The man in the white suit was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 2, 1931.
When the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) was in graduate school as a magazine major at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the mid-1970s, his dream (and that of more than one of his classmates) was to become the next Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, those two paragons of the school of writing known as The New Journalism. (Talese is 11 months younger than Wolfe; he’ll turn 85 on February 7, 2017.) Undoubtedly some of the Medill newspaper majors were similarly inspired by the leading lights of the day, although in their case the role models were Woodward and Bernstein.
Little did the FWB realize that Wolfe was sui generis—a unique combination of writing talent, reporting doggedness, intellectual depth, artistic creativity and ground-breaking style, including a colorful expansion of the effective use of punctuation and italic type. Both Wolfe’s and Talese’s great magazine articles were nonfiction short stories that are still recognized today as among the best ever written.
Wolfe made his mark with magazine pieces such as “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. . .” and “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” in the November 1963 and March 1965 issues, respectively, of Esquire; with his narrative nonfiction books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1977); and, finally, with his piercing and laughter-inducing cultural criticism, especially his two-part takedown of the then-stuffy New Yorker magazine in the New York Herald-Tribune Sunday supplement New York in April 1965, and the books The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) about modern art and modern architecture, respectively.
In December 1972, Wolfe published a piece in Esquire titled “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” arguing that the current nonfiction was superior to contemporaneous fiction. Fifteen years later, in 1987, he turned the literary world on its ear by publishing his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a story grounded in shoe-leather reporting that the author converted, through his ears, eyes, imagination and writing ability into a 659-page Wolfe-ian styled, socially prescient blockbuster about life in New York City. That was followed by another controversial treatise on the failure of many fiction writers to address large topics, preferring instead to write about their autobiographically-derived characters’ narrow external lives and internal musings. The article—“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the November 1989 issue of Harper’s—was subtitled, “A literary manifesto for the new social novel.”
It wasn’t until Wolfe published his 742-page second novel, 1998’s A Man in Full—a book that debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and remained at the top for 10 weeks—that the long knives of some of the country’s leading literary novelists were unsheathed. John Updike in The New Yorker, Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books and John Irving on a TV show in Toronto all panned A Man in Full, dismissing it as mere entertainment and its author as a mere journalist masquerading, and failing, as a novelist. Irving even declared that Wolfe was “not a writer.” Two years later, in his collection Hooking Up, Wolfe struck back with an essay titled “My Three Stooges.” And he was not deterred from writing more big novels, about big 21st-century topics: modern college life (I Am Charlotte Simmons, 676 pages, 2004) and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Miami (Back to Blood, 704 pages, 2012).
How did Wolfe do it? How did he write so much, so effectively, in so many different genres? Michael Lewis, the most accomplished and acclaimed Wolfe acolyte, attempted to explain in it the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. Wolfe has given his papers to the New York Public Library, and Lewis delved into those archives and visited with the man himself to produce “How Tom Wolfe Became. . .Tom Wolfe.”
In addition to Lewis’ article, there are two other invaluable primary sources: Wolfe’s 1993 anthology, The New Journalism (with E.W. Johnson, Harper & Row) and the interview anthology Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura (University Press of Mississippi, 1990).
Meantime, though, the FWB recently came across a treasure trove of Wolfe’s wit and wisdom at the website likesuccess.com. It is an online repository of memorable quotes by great writers, from A.A. Milne to ZZ Packer. From the nearly 150 Wolfe quotes listed on the site, here—as a delayed birthday tribute to the white-suited wonder and as a gift from him to all of us aspiring writers—are some of his about thoughts about writing and the writer’s life, with a heartfelt sentiment at the end.
“It helps to know from a very early age what you want to do. From the time I was five years old, I wanted to be a writer, even though I couldn’t even read. It was mainly because I thought of my father as a writer.”
“My father was the editor of an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn’t think of himself as a writer. He was a scientist, an agronomist, but I thought of him as a writer because I’d seen him working at his desk. I just assumed that I was going to do that, that I was going to be a writer.”
“When I went to high school, my most passionate desire was to be a professional baseball player. But something within me told me that was not going to happen.”
“Everyone is taught the essentials of writing for at least 13 years, maybe more if they go to college. Nobody is taught music or tap dancing that way.”
“[W]hat I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.”
“I wrote a number of pieces in the year 1966 that were so bad that, although I’m a great collector of my own pieces, I have never collected them.”
“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”
“My entire career, in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me.”
“Fortunately, the world is full of people with information compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.”
“It’s fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed.”
“I’m a great believer in outlines.”
“I used to go through the dictionary looking for unusual but nontechnical words. At one time, I thought the greatest word was ‘jejune’ and I would throw it into every piece because something about it appealed to me.”
“I found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along—and I must say I had a good time using them.”
“People complain about my exclamation points, but I honestly think that’s the way people think. I don’t think people think in essays; it’s one exclamation point to another.”
“I used to enjoy using dots where they would be least expected, not at the end of a sentence but in the middle, creating the effect. . .of a skipped beat. It seemed to me the mind reacted—first! . . .in dots, dashes, and exclamation points, then rationalized, drew up a brief, with periods.”
“I still believe nonfiction is the most important literature to come out of the second half of the 20th century.”
“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”
“To me, novels are a trip of discovery, and you discover things that you don’t know and you assume that many of your readers don’t know, and you try to bring them to life on the page.”
“Philip Roth is a fabulous writer, but he pretty much stays within his own life. He’s so good—I mean, practically anything I’ve ever read of his I’ve really enjoyed. He just has tremendous talent. But I think he should have given himself a break and gone deeper into the society.”
“[D]on’t just describe an emotion, arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion. . . .”
“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”
“If most writers are honest with themselves, this is the difference they want to make: before, they were not noticed; now they are.”
“There is no motivation higher than being a good writer.”
“I read somewhere that writers, as they get older, become more and more perfectionist. Which may be because they think more highly of themselves and they worry about their reputations. I think there’s some truth to that.”
“Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.”
Belated Happy 85th. . .Tom Wolfe!—Alex McNab