I was deeply saddened to see that Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers in recent American history, died on Monday after being admitted to a New York hospital with an infection. Wolfe was 88.
Tom Wolfe was an acclaimed novelist, but I will always remember him as one of the pillars of “New Journalism” in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Tom Wolfe and the other colossal journalistic figure, Hunter S. Thompson, had on aspiring journalists in the Watergate and post-Watergate era. Although their styles were very different, their writing had such flair and power. Wolfe, in particular, showed enormous skill in picking and presenting topics that allowed him to skewer conventional wisdom and conventional norms and highlight some of the phoniness in modern society. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, published in 1970, is a classic of the “New Journalism” genre.
And then came The Right Stuff, published in 1979 just as my tenure at the Ohio State University School of Journalism was ending. A new non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe was eagerly anticipated, so I bought the book as soon as it came out, began reading it, and just couldn’t put it down. It’s awesome from cover to cover, and includes everything that made Wolfe great — brilliant descriptive passages, a kind of novelistic pacing, bright, laugh out loud humor, his ability to ferret out small details that communicate a lot, and the unmatched ability to step back from something, view it from a new perspective, and then present it in a way that left you nodding your head and wondering why everybody didn’t recognize that perspective in the first place.
Wolfe’s treatment of the test pilot community, the ziggurat of achievement where a pilot could wash out at any step, and then how the American obsession with the “space race” and the Mercury astronaut program upended the order and added a new, top step to the ziggurat is just fantastic. The book shows a writer at the absolute pinnacle of his powers; in effect, Wolfe had climbed to the peak of the ziggurat of journalism and non-fiction. I’ve read the book countless times, and it never fails to grip me even though I know exactly what is coming. I consider The Right Stuff to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and definitely in my top 5 list. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get it from the library and give yourself a treat.
Because Wolfe’s non-fiction books read like novels, thanks to his incredible creativity and skill, it was natural that he would pivot to fiction and write a series of best sellers that also captured the silly side of modern society. His novels were good, but I always thought The Right Stuff was his greatest triumph. In honor of the passing of this enormous talent, it’s time for me to read it again.