NEW YORK – Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wizard of “New Journalism” who exuberantly chronicled American culture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race before turning his satiric wit to such novels as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full,” has died. He was 88.
Wolfe's literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, told The Associated Press he died of an infection Monday in a New York City hospital.
An acolyte of French novelist Emile Zola and other authors of “realistic” fiction, the stylishly attired Wolfe was an American maverick who insisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.
His hyperbolic, stylized writing work was a gleeful fusillade of exclamation points, italics and improbable words. An ingenious phrase maker, he helped brand such expressions as “radical chic” for rich liberals' fascination with revolutionaries; and the “Me” generation, defining the self-absorbed baby boomers of the 1970s.
Wolfe scorned the reluctance of American writers to confront social issues and warned that self-absorption and master's programs would kill the novel. His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job.
“Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, 'You can't make this stuff up.'”
Whether sending up the New York art world or hanging out with acid heads, Wolfe inevitably presented man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of one's peers. Wolfe himself dressed for company – his trademark a pale three-piece suit, impossibly high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie.
“My contention is that status is on everybody's mind all of the time, whether they're conscious of it or not,” Wolfe told the AP in 2012.
In 1978, Wolfe married Sheila Berger, art director of Harper's magazine. They had two children, Alexandra and Tommy.