Tom Wolfe, the bestselling American author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, was being remembered Wednesday for his “breakthrough style of journalism.”
Wolfe died Monday in New York at the age of 88.
His death, confirmed by his agent, happened after Wolfe was hospitalized with an infection.
A groundbreaking journalist and renowned author, Wolfe was well known for both his non-fiction and fiction works, which earned him widespread critical acclaim.
As a journalist, he helped pioneer a style of writing known as “new journalism” that incorporated various novelistic and literary elements into reporting.
Prasad Bidaye, Program Coordinator for the Department of English at Humber College, said that Wolfe, alongside contemporaries such as Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese, represented a “breakthrough style of journalism.”
Wolfe achieved acclaim by “doing it through narrative, doing it through a more subjective eye, and almost blurring the world between narrative fiction writing and hard-nosed journalistic reporting,” Bidaye said.
Wolfe worked as a journalist for publications such as The Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune, where he rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nonfiction works such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about 1960s LSD counter-culture, and The Right Stuff, about American astronauts and the Mercury space program, earned him widespread recognition.
After scores of journalistic successes, he ventured into the world of novel writing. His first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, released in 1987, was a huge critical and commercial success.
This success inspired Wolfe to write three more fiction novels. He also continued his non-fiction writing well into his eighties.
Wolfe’s signature writing style, laced with excitable punctuation and onomatopoeia, made him stand out almost as much as his trademark white suit, a look that helped make him into an icon.
Bidaye says the reputation earned by Wolfe’s works and appearance turned him into a cult figure.
“If you haven’t read the books, you know the name,” he said.
“The titles of the books stand out really well. What stands out equally is the image of this man in his suits, this eccentric figure,” he said. “His fashion presence was as important as what he wrote. All that goes into the making of an icon.”
Bidaye believes that Wolfe’s death provides a time for people to not only look back on his work, but what his relevance is today.
“I see someone like Tom Wolfe being tied to the larger culture of the 60s and the 70s,” he said. “The counter-culture, all the different civil rights movements, and even intellectual movements that were happening around the world.”
“Now here we are in 2018, and the question is, that work came out so explosively at that time, what does it mean today?” he said.
Bidaye referred to modern fiction and non-fiction writers such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and raised the question of how they relate back to Wolfe’s generation, both in regards to change, and in regards to indebtedness.
“This is actually a time to take stock,” he said. “Not just about what he did in his lifetime, but what does he mean to readers today.”
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