Thomas Wolfe

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Wallace Stegner (essay date 1950)

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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, but it does have an unmistakable form, which arises immediately and inevitably out of the intention and is inseparable from it.

"The Lost Boy" has within it most of what Thomas Wolfe made his total message. It has the haunting evocation of the past, the preoccupation with Time, the irreparable loneliness of the individual, the constant solipsistic attempt to convert the remembered into the real. The characteristic search for the father is apparently not here, but the search for the brother which is the subject of this story is so closely related as to seem a part of Wolfe's extraordinary longing to project himself backward toward someone loved and respected and envied and lost. And the style and manner are Wolfe's typical manner; the form the story takes does not hinder his incantatory flow of words.

Wolfe was a magician, a witch doctor, drawing upon the same profundities of awe and ecstasy and fear which primitive religions and magic and superstition draw upon. His writing impulse was very often directed toward the laying of ghosts, the evoking of spirits, the making of medicine to confound restricting Time, the exorcism of evil, the ritual expiation of sin. It is entirely appropriate that the form of this story should be very close to that of a primitive or superstitious ritual. The story is as surely an act of healing as a Navajo Yehbetzai, as much a superstitious rite as the calling up of a spirit at a séance. It has the same compulsive, ritualistic, gradual accretion of excitement toward the point of the ghost's appearance. It observes rules older than literary criticism and taboos embedded in the subconscious of the race. This is a very subsurface story; it comes close to being pure necromancy. Story and ritual are one; the form is utterly compulsive, though perhaps largely unconscious.

It does not begin like an exercise in voodoo, but like one of Wolfe's hymns to Time. In the beginning Wolfe evokes the Square in all its concreteness, from the dry whisking of the tails of the fire-horses to the catalogue of implements in the hardware store window. Here is Grover, the lost boy, before he was lost; here is Grover "caught upon a point of Time." Grover is real in a real place, but the Square is more than a square, Grover is a child who is more than a child. There is a quality of trance: the returning plume of the fountain, the returning winds of April, the streetcars that go and come, the chanting of the strong repetitious rhetoric and the sonority of recurrent sounds put a magic on this Square even at its most real. Grover's birthmark is a mark of difference and perhaps of doom. And we cannot miss the heightening of everything, from Grover's gravity to old Gant's Old-Testament potency as the Father. Gant is all but God. It is not accidental that...

(This entire section contains 2143 words.)

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he works at an altarlike bench among half-formed shapes of angels and that he strikes awe into Grover. Neither is it accident that Grover prays to him and that Gant in a godlike rage seizes him by the hand and goes to enforce justice upon old twisted Crocker. The father leaves an absence in the story because after the first section he is not mentioned again. His absence is like the absence of Grover. He duplicates and parallels that tantalizing ghost.

There are magic words in this story with magic powers to evoke. "St. Louis" and "the Fair" are two of them. It will be observed that the story follows a course from the Square where Grover's real life was, through Indiana to St. Louis, to the street called King's Highway, to the house where the family lived during the summer of the Fair, and finally to the room where Grover died. There is a progression from the more general to the more particular, a constant working closer to the point of mystery. But at the same time there is progression of another kind. This story fades and sharpens, comes and goes, like the fountain plume and the streetcars, and like the memory that recreates the past and sees it fade again, but it always works closer and closer toward the mystery of Grover, the mystery of Time, the thing which is being summoned and the thing which has been lost. As it comes closer it grows in tension; its climax, surely, will be the dramatic appearance of this ghost, the dramatic revelation of mystery.

But the spell moves slowly. The lost boy must be built up bit by bit. First his mother and then his sister bear testimony about him, recreating him in quality and feature. Their testimony is like that of mourners at a funeral of one much loved: they have fixed the dead in their minds so that he cannot entirely disappear or be entirely lost. Through the mother, as the family travels down through Indiana to St. Louis and the Fair, we see Grover from one side. Through the sister, less sentimental, more touched with questionings, more moved by irrecoverable loss, we see him from another, and we follow him through the St. Louis summer to his death.

For the sister the Past is dead, the things they were and dreamed as children are dead, there is a kind of horror in thinking of how sad and lonely is the gap between Then and Now, and a sharper compulsion to cling to it and linger over it and understand it. Through the sister's part of the story we have come closer to the place of magic, and we have come much closer to Grover, for at the heart of her recollection is the photograph. There is his veritable face; there are the faces of all of them as they were—caught and petrified unchanged, but strange, almost unbelievable. Wolfe makes the same use of the photograph that a medicine man might make of nail parings or hair cuttings or gathered-up footprints in the mud: the possession of this picture gives us a power, by associative magic, over Grover's spirit.

And in both these witnesses note the hypnotic mumbling of the spell—the words and images that will roll Time back and restore the lost, or seem to for a moment:

. . . you remember how it was, and see again those two funny, frightened, skinny little kids with their noses pressed against the dirty window of that lunchroom thirty years ago. You remember the way it felt, the way it smelled, even the strange smell in the old pantry in that house we lived in then. And the steps before the house, the way the rooms looked. And those two little boys in sailor suits who used to ride up and down before the house on tricycles . . . And the birthmark on Grover's neck . . . The Inside Inn . . . St. Louis, and the Fair.

Over and over the images are recalled, the words of magic repeated. In section four the story begins to tighten toward its climactic moment. It has here the same trancelike repetitions, the same bewitched enslavement to memory, and it insists more upon the supernatural. In Eugene's childhood King's Highway had been "a kind of road that wound from magic out of some dim and haunted land," but he finds it now a common street, and his compulsive return toward the core of the mystery is delayed and made irritable by the contrasts between what he remembers and what really is. Finding the street, the house, the steps, he pauses and looks back "as if the street were Time," and waits "for a word, for a door to open, for the child to come."

But neither the dead nor the child that he himself once was can be recalled so easily. He knows he is close to them. He feels how it is all the same "except for absence, the stained light of absence in the afternoon, and the child who had once sat there, waiting on the stairs." It is as tantalizing as a séance where the ghost is coy. Eugene is near to making contact, but the thing fades and weakens, and he strengthens and deepens the incantation, running over and over the images that come from the past, trying by their repetition to enforce them upon the present. He is at a threshold, and he gives us the contrasted images of the hot backyard and the cool cellar which is the Past, the lost place in Time that he wants now to return to. Now, as then, the thought of the dark cellar fills him "with a kind of numb excitement, a kind of visceral expectancy."

It sharpens and fades for him. He feels that if he could only sit on the stairs as he had long ago "he would be able to get it back again. Then he would be able to remember all that he had seen and been, the brief sum of himself."

He moves closer, inside the house, up to the very door of the room where Grover has died. Now comes Mrs. Bell's occult knowledge that Grover died in that room. Without being told, she knows. The presence is between them, somehow. They feel him.

And suddenly he is evoked and present and palpable. The witch doctor has made the Past real by naming its every particle, chanting and cataloging the memories it is made of. Now he brings up the ghost by the same "name" magic. "Say Grover!" the ghost is saying. "No—not Gova—Grover! Say it!"

Among many primitive tribes the name is a secret revealed to none, for fear strength and life will be exposed with it. Among organizations as various as street gangs and Catholic sisterhoods the spiritual or special self has its special name. Among the ancient Irish it was a capital crime to put a man by name into a poem, for both poem and name were potent with magic and power could be got over anyone so be-spelled. It is the name that reveals Grover briefly and brings him up from the dark cellar of Time. It is as if, if only the child Eugene could say the name right, Grover might now literally appear. But this attempt to cross between Forever and Now is never more than half successful. The closest we get to Grover's quiet ghost is his little brother's lisping "Gova."

