Tom Wolfe’s writing is as recognized as his uniform: a three-piece suit and hat, everything white from top to bottom, except the occasional sock or pocket square. A non-fiction luminary, and believer that LSD shaped America over the last half of the 20th century, Wolfe has earned cheers and jeers since the 1960s. According to his agent, the writer passed away this week at 88.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of an editor of a farming journal, Wolfe hopped from Yale to the big apple by the 1960s, where his sharp words, contrarianism and vicious style soared him up the ladder. Wolfe was part of a generation of writers known as the ‘New Journalism’ movement, among the likes of Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. He pioneered a style of writing that aimed to make reporting as enthralling, narrative and auteurist as works of fiction. Wolfe chronicled everything from astronauts to economics, but he had a particular interest in how America’s weirdos influenced the rest of the country.
Wolfe had a flamboyant and wild appetite for words, certified by the name of his first collection. Published in 1965, his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, explored the 60s custom car makers, particularly Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the creator of the foul toon Rat Fink.
His sophomore book, and one of Wolfe’s most famous, was 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A deep dive into the growing hippie movement, Wolfe followed Ken Kesey, a preacher of LSD who wanted to drive his ‘Merry Pranksters’ gang across the country to share the gospel. The road trip inevitably crosses the paths of Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg.
Wolfe wanted to find the kind of people that best represented where America was at from decade to decade: the middle-class Boomers of the 70s, the vainglorious Wall Street traders of the 80s, and the brain-fried countercultures of the 60s. And Wolfe wanted to meet them all, dressed in a suit that makes me feel underdressed just thinking about it.