The iconic journalist, novelist, and non-fiction author Tom Wolfe has just died at 87, after a long and luminary career as a chronicler of American social movements, conceits, and follies. His best-sellers included The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , and The Right Stuff. (At least four major motion pictures were based on his books or articles.)
Wolfe's career was as eclectic and flamboyant as the famously white-suit-wearing author was himself. But he was more than just an amazingly perceptive writer, he became part of our culture, identifying trends no one else had named, and thus creating terms that have become part of our language, in common usage even by people who never read anything he wrote.
For those of us in the writing profession, the most important of those terms is "The New Journalism"--a style of writing Wolfe more or less invented and then championed, in which reporters drop their objectivity and pure reporting of the facts and instead bring a story to life with the kind of detail and narrative and crafting of characters more usually used in novels.
But there are plenty of other terms that Wolfe invented that are now part of our everyday vocabulary. How many of these have you used?
1. The Right Stuff
Having "the right stuff" means possessing the needed personal qualities to get a difficult job done, became popular after Wolfe published his best-selling book about the early days of space exploration and the test pilots who reached for the stars. Some of them became our nation's first astronauts.
2. Good Ol' Boy
Though it may have been used in England (as a completely positive term), Wolfe claimed in an interview to have coined this term in his 1964 article "The Last American Hero" about NASCAR racer Junior Johnson. In today's world, a good ol' boy is a man, usually Southern (as Wolfe was himself) who is usually politically conservative and socially connected to others like himself. When a social group of good ol' boys use their connections to each other to retain power or confer it on those of their choosing, that's a good ol' boy network.
3. Catching Flak
Flak, needless to say, is a combat term for anti-aircraft fire, but the metaphoric use of the word, meaning frequent and undeserved criticism, came from Wolfe's piece "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," a look at well-meaning but pathetic anti-poverty workers in 1960s San Francisco.
4. Radical Chic
"Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" was the second half of a two-part book about black anger and white guilt. "Radical Chic," the first half of the book which was also published as an article in New York Magazine is an account of a party the conductor Leonard Bernstein had at his Park Avenue apartment bringing together socialites and representatives of the Black Panther Party. The phrase "radical chic" refers to social activism as a form of social climbing--you could meet Barbara Walters at Bernstein's party, just as you might meet Bono at a similar gathering today.
5. Social X-Ray
Wolfe coined this term in his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities to refer to socialite women who live by the dictum that you can never be too rich or too thin. The term was once used to explain Nancy Reagan's instructions to the White House kitchen to serve tiny portions, and it's just as relevant today. Think The Devil Wears Prada.
6. The "Me" Decade
After the communal spirit and social activism that dominated the 1960s, in the 1970s people focused on themselves, on their own enlightenment and experiences and well-being, Wolfe argued in a New York Magazine essay in 1976. As always, Wolfe had skewered reality with great perception, if not kindness. As a descriptor for the 1970s, the name stuck.