Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe Long Fiction Analysis

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Throughout Thomas Wolfe’s fiction there is evidence of a powerful but sometimes uncontrolled mind at work. Few would argue Wolfe’s genius, but many have questioned how well he directed it. Part of the difficulty may have come from his self-professed intention to create an American mythology. The result would be the record of an individual, lonely and lost in the flux of time, forever exploring the diversity of American life. Partly because of his early death and partly because of his own difficulties in giving form to ideas, Wolfe never managed to unify the vast body of his work. Add to this the considerable amount of influence his editors exerted on his manuscripts, and some intriguing questions still remain about the interrelationships of segments in the writings and the final form of his novels.

Wolfe wrote with passionate intensity, producing vast quantities of manuscript. His central themes focus on a lonely individual, the isolated artist, in search of self-discovery and the true meaning of the American experience. In Look Homeward, Angel, the first of these themes is most pronounced, for this is autobiography thinly veiled. The story of Eugene Gant is in many ways the story of Thomas Wolfe. After the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, which was generally well received, some critics began to raise questions concerning the novel’s weaknesses, especially the obvious attempt by Wolfe to capture experience at the expense of artistic control. It was not until 1936, however, that the landmark case against Wolfe would be launched with the publication in the Saturday Review of “Genius Is Not Enough,” Bernard De Voto’s indictment of Wolfe and his fiction.

De Voto was responding to The Story of a Novel, Wolfe’s extremely frank account of his own life as a writer and the work that went into Of Time and the River. For Wolfe, writing was a chaotic experience, something done with great pain and toil. De Voto acknowledged that Wolfe was a genius “of the good old-fashioned, romantic kind, possessed by a demon, driven by the gales of his own fury, helpless before the lava-flood of his own passion”; he further argued, however, that such genius was in and of itself not enough. Today the legacy of De Voto’s remarks remains manifest in a series of stereotypes: By some readers (especially academics), Wolfe is still thought of as one who never controlled his rhetoric, as one who was unable to organize his work, and as one who sometimes pushed autobiography to the limits of reporting.

To illustrate Wolfe’s lack of rhetorical restraint, De Voto pointed to Of Time and the River, commenting that Wolfe invested each experience he described with so much raw emotion that a midnight snack took on the same importance as the death of Oliver Gant. As De Voto stated, “If the death of one’s father comes out emotionally even with ham-on-rye, then the art of fiction is cockeyed.” As for the charge that Wolfe was a writer who never exerted sufficient control over his material, De Voto and others have cited the sprawling sections of his mammoth novels where there is supportive evidence that episodes stand by themselves rather than in relation to others. The extent of Wolfe’s involvement with his editors (Perkins at Scribners from 1928 to 1937; Aswell at Harper’s from 1937 to 1938) also raises questions about his own ability to revise and organize his novels.

Perhaps the most revealing example of editorial influence on Wolfe’s fiction concerns Of Time and the River . While Wolfe was working on the novel, Perkins met with him...

(This entire section contains 4915 words.)

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day and night for more than a year in an attempt to help him gain control over the voluminous amount of material he had written. Often Perkins would ask Wolfe to go home and cut a section, only to find that he would return with an episode thousands of words longer. In one of the most dramatic decisions any editor has made with a figure as significant as Wolfe, Perkins, without Wolfe’s final approval, sent the manuscript ofOf Time and the River to the printer in September of 1934. Perkins made the decision because he felt the novel was as complete as Wolfe could make it and that Wolfe needed to get on with other work. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate responsibility for the publication of any book rests squarely on the writer. Because Wolfe was so deferential to his editor and because he was unable or unwilling to see his novel through to the end, he opened himself to questions concerning his craftsmanship, questions that are still being asked today.

Finally, there remains the issue of autobiography in Wolfe’s novels. Wolfe himself claimed that autobiography was a part of any serious creative work, but there are in his novels, especially Look Homeward, Angel, sections that read like a mere diary. There is also a great deal of artistic invention in his novels, and certainly almost all writers use material based on their own experiences; nevertheless, many of Wolfe’s depictions were so thinly fictionalized that individuals were easily recognized, and many were hurt and embarrassed by what they thought were the unflattering portraits Wolfe rendered of them. Wolfe’s use of autobiography pushed to journalistic limits raises more questions about his fictional method.

