clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Tom Wolfe Syllabus

The pioneer of New Journalism died at the age of 88 on Monday. From ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ to ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ the Ringer staff looks back on his most striking work.

Tom Wolfe Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Wolfe was every bit as captivating a human being as the many people he profiled in the span of his impactful career. The Virginia native was fond of white suits and exclamation points, a skilled conversationalist and agile party guest among Deadheads and billionaires alike. He was also the marquee pioneer of New Journalism, melding enthralling narrative techniques with deep reportage to deliver some of the most cutting and clever cultural criticism of his generation. After dying in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 88 on Monday, he leaves behind a long, varied bibliography and an impressive legacy, one that remains prevalent in current-day magazine writing. Below are highlights from the Wolfe canon that the staff of The Ringer hold dear.

The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!Esquire (1965)

Kevin Clark: There’s a genre of sports writing attempted often but rarely pulled off: the sports star as folk hero. The problem when these stories fall flat is that the writer wants to make the athlete bigger than sports, when an infinitesimal number actually are. One of the few exceptions to this is Wolfe’s 1965 essay on Junior Johnson, the bootlegger turned NASCAR star who defined the new South, the good old boys, and an emerging American car culture that was all converging for what Wolfe summed up as a “wild new thing.” Wolfe was at his best when slummed it, and he was at his best here. He scoured Johnson’s autograph lines, where the driver would be peppered with questions about his hunting dogs and shouts from “sweet little cigarette-ad blonde” women to sign their hands. The writing is good; the tone is better. There was plenty of room for Wolfe to roam around the South poking fun at the whiskey runner who became a southern god, but instead he found it all so thrilling. He could have written the NASCAR piece as a gawking bystander—and many have—but instead it reads like he was just the smartest guy to have lived in Wilkes County, North Carolina, for the previous 40 years. He detailed conversations that would be considered ludicrous in Manhattan—that Johnson had committed sacrilege by switching to Ford from Dodger and before that, Chevrolet—but he does so as if he’s been immersed in Southern car culture his whole life. All of Wolfe’s prime work read like this: He was not a visitor. He was of the culture. Johnson’s lawbreaking nature made him, Wolfe surmised, “like Robin Hood or Jesse James or Little David or something.” Wolfe set out to write about the new South, and he pointed out, accurately, that it wasn’t anything like the “panels” said it was. This is to say that no one in the North understood anything in the South. Wolfe was a terrific guide for them.

The piece became the basis for a fun, if one-dimensional, Jeff Bridges movie that mostly focuses on Johnson’s brushes with the law. But Wolfe’s piece captures more: an era, a culture, and a genuine folk hero.

Pump House Gang (1968)

Tom Wolfe sitting at a desk Corbis via Getty Images

Alison Herman: La Jolla, California, is not an especially literary place. It’s where Mitt Romney has his vacation home (and where this indelible photo of a post-candidacy Mitt at CVS was taken). It’s where the omnipresent sun seems to bleach out any need for introspection. It’s also where I went to high school and spent most of the time feeling sorry for myself about the general lack of intellectual snobbery in my immediate vicinity. I’d have to wait until college to discover that one of the most revered authors of the late 20th century had once turned his sharp eye for counterculture and its hypocrisies to the local beach where my classmates were wont to take Instagrams of themselves eating burritos in bikinis. Long before La Jolla saw the influx of real estate money that transformed its coastline into an unbroken series of multimillion-dollar homes, it was a magnet for bohemian surfers who congregated at hot spots like Windansea, whose lives Wolfe chronicled as a suit-clad cosmopolitan who was essentially their polar opposite. What a relief to learn that La Jolla was as surreal a place to outsiders as I’d always sensed it was from the inside; how humbling to see that there was a more productive outlet for that skepticism than moody Tumblr posts.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Kate Knibbs: My introduction to Tom Wolfe was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, purchased at a Borders (RIP!) during my teenage Kerouac phase. It’s absolutely, positively the only book you should consider giving someone in the grips of their own Kerouac moment. Wolfe writes warmly about the frequently intoxicated, impossibly idealistic, hygiene-deficient counterculture, while also capturing its many, many follies. His fizzy, propulsive chronicle of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic-fueled bus journey is comic and true and generous in a way that few pieces of journalism about the hippie movement were before or after. The hippies never figured out a workable ideology, but at least they got a rollicking document of their giddy, brief efforts. I remember reading, after I’d finished, that Wolfe had remained in his signature white suit the whole time he’d been embedded with the Merry Pranksters, and I was struck by the idea that someone could truly understand and live among a community while maintaining a commitment to observing it from an emotional distance. Wolfe’s approach to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test cured me of admiration of the Neal Cassady crowd, while making it thrillingly clear that it was possible to capture the truth of a movement just by watching it closely.

Radical Chic,” New York Magazine (1970)

Alyssa Bereznak: Tom Wolfe built a career on spotting cultural contradictions, and the concept of “Radical Chic”—as illustrated in his New York Magazine essay, which eventually became a book—may very well be his most memorable portrait of modern day status seekers. The story offers a fly-on-the-wall account of a party that the composer Leonard Bernstein threw in his East Side co-op for the Black Panthers and obsessively chronicles the laughable pains that a handful of extremely wealthy, liberal white artists and heirs go through to demonstrate their support and worship of radical black activists. In a way, it’s a documentation of the original awokening: examining the privileged class’s utter discomfort with their advantages and eagerness to demonstrate their enlightened point of view to people of color at the center of the artistic and political zeitgeist. Come for the astute, lasting cultural criticism, stay for the impressively vivid descriptions of Upper East Side makeup routines and hors d’oeuvres.

