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Lower Hutt, New Zealand

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University essay written in 2005, for an English Literature paper.   Graded A-.

New Journalism, Tom Wolfe and The Bonfire of the Vanities

In the decades following World War II literature in the United States underwent a series of changes.   With the rise in popularity of the media, newspapers and the events they reported, most American writers felt they could not compete.   Award-winning author, Philip Roth said in 1961, “we live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning’s newspaper”.[1]   Writers across American began to distance themselves from realism as a way to combat this new problem where “the actuality [was] continually out doing [their] talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist”.[2]


Writers started to believe that not only was a truly realistic novel impossible, but they extended the sentiment, believing American life could not be considered ‘real’ anymore.[3]   Tom Wolfe, the noted journalist, lamented this lack of realism in literature, believing the times and the country were waiting for a great realistic novel.   “What a feast was spread out before every writer in America!   How could any writer resist plunging into it?”[4]   Seeing that other writers were still staying away, Wolfe found himself unable to resist the ‘feast’.


Wolfe’s first instinct was to write a non-fiction novel of New York City, but he soon changed track and set out to fulfill a prediction he had made in The New Journalism in 1973.[5]   He had predicted “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him”.[6]   So, in his position as the “father of New Journalism” is was not surprising that Tom Wolfe would incorporate some of the conventions of new journalism into his first fictional novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities.[7] [8]


One of the conventions of new journalism is writing that appears as a stream of consciousness, and Wolfe used this to great affect within the novel.[9]   Early in the novel Wolfe has the Mayor going through a prolonged internal soliloquy, railing at the citizens in the upper levels of the city in a stream of consciousness while he is being jeered off the Harlem stage.[10]   Beyond the internal streams of consciousness for his characters, Wolfe’s writing style feels like a constant stream.   The breaks are few, the phrasing unusual, and he plays around with his punctuation, using dashes, dots and exclamation points normally absent in literary writing.

Still young… thirty-eight years old… tall… almost six-one… terrific posture… terrific to the point of imperious… as imperious as his daddy, the Lion of Dunning Sponget… a full head of sandy-brown hair… a long nose… a prominent chin… He was proud of his chin.[11]


Playing with the punctuation, and the stream of consciousness, “leaves the illusion of people thinking”, but at other times is also gives the feeling of a city constantly on the move. [12]   This works to great affect, drawing the reader into the fast-paced metropolis of New York City.


Connected to the convention of writing in a stream of consciousness is the effect this has on the narrative style of a story.   New journalism sometimes brought with it an unstructured narrative style, moving away from the linear narrative, and the traditional inverted pyramid of newspaper stories.   Usually this traditional style of narrative was easier to read, and better at communicating information, the new journalist often preferred the unstructured approach.[13]   While this unstructured narrative is not used in The Bonfire of the Vanities, which follows a fairly linear time-line, from the hit and run accident, through the investigation and the trial, in E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks this convention is clearer.[14]   The narrator, McIlvaine, moves around the time-line, revealing part of the story and then going back and revealing another aspect.   This is seen in his re-telling of the times Martin Pemberton saw his supposedly dead father, Augustus.[15]   The reader is told about the second sighting before the first, and while it is not explicably clear which order McIlvaine heard of these encounters since the story is being re-told long after the events happened, the narrative could follow the linear time-line.   McIlvaine explains, “I’m reporting what are now the visions of an old man,” he is constantly alluding to the passage of time, using the past tense, and reminding the reader that this story is being told much later, by referring to how things may have changed, literally, and in the memory.[16]


This moves onto another convention of new journalism is the presence of the author’s voice in the story.[17]   The journalist’s opinions could be featured; objectivity was not necessarily the watchword of journalism anymore.   There are many points where Wolfe’s voice comes through, most notably in his absolute fixation with detail, but in almost every instance all these details are associated with the surface of his characters.   The novel is heavy with judgments, on people’s appearances, from their clothing, their shoes, their accents, and their race.


