Wolfe, Tom: The Bonfire of the Vanities
(researched by Danielle Stubbe)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
Tom Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. © 1987 Tom Wolfe Although The Bonfire of the Vanities was first published from July 1984 until July 1985 in Rolling Stone Magazine in biweekly serialized installments, this is the first book edition and has been edited from the version originally published in the magazine.
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
The first edition is published in hardcover with cloth binding added along the spine only.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
336 leaves, pp. [12] [1-3] 4-9 [10] 11-27 [28] 29-47 [48] 49-71 [72] 73-99 [100] 101-132 [133] 134-156 [157] 158-184 [185] 186-200 [201] 202-221 [222] 223-237 [238] 239-269 [270] 271-284 [285] 286-305 [306] 307-328 [329] 330-358 [359] 360-373 [374] 375-393 [394] 395-407 [408] 409-414 [415] 416-426 [427] 428-440 [441] 442-481 [482] 483-501 [502] 503-516 [517] 518-536 [537] 538-552 [553] 554-569 [570] 571-580 [581] 582-601 [602] 603-626 [627] 628-656 [657] 658-659 [1]
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
Following a page listing the author's other works, Wolf lengthily dedicates The Bonfire of the Vanities to two men with the following:
Doffing his hat, the author dedicates this book to COUNSELOR EDDIE HAYES who walked among the flames, pointing at the lurid lights. And he wishes to express his deep appreciation to BURT ROBERTS who first showed the way
The text has no further introduction and notes no editor.
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
N/A
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Pages are 9¼ inches by 6¼ inches; the text on the page is 7½ inches by 4½ inches and centered, rendering the margins around ¾ of an inch. Despite these small margins, the text is readable, flawlessly printed with minimal age damage. Although the colophon (which is located on the verso of the title page) does not identify the typeface, it can be identified via other sources as CG Elante (90R, an estimated 14 point font). It is single-spaced. Headings list either the author's name in capitalized letters and the page number or the book's title in italicized letters with the page number. They are also written in CG Elante font, although slightly larger than the text itself (an estimated 16 point font). Chapter titles are written in bold CG Elante (at an estimated 18 point font) and are written in 1.5-spaced lines. The chapter number is written above in a different, italicized font.
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
The Bonfire of the Vanities is printed on smooth, white paper with straight edges. The paper is wove with an even, granulated appearance across the whole surface. Minimal smudging (from what appears to be graphite) has occurred on the edges of the top, right, and bottom of the pages. This is only visible from the outside of the book. Beyond this, no yellowing or tearing has occurred on either the library or the private copy.
11 Description of binding(s)
The book is bound in hardcover with its spine bound in cloth. The cardboard is medium reddish Purple color of medium lightness. The cloth is light grey with a dotted-line grain. The author's name (Tom Wolfe) is laid into the cardboard of the front cover and filled with deep black gilt. Along the spine, the author's name and the publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) are laid into the cloth and filled with silver gilt. The title of the book is stamped in deep black on the cloth. The horizontal text along the spine can be transcribed as follows:
Tom | Wolfe The | Bonfire | of the | Vanities FARRAR | STRAUS | GIROUX
The dust jacket of the book does not match the cover itself. The unillustrated endpapers of the book are made from wove paper of a light gray color. The paper is more rigid than then paper used for the rest of the book.
12 Transcription of title page
The | Bonfire | of the | Vanities Transcription of the verso:
Copyright © 1987 by Tom Wolfe | All rights reserved | First printing, 1987 | Printed in the United States of America | Published simultaneously in Canada by Collins Publishers, Toronto Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data | Wolfe, Tom | The bonfire of the vanities. | I. Title. | PS3573.0526B6 1987 813'.54 87-17691 Grateful acknowledgement is made of the daring JANN WENNER, | who published an early version of this book serially, chapter | by chapter, as it was being written, without a safety net, | in ROLLING STONE magazine This book's story and characters are fictitious. The setting | is New York City, and certain long-established institutions, | agencies, and public offices are mentioned. But the characters | involved in them are imaginary A signed first edition of this book has been | privately printed by The Franklin Library
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
Tom Wolfe's manuscripts, including much of the preliminary research for The Bonfire of the Vanities, were sold to the New York Public Library in late 2013. The online database of the archives did not yet have any of these papers scanned, so whether or not the library is in possession of all of the manuscripts for the book cannot be determined without a visit to the archives.
