Thomas Wolfe Wolfe, Thomas (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Thomas Wolfe 1900-1938

(Full name Thomas Clayton Wolfe) American novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and poet.

Wolfe is considered one of the foremost American writers of the twentieth century. He is generally recognized for his four major novels—Look Homeward, Angel (1929); Of Time and the River (1935); The Web and the Rock (1939); and You Can 't Go Home Again (1940)—in which he took the facts of his own life and wove them into an epic celebration of the struggle of the lonely, sensitive, and artistic individual to find spiritual fulfillment in America. More recently, critical attention has also been focused on Wolfe's shorter fiction, a series of short stories and novellas, many of which are fragments or portions of his longer novels. These works, including the stories of From Death to Morning (1935), The Hills Beyond (1941), and two later collections, represent to many critics some of Wolfe's most refined literary expressions of urban and rural life in America in the early twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1900. The city and its inhabitants, as many he encountered in his life, would later serve as models for his intensely autobiographical fiction. At the age of sixteen, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina, where he developed an interest in drama and prepared for a career as a playwright. Upon graduation he continued his education at Harvard, studying English under John Livingston Lowes, whose theories concerning the importance of a subconscious fusion of literary influence, personal experience, and imagination had a significant effect on Wolfe's writing. Wolfe received his master's degree in 1922, and accepted a teaching post at New York University with the hope of having his plays accepted for production on Broadway. Unsuccessful in this endeavor and wearied by teaching, Wolfe resigned his position in 1925, and determined to live entirely by his writing. Shortly after reaching this decision Wolfe met Aline Bernstein. Their five-year relationship offered Wolfe the emotional and financial support that enabled him to write his first and what many critics consider his best novel, Look Homeward, Angel. In the ensuing years, Wolfe produced many pieces of short fiction and prepared to write his next "big book." Facing financial problems in the early thirties, he received a break when he was awarded a $5000 prize from Scribner's Magazine for his novella A Portrait of Bascom Hawke in 1932. Encouraged to continue in the genre, he produced The Web of Earth—drawn from discussions with his mother about her life—later that same year. Again running low on funds, Wolfe next completed his novella No Door in 1933, a work that was published in two installments in Scribner's Magazine in 1933 and 1934, and which later become part of his full-length Of Time and the River. The year 1935 saw the publication of his first collection of short fiction From Death to Morning, which failed to make the same impression as his first two novels. Following several more years of intense creative activity, Wolfe left New York in 1938 for a tour of the western United States, leaving his editor Edward C. Aswell with a mass of manuscript consisting of all of his recent writings. While in the West, Wolfe contracted pneumonia and soon after died. After Wolfe's death, Aswell honed his manuscripts to produce two more full novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can 't Go Home Again, as well as the novel fragment and stories contained in The Hills Beyond.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Wolfe's short stories and novellas reflect the same thematic patterns as his full-length works, featuring studies of loneliness and estrangement and an almost obsessive regard for time and the past, they are generally thought to demonstrate an attitude of technical experimentation and artistic control otherwise lacking in the novels. In all, Wolfe produced seven novellas and fifty-eight short stories, most of which appeared in periodicals in the 1930s and were not published in book collections until decades after Wolfe's death. Among his most highly esteemed shorter works, the novella A Portrait of Bascom Hawke demonstrates Wolfe's exploration of the disparities of youth and age as an old man, weakened by time, looks back upon his childhood. "The Lost Boy," which appeared in Wolfe's collection The Hills Beyond, begins with the loss of innocence experienced by Grover Gant at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and ends with the return of his brother, Eugene, to the same place decades later, where he experiences an intense loneliness and nostalgia for what has been lost. Late in his career, Wolfe frequently used his short fiction for the purpose of social commentary. Prompted by several visits to Hitler's Germany in the 1920s and 1930s—particularly his last in 1936, during which Wolfe was welcomed with immense respect and adoration—I Have a Thing to Tell You is nevertheless a scathing commentary on the atmosphere of suspicion, racial hatred, and distrust created by the Nazi dictator. Set in New York City, The Party at Jack's (written in 1937 and first published in 1939) critiques the indifferent rich whose sterile lives of luxury contrast sharply with the stark poverty—but enduring hopefulness—of Brooklyn's lower classes.

