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Tom Wolfe to get lifetime achievement award

September 15, 2010 | 10:41 am

Tomwolfe_2004 Time for Tom Wolfe to get his white suit dry-cleaned again, as the author will receive the National Book Foundation's 2010 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, it was announced Wednesday.

The medal, which is the foundation's lifetime achievement award, will be presented at the National Book Awards in New York on Nov. 17.

Wolfe began his career as a journalist, coming to prominence writing for Esquire and other magazines. Among his notable works of nonfiction are 1968's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," about Ken Kesey, his merry pranksters and their psychedelic bus; "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," two 1970 essays skewering the cultural clashes of the political left; and 1979's "The Right Stuff," a detailed, thrilling history of the American space program.


Along the way, he helped to define a new literary genre, editing the 1973 anthology "The New Journalism." New Journalists included Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Joe McGinniss, Gay Talese and Wolfe himself. Each combined a personal voice and literary devices to enhance the true stories they were telling; if they were getting started today, the New Journalists might all be bloggers. Or tumblrs.

In 1987, in his mid-50s, Wolfe published "The Bonfire of the Vanities," his first novel. It skewered Reagan-era Wall Street and hit bestseller lists, and Wolfe continued writing fiction while doing occasional journalism pieces. His most recent novel is  2004's "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

Wolfe will be the 20th recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Previous recipients include novelists Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and John Updike, as well as fellow crossover new journalists Norman Mailer and Joan Didion.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Tom Wolfe in 2004. Credit: Bruce Gilbert / Newsday