Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe American Literature Analysis

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Typically, Wolfe composed his novels as vast, sprawling narratives which, beginning with the origins, early childhood, or youth of his protagonists, would recount in abundant detail memorable impressions and episodes from his past. Those who knew Wolfe personally and who had heard him speak described him as capable of extraordinary, vivid, and tumultuous outpourings of words that could be prompted spontaneously by suitable occasions. This quality may be seen in much of his writing. Many of the particularly evocative passages in his novels display descriptive powers that he developed at some length, and which in turn were related to the thematic currents underlying his works. His writings were particularly effective in conveying sights and sounds of locales that were familiar to him. Inner reactions and the subjective life of his fictional alter egos were also depicted in depth.

Resonant and seemingly universal in their appeal were Wolfe’s evocations of the timeless joys and travails of childhood and youth and the many-faceted manifestations of the American spirit. He also had a definite sense for the specific characteristics of certain regions and groups; in some passages he would contrast southern ways with those that prevailed in other parts of the United States. Often he would indulge in written mimicry of dialects, whether southern or northeastern, and sometimes he attempted to reproduce the intonations of English spoken with an Italian, French, or German accent. He also had a satirical bent and was wont to portray those who seemed typecast in somewhat overblown guises.

Some parts of his works have been taken as suggesting tolerance of racial prejudices, and it would appear that he also had ambivalent—and at times not necessarily sympathetic—feelings about Jews, but as such matters are handled in his novels, attitudes of this sort could also be regarded as to some extent characteristic of the times during which he lived. Otherwise, however, in many respects Wolfe s protagonists could be considered as expressing, in a somewhat larger-than-life form, the yearnings and ambitions of many who might feel that in America a quest for learning, love, or fulfillment might be realized.

It would appear that, among the numerous authors, classical and modern, with whom Wolfe was familiar, he was probably influenced as much by the works of James Joyce as by any other writer. Wolfe’s writings were known to most of his contemporaries, as well as to the wider reading public; in particular, Sinclair Lewis esteemed his work highly—in the speech he delivered when he won the Nobel Prize, Lewis took particular note of Wolfe’s attainments. In a somewhat cryptic vein, William Faulkner pointed to Wolfe as a failure but a failure on a magnificent scale which others of their generation had not reached.

Readers and reviewers of Wolfe’s time, and later, often enough were prone to complain of the extreme wordiness that burdened all of his major works. It has also been maintained that because of the all but limitless concern Wolfe had for his protagonists, his writing bordered on the overwritten, the puerile, and the mawkish. His defenders, both during his lifetime and subsequently, have contended, however, that even where his efforts were flawed and overly effusive, the scale and depth of his achievements still could not be denied.

Look Homeward, Angel

First published: 1929

Type of work: Novel

Family life and self-discovery are among the themes that punctuate the story of a young southerner during the first twenty years of his life.

As childhood may be composed, in part, of the recollections and impressions passed along by parents, so it may seem not to have a precisely fixed beginning...

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or end.Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, the story of Eugene Gant, commences not with the boy’s first conscious sensations but with the origins of his father and mother.

William Oliver Gant, whose ancestors had settled in Pennsylvania, had been apprenticed to the stonecutter’s trade. He moved eventually to the South and, after two marriages, he came to the rural mountain city of Altamont, the fictional equivalent of the author’s native Asheville. There he met Eliza Pentland, who came from an established, if somewhat eccentric, family of that region, and after some courtship he married her. Even then, Gant was a wild and exuberant sort, who was capable of epic drinking bouts; he also possessed a certain untamed vitality, and by the end of the nineteenth century, when he was nearly fifty years old, his wife had conceived their last child.

By way of this oddly retrospective narrative introduction, the circumstances of Eugene Gant’s early years are set forth, and events from his life even as a small child are then recorded at some length. For example, from the age of six he could recall the many colors of bright autumn days, and he was aware of the many smells of food in all its varieties, and of wood and leather. He was alive to the crisply etched sights of furniture, hardware, trees, and gardens that were to be found around his home and in the city. Once he had learned to read, he became enchanted with tales of travel and adventure, and indeed with the very power of words themselves, but there was also a worldly and earthy element to his character.