But this is enough. Wolfe's magic, like Eugene's, invokes the ghost briefly and holds him a moment before he fades. The ghost that troubled Eugene, the rival that he loved and half envied, is laid and quieted. The man sick with Time is healed, the voodoo spell is finished, the spirit has spoken its cryptic word and departed. "And out of the enchanted wood, that thicket of man's memory . . . the dark eye and the quiet face of his friend and brother—poor child, life's stranger and life's exile, lost like all of us, a cipher in blind mazes, long ago—the lost boy was gone forever and would not return."

When the ghost has been summoned and held briefly and allowed to fade, the story is over. Ritual and story are one, with one shape. What suspense the story has is the suspense of the growing, circling, nearing incantation. Its climax is the moment of confrontation. Its peculiar emotional power comes from the chanting, the repetition, the ceremonial performances, the magical tampering with Time, the sure touching of symbols that lie deep among the sources of all superstition and all religion, above all by the anguished invocation of the dead. No one who has lived at all with his dead can be left entirely unmoved by this.

Not a line of this story, not a trick in it, could have been learned from any generalization about the shaping of fiction. The shape this story takes it takes by a process of transplantation, associated images and ideas being moved from one category of thought to another. A formal ritual becomes a formal fiction by what William James calls "similar association." Material and form are so nearly one that they can never be effectively separated.


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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.

Lois Hartley (essay date 1961)

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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 examined together. The third is the theme of loneliness, and it is with the implications of this theme that I wish ultimately to deal.

One is aware of time, of change, from the first paragraphs of the story when the boy Grover is conscious of the light that "came and went and came again" in the square of Altamont, of the strokes of the town clock booming across the town, of the streetcars on their quarter-hourly schedule. Yet to Grover this is a sort of change without significance, and he is unaware of any more significant kind of change, for he is not yet "the lost boy": "It seemed to him that the Square, itself the accidental masonry of many years, the chance agglomeration of time and of disrupted strivings, was the center of the universe. It was for him, in his soul's picture, the earth's pivot, the granite core of changelessness, the eternal place where all things came and passed, and yet abode forever and would never change."

In the central episode of part one of "The Lost Boy," Grover goes into the candy store of the Crockers to buy candy with stamps given him for running errands. He buys fifteen-cents' worth of candy, but accidentally pays with eighteen-cents' worth of stamps. Crocker refuses to return the three cents in stamps. He and his wife imply that Grover stole the stamps, and put Grover out of the shop. Now "something had gone out of day. He felt the overwhelming, soul-sickening guilt that all the children, all the good men of the earth, have felt since Time began. And even anger had died down, had been drowned out, in this swelling tide of guilt, and This is the Square'—thought Grover as before—'This is Now. There is my father's shop. And all of it is as it has always been—save I."' Through time and experience Grover has changed. He is now the lost boy. He has learned something about separateness, about isolation, about inhumanity; and perhaps Grover's feeling of guilt is a symptom of this failure in fellowship.

The lost boy moves across the square to his father's stonecutter's shop; it may be significant that he passes the "angel with strong marble hands of love." Grover intends to maintain deliberately a sort of separation from his father, for he fears that his father will hear of the Crockers' accusation. Then suddenly he finds himself blurting, "Papa, I never stole the stamps." Gant's nearly immediate action is to take Grover to Crocker's shop and to demand repayment. Then Grover is alone again in the square: "And light came and went and came again—but now not quite the same as it had done before. The boy saw the pattern of familiar shapes and knew that they were just the same as they had always been. But something had gone out of day, and something had come in again. Out of the vision of those quiet eyes some brightness had gone, and into their vision had come some deeper color. He could not say, he did not know through what transforming shadows life had passed within that quarter hour. He only knew that something had been lost—something forever gained." Grover has lost something of innocence; he has gained in experience and knowledge.

If this first episode of the story says something tentatively about time and change, it says something more about isolation, about loneliness. In the autobiographical essay "God's Lonely Man," which appeared with "The Lost Boy" in the volume The Hills Beyond (1941) but which was begun perhaps seven years previously, Wolfe said:

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people—not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul, as evidenced by the innumerable strident words of abuse, hatred, contempt, mistrust, and scorn that forever grate upon our ears as the manswarm passes us in the streets—we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.

Grover, the "dark-eyed and grave," the "too quiet and too listening" boy, is like Wolfe himself in that "there are times when anything, everything, all or nothing, the most trivial incidents, the most casual words" can strip him of defenses, can plunge him into despair, can take from him hope and joy and truth. They can show him his separateness and yet send him searchingly to his father, who also has lonely eyes and who is immediately responsive to his son, but whose indignation surely has an element of failure in it as he lashes at Crocker: "You never knew the feelings of a father, or understood the feelings of a child; and that is why you acted as you did. But a judgment is upon you. God has cursed you. He has afflicted you. He has made you lame and childless as you are—and lame and childless, miserable as you are, you will go to your grave and be forgotten!" There is a loneliness too in the light that came and went, in the strokes of the town clock, even in the "His Master's Voice" dog, in the music-store window, listening to the silent horn, listening for the unspeaking voice.

In parts two and three of "The Lost Boy," the mother, Eliza Gant, and the sister remember Grover, but they reveal also their nostalgia regarding time and change and disillusionment. The tone for these sections is partially set by the poetic refrain playing variations on the final line of part one: "Just then a buggy curved out through the Square, and fastened to the rear end was a poster, and it said 'St. Louis' and 'Excursion' and 'The Fair.'"

Years after the family went to the St. Louis Fair, the Exposition of 1904, the mother remembers "all of you the way you looked that morning, when we went down down through Indiana, going to the Fair." Her children have all grown up and gone away, and she says she is proud of them all, but she adores in memory grave and earnest, curious and intelligent Grover. He is for her, paradoxically, the symbol of all that has changed, of all who have either died or gone away, and yet of the changeless, because he is fixed forever in memory as he was "that morning when we went down through Indiana, by the river, to the Fair." The mother has known change and loss, and even in the words of her refrain there is a loneliness.

In part three Wolfe emphasizes the sister's disillusionment and her bewilderment in the face of time and change. She too remembers Grover and the summer of the Fair, the summer when Grover died of typhoid; she remembers also her lost ambitions—to be a famous pianist, to be an opera star:

All my hopes and dreams and big ambitions have come to nothing, and it's all so long ago, as if it happened in another world. . . . Sometimes I lie awake at night and think of all the people who have come and gone, and how everything is different from the way we thought that it would be. Then I go out on the street next day and see the faces of the people that I pass. . . . Don't you see something funny in people's eyes, as if all of them were puzzled about something? As if they were wondering what had happened to them since they were kids? Wondering what it is that they have lost?

She feels the separateness and yet the likeness of people, who all lose something, who all reach points other than those of their dreams. And again there is a loss of innocence, a nostalgia regarding time and change, and a loneliness comprehending them both.

The fourth and final section of the story describes the brother Eugene's return to St. Louis, many years later, in search of the magic of the past and particularly in search of the "lost boy." Here change through time and loss of innocence are strongly dramatized. Eugene finds the house of that summer of the Fair very much the same, but the feeling is different and he himself is different, and different too is the magic street, the King's Highway, which "had not been a street in those days but a kind of road that wound from magic out of some dim and haunted land, and that along the way . . . got mixed in with Tom the Piper's son, with hot cross buns, with all the light that came and went, and with coming down through Indiana in the morning, and the smell of engine smoke, the Union Station, and most of all with voices lost and far and long ago that said 'King's Highway."' In the change in the King's Highway, which is now just a street, in the absence of Grover, in the absence of the child he himself used to be, in the fact that "as a child he had sat there feeling things were Somewhere—and now he knew," Eugene is aware of time and change and the effect of experience.