Critical Reception

Criticism of Wolfe's fiction has in many ways been dominated by the pronouncements of Bernard DeVoto in his 1936 essay "Genius is Not Enough." In the article, DeVoto decried Wolfe's extensive reliance on editors, his heavy use of autobiographical material, and—citing the aesthetic failings of Look Homeward, Angel—his inability to form a tightly-structured novel. While these ideas have become commonplace in regard to Wolfe's novels, many scholars have since dismissed charges of prolixity and formlessness in Wolfe's writing when focusing on his shorter fiction. Critical consensus in the latter half of the twentieth century has identified many of Wolfe's short stories and novellas as among his most brilliant and artistically controlled work. Scholars have noted, in particular, his more economical style in many of his shorter works, as well as a tendency toward experimentalism in narrative form. In addition, many commentators, led by C. Hugh Holman in his 1961 introduction to The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, have perceived in these writings a tight aesthetic unity, brought about not only by Wolfe's overarching theme of the individual's loneliness in time, but also by the extraordinary narrative craftsmanship of his fictional works written on a smaller scale.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

From Death to Morning 1935

The Hills Beyond (short stories, sketches, and unfinished novel) 1941

The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe 1961

The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe 1987

Other Major Works

The Return of Buck Gavin (drama) 1919

The Mountains (drama) 1921

Welcome to Our City (drama) 1923

Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (novel) 1929

Of Time and the River: A Legend of a Man's Hunger in His Youth (novel) 1935

The Story of a Novel (essay) 1936

The Face of a Nation (poetry) 1939

The Web and the Rock (novel) 1939

You Can't Go Home Again (novel) 1940

A Stone, a Leaf a Door (poetry) 1945

Mannerhouse (drama) 1948

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe (letters) 1956

The Autobiography of an American Novelist (essays) 1983

Beyond Love and Loyalty: The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Elizabeth Nowell (letters) 1983

My Other Loneliness: Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein (letters) 1983

Wallace Stegner (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Analysis of 'The Lost Boy'," in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, New York University Press, 1968, pp. 255-60.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1950, Stegner characterizes "The Lost Boy" as an adept and magical incantation to time and the power of the past.]

The writings of Thomas Wolfe, whatever their other virtues, are not usually notable for the strictness of their form. At any length Wolfe was large and loose; his talents were antipathetic to the concentration and control by which the short story has always been marked. But "The Lost Boy" is something of an exception. It is large enough and loose enough,...

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Lois Hartley (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theme in Thomas Wolfe's 'The Lost Boy' and 'God's Lonely Man'," in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, New York University Press, 1968, pp. 261-67.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Hartley examines the theme of loneliness in Wolfe's story "The Lost Boy."]

In Thomas Wolfe's story "The Lost Boy" three related themes are eventually absorbed into what became perhaps the major theme of Wolfe's writing and of his life. The first of these is the theme of change, of the loss of illusions through change, and it is so closely related to the second, the loss of innocence through experience, that the two can only be...

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C. Hugh Holman (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, in Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Prentice-Hall Inc., 1973, pp. 165-77.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Holman studies Wolfe's seven short novels, which he argues represent some of the author's best work, and which "helped to sustain his reputation, demonstrated his artistry and control of his materials, and perhaps instructed his sense of form."]

To present a collection of the short novels of Thomas Wolfe will seem to many of his readers a quixotic or even a perverse act, for Wolfe exists in the popular fancy and even in the opinion of...

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Edward A. Bloom (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critical Commentary on 'Only the Dead Know Brooklyn'," in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, New York University Press, 1968, pp. 269-72.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Bloom focuses on mood, tone, and theme in "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn, " contending that the story tells us that "to cease striving, to endure the atrophy of the sense of wonder and inquiry . . . is to perish. "]

Until the concluding paragraphs, the story ["Only the Dead Know Brooklyn"] has what might be taken for a clear enough literal meaning. That is, we read a rather amusing account of an experience in Brooklyn, a well-tried...

