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Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine from 1986 until his death in 2018, coined the terms “radical chic,” “the right stuff,” and “the Me decade,” though he was wrongly credited with “trophy wife.”

A key figure in New Journalism, Wolfe established his reputation with the essay collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and the non-fiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). After receiving the National Book Award for The Right Stuff (1979), he asked himself, “Are you merely ducking the big challenge—The Novel?” So he wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). He caused a stir two years later with his Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” “By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realist novel was no longer possible,” he wrote, “but that American life itself no longer deserved the term real.” His manifesto called for a renewal of the social realist novel, advice he would heed in his next work of fiction, the National Book Award–nominated A Man in Full (1998).

Wolfe bought his first white suit in 1962 and wore it for the rest of his life. He described his sartorial aesthetic as “neo-pretentious.” He received the National Humanities Medal and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, among other honors. His wife, Sheila Wolfe, was for a time the art director of Harper’s.

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June 1981

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