And above all there is the mood of loneliness, of remembered loneliness and present loneliness. He remembers how, as a boy, he felt "a kind of absence in the afternoon" after the streetcar had passed, "a sense of absence and vague sadness" in the afternoons when he sat alone in the house, on the hall steps, and listened to the silence; he remembers how he waited in loneliness for the return of Grover and the family from the Fair. But his present loneliness is more inclusive and more sophisticated. He knows the summer desolation of the great American cities; he knows the desolation, the separateness

that one feels at the end of a hot day in a great city in America—when one's home is far away, across the continent, and he thinks of all that distance, all that heat, and feels, 'Oh God! but it's a big country!" And he feels nothing but absence, absence, and the desolation of America, the loneliness and sadness of the high, hot skies, and evening coming on across the Middle West, across the sweltering and heat-sunken land, across all the lonely little towns, the farms, the fields.

He feels that he should not have come and must not come again, that lost magic is forever lost, that his brother was "life's stranger, and life's exile, lost like all of us, a cipher in blind mazes." And he himself seems "drowned in desolation and in no belief."

If the prevailing mood of "The Lost Boy" is loneliness, then the story should be examined in the light of "God's Lonely Man," Wolfe's tragic and definitive statement on his own loneliness. First, we should be aware that he sees loneliness as "the central and inevitable fact of human existence" and that he knows that it is sometimes evidenced in such ways as the mistrust and meanness of Crocker and the shrill words of scorn of Gant. He knows that men are both cursed and blessed by separateness, for he has learned that upon the doubt and despair of loneliness may be built the triumph and joy of creativity.

In "God's Lonely Man" Wolfe has much to say about the Old Testament as the chronicle of loneliness and the New Testament as an answer to loneliness through love, but although he says that "the way and meaning of Christ's life is a far, far better way and meaning than my own," he repudiates it as his own way: "For I have found the constant everlasting weather of man's life to be, not love, but loneliness. Love itself is not the weather of our lives. It is the rare, the precious flower. Sometimes it is the flower that gives us life. . . . But sometimes love is the flower that brings us death." In "The Lost Boy" love is present—the love of Eugene, particularly, for life; the love of all the family for Grover, although this feeling sometimes appears to be better described as pride than love. But love is not presented as a solution and is not pervasive. It must not be emphasized as a theme in the story nor inferred as a solution to the loneliness, the separateness. No solution is given.

In "The Lost Boy" Eugene seems "drowned in desolation and in no belief," and in "God's Lonely Man" Wolfe, himself a lonely man, "is united to no image save that which he creates himself, . . . is bolstered by no other knowledge save that which he can gather for himself with the vision of his own eyes and brain. He is sustained and cheered and aided by no party, he is given comfort by no creed, he has no faith in him except his own." It is in this sense that "God's Lonely Man" is a tragic statement, for although such independence may be heroic and Promethean, such denial of dependence implies a tragedy of misunderstanding. And even when Wolfe asserts that "suddenly, one day, for no apparent reason, his faith and his belief in life will come back to [the lonely man] in a tidal flood," we wish that it would come back for an apparent reason, that it might be the result of the re-ascendancy of reason and judgment, or of the healthful wedding of judgment and feeling.

Yet his faith in life does come back, and he is compelled to speak whatever truth he knows, in his renewed confidence; and among the truths which Wolfe speaks, out of his loneliness, is that "the lonely man, who is also the tragic man, is invariably the man who loves life dearly—which is to say, the joyful man." Like Eugene in "The Lost Boy," he knows loneliness, death, time, change: "Out of this pain of loss, this bitter ecstasy of brief having, this fatal glory of the single moment, the tragic writer will therefore make a song for joy. . . . And his song is full of grief, because he knows that joy is fleeting, gone the instant that we have it, and that is why it is so precious, gaining its full glory from the very things that limit and destroy it." These lines from "God's Lonely Man" may be taken as a description of "The Lost Boy," for surely this story describes the pain of loss, the bitter ecstasy of brief having, and it is a song for joy at the same time that it is a cry of grief.

Wolfe's treatment of the theme of loneliness is detailed and thoughtful. And since this theme appears to be highly characteristic of modern American literature and thought, Wolfe's statement is meaningful for us all.

Principal Works

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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

C. Hugh Holman (essay date 1961)

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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 many of his most devoted admirers as the fury-driven author of a vast but incomplete saga of one man's pilgrimage on earth, a saga so formless that the term novel can be applied to its parts only with extreme caution and so monumental that it exploded the covers of four vast books in which its portions were imprisoned. Of the book upon which he embarked after Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe wrote: "What I had to deal with was material which covered almost 150 years in history, demanded the action of more than 2000 characters, and would in its final design include almost every racial type and social class of American life." In a letter in 1932 he said, "The book on which I have been working for the last two or three years is not a volume but a library."

Much of the criticism of Wolfe's work has centered on its seemingly uncontrolled and formless exuberance, and it has become almost a critical truism that he possessed great talent but little control, a magnificent sense of language but a limited awareness of the demands of plot, a sensuous recall that was nearly total but an almost shocking unwillingness to subject his material to critical elision.

Yet, paradoxically, Thomas Wolfe produced some of his best work in the middle length of the short novel, the length between 15,000 and 40,000 words. Indeed, during the grueling years between the publication of his first novel in 1929 and Of Time and the River in 1935, his reputation was sustained and enriched by his short novels as much as it was by Sinclair Lewis's brief but telling praise for him as a "Gargantuan creature with great gusto for life" in his Nobel Prize address in 1930.

Wolfe's whole career was an endless search for a language and a form in which to communicate his vision of reality. "I believe with all my heart," he declared in The Story of a Novel, ". . . that each man for himself and in his own way . . . must find that way, that language, and that door—must find it for himself." This passion to find a mode of expression was coupled in Wolfe with a thoroughly organic view of art, one in which the thing to be said dictates the form in which it is uttered. He once wrote Hamilton Basso: "There is no accepted way: there are as many art forms as there are forms of art, and the artist will continue to create new ones and to enrich life with new creations as long as there is either life or art. So many of these forms that so many academic people consider as masterly and final definitions derived from the primeval source of all things beautiful or handed Apollo-wise from Mount Olympus, are really worn out already, will work no more, are already dead and stale as hell."

Look Homeward, Angel had almost automatically assumed a simple but effective narrative form. The record of childhood and youth, cast at least semi-consciously in the bildungsroman pattern of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, had found its theme and taken its shape from the sequential flow of lyric feeling which it expressed. After its publication, Wolfe began a desperate search for another form into which to pour his materials. His letters between 1930 and 1934 are crowded with ambitious plans, nebulous projections of structure, plot, and myth, all pointed toward forming his next book. Increasingly its matter grew and the problems of the control of that matter enlarged.

By the fall of 1931 Wolfe found himself immersed in a struggle for form whose magnitude and difficulty, as well as spiritual and emotional anguish, he recorded touchingly in The Story of a Novel. In November, badly in need of money and in black despair over "the book," he turned to a body of materials in which he had earlier worked and began shaping them into a short novel. These materials dealt with his experiences in Cambridge and with his uncle, Henry Westall. In its finished form the short novel, A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, pictured an old man resigned to the death of dreams as he is seen through the eyes of a youth still half blinded by the visions of glory which the old man has given up. The two points of view, the youth's and the old man's, together gave a sense of the flow and corrosion of time. The result was a portrait in depth, done with irony, poignance, and tolerant laughter, of an eccentric who might have stepped from the pages of Dickens.