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
The front of the dust jacket lists the title and author of the book, further stating "BY THE AUTHOR OF THE RIGHT STUFF" at the bottom. The spine again lists the title and author vertically with "F-S-G" written horizontally at the bottom for the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The back cover has only a picture of Tom Wolfe. The front and back flaps of the dust jacket include a book summary continuous across both flaps. The back flap also includes a brief biographical paragraph on the author and cites other bibliographical information, including the illustrator of the jacket design and the photographer for the back cover. Finally, it lists the publisher's address, transcribed as follows:
Farrar Straus Giroux | 19 Union Square West | New York 10003
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux did not publish another edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities. The books was published in trade paperback by another publisher with different cover art in 1988.
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
The first printing of the book yielded 200,000 copies. Full details of the printings of the first edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities following this first printing were unavailable because of limited access to the Publisher’s Weekly magazine archives before 1990. Advertising copy from the New York Times sometimes included information on print runs to note the number of copies sold. A December 1987 advertisement suggested that the publisher had completed a fourth printing of the book, which had resulted in a total of 400,000 copies in circulation from all printings. The copy of the first edition from the Brandeis University Library is from a subsequent fifth printing in 1988. The 1987 hardcover first edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux eventually sold 800,000 copies, so the publisher must have printed at least that many copies of the book to meet demand.
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
In 1988, Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, issued the first trade paperback edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities (690 pages) with new cover art. A mass-market edition (704 pages) with the same cover was released by Bantam in 1990. Bantam has subsequently reissued both the trade paperback and the mass-market editions under different imprints. Two editions were released in the United Kingdom during the 1980s. Pan Books published a paperback edition (726 pages) in 1987 and J. Cape (London) published a hardcover edition (659 pages, like the first American edition) in 1988. A large print edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities (992 pages) was published in 1989 from G. K. Hall Publishers in Boston, MA. Picador Books (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., which acquired the original publisher of The Bonfire of the Vanities Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1994) reissued a trade paperback edition of the novel on new plates (now 752 pages) in 2002. Picador later issued a 689-page trade paperback edition in 2008. Also in 2008, Charleston, SC publisher BiblioLife published a two-volume historical reprint of the novel on new plates (706 pages). Vintage Books published a new trade paperback edition (659 pages) in the United Kingdom in 2010. A full list of published editions is below:
New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1987 (Hardcover) (9780374115340) United Kingdom: Pan Books, 1987 (Trade Paperback) (9780330306607) New York: Bantam Books, 1988 (Trade Paperback) (9780553173277) London: J. Cape, 1988 (Hardcover) (9780224024396) Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989 (Large Print) (9780816147458) New York: Bantam Books, 1990 (Mass-Market) (9780553275971) New York: Picador Books, 2002 (Trade Paperback) (9780330491938) New York: Picador Books, 2008 (Trade Paperback) (9780312427573) London: Vintage Books, 2010 (Trade Paperback) (9780099541271)
6 Last date in print?
In 2014, The Bonfire of the Vanities is still in print as a 2008 trade paperback edition from Picador, the literary trade paperback imprint of Macmillan Publishers, Ltd.
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
The 1987 hardcover first edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities sold a total of 800,000 copies. As of 2008, estimated paperback edition (in both trade paperback and mass-market forms) sales had added around two million copies to the total number of copies sold in America. As the book is still in print in 2014 by one of the largest publishing houses in the country, the exact number of total sales likely remains a trade secret.
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Incomplete access to the Publisher’s Weekly archives, which may detail print runs of both the first and later editions that could be used to infer yearly book sales, limited the amount of information to-be-collected on the sales by year.
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
Advertisements for The Bonfire of the Vanities were placed in newspapers throughout the United States. They oftentimes were accompanied by advertisements for other books, but sometimes were placed near a book review for the novel following its publication in October 1987. The advertising copy consisted almost entirely of quotations from reviews praising both the book and the author. Among the most-quoted critics across these advertisements for The Bonfire of the Vanities were Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post's description of the book as "A superb human comedy..." and Frank Conroy of the New York Times's quip that "It grabs you by the lapels and won't let you go." Relying on the preexisting fame of the author, most advertisements featured an iconic picture of Tom Wolfe with his name printed beneath rather than a photograph of the book cover.
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
A210191140213234650.jpg
11 Other promotion
Although advertisements for The Bonfire of the Vanities do not lead to other promotional materials, the author Tom Wolfe likely led a promotional tour. New York Times articles from the weeks prior to the book release in October 1987 suggest that Wolfe participated in interviews about the book, his first novel. Furthermore, the publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux advertised the upcoming publication of the novel at the Fifth Avenue Book Fair in September 1987.
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
A 1990 Warner Brothers film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith was widely criticized by both moviegoers and critics and failed to earn its anticipated revenue at the box office. Of the film, critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times noted:
"The beauty of the Wolfe book was the way it saw through its time and place, dissecting motives and reading minds. The movie sees much, but it doesn't see through."
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
Several translations of The Bonfire of the Vanities were published in the years following the publication of the first edition in the United States:
La Foguera de les Vanitats (Catalan), translated by Manuel de Seabra. Barcelona: Pòrtic, 1988. 664 pages. Het Vreugdevuur der Ijdelheden (Dutch), translated by Jan Fastenau. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1988. 555 pages. Le Bûcher des Vanities (French), translated by Benjamin Legrand. Paris: Sylvie Messinger, 1988. 704 pages. Fegefeuer der Eitelkeiten (German), translated by Benjamin Schwarz. München: Kindler, 1988. 847 pages. Il Falè delle Vanità (Italian), translated by Ranieri Carano. Milan: Mondadori, 1988. 596 pages. Forfengelighetens Fyrverkeri (Norwegian), translated by Kari Risvik. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1988. 660 pages. La Hoguera de las Vanidades (Spanish), translated by Enrique Murillo. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1988. 636 pages. Fåfängans Fyrverkeri (Swedish), translated by Gunnar Pettersson. Stockholm: Norstedts, 1988. 707 pages. Turhuuksien Rovio (Finnish), translated by Erkki Jukarainen. Finland: Werner Sodërström Osakeyhtiö, 1989. 696 pages. A Fogueira das Vaidades (Portuguese), translated by Lia Alverga-Wyler. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1989. 915 pages. Medurat ha-Havalim (Hebrew), translated by Ivrit Tsipi Borsuk. Tel Aviv: Modan, 1989. 631 pages. Kyoei no Kagaribi (Japanese), translated by Keiji Nakano. Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1991. No page length given. Ming le Change da Huo (Chinese), translated by Wo Er Fu and Wang Ming Jie. Zheng Zhou: He Nan Ren Min Chu Ban She, 1992. No page length given. Ognisko Próznósci (Polish), translated by Waclaw Niepokólczycki. Warsaw: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1996. 622 pages. Kostry Ambistii (Russian), translated by Inny Bernshtein and Vladimira Boshniaka. Moscow: BSCPRESS, 2001. No page length given. Forfængelighedens Bål (Danish), translated by Anders Bendtsen. Copenhagen: Indhardt og Ringhof, 2007. 567 pages.
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
Before publication by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1987, The Bonfire of the Vanities was serialized over a year in 24 separate issues of Rolling Stone Magazine from 1984 to 1985.
