Tom Wolfe Made Everyone Talk About Him

Tom Wolfe in Midtown Manhattan, in 1968.CreditSam Falk/The New York Times
Tom Wolfe in Midtown Manhattan, in 1968. Sam Falk - The New York Times

In the summer after ninth grade, 1969, when I checked out a Tom Wolfe book from the Omaha Public Library, I had no real idea who he was, although he’d been a celebrity for a few years already. Not as famous as my favorite living writer at the time, Kurt Vonnegut, but famous enough that in Mr. Vonnegut’s rave review of Mr. Wolfe’s first book in this newspaper in 1965, he wrote, “Everybody talks about him.”

His second book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” blew my 14-year-old mind. The revelations were not so much about the countercultural miasma of drugs and mischief and alternate realities it depicted; my older sister had introduced me to pot and my older brother had a psychedelic band called the Naked Afternoon. Rather, it was the writing, journalism unlike any I’d ever read, sympathetic and evocative and inventive but also sharp-eyed and precise and acerbic. He’d been embedded with these freaks but didn’t go native, and returned with a beautifully observed, perfectly coherent chronicle of half-mad adventures.

It was reading Tom Wolfe the summer before I started high school that made me decide to become a professional writer.

Among the inventors of New Journalism in the 1960s, only Joan Didion had a comparable genius for depicting that era of loosey-goosey weirdness with such rigor as it was happening, but unlike her, Mr. Wolfe was on the Hunter Thompson-Terry Southern-Nora Ephron side of the pantheon, writers inclined to find the comedy.

Which is why, when Graydon Carter and I were dreaming up Spy magazine in the 1980s as a hybrid of journalism and satire, Mr. Wolfe was one of our models. He’d made his name with an article making fun of The New Yorker (“Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”), so naturally Spy made fun of The New Yorker again and again. We even asked him to contribute, but he politely declined — he was finishing up a novel, he informed us, his first, at age 56.

When I arrived at my next editor in chief job, at New York magazine, my fundamentalist vision was to make it as much as possible like the New York to which Mr. Wolfe (and Ms. Ephron) had been a founding contributor 20 years earlier. After being jettisoned from that position in short order, I felt it was time to make good on my dreamy plan to write fiction. I didn’t consciously model my first novel, “Turn of the Century,” on Mr. Wolfe’s first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but I was a middle-aged magazine journalist, and it was a big, panoramic social comedy set in New York about the media and rich people and failure, so when half the reviews and articles compared it to “Bonfire,” I just shut up and smiled.

Of course Mr. Wolfe has been an influence on me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. He had next to no education in the history of art or architecture, but he impertinently presumed to publish “The Painted Word” (1975) and “From Bauhaus to Our House” (1981). I had the same lack of education, and in 1984 I presumed to become Time’s architecture and design critic.

In 2015, I was deep into work on my first big nonfiction book, “Fantasyland,” when I realized I was once again standing on his shoulders. In a 1976 New York cover article he coined “the ‘Me’ Decade” to describe the 1970s, which I’d misremembered as some trifling swipe at yuppie narcissism. In fact, the essay’s full title was “The ‘Me’ Decade and Third Great Awakening,” a historically grounded, uncannily prescient explanation of how beliefs in the paranormal and extraterrestrial visitors and extreme Christianity were together transforming America.

I’ve been pleased by the stories of his personal kindness in my Twitter feed since he died on Monday, at age 88 — and a little surprised, given the multifaceted antagonism he enjoyed provoking for half a century.

There are those who couldn’t abide his cultural conservatism, which they took for complicity with political conservatism. His smug impertinence, what Mr. Vonnegut in that early review called “the bitchy melody” of his writing, made enemies of subjects and their families, friends and acolytes.

Was John Updike still angry about the 1965 swipes in Tiny Mummies!” in 1998, when he wrote in The New Yorker that Mr. Wolfe’s fiction “amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form”? Or maybe Mr. Updike simply considered him a mediocre novelist — earnest literary disapproval is a third bucket of Wolfe antipathy, commingled with a fourth, resentment of people who find success after changing professional lanes in midlife.

A big factor that shaped his sensibility, I think, is that he (like … me!) came to New York from the provinces, which equipped him to see and experience the city (and by extension America) with the outsider’s special combination of yearning and shock, romance and clearsightedness, as simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful. He unquestionably arrived with a willingness to be lucky, the one necessary trait for people who come to New York from elsewhere, according to E. B. White, the great New Yorker writer — who, of course, hated Tom Wolfe.

Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, and the host of the public radio program Studio 360.

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