Fortunately, Wolfe had connections at this time with a publishing house which had a magazine, Scribner's, that was interested in the short novel as a literary form. Ludwig Lewisohn was generally correct when he asserted in 1932 that the short novel "is a form with which, in the English-speaking world, neither editors nor publishers seem ever to know what to do, trying to palm it off now as a short story and now as a novel." But in 1931 and 1932 Scribner's Magazine was publishing a novella in each issue, as a result of its second $5,000 Prize Short Novel contest, the announced aim of which was "to open up a field of fiction—the long-story field—which had been almost wholly neglected." In these contests, the best entries were published as they were received, and the prize was awarded to the best novel from both the published and unpublished entries. The characteristics of the short novels Scribner's was seeking were declared to be "adequate space for the development of character and setting, combined with precision and solidity of structure." The magazine had begun publishing short novels with James Gould Cozzen's S. S. San Pedro in August, 1930, the first of twelve long stories published as part of the first Prize Contest. Among the others were long tales by W. R. Burnett, André Maurois, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The contest was won by John Peale Bishop's Many Thousands Gone.

When Wolfe submitted A Portrait of Bascom Hawke to Maxwell Perkins in January, 1932, the second Prize Contest was nearing its February 1 closing date. Among the nine short novels published as a part of the second contest, in addition to A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, were long tales by Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, and Katherine Anne Porter. The judges—Burton Rascoe, William Soskin, and Edmund Wilson—declared the contest to be a tie between John Herrmann's The Big Short Trip and Wolfe's short novel, which was published in the April, 1932, issue of the magazine. Wolfe and Herrmann divided the $5,000 Prize between them.

A Portrait of Bascom Hawke gained considerable critical praise, such as that which Laurence Stallings gave it in The New York Sun, where he wrote: "Has anyone failed to admire a story in the Scribner's Magazine (for April) by Thomas Wolfe? There's an eddy of energy for you; and a lyrical paean to life. . . . It seems to me that Thomas Wolfe has shown in this story that his October Fair, announced for next fall, will be even finer than . . . Look Homeward, Angel . . . He seems to have all the gifts, all the talents . . . A Portrait of Bascom Hawke is the book of the month."

Apparently Wolfe had been ignorant of the existence of the Short Novel Contest until he submitted A Portrait to Perkins in January. Learning of the contest he resolved to write another novel to enter in it, despite the fact that less than a month remained before the contest ended. It was actually Perkins who entered A Portrait of Bascom Hawke in the contest which it won.

As his intended entry Wolfe set to work on a short novel fashioned on his mother's endless stories of the past. During the month of January she visited him in Brooklyn, and the immediate source of The Web of Earth was almost certainly her conversations. The Short Novel Contest had been over more than a month before the story was finished, but Scribner's promptly purchased it and published it in the July, 1932, issue.

This novella, the longest of Wolfe's short novels, comes to the reader entirely through the voice of its narrator, Delia Hawke (later changed to Eliza Gant when the novel was reprinted in From Death to Morning). Wolfe insisted, "It is different from anything I have ever done," and added, "that story about the old woman has got everything in it, murder and cruelty, and hate and love, and greed and enormous unconscious courage, yet the whole thing is told with the stark innocence of a child." The seemingly disparate elements of the story—disjointed in temporal and logical sequence—are effectively knit together by the powerful personality of the narrator and by her obsessive search in the events of her life for the meaning of the spectral voices that spoke "Two . . . Two" and "Twenty . . . Twenty" in "the year that the locusts came."

In writing The Web of Earth Wolfe followed James Joyce again, as he had done in Look Homeward, Angel He compared his "old woman" with Molly Bloom and seemingly felt that his short novel had a structure like that of the interior monologue at the conclusion of Ulysses. In her resilience, her undefeatable energy, and her vitality Eliza (or Delia) approaches "the earth goddess" and is, as Louis D. Rubin, Jr. has pointed out, reminiscent of the end of the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" sequence of Finnegans Wake, a sequence which was published in the little magazine transition about the same time. In this short novel one understands what Wolfe meant when he referred to Eliza Gant's people as "time-devouring." Thus, The Web of Earth becomes a fascinating counterpiece to A Portrait of Bascom Hawke; for each is a character sketch of an elderly person, but where Bascom Hawke is defeated and despairingly resigned, Eliza Gant is triumphant and dominant; where Bascom is the male victim of time, Eliza is the female devourer of time; where Bascom's is the vain grasp of intellect and reason in a mad and fury-driven world, Eliza's is the groping of mystery, passion, and fear in a world where reason always falls victim to the decay of time. Never did Wolfe articulate more effectively than in these two short novels the fundamental polarities of his childhood and youth.

With these two short novels successfully behind him, Wolfe next turned to organizing into short novel form blocks of the material which he had written for the still formless "big book." In the period between March, 1933, and March, 1934, he put together four long stories or short novels from these materials, finding in the limits of the novella a means of focusing matter whose organization in larger blocks still defied him.

Scribner's Magazine bought three of these long tales and published them in successive issues in the summer of 1934. "The Train and the City," a long short-story of 12,000 words, appeared in the May issue. Percy MacKaye praised this story highly, still, it lacks the unity which Wolfe had achieved in his first two short novels. Death the Proud Brother appeared in the June issue, and was later republished as a short novel in From Death to Morning. This story of 22,000 words was a skillfull attempt to unify a group of seemingly disparate incidents in the city through their common themes of loneliness and death, "the proud brother of loneliness." Wolfe regarded this story very highly, saying, "It represents important work to me," and his novelist friend Robert Raynolds praised it highly. Although it is a successful effort to impose thematic unity upon disconnected instances of death in the city, it is less effective than Wolfe's other novellas.

The third long story was No Door, in its original form a short novel of 31,000 words, although it was published by Scribner's as two long stories, No Door in July, 1933, and "The House of the Far and the Lost" in August, 1934. In arranging the materials of this novel, Wolfe selected a group of intensely autobiographical incidents all centering on his sense of incommunicable loneliness and insularity, dislocated them in time, and bound them together by a group of recurring symbols arranged in leitmotif patterns, extending and enriching a method he had used in Death the Proud Brother. Through the recurring images and the repeated phrases of a prose poem used as a prologue, he knit together one portion of his life. In its concluding episode are united the themes of youth's exuberance and age's sad wisdom, which had been central to A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, and the enduring earth, which had been central to The Web of Earth.

It was in the early months of 1933 that No Door was completed, and by March it had been accepted by Scribner's. Its completion coincided with Wolfe's discovery of a plan which made work on the "big book" feasible for him again. He wrote to George Wallace: ". . . just after you left in January . . . I plunged into work and . . . I seemed suddenly to get what I had been trying to get for two years, the way to begin the book, and make it flow, and now it is all coming with a rush." Since the structure of No Door is essentially that of Of Time and the River, since the prologue to No Door reappears with only minor changes as the prologue to the long novel, and since the writing of No Door coincides with the finding of a "way to begin the book," it is probable that the short novel was the door through which Wolfe entered Of Time and the River. John Hall Wheelock praised No Door highly, and Maxwell Perkins agreed to bring out a limited edition of the short novel in its original form. However, its absorption into Of Time and the River was almost complete, and it seemingly has survived as a unit only in the form of its brief first incident, published as a short story in From Death to Morning, where it achieved notoriety as the basis for a libel suit brought against Wolfe and Scribner's by Marjorie Dorman and her family in 1936.

