A life well lived.
It’s reasonable to say that Tom Wolfe succeeded in cutting a figure in American life comparable to another white-suited, big-spending writer, Mark Twain.
Indeed, I’d argue that Wolfe was near his peak for longer than Twain and on a wider variety of subjects (Twain was the master of writing about being a youth on the Mississippi — a great topic and one he made central to America’s self-image of itself — while Wolfe wrote about an extraordinary range of topics.
For example, in the 1960s Wolfe was a master satirist of upscale New York society (e.g., Radical Chic) and was quite good at writing about young society women. But then he went off to cover fighter-bomber pilots on an aircraft carrier off North Vietnam and detoured in a long obsession with masculine physical courage, culminating in 1979 with The Right Stuff. Then he reversed field back to elite society again, as in Bonfire of the Vanities. But the biggest flaw in Bonfire was that, during his 1970s sojourns among brave men, he’d lost his knack for writing about women. Eventually, however, he slowly worked his way back and by I Am Charlotte Simmons, as a 70s-something man he could now write a large, painfully insightful novel about what it’s like being a young woman.
The Bonfire of the Van…
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Wolfe also, famously, switched from journalism to novel-writing. Wolfe hadn’t exactly invented The New Journalism of the 1960s, in which reporters like Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson incorporated novelistic methods while fiction writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer did more reporting than was the norm. But he was present at the creation.
Wolfe didn’t get around to writing a…