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
Wolfe wrote neither prequels nor sequels to The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
Though now a famous longtime resident of New York City, where he lives with his wife and two children, Mr. Tom Wolfe was "born and raised" in Richmond, Virginia on March 2nd, 1931 (tomwolfe.com). Wolfe's father Thomas, an agronomist and editor of The Southern Planter magazine (The Paris Review), and mother Louise, a landscape designer, always encouraged their son's interest in education and literature (biography.com). As such, Wolfe would receive his Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 1957 (tomwolfe.com). He later remarked that he found his literary influence in early Soviet writers "whose books [he] had come across by accident in the stacks at the Yale library" (Frieze Magazine). After finishing his dissertation at Yale, Wolfe began his career as a newspaper writer, starting first at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts and working his way to The Washington Post. "The newspaper is," Wolfe later reflected in an interview with The Paris Review, "very bad for one's prose style," so he soon moved on to New York and, eventually, Esquire magazines (The Paris Review), where he began to develop the style "that laid the foundation for the New Journalism" (neh.gov), a movement meant to introduce literary appeal and technique to journalism. He recognized that "it just might be possible to write journalism that would...read like a novel," he wrote in a 1972 essay on the development of the technique ("The Birth of 'The New Journalism'"). And because he had "already considered [himself] a very flashy newspaper writer—as newspaper writers went," Wolfe credited some of his unique adoption of literary styles in his New Journalistic approach to his newspaper career (Frieze Magazine). Wolfe's career as a journalist quickly grew into non-fiction writing. His first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), was a published collection of New Journalistic articles; even his later, full-length non-fiction works—perhaps most famous among them the bestsellers The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979)—drew from the technique of New Journalism (tomwolfe.com). Serialized from 1984 to 1985 under Rolling Stone magazine editor Jann Wenner and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, The Bonfire of the Vanities was Wolfe's first work of fiction. He would later write the fictional novels A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and Back to Blood (tomwolfe.com). Throughout much of his career as an author, Ms. Lynn Nesbit has served as Wolfe's longtime literary agent and Ms. Pat Strachan, formerly of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux but now of Little, Brown and Company, has served as his editor (New York Observer). Wolfe’s manuscripts, which he sold in 2013 for $2.15 million, can be found in the archives of the New York Public Library (New York Times).
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Positive reception of The Bonfire of the Vanities celebrated both Wolfe’s humor and his ability to depict an intricate plot. In a New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt notes that the novel is “very funny indeed” (Lehmann-Haupt), but still remains a grand, respectable work of fiction. “The plot of Bonfire,” Lehmann-Haupt continues, “is an astonishingly intricate machine that manages to mesh at every turn despite its size and complexity” (Lehmann-Haupt). Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times echoes this sentiment, stating that Wolfe “slides into his novel as if it had been waiting for him all along” (Eder). In transitioning from journalist to novelist, critics agreed that Wolfe seemed to bring his teachings from the former into the latter. Terrance Rafferty of The New Yorker notes that Wolfe—both as a journalist and now as a novelist—“has developed a voice so strong and so distinctive that it allows him to carry anything off” (Rafferty). Both positive and negative reviewers of the novel recognized Wolfe’s mocking tone and harsh criticism of his characters throughout The Bonfire of the Vanities. For Lehmann-Haupt, this was simply “delicious fun with the system” (Lehmann-Haupt). Patrick Wright of The Guardian, however, criticized Wolfe for “relish[ing] the play of racial stereotypes” (Wright). Other critics emphasized the negative consequences that would result from such stereotypes, with Thomas Edwards of The New York Review of Books even wondering “Do such readers, not knowing people like those Wolfe describes (and glad of it), imagine that the book, like a glossy magazine or a TV show, gives believable glimpses of the rich and famous, along with some of the poor and dangerous who are equally stimulating to the powers of moral censure?” (Edwards). Ultimately, Eder concludes that Wolfe “dehumanize[s] [his] targets so they can, in fact, be targets instead of people. And [he] dehumanize[s] [himself] in the process.” (Eder) Further criticism of the novel pointed out the thin, almost cartoonish nature of Wolfe’s characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wright states that “the characters are botched together out of old cardboard” (Wright), out of the same stereotypes criticized above. “They can exist only on the outside—in their clothes, their accents, their living arrangements or colleges or cars, the places where they work and play,” Edwards continues this same thought. And they are so contrived that “even Jay Gatsby would be embarrassed at having to say such lines” (Edwards), he finishes harshly. These criticisms led many critics to emphasize that Wolfe, ultimately capable of creating only a stereotypical cast of characters laced together by a thin plot, had failed as a novelist. “[Wolfe]’s a novelist in appearance only” (Rafferty), Rafferty writes. “In reality,” Wright states, The Bonfire of the Vanities is just “a great rickety heap, planted with firecrackers and propped up with broom-handles and clumsy rigging of the baling-twine variety” (Wright). Essentially, critics—especially serious literary critics learned in the classical literary canon—dismissed The Bonfire of the Vanities as a shallow and sensationalist novel meant, like Wolfe’s journalism, to catch the attention of the reader, but not to impart any moral or intellectual meaning in the end. CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS CITED
Blades, John. “Tom Wolfe’s Cartoon Novel.” Chicago Tribune (October 18th, 1987). Eder, Richard. “Malice Toward All, Charity Toward Some.” Los Angeles Times (October 25th, 1987). Edwards, Thomas R. “Low Expectations.” The New York Review of Books (February 4th, 1988). Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times.” New York Times (October 22nd, 1987). Rafferty, Terrence. “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The New Yorker (February 1st, 1988). Rothstein, Mervyn. “Tom Wolfe Tries New Role: Novelist.” New York Times (October 13th, 1987). Wright, Patrick. “Going to Blazes.” The Guardian (February 12th, 1988).
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Positive reception of The Bonfire of the Vanities celebrated both Wolfe’s humor and his ability to depict an intricate plot. In a New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt notes that the novel is “very funny indeed” (Lehmann-Haupt), but still remains a grand, respectable work of fiction. “The plot of Bonfire,” Lehmann-Haupt continues, “is an astonishingly intricate machine that manages to mesh at every turn despite its size and complexity” (Lehmann-Haupt). Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times echoes this sentiment, stating that Wolfe “slides into his novel as if it had been waiting for him all along” (Eder). In transitioning from journalist to novelist, critics agreed that Wolfe seemed to bring his teachings from the former into the latter. Terrance Rafferty of The New Yorker notes that Wolfe—both as a journalist and now as a novelist—“has developed a voice so strong and so distinctive that it allows him to carry anything off” (Rafferty). Both positive and negative reviewers of the novel recognized Wolfe’s mocking tone and harsh criticism of his characters throughout The Bonfire of the Vanities. For Lehmann-Haupt, this was simply “delicious fun with the system” (Lehmann-Haupt). Patrick Wright of The Guardian, however, criticized Wolfe for “relish[ing] the play of racial stereotypes” (Wright). Other critics emphasized the negative consequences that would result from such stereotypes, with Thomas Edwards of The New York Review of Books even wondering “Do such readers, not knowing people like those Wolfe describes (and glad of it), imagine that the book, like a glossy magazine or a TV show, gives believable glimpses of the rich and famous, along with some of the poor and dangerous who are equally stimulating to the powers of moral censure?” (Edwards). Ultimately, Eder concludes that Wolfe “dehumanize[s] [his] targets so they can, in fact, be targets instead of people. And [he] dehumanize[s] [himself] in the process.” (Eder) Further criticism of the novel pointed out the thin, almost cartoonish nature of Wolfe’s characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wright states that “the characters are botched together out of old cardboard” (Wright), out of the same stereotypes criticized above. “They can exist only on the outside—in their clothes, their accents, their living arrangements or colleges or cars, the places where they work and play,” Edwards continues this same thought. And they are so contrived that “even Jay Gatsby would be embarrassed at having to say such lines” (Edwards), he finishes harshly. These criticisms led many critics to emphasize that Wolfe, ultimately capable of creating only a stereotypical cast of characters laced together by a thin plot, had failed as a novelist. “[Wolfe]’s a novelist in appearance only” (Rafferty), Rafferty writes. “In reality,” Wright states, The Bonfire of the Vanities is just “a great rickety heap, planted with firecrackers and propped up with broom-handles and clumsy rigging of the baling-twine variety” (Wright). Essentially, critics—especially serious literary critics learned in the classical literary canon—dismissed The Bonfire of the Vanities as a shallow and sensationalist novel meant, like Wolfe’s journalism, to catch the attention of the reader, but not to impart any moral or intellectual meaning in the end. CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS CITED
Blades, John. “Tom Wolfe’s Cartoon Novel.” Chicago Tribune (October 18th, 1987). Eder, Richard. “Malice Toward All, Charity Toward Some.” Los Angeles Times (October 25th, 1987). Edwards, Thomas R. “Low Expectations.” The New York Review of Books (February 4th, 1988). Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times.” New York Times (October 22nd, 1987). Rafferty, Terrence. “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The New Yorker (February 1st, 1988). Rothstein, Mervyn. “Tom Wolfe Tries New Role: Novelist.” New York Times (October 13th, 1987). Wright, Patrick. “Going to Blazes.” The Guardian (February 12th, 1988).
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
Defining Tom Wolfe and Contextualizing The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Critical Essay by Danielle Stubbe Rarely do writers establish a voice so distinctive that their style renders them immediately recognizable to a reader through a paragraph—through perhaps even a sentence—of their writing. Readers may recognize quotations, passages, and themes, but for an author’s writing style to become in itself definitive of that author requires very rare, specific circumstances in both the author’s life and the culture to which he belongs. Journalist Tom Wolfe, whose reporting techniques fathered the New Journalism movement during the 1960s and 1970s, is one author whose distinctive voice is undeniable. He has developed, cultivated, and marketed that voice through his journalism, his longer non-fiction books, and even his more recent fiction novels, ultimately composing a “Tom Wolfe style” of writing belonging entirely to him. And, when traced through reviews and scholarship about Wolfe published over the last half-century, this contextualizes his success of his 1987 bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities. Tom Wolfe’s literary style is flamboyant. He simply embodies onomatopoeia. He exclaims, he exaggerates, and he emphasizes his words and quotations and phrases throughout both his non-fiction journalistic pieces and books and his fictional novels. His language is colloquial and bold. His sentences, overrun with punctuation from dashes to exclamation points and with styles from italics to full-word capitalization, even look interesting to the eye. Readers are meant, of course, to appreciate the depth of the research behind the material he writes, but also to enjoy the experience of reading that material. And critics—even established literary writers—recognized this as early as the publication of his first book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), which included a number of his pieces of New Journalism from his early career. Says novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his review of the book entitled “Infarcted! Tabescent!” from the New York Times Book Review, “Tom Wolfe is the most exciting—or, at least, the most jangling—journalist to appear in some time” (Vonnegut). Wolfe’s style, Vonnegut here explains, seems to “jangle” when one reads it. It is “exciting,” bold, new, and entirely unique to Wolfe. And for Vonnegut, “the temptation when reviewing his works, of course, is to imitate him cunningly. Holy animals! Sebaceous sleepers! Oxymorons and serpentae carminael! Tabescent! Infarcted! Stretchpants netherworld! Schlock! A parodist might get the words right, but never the bitchy melody” (Vonnegut). This phenomenon, the adoption or imitation of Wolfe’s writing style while reviewing his books, has continued throughout his career. In 2000, Esquire Magazine writer Sven Birkerts titled his review of Wolfe’s latest book Hooking Up “Tom Wolfe.(What?) Tom Wolfe.(Can’t Hear You.) Tom Wolfe!” (Birkerts). Essentially, these reviewers—their acknowledgement and playful adoption of Wolfe’s style indicative of the author’s treatment by many critics and fans—demonstrate the idiosyncratic nature of Wolfe’s writing. In other words, their imitation affirms, quite simply, that Wolfe’s style is distinctive. Wolfe himself has also spoken, both in interviews throughout his career and in his own writing, about his distinctive style. In a 2006 interview with Frieze Magazine, the interviewer asked him explicitly about his style. “Throughout your own writings,” the question begins, “you have used language in a wholly new way—part stream of consciousness, part naturalism and part linguistic cartoon—almost a literary equivalent of Pop art. How did you acquire your distinctive prose style?” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). Wolfe responds that, while writing his first magazine features piece, one on customized automobiles for Esquire eventually entitled “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (1963), his editor instructed him to submit his notes so that another writer could turn them into an article. So, he wrote the notes in his natural, flamboyant way, expecting them to transformed into a conventional article. But Esquire chose to run his notes verbatim. “Now that really did show me that you could cut loose!” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell), Wolfe reflects in the interview; “I was reasonably creative as a newspaper writer, but this was like, hey, you can get away with anything!” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). And, as a result, “I then started doing all sorts of things with the writing to try to bring alive the emotions of situations and gradually to start shaping them like short stories, going from scene to scene” (Wolfe interview with Bracewell). Realizing that magazine readers desired a more “cartoon[ish],” “Pop art” style of writing to keep their interested, he chose to further develop and enhance his distinctive style by attempting to better “bring alive the emotions” of his scenes and subjects. He chose to write non-fiction pieces “like short stories.” In a 1991 interview with The Paris Review, Wolfe had already elaborated more on how he developed his distinctive style in the first place. Writing pieces for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, he remembers, “I never had the feeling that there were any standards to writing for a Sunday supplement. So you could experiment in any fashion you wished, which I began to do” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton). The articles “were like brain candy, easily thrown away” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton), he continues, which allowed him to write however he liked. And as he experimented, he began to create his own distinctive voice. He embraced that cartoonish, Pop art style of writing that would come to be affiliated with him. “Still,” he says later, “I didn’t think of it as a Tom Wolfe style” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton). It was only after the publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in book form that “I began to get a lot of publicity, people began to write about me and about this style” (Wolfe interview with Plimpton), Wolfe remembers. And as a result, he more fully embraced the style as his own distinctive voice for both journalism and longer non-fiction books. In his 1989 reflection on the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) for Harper’s Magazine entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe reflected on the literary cultural factors that, perhaps, led him to develop his distinctive “Tom Wolfe style,” as he called it above. The article described, first and foremost, the challenge Wolfe faced in depicting New York City in a novel, but also considered the literary style—realism—that aided him in writing. In it, Wolfe suggests that American intellectuals following the Second World War “set out to create a native intelligentsia on the French or English model, an intellectual aristocracy—socially unaffiliated, beyond class distinctions—active in politics and the arts” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). This new native intelligentsia embraced European cultural trends in both art and in literature and attempted to replicate them on the American scene. “Among the fashionable European ideas that began to circulate,” he further states, “was that of the ‘death of the novel,’ by which was meant the realistic novel” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). And “by the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life no longer deserved the term real” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). Here, Wolfe laments the loss of realism in the American literary style. Realism had always guided both his reporting and his writing style and, in fact, he believed “that the future of the fictional novel would be in highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and extricable relation to the society around him” (Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”). Essentially, through “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe explained that as he entered journalism in the 1960s, realism had vanished from American literary fashion, something he regretted. Thus, the style he developed—through years writing “brain candy” pieces in the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune and, eventually, longer features pieces for Esquire Magazine, as detailed above—intended to revitalize realism. From his in-depth reporting technique, which would come to characterize the New Journalism pioneered by Wolfe and developed further by other figures like Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, to his exaggerated, cartoonish writing voice, Wolfe attempted to recapture the real, to convey emotion, and to portray the world as it was. While Wolfe would refer to his distinctive voice as highly realist, literary criticism of the last half-century contextualizes it as postmodern. In an essay in The English Journal from 1988, American literary scholar Tom Romano writes of Wolfe’s distinctive way of “Breaking the Rules in Style” (Romano), of his ability to bend the conventional grammatical structure—characteristic of the realist tradition that Wolfe claims to inhabit—to develop his own distinctive voice, a characteristic of the postmodern. Other critics have acknowledged that, unlike some writers of the postmodernist tradition during the 1960s in particular, Wolfe does attempt to maintain at least a realist plot structure, which follows a chronological structure. In his 1988 article from Cultural Critique entitled “‘Further’: Reflections on Counter-Culture and the Postmodern,” scholar Brent Whelan explores the relationship between realism and postmodernism in Wolfe’s work through his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which follows postmodernist author Ken Kesey’s experiences with LSD during the early days of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. “The traces of Wolfe’s manipulations are the marks of adaptation,” Whelan writes, “as Kesey’s amorphous, heterogeneous work is inserted into the stricter confines of the consumable product” (Whelan). In other words, Whelan suggests here that Wolfe—not really a realist—simply transforms the postmodern into a “consumable” form, able to be marketed and interpreted on a popular scale. Wolfe’s style is an “inevitable development” (Whelan) in the postmodern style, he continues. It represents a sort of post-postmodern popular movement that incorporates the writing techniques of postmodernism—that exaggerated, cartoonish style—with a more digestible temporal structure. More recent literary critical consideration of Wolfe’s distinctive style has agreed with Whelan’s assessment of Wolfe as, ultimately, a bestselling author writing for nothing more than popular consumption. In his 2001 article from The Sewanee Review entitled “Literature in the Age of Hype,” author and editor Sanford Pinsker emphasizes the significance of hype—the significance of the overwhelming, exaggerated advertising like that surrounding modern-day blockbuster movies—in Wolfe’s style. “Known primarily as a journalist, albeit of the new razzle-dazzle sort,” he writes, “Wolfe has fairly dripped with star power” (Pinsker). And “despite his marked talent for rendering certain scenes in vivid detail, with considerable brio” (Pinsker), despite that distinctive voice with which he writes, his novels amount to little significance. “What matters,” he concludes, “is how many copies get sold and then whether or not the novel can be turned into a blockbuster film” (Pinsker). Pinsker’s essay echoes an earlier criticism, written by novelist John Updike for The New Yorker in 1998 and entitled “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT!” to explicitly mock Wolfe’s style, about Wolfe’s 1998 fictional novel A Man in Full. Wolfe’s writing style, he states, “still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form” (Updike). It “tries too hard to please us,” with “Wolfe’s exclamatory interjections (‘Packs! Dens! Utterly primitive animal turfs!’ ‘Brute sexual energy! A herd of young male animals!’ ‘More thrashing! Looser teeth! Blood! Bone fragments!’)…like the surges of background music, telling us what to feel, not trusting us to react without supervision” (Updike). Ultimately, Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first fictional novel, published in 1987, fits into this grand context of the author’s distinctive style and the half-century of reception and literary criticism surrounding it. From the very first page of the Prologue to the story—“Chuck! The insolent—he’s right there, right there in front—he just called him a Charlie! Chuck is short for Charlie, and Charlie is the old code name for a down-home white bigot. The insolence of it! The impudence!” (Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, 3)—that “Tom Wolfe style”—exaggerated, frantic, cartoonish, vulgar, and flamboyant, to name a few characteristics—is evident. Wolfe gives readers, in essence, exactly what they wanted from him: his distinctive voice. And they responded in the way suggested by Pinsker and more cynically by Updike above. They bought his book, they made it a bestseller both in hardcover and in paperback, and they watched the blockbuster movie that would be released (and, as it were, critically panned) three years later. Essentially, The Bonfire of the Vanities became a bestseller because of the distinctive celebrity of its author. The book received little critical praise other than that identifying it as quintessentially Tom Wolfe, but did wholly embody that “Tom Wolfe style” in a new, fictional form. WORKS CITED
Birkerts, Sven. “Tom Wolfe.(What?) Tom Wolfe.(Can’t Hear You.) Tom Wolfe!” Esquire (September 1st, 2000). Pinsker, Sanford. “Literature in the Age of Hype.” The Sewanee Review (Spring 2001). Romano, Tom. “Breaking the Rules in Style.” The English Journal (December 1988). Updike, John. “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHHHT!” The New Yorker (November 9th, 1998). Vonnegut, Kurt. “Infarcted! Tabescent!” The New York Times Book Review (June 27th, 1965). Whelan, Brent. “‘Further’: Reflections of Counter-Culture and the Postmodern.” Cultural Critique (Winter 1988–1999). Wolfe, Tom. Interview with George Plimpton: “Tom Wolfe, The Art of Fiction No. 123.” The Paris Review (Spring 1991). Wolfe, Tom. Interview with Michael Bracewell: “Shock of the New.” Frieze (June–August 2006). Wolfe, Tom. “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Harper’s Magazine (November 1989). Wolfe, Tom. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).
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