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The American writer Tom Wolfe died this week, aged 88. Acidic wit, rakish raconteur, proud fop: Wolfe was a giant of late 20th century writing. His words crackled down a page with the kinetic energy of a bus driven by brain-zapped speed freaks. Coining phrases like “radical chic” and “the right stuff,” costumed in his startling white suits, Wolfe was very much the iconoclast he always hoped he’d be.
He was one of those writers who—love or detest him—emanated an aura of influence that was present even when unnoticed. It is worth dissecting this aura in the current age of Mass Content, as author and story are blended by ad-men into stats and product. Wolfe’s legacy is tangled with the wobbly trajectory of what we once knew as “journalism,” as well as its wayward stepdad, “truth.”Hold up. Imagine coke is good again. It’s the 1970s:“You worthless scumsucking bastard,” began a letter from Hunter S. Thompson to Wolfe in 1971. “I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting.”This “new journalism” Thompson was referring to was a school of writing that combined journalistic research with novelistic technique, style and narrative. Wolfe, Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Truman Capote—all were associated with this loosely defined movement that blurred the line between non-fiction and fiction, and made journalism “literary.”Wolfe became the arbiter of this form when he released the anthology The New Journalism, edited by himself and E.W. Johnson in 1973. “Realism was not merely another literary approach or attitude…” he wrote in the preface. “…it raised the state of the art to an entirely new magnitude.”The collection was made up of writers from the 1960s and early 70s who found that traditional journalistic approaches failed to capture the disillusionment lurking in post-war, peak turmoil, pop-cluttered America. It included pieces such as George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and yes, Hunter S Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Sick and Depraved as well as an excerpt from Hells’ Angels (even though Thompson went on to call Wolfe a “thieving pile of albino warts” in the letter above.)
Wolfe ended his preface by stating that the main point of the book was to prove “that the most important literature being written in America today is in nonfiction, in the form that has been tagged, however ungracefully, the New Journalism.”The book was as much a diatribe against the state of American fiction as it was a manifesto slash how-to guide for overthrowing the rote newspaper reporting of the past and implementing this new electric practice. Key to the new journalists’ approach, beyond any literary trickery, was the melding of writer and subject. Suddenly, the author was injected into the story. Be this Thompson squatting with the Angels, Gloria Steinem working undercover as a Playboy Bunny, or Capote having a crush on the murderer he was sent to profile, the New Journalists broke the most basic rule of reporting because they made it personal.Published in 1964 by New York Magazine, Girl of the Year was Wolfe’s portrait of Manhattan “it girl” Baby Jane Holzer. From the outset, we get a sense of Wolfe’s verbose yet always savvy vernacular: “Bangs manes bouffants beehive Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honey dew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast old mouldering cherub dome up there—aren’t they super-marvellous?”
Wolfe had an ear for the times.His essay The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby was published by Esquire in 1968. It was a madcap leap into the subculture of car customisers in Los Angeles. Legend has it Wolfe sent a 49-page memo to editor Byron Dobell explaining what he believed the piece to be, and that Dobell simply cut “Dear Bryan” from the top and published.That same year he published his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the seminal tome of New Journalism, his foot in the door road-trip examination of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, as they drove their painted school bus around the country evangelizing LSD.Wolfe’s writing both reflected and refracted the shifts and bumps of late 60s counterculture. In 1970, New York Magazine’s June issue was devoted solely to Wolfe’s These Radical Chic Evenings. It was a long and barbarous piss-take of the wealthy liberal elite, centering on a Black Panthers fundraiser being hosted by millionaire socialites Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre. Wolfe, perhaps more than Thompson, questioned the sincerity of the liberal bourgeois classes dedication to left wing causes, some times to a fault.His elastic reflexes with words and sentence structure (he began an essay on Las Vegas by repeating the word “hernia” 57 times) allowed Wolfe to remain the foremost literary poker of self-importance. Arguably his best-known work, his first novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), is the most vivid portrait we have of 1980s Wall Street douchbebags.
Wolfe famously wore baroque white suits (in the style of Mark Twain) with cravats and matching fedoras, a style he dubbed “neo-Pretentious.” His prose could be much the same. It is difficult to read some of Wolfe (particularly when he discusses race) without having the feeling that you are, slyly, being condescended to. You can get a sense of what Thompson’s letter referred to as “honky bullshit.”But therein lies a lot of the fun of Tom Wolfe as well as New Journalism. He and it were both about the artistic possibilities of ego. Wolfe understood this. Heck, Thompson did, his biggest problem with New Journalism being that he wanted to be bigger than labels. Wolfe was, in the words of Vonnegut, “a genius who will do anything to get attention.”And he did.Wolfe told the Paris Review: “I found early in the game that for me there’s no use trying to blend in…fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories.”What Wolfe laid out was the groundwork for a kind of storytelling that would blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, not just in style, but in worth.We are living in the wake of that blurring. VICE, it must be said, was founded on similar principals that Wolfe laid out in his 1973 anthology. Wolfe and his peers worked within this style to stress the individuality of the artist—here the reporter/writer—so as to elevate the artistic merit and scope of the work as well as its creator’s voice. And it is doubtful whether anyone did this with hotter veracity than Wolfe.Follow Patrick on Twitter