← Back

Tom Wolfe: New Journalism and the Women’s House of Detention

Acclaimed author and journalist Tom Wolfe is known for his use of New Journalism (employing fiction-writing techniques such as sustained dialogue, well-developed characters, and vivid scenes) and for his best-selling books including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). After earning his Ph.D. in American Studies in 1957 and writing for several newspapers, Wolfe moved to New York City, where he joined the New York Herald Tribune as a general assignment reporter. Like many writers, Wolfe’s experiences in New York City shaped and influenced his writing, especially his experiences in Greenwich Village, which he called home in the 1960’s.

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe

The subject matter of Wolfe’s stories reflect his interest in popular culture, the spirit of New York City (and other large American cities), and the state of modern art and literature. In 1965, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Wolfe’s first book, a compilation of stories he had written between 1962 and 1965, called The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. In 1968, the publishing company released two more best-selling books by Wolfe: The Pump House Gang (featuring additional observations about 1960s culture) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (a non-fiction tome about the LSD-infused adventures of Ken Kesey).

Some Tom Wolfe Classics (courtesy: Juniper Books)
Some Tom Wolfe Classics (courtesy: Juniper Books)

In one of his stories, Wolfe recounts a memory from the 1960’s when he lived in the Village, where he would often pass by the New York Women’s House of Detention (located at 10 Greenwich Avenue from 1932 to 1974):

I remember doing one piece called ‘The Voices of Village Square.’ This came about because there was a women’s house of detention near where I lived in Greenwich Village. I would often hear the inmates, who were right above the streets, yelling out the window. One of the things they liked to do most was yell a boy’s name, and then if somebody who happened to be walking by had that name he would look up and they would shower abuse on him. I wrote a whole story about that.

Women's House of Detention (courtesy: emphemeralnewyork.com)
Women’s House of Detention (courtesy: emphemeralnewyork.com)

An excerpt from this story, published in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Bay, highlights Wolfe’s use of his everyday experiences from his neighborhood, Greenwich Village in the 1960s, into his work and provides a unique depiction of the building at 10 Greenwich Avenue.

The building, twelve stories high, was built in 1932 as a monument to Modern Penology. The idea was to make it look not like a jail at all but like a new apartment building. There are copper facings with 1930’s modern arch designs on them between the floors. In the place of bars there are windows with a heavy grillwork holding minute square panes. The panes are clouded, like cataracts. Actually, the effect is more like that of the power plant at Yale University, which was designed to resemble a Gothic cathedral, but, in any case, it does not look like a jail.

Throughout this story, Wolfe discusses the peculiarity of a prison in the heart of Greenwich Village. In addition to the building not looking like a typical prison, its placement right in the middle of the city makes for an interesting and unique dynamic between the inmates and the public world. Here, his highly detailed and descriptive language exemplifies Wolfe’s expertise at using the style of  New Journalism in his writing. Wolfe writes:

The girls, these Sirens, these Voices, are all up in the cellblocks of the Women’s House of Detention, 10 Greenwich Avenue, overlooking Village Square, and, well, what the ——, as the girls like to say, these yelling games are something to do. The percentages are in their favor….The Women’s House of Detention is, no doubt, a ‘hellhole,’ as even the Corrections Department people speak of it every time they ask for an appropriation to build a bigger one…Yet there is probably not another large prison in the country that is in such intimate contact with the outside world.

Jefferson Market Garden (the former site of the Women's House of Detention)
Jefferson Market Garden (the former site of the Women’s House of Detention)

While Wolfe has written dozens of books, stories and articles over the past several decades in his signature New Journalism style and still resides in New York City, the Women’s House of Detention closed its doors in 1971, and by 1974, the building was demolished (to the delight of most of the neighborhood).  Read all about Jefferson Market Garden, which has stood at 10 Greenwich Avenue since the prison’s demolition.

One response to “Tom Wolfe: New Journalism and the Women’s House of Detention

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *