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If you’re fortunate enough to practice a craft and to achieve some modest success at it, and if you have even a modicum of humility, then you’re hyper aware of the giants of your field, the people whose least impressive effort is better than you’ll ever accomplish.
Journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe was one of the finest practitioners of narrative nonfiction ever to write in English. Wolfe, who died Tuesday at age 88, was a lion of 20th century journalism, a hard-working, creative, brilliant writer, and a colorful character in his own right. There may be no better example of the genre than The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s meticulously researched and entertainingly told tale of the early American astronauts and the daring test pilot, Chuck Yeager, who never joined their ranks. He excelled at literary criticism, cultural and political portraits, and then, as if there was nothing left to achieve, fiction. His Bonfire of the Vanities recorded an era, the 1980s on Wall Street, as well as any writer ever will.
This being Data Sheet, it may shock you to know that Wolfe also wrote one of the best magazine feature stories every published about Silicon Valley. His December, 1983, profile in Esquire of Intel (intc) co-founder Robert Noyce captured the early days of the technology industry, a feat all the more astounding given Wolfe’s outsider status in these parts.
Anyone who thinks today’s “brogrammer” culture in the Valley is somehow new needs to read Wolfe’s insightful account of the proclivity of Intel men to leave their wives for the young women at work who found the engineers’ stories and business triumphs far more entertaining than their homebound spouses did.
I first read Wolfe’s Esquire article a baker’s dozen years ago when I was reporting a profile of Intel’s new CEO, Paul Otellini, who died last year. I asked the legendary Andy Grove, also no longer with us, about the Wolfe profile of his long-deceased boss, and Grove unleashed a typically expletive-laden condemnation of Wolfe’s sendup, arguing that Wolfe didn’t understand Silicon Valley.
I could see why Grove didn’t cotton to Wolfe’s account. But I thought then—and continue to think now—that Wolfe perfectly nailed the self-righteous, entitled, narcissistic mentality of the Valley, a place whose accomplishments equal its hubris. And this was nearly 35 years ago.
Godspeed, Tom Wolfe.