US writer renowned as a leading exponent of ‘the new journalism’.
Born into a patrician family in Richmond, Virginia, Wolfe was the son of a professor of agronomy, who also edited the magazine Southern Planter. Wolfe failed in his youthful ambition to play baseball professionally for the New York Giants but did obtain a doctorate at Yale, enabling him to become a reporter, initially with the Springfield Union and subsequently with the prestigious Washington Post. Switching to freelance work, he soon developed a distinctive and dynamic prose style, which attempts to create an effect of spontaneity and excitement. It is said that on one occasion in 1963 Wolfe, failing to complete a promised article on customized cars in California, submitted his working notes as a stream-of-consciousness report, which was printed verbatim in Esquire. In 1965 Wolfe published a volume of twenty-two essays on aspects of popular culture under the title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
Wolfe's use of literary techniques normally associated with fiction writing to create authenticity in the treatment of nonfiction topics has been called ‘the new journalism’. Hailed by some as a challenge to the false objectivity of traditional reportage, it has been criticized by others. Wolfe has drawn heavily on his own experience of the contemporary scene to produce such satires as Radical Chic (1970), based on a party the composer Leonard Bernstein gave for the militant Black Panthers. In 1973 he published an anthology of The New Journalism, analysing its development. His chronicle of the early stages of the NASA space programme, The Right Stuff (1979), won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was made into a successful film in 1983. In From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) Wolfe launched a diatribe against modern architecture. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a novel that sets the greed of Wall-Street financiers against a backdrop of urban desolation, became a best-seller; its adaptation to the cinema screen by Brian de Palma in 1990 was, however, less successful. His second novel, A Man in Full (1998), set in Atlanta, Georgia, explores the world of property dealers in the USA's southern states.