Virginia Native Tom Wolfe, Author of Bonfire of the Vanities, Dead at 87
Richmond's own Tom Wolfe once famously said, "You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”
Tom Wolfe, the acclaimed author and true literary celebrity, died Monday in a New York City hospital at the age of 87, The New York Times is reporting.
He was hospitalized with an infection; no further information on the nature of his death has been provided. EW has reached out to Wolfe’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, for confirmation, but has yet to receive a response.
Though best known the commercially and critically successful novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe first made a name for himself as a journalist, coining the term “New Journalism” while reporting a story for Esquire magazine in 1964. That story led to his first published book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of nonfiction pieces. Wolfe’s brand of immersive journalism involved the writer and the reader in the narrative, and mixed hard reporting with literary devices you’d normally find in a novel. While he wasn’t the first to write in this style, he helped popularize it. In 1973, he compiled and edited The New Journalism, which collected work by Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and other authors who typified the genre. Throughout the 70s, Wolfe published some of his most influential work, including the essay “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” and his 1979 book The Right Stuff, which centered on the astronauts of the Mercury Seven.
In 1981, Wolfe set his sights on writing his first novel but ran into eight months of writer’s block. To motivate himself, he pitched Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner a novel that would run in installments over a series of issues — a Victorian model of publication that Charles Dickens favored in the 19th century. The constant deadlines gave Wolfe the pressure he needed, and after Rolling Stone published the novel over the course of a year, he spent two additional years editing it into The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was released in book form in 1987. It became a bona fide literary sensation and was adapted into a less-praised film starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis.
Over the course of Wolfe’s career, readers had to wait years, in some cases more than a decade, to get their hands on his next novel. Following Bonfire, Wolfe’s novels proved divisive. In particular, his 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons about a co-ed’s sexual experiences at an American university, won the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Writing Award and caused critics to question why a 73-year-old man had decided to write from the point of view of a virginal 18-year-old girl. But Wolfe was nothing if not ambitious, and as with his journalism, his aim with fiction was to highlight corruption and inadequacy of those in power. Bonfire dealt with racial tension in 1980s New York City; A Man In Full critiqued moneyed elites in Atlanta; and 2012’s Back to Blood focused on immigration in Miami.
His final book proved highly divisive. In 2016, the author published the nonfiction tome The Kingdom of Speech, a scathing critique of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky which goes so far as to accuse Darwin of taking too much credit for the Theory of Evolution. Speech received several pans, though did find its champions, including Times critic Dwight Garner. He wrote of Wolfe’s final book, ” The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time.”
WATCH: 10 Questions for Tom Wolfe
Wolfe commanded attention in his life off the page as well. Never one to back down from an old-school literary feud, he traded public barbs with the likes of John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer. He was also known to cut a striking figure in his signature white suit, which he wore year-round, often with a matching white hat and two-toned shoes. He once said that he dressed that way to portray himself as “a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”
Wolfe is survived by his wife, Sheila, and two children Tommy and Alexandra.