Tom Wolfe, the author who brought America’s astronauts down to Earth with The Right Stuff and raised America’s consciousness of a growing countercultural movement with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, died Monday. He was 87. According to the The New York Times, Wolfe passed away in a Manhattan hospital.
Journalism was Wolfe's first foray into the written word outside of academia. As a reporter, he experimented with style and form to grow beyond the boundaries of traditionally dry facts and dates. The result was The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a published collection of his nonfiction essays and features for the New York Herald Tribune and Esquire, among others. He would then go on to write for many magazines before turning to longer-form explorations.
These came with a bang, especially when Wolfe’s non-fictional account of the space race and the Mercury space program made cultural heroes out of scientists and test pilots (like Chuck Yeager) and became a successful film (featuring Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, and Ed Harris) that won four Oscars. These test-pilots-cum-astronauts became the daredevils of the last frontier for Wolfe, which inspired readers’ imaginations and made space exploration a sexy, dangerous, and thrilling proposition for a population still grappling with the idea that it happened in the first place.
The writer’s later work, such as his Brian De Palma-adapted novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, found continued success as he criticized hypocrisy and snobbery in high society. He changed the way magazine profiles were written, added countless phrases to the lexicon, and helped pioneer the genre of New Journalism, whose experiential bent continues to influence contemporary chronicles of the country’s cultural corners.