At the age of eight he had some vague appreciation for bawdy rhymes and crude jokes told by the older boys. He could also recall the blunt racial slurs that were routinely used by those in his neighborhood. Beyond that, however, there was a contemplative and inward-looking aspect to his cast of mind. He could remember that before he was ten years old he would brood upon what seemed to be tantalizingly unanswerable contradictions that went to the very nature of the human spirit.

Various themes and motifs seem to characterize Eugene’s adolescent years. He has a literary curiosity of prodigious proportions, and he reads books of all sorts, many at a time. He has great energy and considerable zest for sports, even though he is awkward and ungainly on the baseball diamond. An imaginative boy, he is prone to indulge in vividly embroidered daydreams which cast an idealized counterpart of himself as an invincible hero. He has some awkward misadventures with women, which seem later to arouse further longings in him. During this period there occur some richly comic episodes, as when Eugene’s father prepares an elegant stone angel as a burial monument for a prostitute. There are also some hints of events in the wider world beyond them; on one occasion William Jennings Bryan visits the town and makes some suitably politic replies to questions from local admirers.

As the youngest member of his family, Eugene feels more closely drawn to his brother Ben than to others around him. Another brother, Steve, turns out to be a ne’er-do-well. Their brother Luke has a particular talent for earning money from odd jobs of any kind but has little aptitude for academics; after some study at a college and a technical school he becomes a worker in a boiler factory. Meanwhile, their father has become sallow and aged; prostate cancer has set in, and his vigorous, exuberant manner seems to have become subdued and petulant. In Eugene’s life, a major change comes when he enrolls in the state university and for the first time lives away from home. By this juncture it is recorded that, just short of the age of sixteen, he remains still very much a child at heart; great but vaguely felt ideals of beauty and order are still largely untempered by contact with the world beyond.

The university has a distinctive, unforgettable charm and resembles an oasis of learning in a provincial wilderness. Here Eugene’s education begins in earnest; while previously he had been simply a precocious, somewhat pampered boy with vast and undefined ambitions, during his college work his impulse to read widely and in depth assumes somewhat clearer contours. At the outset he feels isolated and disoriented, but he eventually becomes initiated in college ways. He visits a prostitute in a neighboring city and comes down with a verminous affliction which must be cured by a local doctor when he returns home for Christmas. Later he feels stirred by impulses that are both romantic and erotic. During a summer he spends back home in Altamont, he meets Laura James. She is a pert, attractive woman five years older than Eugene, and she has already become engaged to another man; for the time being she has come to stay at the Gants’ boardinghouse. Eugene has a brief but intense affair with her which, while loosely based on events in Wolfe’s life, seems here to have been reworked considerably in order to emphasize the romantic prowess of the protagonist.

For a period during World War I, Eugene, who is too young for active service, goes to work at a Navy yard in Virginia, not too far from Laura James’s original home; he is disappointed that, after their brief sojourn together, he does not hear anything further from her. Other and more distressing troubles soon confront Eugene and his family, for Ben, Eugene’s favorite brother, who had defended him during family disputes, has been stricken with a fatal illness of the lungs. As his all-too-brief life draws to a close there are scenes that are alternately petty and poignant. At the hospital, their father suddenly begins complaining about medical costs, to the discomfiture of the others. On the other hand, Eugene, who has never been particularly religious, fervently begins to pray when it appears that Ben has passed beyond recovery. He reflects unhappily that somehow in death Ben has meant more to the family than when he was alive. Toward the end, when Eugene has graduated from college and is preparing to go on to Harvard University, it seems to him in some imagined way that out of the past Ben’s ghost has come back and is asking him where he is going on his life’s journey.

