Tom Wolfe, an American literary icon, died this week at the age of 88. Although Wolfe’s legacy almost surely will be based on his immensely popular books, such as Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, his cultural impact was far-reaching and more profound than most understand.
Wolfe, born in Richmond, Virginia during the turmoil of the Great Depression, played semi-professional baseball after graduating from Washington and Lee University. After his ill-fated baseball career came to a halt, Wolfe earned his Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. His doctoral thesis, The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929-1942, was just a preview of Wolfe’s career as an astute cultural and political commentator.
Although most literary critics praise Wolfe for his unparalleled use of language and his knack for great storytelling, it may very well be his insights into the nether regions of the cultural landscape that are his most enduring achievement.
Wolfe is credited with the advent of “new journalism,” because of his propensity to embed himself within a culture—thus gaining a shrewd understanding of his subjects. His, articles, novels, and non-fiction works were renowned best sellers because they gave his audience an insight into a world they knew little about. Oftentimes, he offered a cultural analysis through a unique (and exceedingly rare) journalistic lens—a classical liberal point of view.
Respected by his peers and hated by his enemies, Wolfe was not afraid to approach controversial topics. From his critique of family breakdown in Hooking Up to his expose on the progressive, elitist, narrow-minded American higher education system in I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe left no societal stone unturned.
His contemporaries praised his work for its ground-breaking nature. Kurt Vonnegut described Wolfe as “the most exciting–or, at least, the most jangling–journalist to appear in some time.” Literary critic Dwight Garner called Wolfe “a brilliantly gifted social observer and satirist.”
Wolfe is oft-cited as a conservative because of his embrace of President George W. Bush, but his conservative bona fides extend far greater than his preference for Bush’s “great decisiveness and willingness to fight.” His unflinching critique of socialist Noam Chomsky in The King’s Speech deliver a much deeper portrait of Wolfe’s social and political views. It should come as no great surprise that Wolfe embraced classical liberalism and he ardently believed in individual liberty and free-market capitalism.
As the world mourns the loss of Tom Wolfe, we should simultaneously celebrate his vast accomplishments. Tom Wolfe, the creative genius, historian Meredith Hindley credits with presenting terms such as “statusphere”, “the right stuff”, “radical chic”, and “the Me Decade” into the American vocabulary should also be celebrated as a conservative icon who bravely and compellingly exposed the fallacies of leftist culture and ideology.