May 16, 2018

Rundle: the krude yet kreative legacy of Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe will be remembered as one of the pioneers of "New Journalism", but how did this journalism age and where does it stand today?

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Tom Wolfe had only one thing about him that was informal and unfussy in his later life, and that was his first name. The co-founder of "New Journalism", who has died at the age of 88, spent the last half-century in an ice-cream white suit and a striped shirt, the dead spit of The New Yorker’s pen-and-ink figurehead, Eustace Tilley. It was an unlikely look for the man who had been most associated with the idea of "saturation journalism" and the break-out from the deadened metropolitan style of mid-century reportage.

Wolfe famously "invented" New Journalism in the early '60s, when he spent weeks covering hot-rod and custom-car rallies in California for New York magazine. Wolfe had taken a then-unusual path to writing, for an establishment kid from Richmond, Virginia, taking a PhD in American Studies, a discipline which emphasised the importance of everyday life. He’d worked in traditional journalism through the 1950s; the custom-car subculture brought him to the crisis moment necessary to innovation. He simply couldn’t shoehorn the wildness of the scene -- a sort of transitional moment between the '50s and '60s -- into the standard form of a "colour" piece. He wrote a long letter to his editor, Clay Felker, describing what he was trying to do, and the editor, as good editors do, simply clipped off the "Dear Clay" salutation, and ran the piece unaltered.

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12 thoughts on “Rundle: the krude yet kreative legacy of Tom Wolfe

  1. AR

    HST did not attempt to (pretend to) understand what he was reporting/fabricating, leaving it to the reader’s personal filter.
    Wolfe neither understood nor approved of, the alien corn he trampled and so did what Capote called “typing not writing”.
    His “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was a depressing waste of opportunity and those who currently use the phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” miss the point as did he.

    1. David Irving (no relation)

      Different Kool-Aid, I think you’ll find. The Kool-Aid everyone drinks is the poisoined stuff from Jonestown, whereas the Kool-Aid of the Acid Tests was, well, an acid test.

      1. AR

        The phrase as used today seems to mean advocating an idea.

        1. David Irving (no relation)

          I’ve always understood it to mean “swallowed some bullshit line”, when used in that sense.

      2. pinkocommierat

        Odd how that term gained currency when the stuff they drank at Jonestown was called Flavor-Aid.

  2. Spica

    I wouldn’t say Bonfire of the Vanities was all that readable, and you do have to wonder about a grown man being so careful of his image.

  3. David Irving (no relation)

    I enjoyed “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (the essay on Las Vegas is stunning) and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” enormously (as they addressed a couple of my 17 year old obsessions when I encountered them). I’ve never read any of his novels.

  4. Jussarian

    I enjoyed the 2 Wolfe novels I read and did not find one collection of essays laborious, whichever one it was. I will have to add Infinite Jest to the to-read pile, but I enjoyed his attacks on the “3 Stooges”: Wolfe’s novels are far better than The World According to Garp.

  5. greg adler

    Guy it’s a fair cop to criticize Wolfe’s politics but your slagging off of his writing style really? Mau-mauing your betters I think

    1. Spica

      I wouldn’t say so at all.

  6. Kerry McDermott

    His description of an acid trip ( at a Grateful dead concert ) in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is the closest to the real thing that I ever read .

    1. David Irving (no relation)


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