Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. was born on March 2, 1931 in Richmond, Va., to parents Thomas and Helen (Hughes). Wolfe attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., where he studied English and American studies and co-founded the literary quarterly Shenandoah, which is still in production. His skills on the baseball field in college also earned him a tryout with the New York Giants at the age of 21, although he was cut after three days of spring training. After graduating from Washington and Lee with honors in 1951, Wolfe went on to receive a doctorate in American studies at Yale University.
In 1956 he took a job as a city reporter for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts. Two years later, Wolfe moved to the Washington Post, where for six months in 1960 he served as Latin American correspondent, winning the Washington Newspaper Guild’s foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba. He took a job with the New York Herald-Tribune in 1962 and was quickly promoted to its Sunday supplement, New York. Shortly after moving to New York City he also began writing pieces for Esquire.
Inspired by the work of other journalists who were beginning to experiment with new ways of writing interviews using fiction techniques, Wolfe soon became a leader in what was called the “New Journalism.” He prepared for his articles and books by spending an intense period of time studying and interviewing his subjects, and then wrote about them from multiple points of view and in vibrant language. Unlike the standard journalism of the time, with its formal interviews and tidying-up of private details, this new approach opened up the hidden worlds of its subjects, allowing readers to experience them first-hand.
Wolfe’s first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965), was a collection of his writings for New York and Esquire. It received good reviews and introduced him to a mass audience who began to recognize him on talk shows wearing his customary white suits (in the age of denim-clad flower children) and showing off his charismatic, sometimes satirical personality. In 1968 he published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which followed novelist Ken Kesey across the country. As the publication deadline loomed, Wolfe realized that it was less difficult to write a long book than he’d imagined. Although he continued to write for magazines, books became his primary focus.
Along with the rest of the world, Wolfe watched the Apollo space missions with great interest. In 1972 he decided to cover the final moon mission for Rolling Stone. As he interviewed the astronauts, Wolfe became fascinated with their bravery and the insider language they used to talk to one another. He spent the next few years researching the space program and its roots and interacting with astronauts as he wrote The Right Stuff. It became an immediate bestseller and received the American Book Award in 1979 and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.
After the positive reception of The Right Stuff, Wolfe began to explore fiction. In 1987 he published Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel commenting on the lifestyles of New York’s young, wealthy businessmen. The book was a bestseller and raised expectations for his next work. A Man in Full (1999) continued his satirical look at modern America and dealt with issues of class and race relations. After the publication of his 2005 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons Wolfe left his longtime publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His latest book, Back to Blood, was published in 2012 by Little, Brown.
Tom Wolfe revolutionized the world of journalism with his exciting, stylistic work and came head to head with modern fiction to emerge as a great writer and social satirist. He continues to challenge the status quo by always pushing himself to explore new and different aspects of writing and stands as one of our greatest living writers.
- McKeen, William. Tom Wolfe. Twayne Publishers, 1995.
- “Tom Wolfe.” Contemporary Novelists. St. James Press, 2001.
- “Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale Research, 1998.
Content last updated: October 31, 2008