Tom Wolfe: A Journalist in Full


Convivium, 17 May 2018

Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza bids goodbye to a unique writer who used his reporter’s natural curiosity to illuminate our vanities with a bonfire’s light.

Tom Wolfe died on Monday. For those who aspire to cultural commentary, either in journalism or in novels, there was no one quite like him, who wrote both. 

As a journalist he published collections of essays with titles such as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. So strange was that kind of journalism that it became New Journalism. Wolfe explained that it “meant writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”

Wolfe’s distinctive style disguised the enormous work he did as a reporter, employing the gift he had to notice – and describe – just about anything so that his readers would never quite look at it the same way again. The 1970s as the “Me Decade”, the “Right Stuff”, “Masters of the Universe” are all phrases that Wolfe added to our cultural analysis. 

The last is from Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, published when he was already in his late fifties. His novels had rather plain names compared to his essay collections – A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Back to Blood. But their reach was extraordinary, massive tales told about New York, Atlanta, the elite university campus and Miami. He noticed what others noticed, but mostly noticed what they didn’t notice. And then he wrote about it like no one else ever did. 

“I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know,” Wolfe wrote, describing the curiosity that all reporters need. “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.” 

Wolfe in turn, having observed what they did and heard what they said, then held up a mirror so his subjects could see themselves more clearly than ever. But it was so much more comprehensive than just a mirror, more like a 3D medical image lavishly set as a stage production. 

Back in 1970, New York magazine published an issue entirely given over to Wolfe’s 20,000-word essay about a fundraising dinner for the Black Panthers at the Manhattan penthouse of Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The self-congratulation of New York’s ultra-rich for their ostentatiously progressive politics was ripe for ridicule, and Wolfe served it up, beginning with the hors d’oeuvres.

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