Yet No Door represents as sure a mastery as Wolfe ever demonstrated of the subjective, autobiographical materials for which he is best known. Of the section published as "The House of the Far and the Lost," Robert Penn Warren wrote in a review almost brutally unsympathetic to Of Time and the River: "Only in the section dealing with the Coulson episode does Mr. Wolfe seem to have all his resources for character presentation under control. The men who room in the house . . . with the Coulsons themselves are very precise to the imagination, and are sketched in with an economy usually foreign to Mr. Wolfe. . . . Here Mr. Wolfe has managed to convey an atmosphere and to convince the reader of the reality of his characters without any of his habitual exaggerations of method and style. This section . . . possesses what is rare enough in Of Time and the River, a constant focus." The Coulson episode is clearly the most striking one in No Door. It is also an integral part of that work, and the entire short novel possesses the strong virtues that Mr. Warren here assigns to the only portion of it which survived as a unified part of the long novel.

One other short novel resulted from Wolfe's arranging of materials from the "big book" during this period. It was Boom Town, a story of approximately 20,000 words, portraying the real estate craze in Asheville in the satiric manner of Sinclair Lewis. This short novel was published in the American Mercury in May, 1934, but it had been written before No Door.

The discovery of an organizing principle for the "big book" brought a temporary end to Wolfe's work in the short novel form; for the next two years he devoted himself single-mindedly to Of Time and the River. Thus during his first period—the one of which he said, "I began to write with an intense and passionate concern with the designs and purposes of my own youth"—Thomas Wolfe produced, in addition to his two long novels, five short ones: A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, The Web of Earth, Death the Proud Brother, Boom Town, and No Door. These short novels helped to sustain his reputation, demonstrated his artistry and control of his materials, and perhaps instructed his sense of form.

When he entered the second period of his career—that of which he said, "[My] preoccupation [with my own youth] has now changed to an intense and passionate concern with the designs and purposes of life"—he found himself once more facing the problem of finding a new and adequate form in which to express his vision of experience. This search for an organic structure was complicated by his growing difficulties with his publishers and his increasing unwillingness to follow the advice of his editor, Maxwell E. Perkins. In this situation, in some respects like that of 1931, Wolfe turned his attention again to elements of his experience that lent themselves to expression in the short novel form.

In the summer of 1936 he made his last visit to Germany, a nation that he loved and that had heaped adulation upon him. On this trip he was forced to face the frightening substratum of Nazism, what he called "a picture of the Dark Ages come again—shocking beyond belief, but true as the hell that man forever creates for himself." And he said, "I recognized at last, in all its frightful aspects, the spiritual disease which was poisoning unto death a noble and mighty people." That fall he used the short novel form to dramatize this perception of the truth about Hitler's Germany, and he elected to give his account, which he entitled IHave a Thing to Tell You, the sharp intensity and the almost stark directness of the action story. At this time Wolfe had great admiration for the directness and simplicity of Ernest Hemingway's style, and in this short novel of Germany he came closest to adopting some of its characteristics. Nothing Wolfe ever wrote has greater narrative drive or more straightforward action than this novella. The simplicity and objectivity of I Have a Thing to Tell You were seldom sustained for any length of time in Wolfe's work before 1936.

This short novel also displays clearly the growing concern with the issues of the outer world which had begun to shape Wolfe's thinking. Its publication in the New Republic as a serial in March, 1937, despite his disclaimers of propaganda intent, indicates a marked advance in the expression of political and social concerns for Wolfe.

During much of 1937, Wolfe's energies were expended in his long and tortuous break with his publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons, certainly one of the two major emotional cataclysms of his life (the other was his earlier break with his mistress, Aline Bernstein). He was also deeply discouraged about his projected book, feeling that his long-planned and talked-of October Fair, often announced, was somehow being dissipated in fragments. In this despairing state, he was led by his growing sense of social injustice to attempt another experiment with a short novel as a vehicle of social criticism. He worked on this new novella, The Party at Jack's, during the early months of the year and spent the summer in revising and rewriting it.

Wolfe felt that he was attempting in The Party at Jack's "one of the most curious and difficult problems that I have been faced with in a long time," the presentation of a cross-section of society through a representation of many people, ranging from policemen, servants, and entertainers to the leaders in the literary world and the rich in the events of a single evening during which they were brought together through a party and a fire in the apartment house in which the party occurred. He used several devices, including the recurring quivering of the apartment house as the trains run in tunnels through its seemingly solid rock foundations and the conversations of the doormen and elevator operators, to underscore the contrast among the characters and to comment on society. Wolfe feared that readers would think this short novel to be Marxist, a charge against which he defended it, saying: ". . . there is not a word of propaganda in it. It is certainly not at all Marxian, but it is representative of the way my life has come—after deep feeling, deep thinking, and deep living and all this experience—to take its way. . . . It is in concept, at any rate, the most densely woven piece of writing that I have ever attempted."

The Party at Jack's is, as Wolfe asserted, free of autobiography, except in the most incidental ways. It is also in Wolfe's late, more economical style. Its taut prose and its rapid movement, together with its effective but implicit statement of social doctrine, make it one of Wolfe's most impressive accomplishments.

Almost immediately after completing The Party at Jack's, Wolfe plunged into the organizing of his materials into another "big book" for his new publishers, Harper and Brothers, a task which he was prevented from completing by his death in September, 1938. He had written—in addition to a mass of manuscript out of which three later books were assembled—two novels, a number of short stories, and seven short novels.

Upon these seven short novels Wolfe had expended great effort, and in them he had given the clearest demonstrations he ever made of his craftsmanship and his artistic control. Each of these seven novellas is marked in its unique way by a sharp focus and a controlling unity, and each represents a serious experiment with form. Yet they have virtually been lost from the corpus of Wolfe's work, lost even to most of those who know that work well.

There were two reasons for these losses. In the first place Wolfe's publishers, and particularly his editor, Maxwell E. Perkins, were anxious that the long, introspective Look Homeward, Angel be followed by an equally impressive work. Perkins urged Wolfe to continue the Eugene Gant story and discouraged his coming before the public in a different form or manner. Wolfe at one time wanted Look Homeward, Angel to be followed by No Door, a work of less than 40,000 words, and that small book might have been followed by a volume which Wolfe described to his mother that would contain A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, The Web of Earth, and "another story which [he had] written," probably "The Train and the City." At this time, however, Wolfe was happy to rely on his editor's judgment, and did not trust his own.

A second reason for the loss of these short novels is the nature of Wolfe's work and his attitude toward it. All the separate parts of his writing formed for him portions of a great and eternally fragmentary whole. It was all the outgrowth of the same basic desire, the Whitmanesque attempt to put a person on record and through that person to represent America in its paradox of unity and variety, at the same time employing as his essential theme the eternal and intolerable loneliness of the individual lost in the complex currents of time. As a result, Wolfe was forever reshuffling the parts of his work and assembling them in different patterns, in a way not unlike the shifting elements of the Snopes material in Faulkner's continuing legend of Yoknapatawpha County. Thus Wolfe took the materials he had presented first as short novels and interwove them into the larger frames and subject matters of his "big books," fragmenting, expanding, and modifying them, and often destroying their separate integrity. Only two of his short novels escaped this process; and these two—Death the Proud Brother and The Web of Earth— were published in a collection of his shorter works, From Death to Morning, which has never received the critical attention that it deserves.

