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RIP Tom Wolfe, writer and showman

Blog | By Harry Mount | May 16, 2018

Tom Wolfe, who has just died aged 88, was that rare combination – a writer and a showman.

Most writers are shy types, confined to their attics for most of the year, and let loose on literary festivals for a few short months when their books are published. Not surprisingly, they are often a little bit awkward in public.

Tom Wolfe was different. It wasn’t just the showman’s white suit and spats that revealed a man who was comfortable with display. He was a tremendous public speaker.

I saw him at Hay Festival, when his novel A Man in Full [1998] was published. The book is set in Atlanta, Georgia, and many of the characters are from the Deep South. Wolfe, himself from Richmond, Virginia, did a pitch-perfect American South accent. The drama of his delivery was deepened by an intense Welsh rainstorm thundering down on the canvas of the tent.  

He also had a completely original view on the world.

At a 2006 talk of his I went to in New York, he was asked what he thought the biggest technological innovation of the last century had been.

‘I know I should be saying the internet or the computer or something,’ he said, ‘But, actually, it's still the car, for me. Until the middle of the 20th century, my ancestors had always been born and lived in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, ever since the late 18th century.’

‘Because of the car, and the social acceptance of moving, my sister, my cousins, they all live in far-flung parts of the United States and rarely see each other. Something like 20 per cent of Americans live within 50 miles of where they were born. A tiny figure.’

That figure, incidentally, is also decreasing in the increasingly mobile society of modern Britain, but it is still around the 80 per cent mark. 

What a loss Tom Wolfe is – to the page and the stage.