Tom Wolfe GRD ’57 is hard to miss.
Novelist, social commentator and dapper dresser Wolfe spoke to a crowd of alumni and students as part of last weekend’s Tercentennial alumni celebration. Sporting a white three-piece suit, white patent leather shoes and a shock of white hair, the author of “The Right Stuff,” “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” riveted the packed Law School Auditorium with his colorful anecdotes about graduate life at Yale and the American literary scene.
Wolfe began by describing his nearly six years at Yale as a graduate student in American studies. Wolfe said the hours he spent studying in the cubicles in the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library defined his Yale experience. He recounted watching the spring sky and blossoming trees from the window near his cubicle, and the frustration of his academic confinement in nature’s season “of rising sap.”
“I was in the season of rising sap, too!” Wolfe said of his fantasy about Maggie, the girl who stacked the library shelves.
After Yale, Wolfe began his career as a reporter, and was a forerunner of the movement called “new journalism,” in which non-fiction is written in a series of detailed scenes. Wolfe said this journalistic background influenced his novels.
“I became convinced the American novel, if it was to have any future, [would] have to be realistic,” Wolfe said.
But Wolfe said he could not immediately plunge into that future with ease.
“I was utterly intimidated by the freedom of the novel,” Wolfe said of his initial attempts to write in the genre.
After describing the research he did on New York City for “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Wolfe reflected on the need for journalistic research and specific detail — a style he pioneered called “detailed realism” — in contemporary American literature.
“To say you’re not going to use detailed realism is like an engineer saying ‘I’m not going to use electricity. We’ve been using this for 125 years. It’s getting boring,'” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the lack of detailed realism today means that what is considered “good” poetry and literature is often obscure and requires several readings. The work of the detailed realists of the past was much more simple, Wolfe said.
“If Edgar Allen Poe came back today, he’d be writing radio jingles,” Wolfe said.
The author said he would apply his technique to his next work, a novel about college life.
“I only wonder if I can project myself into the mind of a 19-year-old,” Wolfe said.
Alumni and students who attended said they enjoyed Wolfe’s reflections on Yale and literature.
“This was a very revealing description of the thought processes of one of our leading novelists,” Dick Galland ’37 said.
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