Although Wolfe’s rhetoric, his conception of structure, and the autobiographical element within his work have been discussed as weaknesses, these three elements can also be cited as the strengths of his writing. For example, it is true there is ample evidence to support De Voto’s claim that Wolfe’s rhetoric is often artificially heightened, but at the same time, one of his most compelling attributes is his ability to depict something as insignificant as a “ham-on-rye” so clearly that readers may suddenly find themselves hungry. More to the point, however, are passages such as the Laura James sections of Look Homeward, Angel in which Wolfe manages to capture as well as any writer what it means to be young and in love. There are also numerous passages within his other novels that stand as some of the most poetic set pieces to be found in prose. In large measure, Wolfe is still read because of the magnificence of his style, however extravagant it may be at times.

Wolfe held to an organic theory of art, one in which content dictates form. He was constantly searching for new ways to communicate experience; in this sense, the criticism directed at him for being a “formless” writer may in some ways be unfair. Certainly there is no doubt that in his attempts to depart from traditional formats he sometimes lost control of his material—Of Time and the River, for example, is marred by this flaw. On the other hand, he did manage to find an effective structure in “The Web of Earth,” his lengthy story written under the influence of James Joyce. The entire work is filtered through the consciousness of an old woman engaged in reminiscence, and it is the finest example of artistic unity in Wolfe’s work. In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe modified a traditional novelistic form, the bildungsroman (the story of a youth initiated by experience into maturity), organizing the novel not around a unified sequence of events but instead around a series of sense impressions. In this way, the loose structure serves to complement the rhapsodic style. The result is a powerful rendering of the book’s central theme—that of an artistic youth lost and in search of self-knowledge and self-definition.

As for the contention that Wolfe is too highly autobiographical, that his writing too often approaches mere reportage, there can be no denying that on occasion, he is guilty as charged. In most instances, however, he was by no means a mere reporter of events. His fiction is memorable because he was such an apt interpreter of human beings and everyday experiences. He was able to synthesize experience into art; he himself claimed that everything in a work of art is changed, that nothing is a literal representation of actual experience. Whether he always achieved this transmutation, it can safely be said that Wolfe is still read because his novels stand as a testimony to human experience artistically rendered from a unique and personal vision.

Look Homeward, Angel

Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe’s first and most significant novel, made use of extensive autobiographical material. In many ways, it is the story of his own life, the life of his family, his neighbors, and the region in which he lived. For those who know something of Wolfe’s background, there are unmistakable connections between the fictional characters in Look Homeward, Angel and the real people among whom Wolfe grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. After the novel’s publication, many from his hometown—and indeed many in his own family—were angered by what they took to be unflattering depictions of themselves in the novel. Wolfe’s own account of the reaction to his novel can be found in The Story of a Novel, wherein he describes the uproar in Asheville and provides his own defense of his fictional method. Essentially, Wolfe believed that the people he described, whatever their faults, were magnificent. As magnificent as he thought his characters were, however, he often described them (no doubt truthfully) with all their faults made highly visible.

The ethics of Wolfe’s method can be questioned when one considers how it must have been to have lived in Asheville at the time the novel was published, to have opened its pages and to have found the characters so thinly fictionalized that their real counterparts could be easily identified. The ethical issue is not so much whether Wolfe was accurate in his depictions of the whole range of humanity he described, but rather how one would feel if he or she were identified as the model for the town drunk or as the counterpart of the unscrupulous businessperson. It did not take long for the people of Asheville to start pointing fingers at one another after figuring out who was who in the novel. Perhaps with some justification, all fingers eventually pointed toward Wolfe; the controversy over what he had done to his town and the people in it was so pronounced that he was unable to return to Asheville until seven years after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel.

Wolfe departed from the development of a traditional plot in Look Homeward, Angel and instead made use of impressionistic realism to tie events and characters together. The narrator moves in and out of the consciousness of the principal characters, giving readers impressions of their inner feelings and motivations. As much as anything else, Look Homeward, Angel is the story of a quest, a search for self-knowledge and for lasting human interaction. The subtitle of the novel is A Story of the Buried Life, and much of what Wolfe depicts is concerned with the inner lives of the characters in the novel—what they really think and feel as well as how isolated and alienated they are from one another. In this sense, the novel explores the relationships of time, change, and death as elements that will always frustrate the human desire for happiness and fulfillment.

Look Homeward, Angel was initially titled “O Lost” and then “Alone, Alone.” The title on which Wolfe finally settled comes from “Lycidas,” John Milton’s poem in which the archangel Michael is asked to look back toward England to mourn a young man’s death and all the unfulfilled potential it signifies. Eugene Gant is, like most of Wolfe’sprotagonists, the isolated and sensitive artist in search of meaning and companionship in a hostile world. Given this theme, it is ironic that some of Wolfe’s least effective passages are the results of his attempts to describe Eugene’s feelings of loneliness and despair. In such segments (which recur in almost all of Wolfe’s works), he often lapses into contrived language; rather than arising from natural consequences or from the interplay between one character and another, feelings seem forced by authorial intervention. On the other hand, the novel does contain some of his finest writing, especially when he describes people, places, and things with visionary intensity.

