Tom Wolfe was the paragon of the 1960s new journalism, but in many ways he represented a throwback to the 19th century.
Like his fellow white-suited dandy Mark Twain, Wolfe saw clothing as a manifestation of his writing. Wolfe's theatrical suits and jaunty hats reflected an American free spirit prominent from the 1890s though the 1920s. Like Twain and Stephen Crane, Wolfe turned American talking into writing that seemed new. Like Twain and Crane, Wolfe excelled in different literary genres.
Wolfe died at age 88 Tuesday in a New York hospital, where he had been treated for an infection, according to news reports.
In "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full," Wolfe consciously sought to restore a comprehensive depth to the novel that he believed had been lost. He cited Dickens and other Victorian novelists who presented a multisided view of London and English society.
Wolfe particularly thought that with their focus on personality and psychology, modern novelists ignored work and business. He believed that the novel had a special power to illustrate economic and social issues.
Here in Atlanta, "A Man in Full" caused a stir. Almost everyone in Atlanta seemed to have read the book, and a popular lunch and party game was surmising which Atlanta business tycoon was the model for Charlie Croker, Wolfe's protagonist.
A Georgia Tech graduate and major developer of the Sunbelt city's skyline, Croker owns a South Georgia quail-hunting plantation like Coca-Cola giant Robert Woodruff. But he also resembles other Atlanta business legends.
Wolfe's exuberant language in nonfiction books like "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff" helped define the 1960s. Yet, like another innovative chronicler of the counterculture, Joan Didion, Wolfe looked at his subjects from a conservative perspective. Born in Richmond, he was the exemplar of that American literary type, the Southerner who dazzles Manhattan.
As with Twain, Thackery and Dickens, Wolfe's work was essentially satirical. His language and the vividness of his characterizations gave his non-fiction pieces the inventive flair of fiction. Ken Kesey, Leonard Bernstein and William Shawn never quite recovered from Wolfe's portraits.
While Wolfe's language draws the most attention, his main strength was reporting. Like Twain, Crane and, his stylistic opposite, Ernest Hemingway, Wolfe started in newspapers. Along with Jimmy Breslin, Dick Schapp and others, he gave the dying New York Herald-Tribune its last brilliant glow.
Wolfe is one of the last writers whose work held a central place in American culture, discussed around water coolers, in bars, and at the beach.
With the fragmentation of America and the decline of print, American novelists and non-fiction authors now write for narrowly defined groups, rarely reaching a broad readership.
With Wolfe's death, and Philip Roth's retirement, the country no longer has a traditional "major" writer.