In his short novels Wolfe was dealing with limited aspects of experience, aspects that could be adequately developed in the limits of 15,000 to 40,000 words and that could be organized into what he proudly called The Party at Jack's, "a single thing."When later he fragmented these short novels and distributed the fragments within the larger design of the "big books," he robbed them of their own unity in order to make them a portion of a larger and more complex unity—"a single thing" of complex and multifarious parts. Indeed, Wolfe's treatment of his short novels when he incorporated them later into his long books (and there is no reason to doubt that he would have approved the use made by his editor of the longer versions of I Have a Thing to Tell You and The Party at Jack's in You Can't Go Home Again) is a key to one of Wolfe's central problems, the finding of a large form sufficient to unify his massive imaginative picture of experience. This large form that he sought would give, apparently, not the representation of a series of sharply realized dramatic moments in the life of his protagonist (and through him of America) but an actual and significant interweaving of these moments into a complex fabric of event, time, and feeling. That he struggled unceasingly for the mastery of this vast structure is obvious from his letters, from The Story of a Novel, and from the long books themselves. Whether he was moving toward its realization is a matter of critical debate today, as it was at the time of his death. However much one may feel that he was (and I share that belief), the fact remains that none of the published novels after Look Homeward, Angel succeeded in finding a clearly demonstrable unity, in being "a single thing."

The intrinsic qualities of the short novel were remarkably well adapted to Wolfe's special talents and creative methods. Although he was skilled at the revelatory vignette, in which he imprisoned a character in an instance in time, those characters and actions which were central to his effort and experience he saw in relation to the expanding pattern of life. Experience and life itself were for him, as Herbert Muller has noted, remarkably "in process." One of the distinctive aspects of Wolfe's imagination is its tendency to see life as a thing of "becoming." He saw time—"dark time," he called it—as being at the center of the mystery of experience, and its representation on three complex levels was a major concern of his work. The individual scene or person had little value to him; it had to be put back in time to assume meaning. Wolfe was very explicit about this element of his work. In The Story of a Novel he says: "All of this time I was being baffled by a certain time element in the book, by a time relation which could not be escaped, and for which I was now desperately seeking some structural channel. There were three time elements inherent in the material. The first and most obvious was an element of actual present time, an element which carried the narrative forward, which represented characters and events as living in the present and moving forward into an immediate future. The second time element was of past time, one which represented these same characters as acting and as being acted upon by all the accumulated impact of man's experience so that each moment of their lives was conditioned not only by what they experienced in that moment, but by all that they had experienced up to that moment. In addition to these two time elements, there was a third which I conceived as being time immutable, the time of rivers, mountains, oceans, and the earth; a kind of eternal and unchanging universe of time against which would be projected the transcience of man's life, the bitter briefness of his day. It was the tremendous problem of these three time elements that almost defeated me and that cost me countless hours of anguish in the years that were to follow."

Ultimately in the portrayal of an incident or an individual against this complex pattern of time, that incident or individual must be seen through a perceiving and remembering self, such as David Hawke, the youth who can read the corrosion of time in the contrast between his exuberance and his uncle's resignation, in A Portrait of Bascom Hawke. Eliza Gant's fabric of memories in The Web of Earth is a record of the impact of time on her. The individual incidents of No Door assume their importance as portions of a personal history as they are reflected in the narrator's memory. To be fully understood, such events and people must be set against the innumerable other events and people which the perceiving self has known; it is this larger context in time which Wolfe attempts to give these short novels when he incorporates them in his longer works. We can think of an event as being an objective experience which is perceived and recalled later by the self that first knew it directly; then it, as fact and as memory, becomes a part of the totality of experience that makes the web of meaning for that self. Wolfe's short novels represent that portion of the process in which the incident is remembered, isolated, organized, and understood as incident by the self. Their later fragmentation and inclusion in the long novels represent his attempt to absorb them into his total experience and to use them in all the complexity of life as elements in his search for ultimate meaning. Hence he breaks up the sequence of actions, introduces new incidents, and frequently expands the wordage of the short novels when they are incorporated into the larger structures. These incidents thereby lose some of their artistic and inherent right to achieve unity by exclusion, and they tend to become diffuse.

Since Wolfe's success in achieving the larger unity for which he strove in the last three long novels is considerably less than total, the materials which he had organized into short novels have an integrity and a consummate craftsmanship which they seem to lack in the long books. It is for this reason that we are justified in reprinting here the five best short novels of Thomas Wolfe in the form in which he prepared them for magazine publication. In the short novel form Wolfe was a master of his craft, and these successful products of his efforts should not be forgotten.

Edward A. Bloom (essay date 1964)

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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 subject. But the literal, we discover, does not carry us very far. What does simple paraphrase reveal? A stranger in Brooklyn looking for a location asks some natives for directions. None can agree on the location or a way of getting there, and they quarrel among themselves. Ironically, although they have lived in Brooklyn all their lives and pride themselves on their familiarity with the city, they do not have this particular information.

It is then that the truculent first-person narrator takes over, tries to guide the stranger and fails. But at the same time he has the irrepressible curiosity of the legendary Brooklynite, and pumps the stranger to discover his motives. The narrator learns—to his intense surprise—that the unnamed stranger habitually wanders around Brooklyn with a map, looking for places that have pleasant-sounding names. Suddenly, without forewarning, the stranger asks the narrator (also unnamed) whether he can swim, and whether he has ever seen a drowning. The story ends on this puzzling note and the narrator, with justification, considers the incident one of some lunacy. For such peculiar things simply do not happen in Brooklyn.

Before we consider the actual meaning, point, or significance of the story, let us look at the fundamental details of technique.

MOOD. Although we may choose to identify Wolfe with the stranger, the author at no time exposes his private personality. Rather, he permits two unidentified characters to carry the entire emotional and intellectual burden. The feeling of the story thus becomes fairly complex, even ambivalent. The stranger evokes a mood of wistfulness and sympathy. We can appreciate the esthetic hunger which drives him. Simultaneously, though we respect his yearning, we wonder whether the discovery is ever as rich as the anticipation. These are emotional details implied in the dialogue between protagonist and antagonist. The antithesis of the stranger is the narrator—commonplace, literal, irascible, and yet kindly. He intensifies a feeling of futility because of his banal repudiation of the search for beauty. The mood, then, combines sadness and frustration with provincial humor and unresolved optimism for the stranger's success.

TONE. By subtle means the author is able to assert his attitude toward the reader. First he warns us in the title that only the dead know Brooklyn. Then he draws attention to normal impatience with idealistic, impractical quests such as the stranger's. Consequently, Wolfe implies the confusion and crudity of the vast area in which the search takes place. Toward this end he relies upon the aimless arguments of the anonymous speakers, who are like disembodied voices representative of ordinary mankind. Contrasting with this disorder is the map to which the stranger refers throughout the story. Presumably a symbol of order and stability, this manmade device is hopelessly misleading. Wolfe appears to say that the individual really has nothing material to guide him in his groping for values; only innate desire can direct him toward knowledge and beauty, which cannot be charted on a map: note the random (if esthetically motivated) manner in which the stranger selects the places he will visit.

Looking for an ultimate truth which he cannot readily isolate, he nevertheless persists. Each new place that he visits may provide him with the insight he seeks, so he must continue to roam about. Indeed, to cease striving, to endure the atrophy of the sense of wonder and inquiry—as the narrator has done—is to perish. Once the stranger hits upon the notion of drowning, it becomes a disturbing metaphor to connote human failure. The word "drowning" offers a significant clue to the tone of the story, because as a form of suffocation, drowning can be incorporeal as well as physical. The literal-minded narrator responds to the stranger as though he were talking about physical death. But the latter is not concerned here with physical death, only with that other death, the wasting away of the spirit. Although the stranger's attitude must be inferred, the inference follows logically from his consistent inattention to mundane matters. While the narrator returns to his world of actuality, the stranger pursues his ineffable search. In Brooklyn, where physical drowning is an impractical feat, the stranger consults his map and contemplates another kind of smothering. From his depiction of these men at cross-purposes, Wolfe has established tone in a twofold way: 1) to show us the aimlessness and inner bankruptcy of ordinary life; 2) to admonish and warn us against surrendering to spiritual and esthetic indifference.

