Tom Wolfe - Early Life and Education

Early Life and Education

Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Louise (née Agnew), a landscape designer, and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr., an agronomist.

Wolfe was student council president, editor of the school newspaper and a star baseball player at St. Christopher's School, an Episcopalian all-boys school in Richmond, Virginia.

Upon graduation in 1949, he turned down admission at Princeton University to attend Washington and Lee University, both all-male schools at the time. Wolfe majored in English and practiced his writing outside the classroom as well. He was sports editor of the college newspaper and helped found a literary magazine, Shenandoah. Of particular influence was his professor Marshall Fishwick, a teacher of American Studies educated at Yale. More in the tradition of anthropology than literary scholarship, Fishwick taught his classes to look at the whole of a culture, including those elements considered profane. The very title of Wolfe's undergraduate thesis, "A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America," evinced his fondness for words and aspirations toward cultural criticism. Wolfe graduated cum laude in 1951.

Wolfe had continued playing baseball as a pitcher and had begun to play semi-professionally while still in college. In 1952 he earned a tryout with the New York Giants but was cut after three days, which Wolfe blamed on his inability to throw good fastballs. Wolfe abandoned baseball and instead followed the example of his professor Marshall Fishwick by enrolling in Yale University's American Studies doctoral program. His PhD thesis was titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942. In the course of his research, Wolfe interviewed many writers, including Malcolm Cowley, Archibald MacLeish, and James T. Farrell. A biographer remarked on the thesis: "Reading it, one sees what has been the most baleful influence of graduate education on many who have suffered through it: it deadens all sense of style."

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