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Wednesday, 16 May 2018

RIP Tom Wolfe (1930-2018)

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr was an American author and journalist widely known for his association with New Journalism, a style of news writing and journalism developed in the 1960s and 1970s that incorporated literary techniques. Wolfe began his career as a regional newspaper reporter in the 1950s, achieving national prominence in the 1960s following the publication of such best-selling books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (a highly experimental account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters) and two collections of articles and essays, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Wolfe was born on March 2, 1930, in Richmond, Virginia, and died in Manhattan on May 14, 2018, at the age of 88.
In 1956 Wolfe became a reporter for the Springfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts. Three years later he was hired by The Washington Post. He won an award from The Newspaper Guild for foreign reporting in Cuba in 1961 and also won the Guild's award for humor. While there, Wolfe experimented with fiction-writing techniques in feature stories. In 1962, Wolfe left Washington DC for New York City, taking a position with the New York Herald Tribune as a general assignment reporter and feature writer. During the 1962 New York City newspaper strike, Wolfe approached Esquire magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California. He struggled with the article until his editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that Wolfe send him his notes so they could piece the story together. The evening before the deadline, he typed a letter to Dobell explaining what he wanted to say on the subject, ignoring all journalistic conventions. Dobell's response was to remove the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and publish it intact as reportage. The result, published in 1963, was "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." The article was widely discussed - loved by some, hated by others. Its notoriety helped Wolfe gain publication of his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of his writings from the Herald-Tribune, Esquire and other publications.
This was what Wolfe called New Journalism, in which some journalists and essayists experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispassionate, even-handed reporting. Wolfe experimented with four literary devices not normally associated with feature writing: scene-by-scene construction, extensive dialogue, multiple points of view, and detailed description of individuals' status-life symbols (the material choices people make) in writing this stylized form of journalism. He later referred to this style as literary journalism. Of the use of status symbols, Wolfe has said, "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."


MTCoalhopper said...

Let's all forgive him for his lament over the unavailability of typewriter ribbons.

Discussing Tom Wolfe with my fellow librarians, yesterday, it occurred to me how diverse his writing was. Some people who loved "Bonfire of the Vanities" seemed vaguely aware of "The Right Stuff." The man was hard to stick into one literary category. Every book its reader, and something from Tom Wolfe to please nearly any audience.

Bill M said...

I learned of his passing while listening to the news on the radio on my way home from the lumberyard yesterday. It's the first I learned he wrote more than The Right Stuff. I need to read few of his other books and writings. Thanks for the informative post Robert.

Johnpyyc said...

He will be missed!