Tone and mood are closely bound in with theme. The search for order, beauty, and individuality, it is suggested, may indeed be fruitless but must never be abandoned. Striving for positive values, one must also contend with ugliness and ignorance, for the good and the bad coexist. Yet that there can be no guarantee of success is implied in the ironical title. The dead are those who, like the narrator, have physically survived the material confusion and stifling effects of existence. Their survival, however, has depended upon an unquestioning attitude, one that is antithetical to the ultimate truth sought by the stranger. If people like the narrator are alive physically, the stranger's questions appear to disclose, they are dead spiritually. They know Brooklyn—which is life—only on the confused surface, and fragmentarily at that. The stranger, therefore, is left with a riddle of the disparity between material appearance and its hidden meaning. His own resolution of the riddle is left unstated, but we may assume that he will continue his search for answers.

Against the very real backdrop of Brooklyn, the atmosphere is paradoxically hazy and unrealistic. It emerges as a pervasive feeling of futility and impersonality—possibly an overwhelming challenge to individualism. Wolfe withholds names from his characters, who—as in allegory—are representative of society, of everyman. The conflict is not between flesh-and-blood people but between concepts: the restless individual search for the bluebird and the passivity of acceptance. The struggle is one between a broad idea of absorptive materialism and threatened ideals. The surface humor of the dialect turns to bitter realization through our awareness of the complete absence of humor in the situation. There is, indeed, a sense of tragedy, enlarged by the blindness of the narrator to his own loss of individuality.

Except for superficial details, everything in this story is implicit. Wolfe does not tell us through any direct means the exact nature of the problem with which he is concerned. Nor does he develop his characters explicitly. Everything must come out through dialogue or through the rational process of the narrator's puzzlement. Only by inference do we discover Wolfe's allegorical intention of representing Brooklyn as modern confused society which suffocates individuality. By inference also we recognize that for most people this state of suffocation is acceptable, while those who resist are stigmatized as outsiders and eccentrics.

Further Reading

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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 fiction, and the relation of such works to Wolfe's longer novels.

Forssberg, William. "Part Two of 'The Lost Boy': Theme and Intention." Studies in Short Fiction IV, No. 2 (Winter 1967): 167-69.

Focuses on the theme of discontinuity of identity in the second part of Wolfe's short story "The Lost Boy."

Idol, John L., Jr. "Thomas Wolfe's 'A Note on Experts'." Studies in Short Fiction XI, No. 4 (Fall 1974): 395-98.

Discusses a rare and uncompleted sketch of a sports writer published on a limited scale in 1939 as "A Note on Experts."

——. "Wolfe's 'The Lion at Morning' and 'Old Man Rivers'." The Thomas Wolfe Newsletter 1, No. 2 (Fall 1977): 21-4.

Studies two fictional sketches of editors Wolfe composed from his real-life acquaintances.

——. "Germany as Thomas Wolfe's Second Dark Helen: The Angst of 'I Have a Thing to Tell You'." The Thomas Wolfe Review 19, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-9.

Explores the anguish Wolfe felt and later captured in fiction following his visits to Hitler's Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962, 461 p.

An important, well-documented, biographical and critical study of Wolfe, which includes sections on From Death to Morning, the short novel I Have a Thing to Tell You, and other significant pieces of Wolfe's shorter fiction.

Owen, Guy. "'An Angel on the Porch' and Look Homeward, Angel." The Thomas Wolfe Newsletter 4, No. 2 (Fall 1980): 21-4.

Argues that "An Angel on the Porch" is "a meticulously revised and reshaped version of Chapter XIX" in Look Homeward, Angel that stands on its own as "a mature work of art."

Phillipson, John S. "Thomas Wolfe's 'Chickamauga': The Fact and the Fiction." The Thomas Wolfe Review 6, No. 2 (Fall 1982): 9-22.

Traces the real-life sources of Wolfe's short story "Chickamauga."

Pencak, William. "'Only the Dead Know Brooklyn'—Or Do 'The Bums at Sunset'?" The Thomas Wolfe Review 19, No. 2 (Fall 1995): 44-51.

Investigates the theme of transcendence from squalor and death in two of Wolfe's short stories set in Brooklyn.

Stutman, Suzanne. "Reconsideration: Mediation, Aline Bernstein, and Thomas Wolfe's 'The Good Child's River.'" MELUS 14, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 95-101.

Examines Wolfe's use of his former lover, Aline Bernstein, as a symbol of an "earth mother goddess" in his story "The Good Child's River."

Walser, Richard, ed. The Enigma of Thomas Wolfe: Biographical and Critical Selections. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953, 313 p.

A collection of essays on Wolfe's life and work, containing important critical comments by his editors, Margaret Church, W. P. Albrecht, and others.

Watkins, Floyd C. Thomas Wolfe's Characters: Portraits from Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957, 194 p.

Identifies the actual persons, places, and events fictionalized in Wolfe's works.

Additional coverage of Wolfe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 2, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 85, 97; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers, Vol. 1; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 13, 29, 61; and World Literature Criticism.

Clayton L. Eichelberger (essay date 1967)

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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 most disciplined work such as The Web of Earth and No Door. No Door, especially, is a case in point, for critics have almost entirely ignored it. In her biography of Wolfe, Elizabeth Nowell mentions it in passing, and that primarily in relation to the $125,000 libel suit which it triggered. Chronologically, it was one of the short pieces which grew out of the writing of Of Time and the River in 1933; a two-installment portion of it was published in Scribner 's that year. But for the most part it went unnoticed until it was resurrected by C. Hugh Holman in 1961 and printed for the first time as it was originally written.1 By then all Wolfe readers had certainly encountered No Door, but they had come across it fragmented and scattered in so many places and rewritten in so many forms for specific occasions that the thematic integrity and artistic discipline of the original piece were entirely lost.2 This is indeed unfortunate, and most unfair to Wolfe, for No Door is perhaps his most effectively controlled presentation of the dominant theme of loneliness and aloneness which stands central to his life and work.

No Door is structurally divided into four sections, each one headed by a month and a year as title. Section I, "October: 1931," was published independently under the title No Door as the first item in From Death to Morning.3 Appearing separately, it does exhibit a certain integrity in that it establishes social separation and personal alienation. The protagonist, a young writer who remains nameless throughout the composition but who is obviously the Wolfe-Gant amalgam of Of Time and the River, begins by observing, "It is wonderful with what warm enthusiasm well-kept people who have never been alone in all their life can congratulate you on the joys of solitude." This observation is made specific in an extended illustrative narrative. The young writer has been invited to dine with one of his admirers, "a most aesthetic-looking millionaire." In a pent-house apartment surrounded by luxuries which bespeak "a quiet but distinguished taste," the writer feels suddenly far removed from the desolation and poverty, the hunger and loneliness of his Brooklyn apartment. He takes on the role of an outsider who for a moment indulges in the type of life for which he yearns, and for that moment it seems to him that the great vision of the city which for years has burned in his heart is about to come true, that "some glorious happiness of fortune, fame, and triumph" will be his at any minute. Yet in the same moment he knows this cannot be.

