Biography of Tom Wolfe

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1931, the son of Thomas Kennerly and Helen (Hughes) Wolfe. He graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1951 and earned a doctorate in American studies at Yale University in 1957. Wolfe married Sheila Berger (the art director of Harper's magazine) in 1978. They have two children: Alexandra and Thomas.

As a journalist, Wolfe made numerous important contributions to American letters. He started in the business at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts before moving on to positions at The Washington Post and The New York Herald Tribune, where he was a features writer. In 1963, Wolfe won recognition for a series of articles in Esquire and New York, the Sunday magazine of The Herald Tribune. His work at these and other publications established Wolfe as one of the leading purveyors of the New Journalism - a style of journalistic writing (which Wolfe himself dubbed) that used traditionally literary techniques such as subjective points-of-view and lengthy dialogues to energize non-fiction reportage. Some of Wolfe's articles in this vein were collected in his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Wolfe's intense observations of American life created a new kind of social commentary and revitalized the field of journalism. His style emphasized the increasing awareness of American diversity that developed in the sixties and seventies. Wolfe, with his highly erudite and often old-fashioned language, created interesting portraits of the youth drug culture, social justice movements, and changing social mores.

In 1968 Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which followed novelist Ken Kesey and his drug-taking followers, the Merry Pranksters, on a cross-country bus trip. In 1970 he published two of his essays in a book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. The book chronicled a notorious party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panthers. Wolfe later published The Right Stuff (1979), which told the story of NASA's concern with the psychological makeup of the Apollo 7 astronauts. This book earned Wolfe both the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980.

Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a best-seller. Like most of his works, it was met with mixed reviews. Critics tended to appreciate the energy of Wolfe's trenchant social commentary while pointing out the cartoonish, rather unconvincing nature of his characters. Bonfire of the Vanities was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis in 1990.

After The Bonfire of the Vanities' success, Wolfe began work on a second work of fiction, A Man in Full. The book took more than eleven years to complete, and though it received generally positive reviews, several esteemed authors of American letters such as John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer panned the book as "entertainment" and not serious literature. This began a long war of words between these novelists, in which Wolfe called the men "the Three Stooges." His latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons chronicles the exploits of a girl from the rural South as she attends a prestigious university. This book also received mixed reviews.

Wolfe is also known for his personal style, most notably his penchant for white suits. Wolfe has explained that the white suit was originally chosen because it was lightweight and practical for a hot New York summer day, but he then realized that the style seemed to fit him and help him stand out.

Study Guides on Works by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe is a dandy. Fashion-wise, Wolfe belongs to era of men’s style and concern with their appearance that is as out of joint with the Space Age as the street urchins of Dicken or the ladies with sense and sensibility desperately seeking a...