Tom Wolfe, RIP

The greatest of the New Journalists has died at 88. Take a look at some of Reason's past coverage of him.


Tom Wolfe in 2011 ||| BEHAR ANTHONY/SIPA/Newscom

Tom Wolfe, the supercalifragilistically stylistic New Journalist and social novelist, died yesterday at age 88. He was a monumental figure not just within the craft but outside of it, in the culture and the language, coining the "Me Decade" to define the '70s, writing the quintessential '60s book in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, depicting the heroic '50s spirit in The Right Stuff, and capturing the awful mid-'80s with The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Wolfe was my gateway drug into Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone magazine (back when it was good like that one year!), and the hurly-burly of 1964-1975 cultural and political tumult. It was impossible not to want to get into journalism after reading all those high-wire acts.

Reason, launched as it was in 1968, has grappled with Wolfe often in the years, and will again later this afternoon. A sampling from the archive:

And former Reasoner and current Vice Newser/Fifth Columnist Michael C. Moynihan conducted a wide-ranging interview with Wolfe in 2012:

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  1. I can’t tell where that suit ends and he begins.

    1. They are one. It is known.

      1. Kind of like Nick and The Jacket, or is the suit more like a part of him as opposed to a symbiotic life form?

        1. While The Jacket is not technically part of Nick (being an extrusion into this plane of an Elder Being from a realm that cannot be comprehended), it’s true that at this point Nick can no longer survive without it.

          The Suit, on the other hand, is the pure manifestation of Wolfe’s satori. Now that the vessel has been emptied, it will turn out that he was just wearing a v-neck and sweatpants the whole time.

          1. While The Jacket can receive sustenance from any form of human suffering, most delicious to it are nostalgic pining for the 80s and the shock of discovering someone disagrees that Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize.

            1. Never understood the Dylan worship, way overrated songwriter.

              1. He seems to be very much a part of a certain generation. I don’t feel like I meet people who weren’t from that time in such love with him.

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              4. He’s a good songwriter. When people try to say that he’s a poet is where they go off the rails.

                Tangled Up In Blue is exhibit A.

  2. I think one of his greatest gifts was writing about completely normal people with true joy. I can see Welch really prefers his political and high-society stuff. From his short works my favorites are his ones about normal people living life. He found people doing interesting things outside of the mainstream, and wrote about it with pure ecstasy. I have never been much for cars, but his writing about early hot-rod culture fully convinced me of the beauty of it as an art form.

    I’ve always believed that people were interesting. That history focuses too much on some idea of Great Men who are the only one’s worth noting. Tom Wolfe was impressive for being able to show how interesting the lives of all people are. That each of of us doing our own thing, trying to find our own happiness, is amazing and worth of accolade.

    1. I’m surprised how sad I am about it.

    2. I’m surprised how sad I am about it.

    3. I’m surprised how sad I am about it.

      1. A three squirrel salute?

      2. You are bumming out the squirrels.

      3. You are bumming out the squirrels.

    4. That is pretty deep, BUCS. Thanks. I always find that history focuses too much on leaders and wars.

    5. That is pretty deep, BUCS. Thanks. I always find that history focuses too much on leaders and wars.

        1. Or sugar gliders, for Reason Down Under.

    6. That is pretty deep, BUCS. Thanks. I always find that history focuses too much on leaders and wars.

      1. He deserves the spam we are giving him today.

      2. He deserves the spam we are giving him today.

        1. Christ, what a clusterfuck.

          1. I didn’t even double click that time. No idea what’s going on.

            1. The squirrelz are also Tom Wolfe fans. They’re not taking this news well.

        2. When you post but don’t see your comment, it’ll get in there, just give it a few minutes.

    7. Whether it was the hot rod culture, college campuses or the space program, Wolfe made sure he knew the details and what he was talking about. There was never any Gell Mann effect in his writing. In an age of internet half wits who know nothing about anything except talking out of their asses, Wolfe will be sorely missed

  3. RIP, Tom Wolfe. At least we still have Gene Wolfe.

    1. Thank you. I’ve read more of him than this other guy. Infinitely more, in fact.

  4. “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was my introduction to cynical politics. P J O’Rourke in an ice-cream suit.

    1. “The Painted Word” was a bit of a corrective to the stretching in modern art at the time.

    2. Radical Chic was how I first heard of him. I read a reprint of a Hulk comic that was inspired by the book and it had a cameo of Tom Wolfe in it (he’d previously appeared in Doctor Strange, but I’ve never read that story). I’d seen The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the high school library, but I hadn’t paid any attention to it. It was a few months before I noticed it was the same author.

      I saw him on the Tonight Show not long after that.

      I still haven’t ever read any of his books, but I did see the Right Stuff movie.

      1. He was one of the most distinct prose writers ever. Just read the first chapter of The Right Stuff and soak in the beautiful description he was capable of.

  5. I blame him for the glut of Law & Orders.

    1. Ahem. That’s “Laws & Order.”

      1. No, he is pluralizing the title of that horrible show and all its offspring.

      2. You’re both wrong, it’s Lore and Order.

      3. No, I think he got it right because the “s” is not italicized.

        1. Then it should have been ‘Law & Order shows’ (or series.)


  7. the awful mid-’80s

    Oh my God.

    1. That sonofabitch Reagan was in the white house!

      1. Gonna go back in time!

    2. What was wrong with the mid-80s?

      1. My friend hosted an “eighties party”. He showed me pics. He laughed at them. I couldn’t see anything particularly unusual about them, except that one dude who dressed up as Dee Snider.

        “Look at the shirts, man!”

        “What about them?”

        “Just look! They’re hilarious!”

        “Huh? I have that shirt. So what?”

        1. I have a leather jacket – big rounded shoulders and zippered double plackets that positively screams 1988 – and will never be back in style.

  8. The greatest of the New Journalists has died at 88

    I like where he mentions the guy reading “the racing form” and Moynihan helpfully points out that no one reads racing forms anymore.

  9. Well, it’s a good thing these people die because it always reminds me I should read something by them.

  10. The reason I joined the Air Force (just wish it was as cool as it was when he wrote about it in 79).

    RIP Tom

    Raises glass!

  11. That anecdote he recalls @47:35 is quite telling.


    Wolfe managed to make NASCAR interesting. It takes one hell of a writer to do that.

    1. I thought P.J. O’Rourke did an ok, if brief job.

  13. “Wolfe: My dissertation was on the League of American Writers. The subtitle was “Communist Activity Among American Writers, 1927 to ’42.”
    Cole: What impelled you to choose that subject?
    “Wolfe: I did a paper in graduate school about the first American Writers’ Congress. Why was I interested in that? I honestly don’t remember, In the stacks at Yale, I remember coming across volumes of the New Masses, which was a Communist publication–quite well done, incidentally.
    This first American Writers’ Congress was held in 1935 . It was an attempt by the Communist Party to remove the red glare in the coloring of their cultural movement–in the arts, movies, literature–and to focus on the anti-Nazi, anti-fascist cause.
    In fact, it was the Communist Party that invented the word fascist to apply to the Nazis. The fascists were only in Italy, members of a socialist party known as the Fascisti. The word was never used in Germany. The Communists wanted to obscure the fact that the Nazis and the Fascisti were, like themselves, national socialists. The acronym NAZI stands for the National Socialist Workers Party. So, was Soviet communism national socialism? Absolutely. Communists the world over never did a thing that wasn’t for the defense or the advance of the Soviet Union.

    NEH interview

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