalism. Novels, he found, were more fable and less life. He believed that the ‘objectivity’ of old journalism is a façade, so it is better to reinforce a marked point of view.

In an article titled ‘The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’; Eyewitness Report (Participant Reveals Main Factors Leading to Demise of the Novel, Rise of New Style Covering Events)’ published February 14th, 1972, in New York Magazine, Wolfe wrote how he and his contemporaries went beyond the usual rigours of reporting, spending not hours but days with their subjects. They used dialogue and point-of-view and interior monologue. ‘Eventually I, and others, would be accused of ‘entering people’s minds’,’ he writes, ‘But exactly! I figured that was one more doorbell a reporter had to push.’ He wanted to show on page not what a person was saying, but what a person was thinking. For example, one of his most famous articles ‘Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s’ (1970, New York Magazine) opens not with a conversation, but with a midnight vision seen by the music composer Leonard Bernstein. He did not merely report, he infiltrated the eye sockets of his subjects.

While the work of ‘new’ journalists was celebrated, others found the excess of onomatopoeia, dots, dashes, nonsense words and exclamation marks tiresome. Wolfe’s writing is not easy to read; it can often feel like trying to decipher patterns in the sand. His views were also often questionable. His book The Kingdom of Speech (2016) challenged Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky on the origin of human language and was critiqued for ‘suffering from a mix of sarcasm and ignorance’.

But Wolfe will always be celebrated for his writing that turned a corner. A magazine article could be new and original ‘like a novel’, but certainly not a novel.