He appeared on East Campus one tobacco-scented September morning in 1998, his reportorial concentration rendering him as inconspicuous as a man in a bright white suit and spats can be. At the front of the sun-drenched, wood-floored classroom, history professor Ronald Witt (1932-2017) taught Petrarch and Bruni to a few dozen rapt undergraduates. At the back sat Tom Wolfe (1930-2018), scribbling away in a steno pad.

I was a sophomore from the Philadelphia suburbs, sufficiently provincial that I didn’t know his sartorial trademarks, sufficiently self-absorbed that I almost didn’t notice. It was a few weeks before the release of the New South saga A Man in Full, on which Wolfe had worked continuously since publishing Bonfire of the Vanities a decade prior. In that volume, he had stalked what he once called the “billion-footed beast” of contemporary American society. Now he was plotting his next act, a parable of college life at the fin-de-siècle that just happened to coincide with his own daughter’s matriculation. Alexandra (’02) was in that history class, too, like the protagonist her father would soon build, a newly minted freshman at a top-tier university in North Carolina with a great basketball team.

Word began to circulate, and before long Witt had confirmed that there was indeed a literary legend among us. I can’t remember how many times Wolfe came back to class, but before the academic year was out I had gotten to know him through this magazine, where I was an intern, discovering and developing a new interest in writing for an audience. Introduced by his founding New York magazine editor Clay Felker ’51, longtime Duke Magazine editor Bob Bliwise became maestro of Wolfe’s ongoing research visits, orchestrating all manner of fascinating meet-ups as the author continued to sift, Zola-like, through the millennial state of higher education. In February, when he returned to chronicle the Duke-Carolina game weekend, Bliwise hosted an epic Magnolia Grill dinner, with an overflowing table of faculty, administrators, and undergraduates passionately discoursing around a tape recorder.

One day during my senior year, Wolfe unexpectedly rang my dorm room and asked to meet at the Washington Duke for lunch and a proper interview; passages of that conversation appear basically verbatim halfway through I Am Charlotte Simmons, voiced by the character Adam Gellin, an editor at the Dupont University student paper.

In the years that followed, Wolfe became a regular correspondent, even a mentor: someone to whom I would send my articles and exhibition catalogues, unfailingly receiving beautifully typed letters in response. (Tom Wolfe had an aol.com address, but clearly still reveled in the printed word, even for daily use.) As graduation neared, I found myself opting to take a Fulbright and move to China instead of pursuing a master’s in the U.K. Wolfe validated my decision, telling me it was better to plunge into a Chinese future, however uncertain, than to “sit around in Cambridge letting tradition wash over your nerve endings.” When I would pass through New York en route to or from Beijing, we would meet for lunch at Zabar’s or the Asia Society.

I last saw him for breakfast during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007, where he was working on what would be his final novel. The subprime housing bubble had entered its rococo phase, and there was Wolfe, stoically taking in the week of art-world excess, bemused by the spartan chic of his accommodations at The Standard.

Tom Wolfe taught me to look at the world as a palimpsest of signifiers, each with its own fascinating history and symbolic heft to be made sense of. I internalized this urge to decode and to colorfully recount so much that I was driven toward two complex realms where I could further hone it: contemporary art, contemporary China. Even though I did not quite follow his journalistic and literary trajectory, I learned from him what it meant to think about one’s own life and work as a process of artistic evolution, and to understand one’s neighbors, and oneself, as characters with their own motivations and narrative arcs. And I learned from his generosity, like that of so many others I encountered at Duke, how empowering it can be to engage with junior friends and colleagues anxious for answers.

Tinari ’01, a former Duke Magazine intern, is director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and a scholar of Chinese contemporary art.

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