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Innovative culture chronicler Tom Wolfe lays it on the line. By Karin Fleming ‘09

“It’s just not a dignified occupation on any level,” said journalist Tom Wolfe of his profession. He then compared journalists to “beggars” — always scraping for the piece of information that will feed their story. A reporter, Wolf said, must be willing to go out and report.

In October the best-selling author and this year’s Park Distinguished Visitor spoke to a full house in Emerson Suites, wearing his trademark white three-piece suit and two-toned shoes. Wolfe is considered a founder of “new journalism,” or “literary journalism” — which combines journalistic accuracy with literary techniques such as scene-setting, description, and dialogue. His first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby*, a compilation of articles written in this style, was published in 1965. He has written another 11 novels, including The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004).

“From the start of his writing career, Wolfe realized that facts [aren’t enough to] reveal everything,” said Dianne Lynch, dean of the Park School, as she introduced Wolfe to the audience. “Behavior and observation are just as important.”

Wolfe echoed these tenets in a speech that was full of anecdotes from his more than four decades spent scrutinizing — and chronicling — American culture. From the distinct Brooklyn accent of a pilot he met while working on his book The Right Stuff (1979) to his observations of the sex-crazed, jock-obsessed university campuses that inspired his most recent work, Wolfe’s stories were marked with the details that make his work distinct.

Amid his colorful memories, Wolfe also offered insight into the future of journalism. He shared his fears about the breakdown of newspapers and troubles with online media. “The problem is: there’s no reporting done online,” said Wolfe. “Reporting is all done today by newspaper reporters.”

This circled back to the central idea of his talk: the importance for writers to interact with their subjects. “My whole life, as a journalist, I’ve been talking to people totally unlike me,” Wolfe continued. “And I’ve always taken the ‘Man from Mars’ position: I don’t know what you’re doing, but tell me about it. I’m really interested.”

Now, more than half a century since his writing career began as a reporter for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, the 77-year-old Wolfe continues his commentary on U.S. culture. In 2009 he’ll mark a new milestone with the release of his 13th novel. Back to Blood challenges the ideas of class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition in Miami.  

* Journalistic accuracy does not, apparently, always include spelling.