Of Time and the River

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

The adult years of Wolfe’s fictional counterpart are depicted in this lengthy narrative of his quest for personal fulfillment in the United States and abroad.

In much of Wolfe’s writing, lengthy descriptions of train journeys impart a sense of movement and change. In Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth, his hero, Eugene, embarks upon a trip northward. Having left college in his native state, Eugene believes that he has become a witness to a vast and panoramic series of images which, taken together, reveal the many faces of America itself. There is to him a sensation of escape from the dark and mournful mystery of the South to the freedom and bright promise of the North, with its shining cities and extravagant hopes. The plains, peaks, and valleys that shape the landscape over which he passes, as well as the innumerable towns and cities along the way, bespeak to him the limitless diversity of the United States.

Other images, mainly from the past, are called up within Eugene when he stops in Baltimore to visit the hospital where, in his fatal illness, his father is being treated. The old man seems yellow, wan, and exhausted, and only the stonecutter’s hands, of a massive size and grace, seem still to suggest the strength and dignity with which he had once carried out his chosen calling. Otherwise, old Gant appears to have wasted away, and his sullen self-pity indicates that little remains of his once vibrant spirit. Somewhat later, in some graphic passages, the old man is left drained and enfeebled by sudden and vast outpourings of blood; he dies in the midst of numerous relatives and friends who have come by during his last days.

Wolfe’s second novel is divided into parts bearing allegorical allusions; the figure most readily identified with his fictional hero is portrayed in the second section as “young Faustus.” At least as much as during earlier times, when he was a boy or an undergraduate student, Eugene Gant is propelled by an immense and boundless striving to read anything and everything he can and to encompass all known learning and literature in a self-imposed regimen that goes well beyond the limits of formal study. At Harvard’s library he prowls about in the stacks, taking down volumes he has not seen before and timing with a watch how many seconds it takes to finish one page and read the next before moving on. Eugene also walks the streets alone, mainly for the sake of gathering in sights and sounds that are still new and not entirely familiar to him. He marvels at the lonely, tragic beauty of New England, which he has come to believe differs from his native South and yet resembles it in ways that distinguish both regions as essentially American.

Eugene, like Wolfe himself, for a time devotes unstinting energies to writing plays for a workshop which absorbs his energies, but later he recoils from such efforts as constraining and imposing limits upon his creative self. At times he expresses his disdain for productions that he thinks others had tried to make overly fashionable or artistic. Wolfe often was given to expressing his hero’s observations and aspirations quantitatively, in large numbers, to suggest some great and unrealizable vision of the nation and of human culture, in its immeasurable richness: While at Harvard, Eugene yearns to read one million books, to possess ten thousand women, and to know something about fifty million of the American people. Such strivings convey the great elemental yearnings of Wolfe’s protagonist, whose very being seems set upon not the satisfaction but the pursuit of his unending quest.

For a time, however, he must provide for himself as best he can, and this he does by teaching college-level English courses in New York. All the while, the growing discontent fed by this routine breeds in him wants of another sort. As was the case with Wolfe himself, travel for Eugene seems to open vistas on several levels. One autumn he sets forth to see the great cities of the Old World.

In England, Eugene feels some affinity with a people who share with him a common language and literature; indeed, his admiration for British culture seems favorably to predispose him toward those he meets. Though England seems drab and colorless in some ways, and the cooking turns out to be for the most part bland and disappointing, at the end he senses a bond of affection has been established which transcends any outward differences. On the other hand—and in some respects it would seem that Wolfe regarded Europe as a measure by which those qualities most distinctive about America could be grasped anew—Eugene cannot but be struck by the atmosphere and attitudes which contrast with those of his own country. In France he feels overwhelmed by the Faustian urges that had beset him earlier; he wants to learn and read everything about Paris and its people. Not quite attracted or repelled, he becomes fascinated and at times awestruck by his surroundings.