The Birth of New Journalism,” New York Magazine (1972)

Katie Baker: “You can see the poor bastards floundering and gasping,” wrote Tom Wolfe, pitying an entire generation of writers. “They’re dying of thirst. They’re out of material. They start writing about funny things that happened around the house the other day, homey one-liners that the Better Half or the Avon lady got off, or some fascinating book or article that started them thinking, or else something they saw on the TV. Thank God for the TV! Without television shows to cannibalize, half of these people would be lost, utterly catatonic.” This was, somehow, not a description of 21st-century bloggers toiling away on the content farm. Wolfe wrote it in 1972, about local newspaper columnists, as part of a sprawling, two-part manifesto in New York magazine called “The Birth of the New Journalism” that explained Wolfe’s vivid, rambling reportorial style and cheerfully castigated novelists, editors, reporters, hacks, and dreamers alike.

Wolfe had long been bristling against the literary world’s status quo by the time he published the piece. In a 1965 roast of New Yorker editor William Shawn, Wolfe called the magazine’s comma-heavy house style a “whichy thicket” and rolled his eyes at the tyranny of the New Yorker’s famous fact-checkers. (“I always regarded it as kind of a job application,” deadpanned New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg decades later when the piece resurfaced in a Wolfe book of essays. “After reading it, I thought Tom Wolfe plus the New Yorker checking department would be a fabulous combination.”) In a 1991 “Art of Fiction” Q&A with The Paris Review, Wolfe recalled of back when he got assigned to cover Latin America for The Washington Post, “Every time I tried to write about the veins popping out on the forehead of a Cuban revolutionary leader it was just stricken from the copy because all they wanted was, Defense Minister Raul Castro said yesterday that …”

Tom Wolfe Getty Images

Wolfe’s media criticism could be pompous, and it constantly embroiled him in feuds, but it also contained truths so universal that they might as well be describing the current state of the media in all its-doin’-it-for-the-clicks glory. Perhaps most devastating from his New Journalism essay is a random aside describing the kind of “chuckly little item” that filled newspapers back in the day. “There was this out-of-towner who checked into a hotel in San Francisco last night, bent upon suicide,” Wolfe riffed, “and he threw himself out of his fifth-story window—and fell nine feet and sprained his ankle. What he didn’t know was—the hotel was on a steep hill!” A timeless trope, really: Just imagine the modern-day “This Man Jumped Out of His Hotel Window and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!” headline. I mean, let’s be honest: I’d click.

The ‘Me’ Decade,” New York Magazine (1976)

Amanda Dobbins: An Onion headline from 2005: “‘Me Decade’ Celebrates 35th Year.” Here we are in 2018, and the New York magazine cover story about American decline and self-absorption is entering its 52nd year of dispiriting accuracy. Read it with the millennial in your life.

The Right Stuff (1979)

Michael Baumann: Last year, this site ranked the film adaptation of The Right Stuff the fifth-best space movie of all time, and I’ve never quite forgiven my colleagues for not putting it at no. 1. As great as the performances, music, and imagery of that film are, the soul of the film is in its tone, set forth in Wolfe’s landmark 1979 work of New Journalism. In the preface to the 1983 paperback edition, Wolfe traced the origins of the book to a literary tradition of the heroic aviator and the question of why military pilots would sign up for a career that could so easily kill them. “The Right Stuff became the story of why men were willing--willing?--delighted!--to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero,” Wolfe wrote.Never since has American culture been confronted with real-life Captain America types as the early astronauts, clean-cut and fearless heroes out to beat the Soviets to space. Wolfe engages with the image, but also the brokenness within these men, the ruined home lives, the professional jealousies, and the pressure of risking one’s life not just for the cause of patriotism or scientific discovery, but for symbolism’s sake. Other writers—James Michener in Space, Victor Pelevin in Omon Ra—have attempted to grapple with the ludicrous heroism of early spaceflight, but Wolfe, more than anyone else, understood and communicated the specific kind of imperfect man it took to create the perfect astronaut.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Herman: The godfather of New Journalism may have turned to fiction for a mid-’80s career pivot, but Wolfe’s debut novel is a sociological study as sharp as any magazine piece—which is fitting, because Bonfire began as a serial in Rolling Stone. (You can take the writer out of straight reportage, but you can’t take the debilitating dependence on deadlines-as-motivation out of the writer!) Bonfire’s high-low New York crime saga uses the made-up Great White Defendant Sherman McCoy as a vehicle for some painfully real observations about income inequality in the glitziest city on earth during its most unfortunately over-the-top decade, most of which holds up uncomfortably well in our current new Gilded Age. Even if you haven’t encountered the passage where Sherman tallies up how he’s somehow “going broke on a million dollars a year,” you’ve almost certainly quoted one of Bonfire’s indelible turns of phrase in passing, whether in reference to the Masters of the Universe who tanked our economy just a decade ago or to making a deposit in the Favor Bank that still props up our various power centers. Bonfire is the kind of book whose continued relevance is regrettable, but whose continued existence is a blessing.