The Wisdom of Tom Wolfe

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsAcclaimed American author and journalist Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with another famous American author, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward Angel) passed away on May 14, 2018. He was instantly recognized wherever he went, because since the early sixties, he always wore a white suit (accessorized by a white homburg hat, white tie, and traditional two-tone shoes), in the style of a Southern gentleman (Mark Twain was also fond of white suits). Wolfe believed that his suit put people at ease; he figured they thought “[here is] a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”

Aside from his trademark white suite, Wolfe was known for his best-selling works — The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Text, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is also recognized as a pioneer of “New Journalism.” “So what is new journalism?” you ask. Fair question. Literary critics believe that it emerged in the early 1960s and began its decline in the 1980s. Wolfe described it this way: “[New Journalism] is a form that is not merely like a novel. It consumes devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened. The disclaimers have been erased. The screen is gone. The writer is one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader that Henry James and James Joyce dreamed of but never achieved.” Thus, in general, New Journalism focuses on subjectivism and “truth” whereas traditional journalism is characterized by objectivity and facts. To present a subjective perspective, the new journalist employs four techniques borrowed form literary fiction: (1) presenting the narrative through scenes; (2) complete conversational dialogue; (3) multiple third-person point-of-view, and (4) recording everyday details. Pioneers of the New Journalism include Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and of course, Tom Wolfe. Most of these writers were often featured in the tend-setting magazines of their time — Esquire, The Rolling Stone, and New York.

Tom Wolfe was erudite and opinionated — and never afraid to speak his mind. Here are some of his insights on reading, writing, and the life of the mind:

“The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it. ”

“[Being a writer] is the hardest work in the world. The only thing that will get you through it is maybe someone will applaud when it’s over.”

“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”

“Art is a creed, not a craft.”

“It’s fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed.”

“Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.”

“The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one in which the artist is viewed as a holy beast who in some way, big or small, receives flashes from the godhead, which is known as creativity.”

“We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. They two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.”

“A lie may fool someone else, but it tells you the truth: you’re weak.”

“[Aldous Huxley] compared the brain to a ‘reducing valve’. In ordinary perception, the senses send an overwhelming flood of information to the brain, which the brain then filters down to a trickle it can manage for the purpose of survival in a highly competitive world. Man has become so rational, so utilitarian, that the trickle becomes most pale and thin. It is efficient, for mere survival, but it screens out the most wondrous part of man’s potential experience without his even knowing it. We’re shut off from our own world.”

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Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

For further reading: The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe
The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight by Marc Weingarten

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