Tom Wolfe, Journalist and Author, Dies at 88
Tom Wolfe, an early practitioner of “new journalism” who captured the mood and culture of America across five decades with books including “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Right Stuff,” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” has died at the age of 88 according to his agent.
Wolfe, who had a knack for coining phrases such as “radical chic” and “the me decade,” died on Monday of an unspecified infection in a New York City hospital, his agent, Lynn Nesbit, said on Tuesday.
Wolfe’s works – fiction and non-fiction alike – looked at realms ranging from the art world to Wall Street to 1960s hippie culture and touched on the issues of class, power, race, corruption and sex.
“I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status,” Wolfe said once in a Wall Street Journal interview.
Wolfe came up with “radical chic” to brand pretentious liberals, the “me decade” to sum up the self-indulgence of the 1970s and the “right stuff” to quantify intangible characteristics of the first U.S. astronauts and their test pilot predecessors.
He was never deterred by the fact that he often did not fit in with his research subjects, partly because he was such a sartorial dandy, known for his white suits.
Wolfe was in his mid-70s while hanging out with college kids and working on the novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and was a fairly conservative drug-free observer in a coat and tie while traveling with Ken Kesey and his LSD-dropping hippie tribe known as The Merry Pranksters for “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in the ‘60s. By looking so out of place, he figured people would be more prone to explain things to him.
Wolfe complained that novelists did not bring enough reality to their books, and while bemoaning the state of American literature, offered himself as an exemplar of what it should be. That kindled rivalries with contemporaries Norman Mailer and John Updike, who Wolfe referred to as “two old piles of bones.” John Irving angrily denounced Wolfe by saying, “I can’t read him because he’s such a bad writer.”