Some episodes having less to do with cultural matters prove diverting and at times distressing. When he encounters a man he had known from his Harvard days and two American women, their brief camaraderie turns to bitterness and recrimination when Eugene, somewhat put out by what he regards as their affected Boston ways, becomes involved in a fight with his erstwhile friends. After some spirited quarrels, he leaves the others. Once out of Paris, he is befriended by some odd older women from noble families; in the end, as he has chronically been on the verge of exhausting his money altogether, his travels on the Continent must be brought to a close. Having traveled about at length, more and more he has become beset with a longing for home, and indeed he is eager for the sight of anything that might hint of America. When the journey of this modern Faust has been completed, he also—in a state of some wonderment—comes upon a woman for whom he has been longing, on the return voyage home.

The Web and the Rock

First published: 1939

Type of work: Novel

In another retelling of events from the author’s youth, Wolfe recounts the travails of love and creative writing.

In the preface to this novel, written approximately four months before his death, Wolfe announced that he had turned away from the books he had written in the past; he had intended rather to create a hero whose discovery of life and the world takes place, by his standards, on a more objective plane. Other ways in which the pattern of his earlier works had been varied are evident. Although The Web and the Rock was based upon his early life and experiences, those portions dealing with childhood and adolescence were allotted comparatively less space. There is correspondingly more emphasis on events from the author’s early adulthood that had not been discussed in the previous novels. The protagonist and Wolfe’s final hero, named George Webber, outwardly does not resemble the author to the same extent as does Eugene Gant, though there can be little doubt that, in the same way as Gant, Webber was meant to be the spokesman for Wolfe’s thoughts and ideas.

In the first part of the novel, the style also is somewhat more terse and less free-flowing than had been the case in previous works, though later the narrative tends more to resemble that which had been used earlier. It should be mentioned as well that, while it has sometimes been asserted that Wolfe’s last two books were to a significant extent adapted by (and indeed, partly written by) his second editor, Edward Aswell, specialists have found that in their essential features the works conformed in most ways to the form in which Wolfe originally had cast them.

The Web and the Rock begins in another fictional version of Wolfe’s native city, this time named Libya Hill; his central character, George Webber, is the son of a stonecutter who had migrated to the South many years before. George’s early life is described from about the age of twelve. Because of his short, stocky, crouched bearing, George has a vaguely simian appearance; he is called “monkey,” or “Monk.” While physically he differs noticeably from his creator, he otherwise has much in common with Wolfe. In the early portions of the novel there is a great deal of attention paid to sports and games and other pastimes. Friendships and confrontations with other boys occupy much of his time, and indeed those he had known from this period seemed destined later to appear in his life at unexpected junctures. On the other hand, the boy could not but be fascinated by the dark and violent underside of southern small-town life. On one occasion, a black man he had come to know inexplicably has gone berserk and kills several people with a rifle before being brought down by a sheriff’s posse; his bullet-riddled corpse is left on display at a local undertaker’s establishment. Such incidents underscore the fragile balance between orderliness and destructive impulses.

When George is about sixteen, the reader learns, his father has died, and George has become a student at a state school named Pine Rock College, where he comes upon some quaint and rustic characters. Nevertheless, he feels that even with its provincialism and its austerity, his school is more than a match for the renowned private institutions of northern states. The events of George’s college years are set forth among some evocations of the atmosphere that pervades the campus. In classes there is an earnest, though at times not self-consciously serious, effort to appreciate the better works of literature.

Students also have time enough for carousing and wild sports rallies that seem to have a primitive, earthy vitality of their own. The peculiar status of college football heroes, who appear to hold sway in a domain all their own, is depicted in some vignettes of George’s friend Jim Randolph, who seems possessed of extraordinary powers on the playing field but later proves incapable of accomplishing great things in the wider world. For George, however, new and portentous changes are ushered in when he moves to New York; the contrast between his obscure provincial background and outlook and the grandeur and squalor of the great city, in its massive and manifold forms, is particularly striking to the young man.

