Tom Wolfe elevated journalism into enduring literature

Wolfe broke the rules of traditional journalism, making long-lasting impressions on those in the field

By William McKeen | Boston University

From Flickr.

Origin story

Tom Wolfe took an unusual path into the world of journalism that he would so flagrantly disrupt. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, he went to Washington and Lee University, but did not follow the prescribed English-lit path to becoming a Man of Letters. He majored in American studies, examining the country from the ground up. His mentor, Marshall Fishwick, had students work shifts as brick masons and garbage collectors.

Stumbling into journalism

Then he saw it: “His Girl Friday.” Being a newspaper reporter looked like fun and after years of academic overload, he longed for the real world. That world with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell looked real enough, and so he blanketed North America with resumes. He got two bites, one of which was a joke offer so the New York Daily News could brag about having a Ph.D. copy boy. (He’d finally finished the dissertation.)

Infuriating the establishment

Wolfe wanted to play that game. He covered a custom car rally in California for the Herald Tribune and spun off a free-association feature — actually his verbatim memo about the car rally — into an Esquire article titled “There Goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy-Kolored (THPHHHHHH!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (RAHGHHHH!) Around the Bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.”

Climbing the mountain

Inevitably — because the mountain was there, demanding to be climbed — he turned to fiction. Using his reporter’s skills and determined to write a realistic novel in the manner of Charles Dickens, he spent a decade — and a very public first draft, also in Rolling Stone — to produce “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a big best-seller, loathed by the literary community that had always despised him.

Tom Wolfe on ‘Firing Line’ in 1975.

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