Wolfe Called for Commencement

January 31, 2002

 

Award-winning journalist and author Tom Wolfe, whose daughter Alexandra is a Duke senior and whose book-in-progress is set on a college campus, will deliver the 2002 commencement address on Sunday, May 12. Announcing Wolfe's selection, President Nannerl O. Keohane cited Wolfe's "well-justified reputation as one of the most perceptive chroniclers of American culture."

Wolfe is the author of such acclaimed books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and A Man in Full (1998). Soon after the publication of A Man in Full, Wolfe reflected on the Cameron basketball culture for Duke Magazine ("A Fan in Full," May-June 1999).

Wolfe's first book, a collection of articles about the flamboyant Sixties written for New York and Esquire and published in 1965 as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, established him as a leading figure in the literary experiments in nonfiction that became known as the "New Journalism."

In 1968, he published two bestsellers on the same day: The Pump House Gang, made up of more articles about life in the Sixties, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a nonfiction story of the hippie era. In 1970, he published Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a controversial book about racial friction in the United States.

In 1979, Wolfe completed The Right Stuff, an account of the rocket airplane experiments of the post-World War II era and the early space program, focusing upon the psychology of the rocket pilots and the astronauts and the competition between them. The book became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.

In 1984 and 1985, Wolfe wrote his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in serial form against a deadline of every two weeks for Rolling Stone magazine. A story of the money-feverish 1980s in New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities was published in book form in 1987, staying at number one on The New York Times bestseller list for two months and remaining on the list for more than a year.

His second novel, A Man in Full, was published in November 1998. The book's protagonists are a sixty-year-old Atlanta real-estate developer whose empire has begun a grim slide toward bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer who works in the freezer unit of a wholesale food warehouse in Alameda County, California, owned by the developer.

Before the story ends, both have had to face the question of what makes a man "a man in full" at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. The book headed The New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks, sold nearly 1.4 million copies in hardcover, and landed Wolfe on the cover of Time magazine in his trademark white suit with white homburg and white kid gloves--and with his claim inside that the kind of detailed realism of the book was the future of the American novel.

The New York Times once wrote that Wolfe "understands the human animal like no sociologist around. He breaks his reader's every buried thought and prejudice. He sees through everything."