Tom Wolfe and the mission to bring literature back into journalism

Tom Wolfe, the dashing, white-suited journalist-novelist with a Ph.D. from Yale in American civilization and a vocabulary equal to that of William F. Buckley, satirical skills not dissimilar to those of Kurt Vonnegut, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain (not to mention Shakespeare’s rival, Ben Jonson, the gimlet-eyed satirist), a Southerner whose tradition-battering stories in the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1960s made him principally responsible for starting the first new direction in American literature in a half-century, the iconoclastic, initially detested-by-the-fourth-estate New Journalism (which really goes back to Daniel Defoe’s “Diary of a Plague Year”), died Monday at 87.

Wolfe wrote cantilevered sentences like the foregoing all the time, only much zingier. His passing shunts me back to Springfield, Ill., 1974. The previous year, Wolfe’s anthology, “The New Journalism,” was published, although it made no large impression in the state Capitol’s sleepy newsroom, where news outlets from Chicago, St. Louis and most downstate cities had correspondents.

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