Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. was born on March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia. His father and namesake was a writer—editor of the agronomy journal Southern Planter—and the novels of North Carolina native Thomas Wolfe lined the family shelves. Naturally, Wolfe reports, he grew up assuming they were related; they are not.
Wolfe enjoyed what he described as a “very happy” childhood. He showed talent in drawing, and years later, Wolfe’s sketches would illustrate many of his own books. He also excelled at sports and even, in 1951, earned a tryout as a pitcher for the New York Giants, but was quickly cut. “No slider,” he recalls.
Wolfe attended college at Washington and Lee, and there he studied all things American—literature, art, architecture, philosophy, psychology and much else—subjects that would emerge as central to his later work. He continued his work in American Studies in graduate school at Yale, writing his dissertation on Communist attempts to infiltrate and influence American writers in the pre-war era.
As an undergraduate, Wolfe aspired to be a novelist. As a graduate student, he thought he would end up teaching. But nearly a decade in academic environments induced in him a longing for what he calls “the real world.” After a few months loading trucks and moving furniture, he became a city hall reporter at the Springfield, Massachusetts Union, and, after working briefly at the Washington Post he began work in 1962 at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune.
During the week, Wolfe was a city beat reporter, and on the weekends, he wrote longer pieces for the Tribune’s Sunday supplement, New York (which, after the Tribune folded in 1966, was spun off to become New York magazine). In these weekend pieces, for which Wolfe’s editors granted him almost complete freedom, he began to experiment with literary devices borrowed from fiction, and to develop his signature style.
From 1963 through 1968, Wolfe wrote dozens of magazine pieces, primarily for New York and Esquire. Most were collected in his first two books—though Wolfe’s 1965 send-up of the New Yorker, which did more than any other piece to launch his fame, was not republished until 2000.
Wolfe’s first full-length book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), began as a short essay about fugitive novelist Ken Kesey but grew into the definitive account of the hippie movement and counterculture. His next book, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), explored racial tensions and intellectual pretentions. He then edited a collection on The New Journalism (1973)—a movement he helped define—and wrote a book on modern art, The Painted Word (1975). A book on modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, was published in 1981.
A third anthology of previously published magazine work—Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine—appeared in 1976. Wolfe spent much of the 1970s researching and writing The Right Stuff (1979), his epic account of the beginnings of the U.S. space program. He then determined to try his hand at a novel, heavily reported, and infused with detailed realism, in the style and spirit of Steinbeck, Lewis, Zola, Balzac and Dickens.
The result, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), is an account of contemporary American urban life, and is considered by many to be Wolfe’s masterpiece, a book that ties together most of the key themes of his career. It was both a critical and a commercial success. Wolfe published a second, well-reviewed novel, A Man In Full, in 1998. Hooking Up, his fourth anthology, was published in 2000.
For his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Wolfe examined the lives of university undergraduates, and the effect on them of the sexual revolution. Back to Blood (2012), Wolfe’s final novel, again looks at racial strife in the cities, this time in multicultural Miami. At the time of his death, in May 2018, he was at work on a history of the theory of evolution.