Tom Wolfe, the best-selling author who managed to combine journalism and fiction artfully, has died of pneumonia at a New York hospital. The writer was 88. Wolfe told the stories of those who pushed the envelope, like The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, while continuing to write fiction like Bonfire of The Vanities.
Wolfe embodied the idea that the pen was far mightier than the sword as he served people with his sharp wit and use of language, creating his own words and terms where one did not previously exist. The Wall Street Journal quoted Wolfe’s agent, Lynne Nesbit, who agrees that the writer was an American institution.
“He is not just an American icon, but he had a huge international literary reputation. All the same, he was one of the most modest and kindest people I have ever met. I never exchanged a cross word with him in our many years of working together.”
Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1930 and was described by many as a man who never met a “sacred cow” he didn’t want to poke. Wolfe is survived by his daughter, Alexandra, who is currently a writer for the Wall Street Journal.
The New York Times says that Tom Wolfe was the creator of the creative hybrid called New Journalism. Wolfe used “novelistic” techniques in his nonfiction and brought his journalistic skills to his fiction, making the reader always feel as if he or she were there.
In nearly all of the photos available of the writer, he is dressed in a well-tailored bespoke white or cream-colored three-piece suit with a pop of color in his silk handkerchief or pocket square. Wolfe never went anywhere without accessories like a pocket-watch or an ornate walking stick. When asked by a journalist to describe his personal style, Wolfe answered with a quip.
Other writers and editors tended to gush when describing Wolfe’s acrobatic use of the English language. Joseph Epstein of the New Republic says that the author was skilled with the use of onomatopoeia.
“His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”
Tom Wolfe was known to be as regimented with his writing as he was with his outfits, dedicating himself to writing 10 pages a day every day. On good days, he would finish in three hours and be done. Other days it was longer, but he was committed.
“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it.”