Look Homeward, Angel covers the first twenty years of Eugene Gant’s life—his adolescence, his four years at the private school of Margaret Leonard, and his four years at the university. A pattern of potential fulfillment destroyed by frustration is personified in Eugene’s parents, Eliza and Oliver, who are modeled on Wolfe’s own mother and father. Oliver Gant is a stonecutter who passionately desires to create something beautiful, to carve an angel’s head. He is an unfulfilled artist, a man of intense vitality who desires a full and sensuous life. His intensity, his capacity for life, is checked by his wife, Eliza, who is his antithesis: parsimonious, cold, and materialistic.

This pattern of frustrated potential recurs throughout the novel. In one example, after spending his first year at the university and losing his innocence in a brothel, Eugene returns home to spend the summer at Dixieland, his mother’s boardinghouse. There he meets and falls in love with Laura James (based on his own first love, Clara Paul). In his descriptions of the young, passionate love that develops between them, Wolfe’s prose becomes a lyrical celebration that turns to tragic frustration as Eugene learns that Laura is engaged to marry another young man back home, that she will never be a part of his life again. Thus, potential (in this example, physical and spiritual union between Eugene and Laura) is checked by reality (separation and isolation). This pattern manifests itself in varying ways throughout the novel. The story of a youth coming of age by initiation into experience, Look Homeward, Angel is a comprehensive account of the inner life of a sensitive and artistic youth.

With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe was thrust (not unwillingly) into the limelight as a legend, a novelist who demonstrated enormous potential. His success was spectacular, but because he was a driven artist (much like his fictional counterpart, Eugene Gant), his initial success created a good many subsequent problems. He immediately felt the burden to surpass his first effort with an even better second novel. At the same time, he ran into difficulty giving form to his expansive ideas (a problem with which he would grapple for the remainder of his life). During this same period, he also began leading a turbulent private life. He was involved with Aline Bernstein (the A. B. to whom Look Homeward, Angel is dedicated), and their relationship—as tempestuous as any could conceivably be—would figure heavily in the remainder of his life and work.

Of Time and the River

Composed of eight sections, each of which is named after some epic or mythic figure, Of Time and the River exceeds nine hundred pages in length and spans two continents, continuing the story of Thomas Wolfe as personified in the character of Eugene Gant. Wolfe continues the story with Eugene’s departure from Altamont for study at Harvard. He stated his ambitious theme for Of Time and the River in The Story of a Novel; his central idea was to depict the search for a father, not only in a literal but also in a figurative sense. While trying to exemplify his theme, Wolfe also struggled to form Of Time and the River out of the vast amount of manuscript he had written (a detailed discussion of that struggle is related in The Story of a Novel). The struggle reached its peak when his editor, Perkins, sent the novel to press without Wolfe’s knowledge. In one of his letters to Perkins, Wolfe claimed that another six months’ work would have allowed him to complete the necessary revisions that would have made the book less episodic.

There can be no doubt that had Wolfe written Of Time and the River without Perkins’s influence, it would have been a very different novel—perhaps a better one. As it stands, it is, as Wolfe himself noted, episodic; its parts are not always aligned to form a unified plot. Even so, there are fine passages throughout that more than compensate for its ponderous pace and meandering plot. In The Story of a Novel, Wolfe describes how he wrote one scene that ran to eighty thousand words (about two hundred pages). He was attempting to capture “the full flood and fabric” of four people simply talking to one another for four continuous hours. This scene, as good as he thought it was, eventually was cut, but it illustrates the massive amount of writing he did for the novel as well as the extensive amount of cutting he did to get it into publishable form.

Perhaps the novel’s most magnificent scene is that which describes the death of Eugene’s father, who has been slowly dying of cancer. Gant, the paternal figure whose presence was so unforgettable in Look Homeward, Angel, is now old and enfeebled. His death, which comes in a final moment of tranquillity, stands in stark contrast to his life, which was lived with violent gestures and howling protests. Often drunk, sometimes violent, he was a hard man to live with, but his death comes as a reminder that life lived intensely—however excessively—is life worth living. The death of his wife, Eliza, would not begin to elicit the intensity of emotion aroused by his final moments, for she stands as a testimony to all that opposes the force and fury of his life.

