Tom Wolfe's Washington Post

By James Rosen
Sunday, July 2, 2006

"At a Washington party," Thomas Wolfe once observed, "it is not enough that the guests feel drunk; they must feel drunk and important."

Classic Wolfe! Piercingly funny and perceptive . . . instantly quotable . . . exposing the vanities of the elite. So why is it so . . . unfamiliar? Because you won't find the line in the familiar Wolfe canon -- "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," "The Right Stuff," "Bonfire of the Vanities." No, it was discovered in a vast unexplored trove: the daily journalism Wolfe produced as a police and features reporter for a full decade before he morphed, in the mid-1960s, into . . . Tom Wolfe .

Wolfe's work as a city desk reporter for The Washington Post from 1959 to 1962 has long been cast as a forgettable precursor to his later accomplishments. In his 1977 history of The Post, "In the Shadow of Power," former diplomatic correspondent Chalmers M. Roberts reported that the newspaper's editors "never really knew what to do with Wolfe's offbeat talent." Biographer William McKeen called the Post newsroom "much too stuffy . . . to accept Wolfe's innovations." The 32-year-old prodigy left the capital, McKeen declared, "frustrated like a leashed animal," and his "stylistic gestation . . . waited until after he left the newspaper."

But in compiling an anthology of Wolfe's writing, I reviewed all 315 articles filed for The Post under the byline "Thomas Wolfe." And they reveal exactly the opposite: deadline journalism brimming with the humorous social commentary and stylistic brio that later became, along with the dandy white suits, Wolfe's trademarks.

The young reporter's assignments ran the gamut: African envoys and Soviet ping-pong tours, book fairs and high school reunions, escaped monkeys and street muggings, and -- the bane of all reporters -- zoning meetings. Yet almost every story reflected his yearning to broaden the boundaries of the English language.

The kind of Wolfeiana to be found in the vaults of The Post would come, a few years later, to define the New Journalism and revolutionize American literature.

* * *

From the beginning, the Richmond native employed the most colorful Southern similes and metaphors:

Two muggers gave their victim "a black eye big as an eggplant."

Zeroes in a budget stretched on "like so many eggs in a hatchery."

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