Bonfire of the Vanities: Biography: Tom Wolfe

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American author and journalist Tom Wolfe is well known as one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He has written twelve works of nonfiction and three novels to date, including the bestselling Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a crackling satire of New York society in the 1980s.

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., was born on March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia. His father, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, was an agricultural scientist and taught agronomy at Virginia Tech. His mother, Helen (Hughes) Wolfe, quit medical school to raise Tom and his younger sister. She taught her son to love reading and writing. Wolfe’s upbringing as a Southern gentleman may explain his taste for white suits, which he wears year round.

Wolfe majored in English at Washington and Lee University, graduating in 1951. He played semi-professional baseball in college, but failed to make it into the big leagues. Wolfe got his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in 1957, and then became a newspaper reporter. He worked for four newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune.

It was an article Wolfe wrote for Esquire magazine in 1963 that first made him famous. The article was about California hot rods and had the unusual title of “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)....” It broke stylistic conventions for reporting and introduced a brand-new and rather controversial style that came to be known as the New Journalism. This and other articles published in Esquire and the Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine were published in Wolfe’s first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). 

In 1968, Wolfe came out with a second book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a chronicle of the cross-country adventures of writer Ken Kesey and his band of acid-tripping companions, the Merry Pranksters. Wolfe’s observations captured the zeitgeist of the psychedelic sixties. Another essay collection, The Pump House Gang, came out the same year.

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) contained two essays. The first, “Radical Chic,” tells the true story of a meeting between socialites and Black Panthers in the Park Avenue apartment of composer Leonard Bernstein. In the essay, Wolfe criticizes the fad among rich liberals to take up radical social causes. The article introduced the phrase “radical chic” into the common lexicon.The second essay exposed anti-poverty programs in San Francisco that handed out money to minority groups indiscriminately, leading to a multitude of scams. Bonfire of the Vanities explores, in a fictional way, the same phenomena: Reverend Bacon, for instance, plays on white guilt and creates scams to get handouts from charities and the government. In 1977, the book Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine brought us the phrase “the Me Decade”—later changed to the “Me Generation” by other writers.
The Right Stuff (1979) is a story about test pilots andastronauts that examines what type of person has the “right stuff” for such a risky job. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. In 1983, it was made into a film starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid.

Wolfe set out to write a realistic novel portraying the broad picture of American society, as Dickens or Thackeray did for English society in the 1800s. In particular, Thackeray’s satirical novel Vanity Fair (1847-48) was an inspiration for The Bonfire of the Vanities. Serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984-1985, it came out in hardcover in 1987 and was a bestseller. A movie starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis came out in 1990.

Since The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe has published two more novels, A Man in Full (1998) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004).

Wolfe has been married to Sheila Berger, former art director of Harper’s magazine, since 1978. They have two children, Alexandra and Thomas.

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