Tom Wolfe not only chronicled the social changes that transformed America and his adopted hometown of New York in the second half of the 20th century. In many ways, he helped to shape them. While he’ll always be remembered for his much-copied, but ultimately inimitable prose style, he was also a man of ideas.
His debut novel — published at the tender age of 56 — “The Bonfire of the Vanities” captured the inequities, division, danger and decay of 1980s New York better than anyone — and opened New Yorkers’ eyes to the need for change, much as another social reformer, Jacob Riis, did a century before.
Characteristically contrarian, Wolfe once wrote that “at that moment, the conventional wisdom among those second-hand idea salesmen, the intellectuals, was that ‘America’s large cities have become ungovernable.’ ”
New York has always been a magnet for those whose ambition is to make a living — and make a difference — through the printed word. Tom Wolfe did both.
A student of history, Wolfe didn’t buy it, and he began to champion ideas like proactive “Broken Windows” policing, which he believed could improve life for all New Yorkers.
Wolfe would become friends with Bill Bratton and also Bratton’s No. 2 in his first stint as commissioner, the late great, John Timoney, whom Wolfe once described thus: “Even someone in the grandstand, like me, could read the lines incised in that face, punctuated by a blunt nose, and immediately make out the words ‘tough Irish cop.’ Timoney was the platonic ideal-typical incarnation of the breed. He was the real real thing.”
After Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, he and Wolfe participated in a Manhattan Institute forum in which many policy topics — from crime to education to welfare reform — were discussed. Years later, the Manhattan Institute presented Wolfe and Giuliani with its Hamilton Award on the same evening. It was an honor to fete the author of “Bonfire,” alongside the mayor who had done so much to put out the flames.
In his remarks, Giuliani called Wolfe “the Dickens of our modern age” and noted how he “described the social forces that affect us . . . in ways that explain what the impetus for reform is and the things that maybe we’re doing wrong that we can correct.”
From “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968), his “nonfiction novel” about the counterculture, to “The Right Stuff,” his 1979 treatment of the first American astronauts, to his later works: the Atlanta-set novel “A Man in Full” (1998) and “Back to Blood” (2012), an exploration of 21st century Miami, Wolfe described our social situation with unmatched flair and insight.
Wolfe was one of New York’s last true literary stars. It always caused a stir when he would arrive at a function in his trademark white suit and matching custom Cadillac, with his cane and fedora. He was an icon, a literary lion, but would always take time to encourage young writers.
“Keep scribbling,” he would advise them.
A son of the South, his love for his adopted home of New York was evident in much of his writing, including this passage from “Bonfire”:
“He could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.”
New York has always been a magnet for those whose ambition is to make a living — and make a difference — through the printed word. Tom Wolfe did both. He will be missed.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post
Lawrence J. Mone is president of the Manhattan Institute.