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Tom Wolfe had a long and varied career, penning nonfiction and fiction best-sellers and coining a number of words that have become part of our lexicon. He died Monday in Manhattan. His work exemplified a new genre of journalism and gave a new meaning to a few common phrases.
Wolfe studied at Washington and Lee University, where he majored in English and served as the sports editor for the college newspaper. He later helped to establish the literary magazine Shenandoah. His college professor, Marshall Fishwick, who had studied at Yale and UVA, encouraged students to examine the whole culture and the profane elements of it.
Tom Wolfe has always sought to bridge the gap between popular culture and the scientific world, and his first book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was an excellent example of this. It dismantled the stereotypes of the hippie community in mainstream media, and instead revealed a vibrant community of free-thinkers led by a charismatic shaman.
While he's succeeded in creating sensations with his fiction, his characters are not particularly important or profoundly affecting. He also tends to use too many jargon and shallow details, which may distract from his great achievements. However, this does not mean that Wolfe is not a good writer. His writing is brilliant and provoking.
Wolfe's nonfiction works have received widespread acclaim. In the early 1980s, he covered the final moon mission for Rolling Stone magazine, becoming fascinated with the astronauts' inner language and bravery. His work became a classic of the decade, and was made into a film.
After publishing three novels, Wolfe returned to nonfiction with The Kingdom of Speech (2016), a novel in which he attacked the views of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, arguing that language is not a product of evolution. The National Book Foundation awarded Wolfe the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Tom Wolfe spent his childhood reading widely, and as a teenager, he formed the ambition to become a writer. His writings are written under a pen name that is short for his full name, Tom. Tom Wolfe's mother's name, Thomas, was the name of a famous American novelist. In 1951, he graduated from Washington and Lee University and obtained a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University. He then began working as a general assignment reporter at the Springfield Union newspaper.
Tom Wolfe spent four years writing The October Fair, which was a multi-volume epic that compared to Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Wolfe's work proved difficult to publish, and he sought the aid of Rolling Stone's editor Jann Wenner. The magazine offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work, and the deadline pressure motivated him to continue writing.
After he was famous, Tom Wolfe wore a white suit that many people thought was eccentric. He wore it because it was fashionable in Richmond, Virginia, and he wore it for warmth. He went on to purchase a large wardrobe of white suits, accessorizing them to suit the different social settings.
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