Every character is looked at with a reporter’s eye, showing Wolfe’s journalistic skill in describing people, but rarely does Wolfe dip below the surface of his characters.   Even when going into the psyche of a character the thoughts there are all related to the surface, as we see with the two main characters fixation on how they look.   Both Sherman McCoy and Larry Kramer are caught up in the 1980s fitness craze, the absolute necessity to look muscular, and feeling less of a man, and extremely envious, if they cannot compete with other men around them.   Kramer is jealous of the two assistant district attorneys, Ray Andriutti and Jimmy Caughey, because they have the time to work out, and build their muscles, when he is stuck in a small apartment with his wife, a young baby and a nanny, making it impossible for him to keep up his fitness regime.[18]


Aside from the preoccupation with muscles, the two men are also caught up in worrying about how they look with their women at their sides.   McCoy feels his wife is too old for him, “Still a very good-looking woman, my wife… with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair… But she’s forty years old!”[19]   And then McCoy goes to think that as “a young man still in the season of the rising sap, [he] deserve more from time to time, when the spirit moves [him]”.[20]   And so McCoy has an affair with a much younger woman, Maria Ruskin, but even she falls under his judgments.   At several points McCoy comments on Maria’s accent, and it clearly irritates him as he feels it is indicative of status.   He refers to the accent as Southern, but it is in a derogatory way, and beyond the accent he also refers to her way of talking in this fashion, giving the impression that Maria is well below him in status because she has an uncultured accent.[21]


Kramer also notices accents, and uses them to put people in their places, status and race wise.   Even though his wife, Rhoda, is an educated woman, but after the arrival of the nanny in their small apartment he “became acutely aware of the way his wife talked”.   And as with McCoy and Maria, Kramer sees his wife’s accent as uncultured, and beneath him.


Both McCoy and Kramer seem to view the women in their lives as accessories to help, or hinder, their appearances, their status.   McCoy’s only redeeming trait is his love for his young daughter Campbell.   But the redemption doesn’t come across strongly because of the complete obsession with how he looks.   When McCoy is meeting with the police, or being taken to jail, he is still most concerned with his appearance.[22]   It feels as if the surface is all that matters, and this feeling continues throughout the novel, and across the characters, and creates limited characters, cardboard cut outs, all surface and no depth, despite the fact some of the issues within the novel are very profound, with concerns over racial and class or status wars.


Status is also important in The Waterworks, and this even extends beyond death when the narrator explains that Augustus Pemberton was not buried in the St. James’ cemetery, claiming, “He was not worthy.”   Instead he supposedly interred in the Woodland Cemetery, “the most blue-blooded of our graveyards”.[23]   But while status is clearly an important aspect of The Waterworks, there is more to the story, it has depth, and a soul that seems lacking from Wolfe’s novel.


Wolfe may be using this fixation with the surface details to show a problem of the 1980s psyche, with everyone concerned only on their status, on their wealth, or lack of it, and on how they look to other people.   But this idea seems at times buried under a barrage of details and descriptions of the surface.   In The Waterworks Doctorow’s voice appears in the position of the narrator, McIlvaine, and it is his placing of this narrator, and reporter, within the story that assists the impact of both the characters and the authorial voice.


Doctorow includes the conventions of writing as a stream of consciousness, an unusual narrative style, and also the author’s voice in the guise of the narrator.   Doctorow’s efforts are more effective than Wolfe’s because he goes beyond the surface, and by writing in the first person, from McIlvaine’s point of view, the reader is given a much more sympathetic account of the story.   McIlvaine is a reporter, and never fails to remind the reader of this.  

I am extending myself in a narrative here – it is my own mind’s experience that I report, a true disposition of the events, and the statements, claims, protestations, and prayers of the souls whom I represent as seen or heard – so that my life is wholly woven into the intentions of the narration, with not a thread remaining for whatever other uses I might have found for it.[24]


McIlvaine discusses the idea of objectivity in journalism, presenting no illusions that he is trying to give an objective account of events.  