Other memorable scenes in the novel include those that take place in Boston with Eugene’s uncle, Bascom Pentland. Uncle Bascom and his demented wife are two of the more finely drawn eccentrics in the novel. These segments as well as others involving Eugene’s dreams to become a playwright, his time spent as an English instructor at a city university in New York, and his eventual travel to Europe, all contribute to Wolfe’s attempt to describe the vast array of people, places, and things unique to the American experience.

While working out his central theme of a search for a father, Wolfe developed a three-part vision of time: time present, time past, and time eternal. The first, time present, is the time in which the actual events in the novel take place, the time of reality. The second, time past, represents all of the accumulated experience that affects time present. The third, time eternal, stands for the lasting time of oceans, forests, and rivers, of things that form the permanent backdrop for people’s experiences. These three levels of time allow Wolfe to contrast, in a vast and symbolic scale, the relationship of past, present, and eternal experience with the experience of Eugene Gant. The result is an intensely personal search for meaning, an attempt to reconcile opposites, to find something lasting and meaningful.

Throughout the novel, a scene that takes place in the present may be linked with past scenes and eternal scenes. In this way, all three levels of time are united. For example, a train ride taking place in present time provides Eugene with the opportunity to recall the travelers of earlier days, their epic searching, their longing for discovery, for movement. During the same segment, Eugene speculates that other people in the future (eternal time) will also travel the earth in search of one another. The novel frequently develops itself in this way, and it is these segments that give the novel its mysterious, almost haunting, quality. At the same time, however, these same passages become repetitious (if not tedious), and illustrate once again the lack of restraint so evident throughout Wolfe’s work. In contrast to these overwritten segments are a good many specific characterizations as well as a variety of satiric passages aimed at mediocre people, middle-class values, and intellectual pretenders. This is a vast and comprehensive book that ends when Eugene sets sail back to the United States. Aboard ship he meets Esther Jack (Aline Bernstein), who, although certainly not the father for whom he is searching, is nevertheless someone who can help him transcend the tormented youth he has endured to this point in his life.

The Web and the Rock

Wolfe claimed that he was turning away from the books he had previously written, that The Web and the Rock would be his most “objective” work to date. It should be noted that at that time, Wolfe had become particularly sensitive about the criticism he had received from De Voto and others concerning his alleged inability to exert artistic control over his material. As a result, not only did he claim his new novel to be objective, but also he abandoned his previous protagonist, Eugene Gant, in favor of a new one, George “Monk” Webber. The change was more in name than in substance, however, for Webber, like Eugene Gant, bears a close resemblance to Wolfe himself. Indeed, The Web and the Rock is quite similar to Wolfe’s earlier works: Its first half parallels Look Homeward, Angel while its second half stands as a sequel to Of Time and the River.

One of the strongest chapters in the novel is enlightening insofar as it illustrates how Wolfe continually reshaped past material. “The Child by Tiger” was first published in 1937 as a short story, but in the eighth chapter of The Web and the Rock, Wolfe reworks the story with changes in character and point of view. It is a moving story about the nature of good and evil, innocence and experience. Dick Prosser, a black man of ability and potential, is the object of the racial prejudice that was so pronounced in the South during the early part of the twentieth century. He befriends several young white boys and teaches them how to throw a football, how to box, and how to make a fire. In short, he becomes a kindly father figure who initiates them into experience.

There is, however, another side to Prosser. Driven to the point of madness by prejudicial treatment, by his own apocalyptic brand of religion, and by his involvement with a woman, he goes on a shooting spree one night, killing blacks and whites alike. Eventually shot by the mob formed to hunt him down, his bullet-riddled body is hung up for display in the window of the undertaker’s parlor. In the course of these events, the young men who were Prosser’s friends are initiated into a world full of violence and death. For the first time in their lives, they experience profound loss, and they witness evil as it is personified in the bloodthirsty mob. Woven within the story are stanzas from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” from which the chapter title is derived.

In what makes up the second half of the novel, Wolfe deals with his own experiences in New York City. He explores his relationship with Bernstein, depicting her as a sophisticated mistress and himself as a brilliant but egocentric genius. Their relationship is described in detail—from their love-making and eating to their quarrels and reconciliations. These segments are remarkable for their candor and intriguing because of the insight they provide into the tempestuous relationship between the two. Webber’s past experiences, the environment in which he was reared, and his ancestry symbolically form the web in which he is snared, and, as Esther Jack becomes a part of that web, he escapes to Germany. His search for the rock, the strength and beauty of vision that is represented by the father figure for whom he longs, is interrupted by his realization at the end of the novel that “you can’t go home again.” In short, he knows that he must look to the future to escape the past.

