Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe Short Fiction Analysis

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Some of Thomas Wolfe’s short stories were printed in The Hills Beyond, a posthumous volume compiled by Edward C. Aswell after he had published Wolfe’s two “novels” of his own creation. The tough-minded old Confederate general of the story “The Dead World Relived” mourns a South ten times as full of frauds after the Civil War as before it; the story is unforgettable and furnishes a much-needed corrective to the myth that southerners in the American literary renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s could hardly wait to start writing about the old Colonels.

“A Kinsman of His Blood”

“A Kinsman of His Blood” is a short, concise, and moving story in its subtly achieved pathos and its nostalgia for what life and history are, rather than for what we might want them to be, and is probably the best story in The Hills Beyond. The action takes place entirely in the foreground, and the story is really that of Arthur Pentland, also known from the beginning of the story as Arthur Penn. The viewpoint through which the reader sees Arthur is that of the ubiquitous Eugene Gant; the third character in the story is Eugene’s uncle, Bascom Pentland, who appears in Of Time and the River. It could be the tale of any three men related to each other; Arthur is the son of Bascom and the only one “who ever visited his father’s house; the rest were studiously absent, saw their father only at Christmas or Thanksgiving.” Even so, the relation between Bascom and Arthur is “savage and hostile.”

Arthur is a huge, obese, dirty, disheveled, grubby, distraught man who has trouble speaking clearly and coherently. The reader is told nothing of the history of his problems, or of Eugene’s background, and knows only that the conflict is stark, ugly, and dramatic. Some of Arthur’s behavior is clearly sociopathic. His table manners are not only embarrassing but also offensive. On one occasion, he tells an anecdote about a Harvard man who climbed into a cage with a gorilla; although the man knew fourteen languages, the gorilla killed him. Arthur’s summation of the incident is as frightening as anything in European fiction which tries to depict the mindless, anarchic malevolence of the crazy or the revolutionary.

Arthur decides that his grammar school teacher really loves him; even though the woman ignores his protestations of love, then tries to silence him with rudeness, he persists. He refuses to believe his mother when she tells him the woman does not really care for him, and he storms out “like a creature whipped with furies.” Finally, he goes to California to see the woman. Arthur is a pitiful, subnormal, obviously seriously disturbed creature, but frightening in his obesity, his filth, his animal-like inability to understand human beings. The story ends with Eugene, out walking in the rain through the South Boston slums, spotting Arthur as he shuffles along, a bundle of old newspapers under one arm. Eugene, a nice man, is glad to see him and offers to shake his hand. Arthur denies twice that he is Arthur Pentland, then says he is Arthur Penn and screams out in terror, begging Eugene to leave him alone. There is no sentimentality here; this is tragedy, however small and prosaic.

“No Door”

The only collection of short fiction Wolfe prepared himself and saw through publication was From Death to Morning; it contains the stories “No Door” and “Death the Proud Brother.”

“No Door” is about a writer and his short acquaintance with “well-kept people who have never been alone in all...

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their life,” in this case a man who lives in a penthouse near the East River furnished with several sculptures by Jacob Epstein, rare books and first editions, and a view of Manhattan which displays its “terrific frontal sweep and curtain of starflung towers, now sown with the diamond pollen of a million lights.” The writer is told by these people how marvelous it is to live alone with creatures of the slums. Their remarks trigger recollections of the lower depths of stinking, overcrowded, working-class Brooklyn. The writer hangs around, partly amused, partly chagrined, partly in awe of the rich man and his mistress, thinking thatthey may be the ones who will open the door to the life of glamour and ease for which he, as a poor writer, yearns. Even as he hopes, however, he knows it is useless: These creatures are foreign to him. He tells of the agony and senselessness and brutality and sordidness of his existence, and the man and his mistress condescendingly and patronizingly wish his lot were theirs. Finally, at the end of the evening, he returns to Brooklyn and hears two old people discussing the death of a priest, and the story ends on a note of desperation and impotent fury.

The effect of the story depends on the consciousness of the narrator, here appearing in the first person although the reader sees him through the second person, an almost unheard-of viewpoint in English. Wolfe makes his points subtly, the length is a rather modest one for him, his satirical eye is sharp, and the rhetoric meshes with the inner turmoil lying just beneath the surface of conversation. If Wolfe had written more stories like this he might have been one of the giants of the American short story.

“Death the Proud Brother”

“Death the Proud Brother” is a very long, almost unstructured, 22,000-word novella which attempts to present as a unified narrative several unrelated incidents of death and loneliness. Wolfe said of this story, “It represents important work to me.” The story’s thematic unity arises from the narrator’s successful unifying of all the incidents within his own consciousness, drawing the world to him, exercising implicit rights of selection, unlike the third-person, omniscient narrators of Wolfe’s last novels. This story is a masterpiece in its conjunction of viewpoint and material. Only this viewpoint could master this material, and only disjointed, logically discrete material such as the story presents requires a first-person viewpoint.

There is no plot, but there is some structure. Wolfe describes three violent deaths. The fourth death is that of an old bum on a bench, and it occurs quietly, imperceptibly, anonymously—he is a “cipher.” His death, which takes up the bulk of the novella, furnishes Wolfe with a chance to study America. If it is true that everybody talks about America but nobody can find it, then Wolfe came closest in this last movement of the novella, which was his favorite. The story is typically Wolfean in many ways; by the passion and the wise guile of his rhetoric, Wolfe becomes so thoroughly a part of the writing that he, too, becomes a cipher—the transparent narrator. It surely is no accident that the death which moves the narrator so profoundly is the death of an urban Everyman. This is the kind of story, perhaps even the story itself, that caused Faulkner to say that Wolfe had tried to put all of life on the head of a pin.

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Thomas Wolfe Long Fiction Analysis