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Clayton L. Eichelberger (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wolfe's 'No Door' and the Brink of Discovery," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Fall, 1967, pp. 319-27.

[In the following essay, Eichelberger analyzes Wolfe's short novel No Door, calling it "his most effectively controlled presentation of the dominant theme of loneliness and aloneness which stands central to his life and work."]

Initial contact with the immensity of the novels of Thomas Wolfe sometimes so overwhelms the reader that he has difficulty from that moment on thinking of Wolfe as the author of anything other than his four major works. Yet to reduce the contribution of Wolfe to these major novels is to disregard some of his best and...

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Leo Gurko (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Stories," in Thomas Wolfe: Beyond the Romantic Ego, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975, pp. 159-67.

[In the following excerpt, Gurko examines Wolfe's short stories "In the Park" and "The Lost Boy, " both of which present the theme of life appreciated through the contemplation of death.]

Wolfe had a flair for short fiction as well as long: he turned out to be a very good and very skillful writer of short stories. He composed his own special brand of stories which depended less on plot than mood, less on action and incident than on perception and the feel of things. A fair number made their way into the novels. Two collections—one published while Wolfe was alive, the...

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William Domnarski (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas Wolfe's Success as Short Novelist: Structure and Theme in A Portrait of Bascom Hawke," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall, 1980, pp. 32-41.

[In the following essay, Domnarski describes A Portrait of Bascom Hawke as a "tightly structured work" and investigates its themes of the cycles of life, youth, age, and time.]

Maxwell Perkins said that Thomas Wolfe was a born writer if there ever was one.1 Few critics have disagreed with that assessment of Wolfe's natural talent. Even Bernard DeVoto, who turned his heavy artillery on Wolfe in 1936, conceded that Wolfe had genius. But genius was not enough for...

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Timothy Dow Adams (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ebb and Flow of Time and Place in 'The Lost Boy'," in Southern Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 400-08.

[In the following essay, Adams evaluates the coming and going pattern of memory, time, and location in Wolfe's story "The Lost Boy."]

Thomas Wolfe's famous phrase, "You can't go home again," was often repeated at his seventy-fifth birthday celebration in Asheville in October of 1975. Although this phrase was usually associated with Wolfe's difficulties with his home town after he published Look Homeward, Angel, it could have also applied to his other childhood home in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lived for six months in 1904 and where...

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David K. Hall (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Contrast as Device in Wolfe's 'The Child by Tiger'," in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 8-11.

[In the following essay, Hall probes Wolfe's use of the literary device of contrast to highlight his theme of "the dual nature of man " in "The Child by Tiger, " a story later incorporated into his novel The Web and the Rock.]

It has been suggested by more than a few critics that Wolfe lacked the disciplined control of literary devices needed to write a tight and effective story. The contention is made, in fact, by Wolfe fans and critics alike, that it is the power of his language more than anything else that carries the brilliance of Wolfe....

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James D. Boyer (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The City in the Short Fiction of Thomas Wolfe," in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 36-40.

[In the following essay, Boyer outlines developments in Wolfe's presentation of the city in his stories, noting his "growing compassion for and identification with city-dwellers" throughout his career.]

In the summer of 1937 Thomas Wolfe returned to Asheville. He had not been back since the great outcry against him after the publication in 1929 of Look Homeward, Angel, that nakedly autobiographical novel that had exposed and enraged many people in his home town. The Asheville reception in 1937 was a warm one. Wolfe had become famous in the...

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Elizabeth Evans (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond, and the Short Novels," in Thomas Wolfe, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 95-133.

[In the following excerpt, Evans discusses and evaluates the writing of Wolfe's collections of short fiction From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond, and The Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe.]

Although Wolfe published many short stories, he admitted that he did not know what magazines wanted and declared he would "like nothing better than to write something that was both very good and very popular: I should be enchanted if the editors of Cosmopolitan began to wave large fat checks under my nose, but I know of no...

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Suzanne Stutman (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Technique in 'The Child by Tiger': Portrait of a Mature Artist," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall, 1985, pp. 83-8.

[In the following essay, Stutman praises the artistic technique of "The Child by Tiger, " in which she observes Wolfe "fashioned a notable artistic statement about one man's quest for selfhood and mankind's inescapable and tragic inhumanity. "]

Almost fifty years ago, Bernard DeVoto stated in his famous—or perhaps infamous—essay, that "Genius is Not Enough." DeVoto, in essence, was accusing Thomas Wolfe of using only the characters, settings, and events which occurred within his own life, thus limiting his work to mere...

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James D. Boyer (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Reevaluation of Wolfe's Only the Dead Know Brooklyn'," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 45-9.

[In the following essay, Boyer argues that "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn " effectively presents a message urging readers to experience life with intensity rather than to attempt to experience all things in life.]

When Leslie Field assembled and edited Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism in 1968, he noted in his introduction that little criticism had been written on Wolfe's short fiction. Three Decades, in fact, includes analyses of only three Wolfe stories. One of these analyses is Edward Bloom's short essay on "Only...

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Carol Johnston (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas Wolfe's First Triumph: 'An Angel on the Porch'," in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1989, pp. 53-62.

[In the following essay, Johnston looks at the publication history and literary technique of "An Angel on the Porch, " calling it "a far more complexly crafted and important piece . . . than it has been credited with being."]

In Hendersonville, NC, stands not an angel, but THE ANGEL: THE ANGEL that stood on the front porch of the Wolfe marble shop on Pack Square and which now, in some kind of mad irony, adorns the grave of the very proper wife of a Methodist minister; THE ANGEL that served as the original for the titles of...

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Patricia Gantt (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Weaving Discourse in Thomas Wolfe's 'The Child by Tiger'," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 45-57.

[In the following essay, Gantt analyzes the intermingling of narrative voices, racial ideology, and literary discourse in Wolfe's story "The Child by Tiger."]

In the more than fifty years since Thomas Wolfe published "The Child by Tiger," critics have examined the story from a multiplicity of stylistic and thematic viewpoints. Aware of the autobiographical elements in Wolfe's work, some have searched for indications of the artist's life inscribed in his fiction. Many have concentrated on this prolific writer's outpouring of words; others,...

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John L. Idol, Jr. (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Narrative Discourse of Thomas Wolfe's 'I Have a Thing to Tell You'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 45-52.

[In the following essay, Idol explores Wolfe's discourse of "steadfast opposition to the suspicion, mistrust, hatred, betrayal and atrocities in German society under Hitler's crazed sway" in I Have a Thing to Tell You.]

Writing to Dixon Wecter of the imminent publication of I Have a Thing to Tell You, Thomas Wolfe said:

It cost me a good deal of time and worry to make up my mind whether I should allow publication of the story because I am well known in Germany, my books...

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Joseph Bentz (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Influence of Modernist Structure in the Short Fiction of Thomas Wolfe," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 149-61.

[In the following essay, Bentz characterizes Wolfe as an experimentalist in short fiction whose use of non-traditional plot structure and thematic epiphany align his short stories with those of his modern contemporaries.]

The most famous attack on the fiction of Thomas Wolfe is Bernard DeVoto's 1936 essay "Genius is Not Enough." In it DeVoto identifies three points of weakness in Wolfe's fiction that critics have returned to repeatedly over the years. The first criticism is Wolfe's lack of artistic control and...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Boyer, James. "The Metaphorical Level in Wolfe's 'The Sun and the Rain'." Studies in Short Fiction 19, No. 4 (Fall 1982): 384-87.

Analyzes the literary technique of Wolfe's short story "The Sun and the Rain" and explores its pervasive symbolism of the earth as a source of strength.

Doten, Sharon. "Thomas Wolfe's 'No Door': Some Textual Questions." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 68, No. 1 (January-March 1974): 45-52.

Examines textual evidence provided by manuscripts of Wolfe's short novel No Door in order to assess his method of composing short...

(The entire section is 604 words.)