You Can’t Go Home Again

Continuing the chronicle of George Webber’s life and artistic development, You Can’t Go Home Again metaphorically develops the theme that Webber cannot go “home,” cannot return to past places, old ideas, and former experiences because time and change have corrupted them. In this sense, “home” is an idealized vision of the United States as it appeared to George in his youth. These youthful visions come into abrupt contact with reality, and the resulting clash allows Wolfe to explore the very fabric of American society.

The novel begins approximately six months after The Web and the Rock ends. Webber has returned home to the United States, and, against his better judgment, he decides to resume his relationship with Esther Jack. He also resumes work on his novel Home to Our Mountains (Look Homeward, Angel) and finds a publisher, James Rodney (Scribner’s), as well as a sympathetic editor and father figure, Foxhall Edwards (Perkins). Before his book is published, however, he returns home for the first time in years to attend the funeral of his Aunt Maw. Home in this novel is Libya Hill (like the Altamont of Look Homeward, Angel, the locale still represents Asheville, North Carolina). On the train trip home, he meets his childhood friend Nebraska Crane, a onetime big-league baseball star. Crane, a Cherokee Indian, is now satisfied to lead the simple life of a family man and part-time tobacco farmer, standing in contrast to Webber, whose intellectual drive and literary ambition make him a driven city man.

Also on the train is Judge Rumford Bland, a blind syphilitic whose corruption serves to symbolize the corruption in Libya Hill toward which Webber is traveling. Upon his arrival, Webber finds that his quiet boyhood town has become crazed from a land-boom mentality that has everyone making huge paper fortunes in real estate (these events parallel those immediately preceding the Depression). Thus, his idealized expectations of home are shattered by the corruption and madness running rampant throughout Libya Hill.

After the publication of his novel, Webber receives abusive letters from the residents of Libya Hill. Typically, Wolfe incorporated his own experiences into his fiction. In this instance, he drew on his unpleasant memories of what happened after he published Look Homeward, Angel. An entire book in the novel (“The World That Jack Built”) is devoted to the wealthy lives of Esther and Frederick Jack (the Bernsteins). Writing about his own breakup with Aline Bernstein, Wolfe describes Webber’s move to Brooklyn and the end of his relationship with Esther Jack. In Brooklyn, Webber learns to love the low-life characters who inhabit the streets—the prostitutes, the derelicts, and the petty criminals—for they are very much a part of the American experience. To ignore them—or worse yet, to explain them away somehow—would be to deny the underbelly of America that Webber (and Wolfe) found so compelling.

After his years in Brooklyn (with scenes devoted to his relationship with Edwards, his editor), Webber tires of New York and sails for Europe. In Germany, he is welcomed with the fame and notoriety he has sought for so long, but he also witnesses the darker side of Nazi Germany. The novel is the story of one man’s pilgrimage, a search for a faith that will endure within a society so corrupt that each individual is destroyed by it. You Can’t Go Home Again is not an entirely cynical book, however, for it concludes with a sense of hope and faith in the future.

Both The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again were put together by Aswell, Wolfe’s editor at Harper’s, and published posthumously as novels. It was not until 1962, when Richard S. Kennedy published The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe that the extent of Aswell’s influence on the two novels became fully known. Just before his death, Wolfe left a large packing crate of manuscript with Aswell. From that collection of manuscript, it was generally assumed that Aswell found two separatenarratives, which he then published as the two posthumous novels. Kennedy discovered, after an extensive study of Wolfe’s papers and manuscripts at Harvard University, that Aswell constructed The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again from what was a massive—but fragmentary—amount of manuscript that Wolfe apparently intended to condense into a single narrative. Had Wolfe lived, he most certainly would not have published the two novels as Aswell published them. In a very real way, they are as much the product of Aswell’s editorializing as they are a product of Wolfe’s imagination. Even so, the two novels represent a significant part of Wolfe’s creative output, and analysis of them can help put his entire achievement into a clearer perspective.

Throughout his novels, Wolfe explored isolation, death, and the changes wrought by time—themes that exemplify his interest in the darker elements of life. In his attempts to capture the essence of a moment, he often overlooked the artistic demands that the novel imposes on any writer. He was not a craftsman of the novel because he often sacrificed form, unity, and coherence to capture experience. His reputation is linked directly to his ambitious attempts to say it all, and Look Homeward, Angel, although only the beginning of the story Wolfe desired to tell, stands as his most satisfying and fully realized work.


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