Tom Wolfe, Groundbreaking Novelist and Nonfiction Pioneer, Gone at 88

Charlene Craig
May 16, 2018

We received the sad news that author Tom Wolfe passed away yesterday at the age of 88. The New York Times reported that he had been in the hospital after suffering from an infection.

Known for ingenious phrase-making and white suits, he chronicled U.S. culture across five decades through books such as The Bonfire Of The Vanities, The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Wolfe came up with "radical chic" to brand pretentious liberals, the "me decade" to sum up the self-indulgence of the 1970s and the "right stuff" to quantify intangible characteristics of the first United States astronauts and their test pilot predecessors.

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The Right Stuff, Wolfe's 1979 account of the early days of the US space program and the test pilots recruited for it, remains his best-selling work.

Wolfe was astonished no one of his generation had written a sweeping novel about contemporary 20th century New York City, so ended up writing one himself.

He was never deterred by the fact that he often did not fit in with his research subjects, partly because he was such a sartorial dandy, known for his white suits.

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Born in Virginia in 1931, Wolfe went straight into reportage out of university, beginning at the Springfield Union in MA.

The period adventure comedy about rivals of explorers Lewis and Clark grossed just $6 million and earned a rare F grade from Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, who concluded: "It's as bad as any comedy I've seen in the post-'Animal House' era, right down there with the worst of Dan Aykroyd and the scripts Pauly Shore must have turned up his nose at". It was made into a film in 1983 that lost money at the box office - perhaps due to its more than three-hour run time - but was a critical and Oscar-winning hit that was included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry five years ago.

Wolfe is survived by his wife and two children.

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