Tom Wolfe, 88, has died. The pioneer of “New Journalism,” which uses fictional techniques–an interior point of view, dialogue, thoughts, action, description, and a creative style–to write non-fiction, Wolfe later turned to fiction. At a time when most novelists were writing interior narratives of consciousness, Wolfe made the case for big, sweeping novels about the outside social world, in the vein of Dickens. Wolfe’s novels were, in effect, portraits of whole cities: New York, Atlanta, Miami.
Wolfe got his start chronicling the 1960s counterculture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but throughout his career he penned devastatingly funny accounts of “progressives” in their various fields. Here are some must-reads:
(1) Radical Chic. In this essay, which coined the term, Wolfe writes about a Manhattan cocktail party put on by conductor Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panther Party. Wolfe skewers the wealthy liberals who try to be leftwing revolutionaries, but who don’t quite have the background for it.
(2) The Painted Word. Tom Wolfe takes on “the art world,” which actually consists of just a handful of dilletantes in New York City, fewer in number than the inhabitants of a small town. Wolfe punctures the pretensions of modern and postmodern art, doing so as someone who loves actual art.
(3) The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe here takes on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. It turns out, Darwin stole much of his theory from a young biologist. Wolfe then shows how evolution became fashionable in 19th century Europe and America. He also shows some holes in the theory, particularly, its inability to account for language.
(4) The Right Stuff. In perhaps his best venture into New Journalism, Wolfe writes about the astronauts in the Mercury space program. In doing so, he brings back American heroism into our cynical world.Wolfe was always nattily dressed in his trademark white suit.
My wife and I met him.
Photo by MoSchle [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons