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Remembering Tom Wolfe, American writer with an ‘anthropologist’s delight’

New Journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe captured American culture in groundbreaking nonfiction like "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and novels like "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Journalist Susan Orlean joins Judy Woodruff to remember Wolfe, who died Tuesday at the age of 88.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, remembering the American writer Tom Wolfe, who died today.

    Wolfe first broke through to a wider audience in the early '60s, as one of the seminal voices behind so-called New Journalism, a form of nonfiction writing that used fictional literary styles and was distinctively different in technique.

    His magazine pieces led to nonfiction books that put American subcultures under the microscope, often with a wry and biting tone.

    "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," zeroed in on the counterculture. "The Painted Word" targeted the world of art. And one of his best-regarded books, "The Right Stuff," which was later made into a movie, showcased the heroism of the first American astronauts.

    Wolfe later turned to writing novels. His biggest hit, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," was a lacerating satire of money, power and New York life in the '80s.

    He spoke with the "NewsHour"'s Elizabeth Farnsworth in 1998 about why he wanted to bring his reporter's eye to his fiction.

  • Tom Wolfe:

    Reporting is absolutely essential to the novel, now more than — now more than it ever was.

  • Elizabeth Farnsworth:

    Why?

  • Tom Wolfe:

    It's because the novel is not going to be able to compete with television, with movies, with other forms of stories, unless it exploits to the full what only print can do and what only — in this case, only the novel can do.

    And that is to bring people inside of these amazing worlds that exist in the United States today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some thoughts about Tom Wolfe and his work from a writer he influenced.

    Susan Orlean is a journalist, author, and staff writer for "The New Yorker." She's the author of eight books, including the bestseller "The Orchid Thief."

    Susan Orlean, it's a pleasure to have you with us.

    What was it about Tom Wolfe? What was it about him that influenced you?

  • Susan Orlean:

    I read "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" when I was in high school.

    And as much as I was a big reader at the time, this was transformational. There was a voice, a confidence, a tone that I had never encountered before, particularly in nonfiction. I carried that book around with me for years.

    And I really do think it's what made me want to be a nonfiction writer. There was just a spirit in his writing that had never — I had never encountered before. It was like hearing jazz for the first time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's interesting. He just said if that interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, he mentioned American life.

    He was uniquely American, wasn't he?

  • Susan Orlean:

    Yes.

    And he took the amazing mosaic of American subcultures as his subject, everything from the Merry Pranksters, traveling on their bus, taking LSD every five minutes, to the Upper East Side, very affluent and indulged denizens of that neighborhood.

    And he looked at them all in a somewhat equal way. These were tribes that he wanted to analyze and understand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, there was so much praise for his work.

    At times, his critics said he went too far, he wasn't sensitive enough to race, to other things. Did he go too far sometimes?

  • Susan Orlean:

    He had — he was pretty unburdened by the propriety of what he said.

    I think his feeling was that everything was fair game. He could e easily misinterpreted, which is an issue for a writer. You do have some responsibility for the way your words could be perceived. And I think he felt that his responsibility ended at the page, and if people read it wrong, it was really their problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where do you think that all came from? He was Southern. He was born and raised in Virginia. Any sense of what made him the writer he was?

  • Susan Orlean:

    He was a serious student of literature.

    And I think it's really important to realize that he had these two very basic, but serious underpinnings to his work, namely, a really serious understanding of literature and a deep regard for and talent for reporting.

    His books only succeed because the reporting was so good. He seemed to take a sort of anthropologist's delight in analyzing subcultures, figuring out how power flowed within them, how people made their way out of them, and what impact it had for these little groups to bump up against people who were not inside the tribe.

    I think he really was, at heart, an anthropologist.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like, Susan Orlean, you're saying his nonfiction more important than his fiction?

  • Susan Orlean:

    No, not necessarily.

    I think his fiction, when he hit it right, was brilliant. And I don't think the world is the same after "The Bonfire of the Vanities," quite honestly.

    For him, I think fiction was merely an extension of the nonfiction, where he took the kind of reporting that his nonfiction had, and simply created an ideal narrative in which to tell that reporting.

    And he said often that his novels were very dependent on fact and on observation and on the real world, and that that's what they were meant to do, to explain the real world to us through a fictional narrative.

    I think that his nonfiction and his fiction were very closely related. Just, one had a narrative drawn from real life, and the other had a narrative that he created.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing.

    He was also personally distinctive. He dressed in white all the time. I read that he always wore the vest, the white shoes.

    What was that all about?

  • Susan Orlean:

    Well, I think he liked — as he once said, he didn't think he could blend in, so he decided he might as well really stand out.

    He was a real dandy. I think he had a Southern gentleman's enjoyment of being fully turned out every day, and perfect contrast to an era in which, starting in the '60s, the idea of dressing — for reporters to dress well was unheard of.

    I mean, people came to work in T-shirts and Birkenstocks. And there was Tom Wolfe. I think he enjoyed playing on our expectations of convention. And just as we expected the ink-stained wretch in the newsroom to look a certain way, he looked exactly the opposite, refined, elegant, and completely out of no particular era.

    He was a sort of timeless figure with that — with his getup.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remembering Tom Wolfe.

    Writer and author Susan Orlean, thank you so much.

  • Susan Orlean:

    My pleasure.

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