Listen to Tom Wolfe's 2005 conversation with Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company

The new journalism pioneer, who chronicled everything from hippies to the space race before turning his sharp eye to fiction, has died. He was 88.
American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Jr. appears in his living room during an interview in July 2016. (The Associated Press/Bebeto Matthews)

Tom Wolfe, who chronicled everything from hippies to the space race before turning his sharp eye to fiction, has died. He was 88. 

Wolfe was an innovative journalist known for his technicolor, wildly punctuated prose that brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan's moneyed status-seekers in works like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities.

His work often dealt with the issue of social status. "I think it's the subject of life, frankly," he told Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company in 2005. "Why do we smile when we meet people? Usually it's because the smile indicates acceptance of the person you are meeting. Why is the other person concerned at all? Why do they care? It's because everyone wants a shred of approval."

Wolfe spoke to Wachtel on Writers & Company upon publication of his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which satirized American college life: the fraternities, the jocks, the intellectuals and more. You can listen to that conversation below:

Regarded as a pioneer of New Journalism, the American author, journalist and essayist died on May 14 at the age of 88. He spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2005 about his novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. 53:46

Wolfe was born in 1930 in Richmond, Virginia. When he was nine, he was already writing about Napoleon and Mozart. After getting his doctorate in American Studies at Yale University, Wolfe started his career as a journalist. 

In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Wolfe helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the new journalism. He insisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it.

His writing style was rife with exclamation points, italics and improbable words. He also had a knack for coining phrases — including "radical chic" and "the me decade."

Wolfe's literary honours included the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award) for 1979's The Right Stuff and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle prize for 1987's The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the top 10 selling books of the 1980s. In 2010, Wolfe received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a lifetime achievement award.

Wolfe continued to write into his 80s. His final novel, Back to Blood, a sprawling, multicultural story of sex and honour set in Miami, was released in 2012. In 2016, he released his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, a critique of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Why did he always wear a trademark white suit? As he joked to Wachtel, "I find it to be a great substitute for a personality."

— with files from the Associated Press

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