The man in the iconic white suit, Tom Wolfe is often celebrated as an ironist, gadfly, or stylist. But he was also a thinker of originality and power – overlooked as a counter-intellectual because his method was not polemic but devastating, irresistible satire. His writing did not mirror history but anticipated it.

This seminar will focus on Wolfe’s first novel – the literary blockbuster Bonfire of the Vanities – and its portrait of New York in the 1980s, a city seething with racial tension, class animosity, and unbridled status competition.

Image Credit: New York City-Midtown Manhattan Skyline from Hamilton Park 02, Daniel Mennerich, Flickr.

Matt Continetti on the crisis of the American city


Matthew Continetti

Matthew Continetti is the director of domestic policy studies and the inaugural Patrick and Charlene Neal Chair in American Prosperity at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where his work is focused on American political thought and history, with a particular focus on the development of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement in the 20th century.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Supplementary Materials: 


Discussion Questions: 

  1. How does Wolfe use dialect in these opening chapters?  
  2. What role does fear play in the social life of the city?
  3. How do clothes and furniture reveal a character’s status? 
  4. Where does power reside in these opening chapters?



Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the media warp public perception of the events in this narrative? 
  2. Compare and contrast the McCoy and Kramer luncheons in chapter ten. 
  3. What does Judy’s explanation of bond trading say about her character and her relationship with Sherman? 
  4. Compare and contrast Albert Vogel’s view of Bacon with Detective Martin’s. 


Discussion Questions:

  1. Compare and contrast Sherman with his father. 
  2. What is the significance of Buffing’s “Masque of Red Death” speech? 
  3. Identify the various animal habitats that Wolfe likens to human social environments. What do these metaphors say about Wolfe’s view of humanity? 
  4. What is the ‘Favor Bank’ and how does it relate to Irish machismo and to the Power?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Compare Sherman’s disclosures of his impending arrest to his father, to his wife, and to his daughter. What do these different interactions say about the characters? 
  2. What is Delgado’s theory of mind and how does it relate to Sherman McCoy?
  3. What does Killian understand about Sherman’s case that the bond salesman does not? How does Killian use this knowledge to help his client? 
  4. How does status operate at La Boue D’Argent? 


Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the scandal affect Sherman’s social standing? 
  2. What does Sherman’s reappropriation of the Black Power salute signify? How does this move relate to power and the Power in the novel? 
  3. Who is this novel’s hero? 
  4. What is the function of the novel’s epilogue? 

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