Still going strong at 88
Richmond native continues to pursue American cultural trends
The author of several best-sellers since 1979 — “The Right Stuff,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” — Richmond native Tom Wolfe is researching his next book. It will focus on the medical profession, although he isn’t sure whether it will be fiction or nonfiction. Not one to rest on laurels from his beloved Virginia (the Library of Virginia’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award) — or financially rewarding Hollywood films made from his books — Thomas Kennerly Wolfe at 88 continues to pursue American cultural trends.
He owes his success to breaking the conventions of traditional reporting while remaining true to reality — and being an astute observer and chronicler of American culture.
Those observations included his childhood passion for baseball. He was a star player for St. Christopher’s School, an Episcopal boys school in Richmond, and had a 1952 tryout with the New York Giants. The late Wilbur Bailey, Wolfe’s English teacher at St. Christopher’s, once said Wolfe’s very lengthy beginning to a sentence describing a baseball as “a spheroid” was an early clue to his future as a writer.
Wolfe went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University and a doctorate in American studies at Yale. His journalism career began in 1959 as a city reporter for The Washington Post; within three years, he moved on to the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1962, when he was writing for New York magazine, he approached Esquire about covering Southern California’s hot-rod custom-car culture; the popularity of the 1963 article gave rise to his first book, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” — an early indicator of Wolfe’s insight into what digital news outlets call “trending stories.”
Although usually associated with the New Journalism movement, he has always been the first to say — as far back as 1972 in writing for Esquire — that he didn’t invent the idea or the term.
But if he didn’t invent New Journalism, Wolfe helped define it through his innovative wordsmithing, as in his invention of the term “lumpenproles.” That is defined as “a bunch of slick-magazine and Sunday-supplement writers with no literary credentials whatsoever in most cases — only they’re using all the techniques of the novelists, even the most sophisticated ones — and on top of that they’re helping themselves to the insights of the men of letters while they’re at it — and at the same time they’re still doing their low-life legwork, their ‘digging,’ their hustling.”
A reader can’t help but wonder what new insights he’ll come up with in his next book — especially given his prescient Feb. 2, 1997, article “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” on neuroscience and brain imaging (for The Independent, a British newspaper).
His March 1965 profile of Junior Johnson for Esquire — “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”— was the basis for a 1973 movie starring Jeff Bridges. Johnson won more than 50 races in his NASCAR career and later became a team owner.
Moving on from racecar driving, Wolfe chronicled for Esquire the 1964 LSD-powered bus trip by counterculture icon Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, which resulted in Wolfe’s 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
This spring, the art-book publisher Taschen will release a 50th-anniversary collector’s edition of the book. Its catalog shows 1,968 copies (plus 250 artist proofs) offered at prices ranging from $350 to $950. All of the books are signed by Wolfe, but the $950 edition comes with a choice of one of two signed art-edition prints by photographer Lawrence Schiller.
Virginia Business chatted with Wolfe about his career in the book-and-art-filled living room of his Upper East Side New York home. Photographs of Tom and Sheila Wolfe’s children — Alexandra writes for the Wall Street Journal, and Tommy is a sculptor in Brooklyn — sit next to books on tables and atop the Mercedes-matte-blue baby-grand piano. (There’s also a black-and-white photo on the piano of a much younger Tom Wolfe “attempting to play the piano,” as he puts it.) Sunlight in the early afternoon of a cold day poured in from the open-shuttered windows. “Shutters are very useful,” Wolfe says. “Draperies are redundant.”
The room has a definite Richmond look, with a large arrangement of dried hydrangeas sitting on a side table with books, and two classic settees purchased and fabricated in Richmond with help from interior-design friend Nan McVey. A whimsical touch among the Wolfes’ collection of eclectic objects — monkey-centered mantel candleholders — sets the room apart from a straight classical style.
A listener has to lean in to hear the author’s soft-spoken words, emblematic of his personality. Often publicly seen striking a pose in one of his signature white suits, Wolfe is not flashy or dramatic in a conversational setting. On the other hand, his demeanor in speaking engagements over the years demonstrates his talent for facilely tailoring his tone and gestures to entertain his audience.
The following is an edited transcript.
Virginia Business: You said in the late 1970s that people frequently confused you with North Carolina’s Thomas Wolfe [author of “Look Homeward, Angel.”] At that time, you said you often got his mail, and you wrote each fan back, “Unfortunately I’ve been deceased a number of years.” Do you still get confused with that Thomas Wolfe?
Wolfe: That’s no longer a live issue. Sadly, Thomas Wolfe is not read avidly any longer.
VB: You were avidly read early on because you embedded yourself inside diverse cultures and groups. How do you set up those relationships?
Wolfe: I never say, “I want a lot of your time.” I’ve always started with one person, and if I could get along with that one person, I would just follow the chain of associates. If you can get through a whole day with a person, then it will work out fairly easily. People have different techniques for entering [subjects]. Jimmy Breslin, my colleague at The New York Herald Tribune, was really aggressive.
VB: Right — but you’re not.
Wolfe: I just go with the natural approach. I worked on The Herald Tribune where we would be sent out to do man-on-the-street interviews … I found there was no use saying, “Hello, I’m with The New York Herald Tribune, and we’re doing a street survey …” You had to start off with your notebook and saying, “…here’s our question today.” You have to adapt yourself.
VB: You adapted yourself to the early years of stripped-down cars by writing about [racecar driver] Junior Johnson. Last December, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved a highway signage marker, to go up this year, for Curtis Turner, who went from delivering moonshine in Southwest Virginia to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Wolfe: That’s perfect … the archetypal career …
VB: How did you first learn about Johnson?
Wolfe: A good old boy from North Carolina came to work for Esquire magazine, and he was into this particular car culture, which I had never heard of, so I just headed down there. He had mentioned Junior Johnson to me because Johnson was an independent driver who had signed up with … oh, who was it? Chevrolet, I think.
VB: What was Johnson like?
Wolfe: He turned out to be a really colorful figure … [racing stripped-down cars] was strictly Southern for a long time. It was after the Second World War that a lot of people in the South got cars … and then they began to get really excited. The cars were, aside from the shell, unlike any street vehicle you have ever seen. Everything is just the engine.
VB: Jumping ahead decades to the present immigration issue, you said when you were first in Miami researching your 2012 book, “Back to Blood,” immigration was not just an issue “but a hot issue.” How do you think immigration went from being a hot-button [issue] in Miami to one for the whole U.S. and all of Europe — leading to the rise of the radical right?
Wolfe: Well, I think one of the key influences in the United States is that we were known as the great haven of refugees. It was a large part of our history when you think of how the Irish were considered lowlifes when they came here, and now they’re great politicians and much more … but since the Second World War many more immigrants have been of a different ethnic background and different color from the prevailing Europeans … A lot of the heat that has been generated is due to that. We like to pretend that is no longer an issue, but it is an issue … a big issue all through Southern border states.
VB: Do any specific experiences relating to immigrants stand out from your travels for “Back to Blood”?
Wolfe: Yes. I was amazed at how many workers in and around North Wilkesboro, N.C., were Mexicans … cutting Christmas trees on huge Christmas-tree farms. It’s very unpleasant work. You have to trim them constantly — every year for 12 years if you want a big tree. It’s unpleasant because there’s no machine that will do it for you. [The field] is too crowded so you just have to put up with it, brambles and everything else. As a result, it’s hard to get American-born workers of any description to work on those tree farms, but the Mexicans will do it just as a way to get in [to the U.S.] …and now, of course, there’s Trump, who’s opposed to immigration.
VB: An interview … the Daily Beast quoted you as calling Trump “a lovable megalomaniac.” Do you still think that description fits?
Wolfe: I think it does. The “lovable” part [refers to] childlike. For example, most extremely rich men will play the wealth down. He plays it up: “I am truly worth $10 billion” — even though half that is the estimate. Literally half is the value of his name. We’ll see what the value is three years from now, two years now. Trump is a fascinating figure that way. We have never had a president, as far as I can figure out, who has not held political office of a substantial sort earlier in his career, and Trump hadn’t. I read recently that some people say he was really reluctant to do this. He wasn’t reluctant for one second.
VB: When you first started writing, the audience was your age. How do you see your audience now as having changed?
Wolfe: Well, I never thought of an audience [as being] my age. It may well be true, but I think it’s all a matter of reporting. It doesn’t matter what your age is if you can get close to the subjects and spend time with them, which was the crux of what became New Journalism. I didn’t invent that, by the way … but now it has tended to disappear from journalism, although Rolling Stone kept with it for a long time.
VB: Why has New Journalism disappeared?
Wolfe: Magazines are no longer eager to pay a reporter to spend three months or half a year [on a long article]. It seems to be part of the past. Magazines aren’t flourishing anyway.
VB: How was the writing different in New Journalism?
Wolfe: It’s very difficult … You have to learn to write what I call scene-by-scene construction. Instead of having this ordinary historical narrative, you do it all through scenes, which is key. One of the reasons I wrote “The Bonfire of the Vanities” [the way I did] was that there was no convenient way to do the reporting. It was hard enough to do “The Right Stuff” with seven different astronauts and no one figure that summed up the whole thing. I always wanted to do a nonfiction book about New York that would gather information about all its various facets. I couldn’t find the individuals I needed, so I said, “Well, I guess I’ll take a crack at this fiction business.” When I finished that book, I was 57 years old — and had written my first novel.
VB: How do you see yourself adapting to changing publishing-industry trends that encompass the digital world?
Wolfe: I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t think I have to change anything. I don’t know what one would do to fit into the industry anyway. You have to figure out in your own mind what will be absorbing for your readers. It’s a combination of the writing techniques of the New Journalism and what you are able to get in reporting. It’s really not a matter of age because you don’t have to be in tune with the people you are writing about.
VB: Journalism and entertainment might be remaking what we once considered high literary art — namely, the literary novel. What do you see as the connection between high art, entertainment and journalism?
Wolfe: I think labeling is one of the banes of our intellectual existence right now. It was an influence that the French had after the Second World War. They came up with all sorts of “isms” — absurdisms — there’s a whole list of them. We’ve always been little colonials influenced by the Europeans. Take the French and the English — they put much more emphasis on the psychological so American fiction has tended to do that [in the past 70 years], too. I probably shouldn’t make that statement since I’ve grown weary of reading American novels.
VB: What would you consider as high art in literature if it isn’t literary fiction?
Wolfe: It would be the kind of work Michael Lewis has done in “The Blind Side”…and “The Flash Boys.” I consider him at the top of the heap at this moment. He has an extraordinary sense of what’s going to work in nonfiction.
VB: Do you use a computer for writing?
Wolfe: No, I went back to writing books by hand when I couldn’t find parts for my typewriter on eBay. “Bonfire of the Vanities” was the last book I did on a typewriter. I think the internet has changed the writing of articles of all kinds. Because of the glare of the computer screen, it’s unpleasant to be presented with something more than 800 words long. It’s tiring. As a result, a premium has been put upon not so much on style as brevity. It’s a curious situation because, in a way, things are moving a bit backwards. The long exegesis is not what it used to be, and I get the feeling that training in writing is not what it used to be. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that thorough anymore.
VB: You’ve given lovely descriptions, during several visits to Richmond, of your memories of growing up in the capital city. Do you have memories of other parts of Virginia as well?
Wolfe: Oh, yes, particularly the Shenandoah Valley, where my father was born and kept a farm while I was growing up. We went to Elkton every weekend, and I used to play with Elkton boys.