“Well, perhaps I embellish things a bit.   But my impression of the reporter’s feelings is accurate.   We did not feel it so necessary to assume an objective tone in our reporting then.   We were more honest and straightforward and did not make such a sanctimonious thing of objectivity, which is finally a way of constructing an opinion for the reader without letting him know that you are”.[25]


Going deeper than his position as narrator, and reporter of the events surrounding his free-lance reporter’s life, McIlvaine is a likeable character.   He details events with the cold clinical eye of a reporter, but he also shows the warm human eye, and this reveals the somewhat romantic identity of the narrator.   Doctorow’s details are just as vivid as Wolfe’s, but he draws the reader in deeper by writing in a style that makes the reader feel the narrator is discussing everything with them.   The reader feels what moves McIlvaine all the more strongly by the way in which he reveals them.   After his interview with Sarah Pemberton, McIlvaine is left sleepless, unable to stop thinking of her, and her young son.   “But then there was the boy: I hadn’t realized I was so moved by him – a sturdy, solemn, forbearing boy reading his book, a reader – was that it? – does the old bachelor merely have to see a child reading a book to lose his critical faculties?”[26]   This constant inclusion of the voice and thoughts of the narrator make for a much deeper novel, delving into the psyche of the characters, ‘a city of souls’ and the city they are a part of.[27]


In Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, the reader does not have this first person narrative to connect with, but the author’s voice is still there.   Wolfe’s voice is also much clearer after reading his essay, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, which introduces the novel.[28]   This introduction helps to set out what Wolfe is doing with his novel, and places the reader in a much better position to see the issues he is illuminating.


New Journalism first took some conventions from literary fiction, and in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe has brought these conventions back to literary fiction.   He has then added the reporter’s skill of detailing the minutiae of modern life, and all combined, this helped him to write a good book on the 1980s, and of the city of New York, that “dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all who insist on being where things are happening –“.[29]


[1] Tom Wolfe.   ‘Stalking the Six-Billion Footed Beast’.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   England: Picador, 1988, pg.xiii.   (Subsequent references included in text).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, pg.xiv.

[4] Ibid, pg.xvii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Steve Hammer.   ‘Tom Wolfe Speaks his Mind’.   Nuvo.net.

[8] Tom Wolfe.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   England: Picador, 1988.   (Subsequent references included in text).

[9] ‘New Journalism’.   Wikipedia.org.

[10] Tom Wolfe.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   England: Picador, 1988, pg.13-14.

[11] Ibid, pg.17

[12] Chris Harvey.   ‘Tom Wolfe’s Revenge’.   American Journalism Review.   (Subsequent references included in text).

[13] Ibid.

[14] E. L. Doctorow.   The Waterworks.   England: Plume (Penguin Group), 1997.

[15] E. L. Doctorow.   The Waterworks.   Chpt 6 and 7.

[16] Ibid, pp.61, 66, 69…

[17] ‘New Journalism’.   Wikipedia.org

[18] Tom Wolfe.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   Pp.41, 118.

[19] Ibid, pg.18

[20] Ibid, pg.20

[21] Ibid, pg.89.

[22] Ibid, pg.351-2.

[23] E. L. Doctorow.   The Waterworks.   Pg.50.

[24] Ibid, pg.66.

[25] Ibid, pg.29-30.

[26] Ibid, pg.83.

[27] Ibid, pg.66.

[28] Tom Wolfe.   ‘Stalking the Six-Billion Footed Beast’.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   England: Picador, 1988, pp.vii-xxx.

[29] Ibid, pg.vii.




Doctorow, E. L.   The Waterworks.   England: Plume (Penguin Group), 1997.

Wolfe, Tom.   The Bonfire of the Vanities.   England: Picador, 1988.


Hammer, Steve.   ‘Tom Wolfe Speaks his Mind - Steve Hammer Interview (1995)’.   Nuvo.net.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://www.nuvo.net/hammer/int/wolfe.html>   (Version current at 1st February 2005)

Harvey, Chris.   ‘Tom Wolfe’s Revenge’.   American Journalism Review (October 1994).   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=1372>   (Version current at 1st February 2005)

‘New Journalism’.   Wikipedia.org.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Journalism>   (Version current at 1st February 2005)

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