After living with friends for a while, and after a lonely and desperate year spent by himself, George’s inchoate quest and his innermost yearnings are answered, after a fashion, much as they were in Wolfe’s own life. The remaining portions of the novel have to do largely with a prolonged love affair which takes place prior to the publication of his first book.

On a return trip from Europe he meets a certain Esther Jack (who has generally been regarded as a fictional rendition of Aline Bernstein), and quickly he becomes infatuated with her. This strange and, for a time, overwhelming passion is described as the result of longing which had created in her an idealized form of woman—indeed, the embodiment of someone she never was or possibly could never have been. In one light she is described as middle-aged, even matronly, though full of energy and still attractive. In his enamored vision, he regards her as the supremely beautiful and sublime embodiment of his desires, and when he perceives her later as falling short of this extravagantly conceived image, quarrels and differences arise. There are as well some remarks on her Jewish origins and on the clannish, insular, but also generous character of her people.

On a directly personal level, he seems attracted to her because of her solicitude and sympathy during his travails as an aspiring but as yet unrecognized writer; her concern for his well-being is quite touching and leads to some memorable scenes where their affection is expressed during the enjoyment of succulent meals she has prepared for him. She also lends her considerable moral support to his work on his first novel, a bulky manuscript ten inches thick, which he has started showing to publishers in the city. After this work has been unceremoniously rejected by the satirically, if infelicitously named, firm of Rawng and Wright, she consoles him and encourages him to look elsewhere.

Soon thereafter, however, discord sets George and Esther apart. He suggests that she has a penchant for younger lovers and becomes tormented by jealousy and distrust. Her sophisticated, urban mannerisms begin to grate harshly upon his rather less refined sensibilities. Remonstrances and countercharges fly back and forth, and claims that Christians cannot tolerate Jewish ways, or the converse, are bandied about. George apparently resents his dependence upon Esther. For her part, stricken by his sudden outbursts of suspicion and hostility, she threatens to end her own life.

As the situation seemingly has become intractable, George finally sets off for Europe, thinking that she will write him or make some effort to settle their differences. He travels in England and on the Continent, increasingly troubled by loneliness and doubts. He feels that he is a foreigner in lands where even American tourists seem strange and out of place. He tells himself finally, when he is in a hospital in Munich recovering from wounds he received in a fight, that “you can’t go home again.” This reflection sets the tone for the next and final series of his adventures and experiences.

You Can’t Go Home Again

First published: 1940

Type of work: Novel

Triumphs and troubles in the later life of the author are set forth in this work which also depicts social and political turmoil in America and abroad during the 1930’s.

From among the several million recorded words that Wolfe wrote during his career, the phrase that concludes one work and was chosen as the title for this novel has been probably the best-known of all the expressions he ever used. The adage “you can’t go home again” evidently was suggested first by Ella Winter, the widow of the writer Lincoln Steffens. This phrase seems apt, not on the most obvious literal level but rather in the sense that, in the flux of time and life, old ties and associations cannot remain the same, unchanged. Once they have been outgrown or cast off, old ways must be set aside as part of a past which cannot easily again be recaptured.

Wolfe’s last novel opens with George Webber’s return to New York, where Esther Jack receives him. He is apprised that his manuscript has been favorably reviewed by a well-known publishing house, which has sent an advance check for five hundred dollars. He also learns that his aged maiden aunt has died, and he travels southward, to return home for the first time in many years. On the way he meets Nebraska Crane, a friend and companion from his boyhood days who, though he has made a name for himself as a professional baseball player, feels that the best period of his career is behind him.

When George arrives in Libya Hill, he is treated by some as a visiting local celebrity. In newspapers, he is quoted with some inventiveness as expressing the fondest sentiments possible about his native city. Libya Hill has been overtaken by frenetic speculation in real estate and, in fact, in all realms of business, which temporarily has transformed it into a boom town. There is a pervasive atmosphere of change, both superficial and permanent. George, who feels oddly isolated even on native ground, comes to sense that his visit has been an act of farewell more than a homecoming.

