Many have already heard the news that beloved writer and one of the founding fathers of the ‘New Journalism’ movement, Tom Wolfe, recently passed at away at the age of 88. He is remembered through his unique and masterful story telling and books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities
What many do not know is the way he became a legend. It all originated from Wolfe being sent by Esquire magazine to do a write-up on custom-car designers and the teenagers associated with them. Having writer’s block hitting him over the head like a pillowcase full of doorknobs, his editor, Byron Dobell, suggested for Wolfe to take all of his notes and send that in, allowing the editors to clean it up into a satisfactory story. It seemed to be a showcase for disaster.
Wolfe began in the evening and did not stop at all throughout the entire night.
Wolfe recall’s the experience as, “I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 a.m. and by the time it was 49 pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 a.m. About 4 p.m. I got a call from Byron Dobell. He told me they were striking out the ‘Dear Byron’ at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine.”
With the title ‘There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Steamline Baby’, Wolfe wrote from the character’s point of view, coloring the story with ellipses, italics and exclamation marks. Through this, Wolfe was not only telling a story but inviting his readers to jump inside the pages, offering a piece of an authentic experience, leaving each reader ecstatic to want more of this style of writing. As Dobell reminisces, “It was like he discovered it in the middle of the night. Wherever it came from, it seemed to tap a strain of pure American humor that wasn’t being tapped.”
This type of writing became Wolfe’s trademark and became of what is now known to many journalist students as ‘New Journalism.’ He continued to allow readers to experience his characters and setting, whether it was through the rise of hipsters in the late 60s (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), the perspectives of New York liberals (Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), a glance into the world of art (The Painted Word), or the daring adventures of military pilots and astronauts (The Right Stuff). Wolfe was persistent in breaking the rule of what would be considered ‘proper writing’ and has become a household name in 20th century literature and journalism because of his unorthodox nature and style.
So what can we learn from Mr. Wolfe? One of the lessons he taught us is that it is okay to be different. It is okay to stand out, even if it risks rejection. To all those aspiring young writers who do not believe their style of writing can fit into the publishing world, take a lesson from Tom Wolfe. Put yourself out there. Show your reader what you are really made of. The rewards can be more profitable than you can imagine. Just as Wolfe took a risk with Esquire magazine and it turned him into a walking legend, so can happen with any young writer. Tom Wolfe’s legacy will persist into the next generation of young writers and will continue to inspire many to take giant risks. The outcome might come with even more colossal results.