Somewhat later, after his novel has been published, George ruefully, but with some amusement, notes the reaction it has stirred up among local people. Because much of his book was essentially based upon real characters, he has received letters complaining with some vehemence of the shame and disgrace he has brought upon those who once were his neighbors and friends. One anonymous writer threatens to kill him. On the other hand, someone else has offered to provide him with even more salacious material should he care to inquire.

By this time, George’s affair with Esther has run its course; after some oddly harrowing scenes at one of her social gatherings, he decides that he can turn away decisively from what he regards as her artificially cultivated, high-society circles and way of life. He turns instead to other women for short periods of time but finds none of them particularly endearing or even compatible. All the while, he has also become aware of changing fortunes all around him, brought about by the onset of the Great Depression. He learns that in Libya Hill land values have collapsed suddenly, with resulting hardships and uncertainty. In much of New York, signs of destitution and desperation can be seen at first hand; some moving passages describe dejected homeless men and the discovery of a suicide victim in the street. In spite of the many signs of desolation around George, and despite recurrent brooding loneliness, Wolfe’s hero is moved to reaffirm his faith in life and creation.

In describing the only enduring friendship from this period of his hero’s life, Wolfe paid unusual tribute to his editor Maxwell Perkins, whom he recast here as Foxhall Edwards. George Webber, who much earlier had lost his own father, is described as benefiting from a sort of spiritual adoption that provides him with needed guidance. To be sure, the editor depicted here seems in some ways foppish and has some strangely idiosyncratic habits. He also has a knack for getting around problems that seems at once cunning and guileless, but he is portrayed as fundamentally tolerant and fair-minded in ways that others of his profession are not.

Another fictional portrait from life of a well-known literary figure appears in the course of George’s further travels. During a visit to London he has the opportunity to meet the writer Lloyd McHarg, who was modeled upon Sinclair Lewis. When a newspaper story reports that McHarg has warmly praised George’s work, the young author manages to arrange a meeting with the great man. Although McHarg receives George on friendly, even cordial, terms, the younger man is struck not merely by his unprepossessing, in some ways ugly, appearance: In McHarg, he also believes that he can detect the trials and disappointments of fame and recognition. The widespread acclaim that McHarg had earned seems only to demonstrate that writers could not be satisfied merely with public acceptance. McHarg, in the sheer surfeit of his triumphs, has taken to constant traveling and drinking to allay the numbing boredom and loneliness that have befallen him.

Earlier in his career, Wolfe had shown some fondness for Germany, where he had traveled and where his first book, in translation, had been favorably received. Later, however, much had changed, and a sizable portion from the last part of this novel has to do with some striking and rather horrifying impressions that were gathered during travels under the Nazi regime. Although George Webber, as was Wolfe himself, is treated as an eminent foreign writer, he feels a pronounced uneasiness which sets in almost as soon as he arrives in Berlin. The Olympic Games held in the German capital are flanked by regimented demonstrations of marching men which hint strongly of preparations for war. People George meets are curiously reticent on political matters, though dark and unseemly rumors surface from time to time. The atmosphere of fear and compulsion seems more ubiquitous and more oppressive than any of the killings, gangster plots, or other manifestations of hatred and violence that America had ever known.

During a train trip to the west, George and some other travelers meet a curiously nervous little man, who is afraid he will be detained for currency violations. He presses upon George and the others some coins he had hidden away. When they change trains at the frontier, they discover that the man, who is Jewish, is attempting to escape while smuggling much of his money out of the country. In a brutal, wrenching confrontation with Nazi police, he is apprehended. The others must, helplessly, leave him to his fate. The novel concludes with George’s return to New York, where he writes a long letter to Foxhall Edwards, summarizing his beliefs and setting forth his artistic credo. Though he will work no longer under his former editor and friend, he believes that some explanation—and some exposition of the directions his life has taken—is required. At the end, George maintains that the forces of time and change cannot be resisted and that the past he had known must be put behind him.

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