The social disparity between the writer's painful existence and the "most aesthetic-looking millionaire's" manner of living is starkly underscored when conversation reveals that the wealthy, middle-aged admirer envies the freedom, the youth, the insularity of the writer and at the same time fails to fully appreciate the position of wealth and power which attracts the young man. And just as no door opens to admit the writer to the glorious life of his dream, so abysmal lack of perception and understanding prevents the wealthy host from seeing the anguish and pain which is the lot of the writer, the "loneliness, black, bitter, aching loneliness" for which there are no words. The writer tries to communicate his knowledge to his host but concludes, ". . . when you try to tell the man about it you cannot, for what is there to say?" The magnetic attraction which solitude holds for man, the painful experience of what Wolfe elsewhere calls "the habit of loneliness," the reality of social separation fuse to form a poignant moment of awareness.

Paradoxically, while "October: 1931" thus has an inherent integrity of its own, its function as Section I of No Door is expository in nature: it introduces character, establishes conflict, and provides an avenue to the development of theme. In this expository capacity it was conceived. Chronologically it is the last of the four sections, and as such it establishes the frame for the series of three backflashes which make up the remainder of the short novel. The protagonist, inspired by the pent-house experience and his need "to break out of the prison of his own loneliness," searches back through his life for crucial moments of estrangement and recalls his search for doors opening out from himself. In doing so, he encounters a three-pronged dilemma which holds him, which indeed holds all men, in thrall; and while a resolution is suggested in the final section of the novel, the moment is still too early in the life of this young man to permit him to accept what he has just begun to understand.

The first horn of the dilemma is a purely mechanical one. It is also a general one in that it pervades all sections of NoDoor and all of Wolfe's creative work. Simply put, it is concerned with the limitation of language and the inability of man to put into words the total truth of which he is most urgently aware. Repeatedly the narrator bemoans the fact that what he has to say, what he so desperately feels he must say if he is to have life, if he is to be released from his aloneness, is just one word away. But he cannot find that word. It is the "no door" that stands between him and the fulfillment of his creative genius. So he fails always to define the exact relationship or degree of estrangement which exists between him and others and falteringly focuses on the moment of confrontation as "one of those simple and profound experiences of life which people seem always to have known when it happens to them, but for which there is no language" (p. 197). Speaking of English faces and aspects of English life which remind him of home, again he falters:

It was a life that seemed so near to me that I could lay my hand on it and make it mine at any moment. I seemed to have returned to a room I had always known, and to have paused for a moment without any doubt or perturbation of the soul outside the door.

But I never found the door, or turned the knob, or stepped into the room. When I got there 1 couldn't find it. It was as near as my hand if I could only touch it, only as high as my heart and yet I could not reach it, only a hand's breadth off if I would span it, a word away if I would speak it. (p. 190)

The failure was an agonizing one for a sensitive writer who felt he had to more than touch, who had to grasp, to devour, if he was to be.

The failure of direct expression, however, does not constitute an unsurmountable barrier to communication. One can still express himself through illustration and suggestion.

This accounts in part for the multitudinous vignettes and catalogues which fill the pages of the Wolfe novels. It also explains in part his heavy reliance on symbol. Repeatedly he tries by a desperate rather than a calculated combination of details and concretions to elevate the reader into an awareness of what he is trying to say. And when he is successful, a transcendent light breaks forth between the lines, and an epiphany burns to life.4 But the single word, the door to precise and consummate expression, remains unfound. In that sense, the language barrier, the first of the barriers, remains unbreached. It becomes "no door."

The second horn of the dilemma, the specific theme of Section II, "October: 1923," is the protagonist's futile resistance to the passage of time and to the changes which that passage brings with it. This barrier of no return establishes temporal alienation and, in a real sense, is the sharpest of the three horns in that it evokes, bound up as it is with personal grief, the most intense and passionate outpouring in the novel. The inability to communicate which is so apparent in the pent-house episode turns the writer back into himself, and he retreats in memory to what was perhaps the most crucial moment in his life: October, 1923, the October in which he returned home for the first time after the death of his father. In image, rhythm, and depth of emotion, this second section of No Door is undoubtedly one of the most highly lyrical stream-of-consciousness passages Wolfe produced. It was incorporated with only minor changes in Of Time and the River as the transition between Books II and III. Thus it stands introductory to the search-for-a-father motif which gives continuity to the well-known Telemachus section of that novel.

"October: 1923" actually begins with a return to the writer's fifteenth year and a selective four-page summary of the years of "solitude and wandering" which intervened between then and October, 1923. This autobiographical survey fixes the foundation for one vividly remembered night in the life of the young man when sense of loss and recognition of inevitable change strip him of even minimal security, fill him with grief-laden helplessness and fear, and goad him into flight. A concrete narrative frame is constructed. The protagonist has returned home in October. Lying alone in a bed in his mother's house, immediately beneath the room where his brother had died in another October, he listens to the storm wind sweeping the night, he feels the "moving darkness" pressing upon him, he hears the distant howling of the dogs and the silence of early frost. This narrative situation anchors the half-conscious nighttime reverie; and fictive fact, memory, and subconscious symbolic interpretation of fact and memory are intricately interwoven to produce two and three levels of meaning at the same time. So the howl of the dogs and the silent frost mingled with memories of similar experiences in other Octobers become reminders of the inevitability and presence of death; and the mysterious but ceaseless movement of the wind and darkness strikes pain to the young man's heart as they remind him that his father is dead, that time sweeps relentlessly and endlessly forward, and there can be no return.

Desperately he tries to cling to what was, to deny what is. October, he reflects, is the month of return; so surely his father will return now and things will be as they were. October, he remembers, is the month of harvest and abundance. But then he recalls the consuming flames of autumn, and they strike a thorn of memory into his heart. The frost, the voices of dogs, the ceaseless wind, the pressing dark, the fire, and later the trains that roar like wind in the trees, the flooded river which sweeps like a wind to the sea, and an imagined death knell which may sound in the night—all combine to lead him to the plaintive question he has asked before: What is there to say? He will call again for the return of his father; but the voices of passing time and death will drown out his words, and he will turn in flight. The door he sought which would reverse time and permit him to sustain life as he had known it remains unfound. His insularity in terms of time past is established, so he can only turn toward morning.

In the suddenly remembered dream of "new lands, morning, and a shining city" which thus ends Section II, the quest for yet another door, self-discovery through identification with others, is begun. Flight from that October night in his mother's house leads the protagonist back to England and his work. But Section III, "October: 1926," presents another problem: the young writer finds himself alone, and there is no door to lead him from this aloneness. "October: 1926," the longest section in NoDoor, is a mixture of cases which are constant reminders of man's alienated state mixed with frequent observations relative to the inadequacy of language and the missing word which stands between experience and communication. Portions of it are included in Of Time and the River, and a major part of it was published in Scribner's under the title "The House of the Far and Lost."5

Flight does not afford escape. Removal to far places does not alter the constancy of truth. Instead it intensifies the young writer's awareness that he is alone; and more and more he begins to discover that what is true of him is true also of others. He looks into the faces on the street and in the shops. Repeatedly he seems to be on the verge of recognition, on the very brink of identification. But always the moment is lost even before it is found. The Coulsons, in whose house he has a room, have been cruelly separated from the society which has been their heritage, and one instinctively knows that the separation was not of their choosing. The cruelty of the severance is intimated by the disturbing and undefinable reaction to the Coulson name and address, the suddenly alerted awareness and frozen response, the secretive and sinister laughter behind closed doors. The fact that the reason for the social banishment is never disclosed only serves to intensify the reality and unreasonableness of man's alienated state. Furthermore, the individual members of the family are separated from each other. The house in which the young writer lives with them consists of walls and closed doors. An impenetrable secret fills the air that moves through the house. A brooding sorrow lurks behind the masked faces of the Coulson family. For them all doors are closed, and there is no escape. The Coulson sorrow is the sorrow of man.

Three mechanics who also room in the Coulson house provide a second example. One is fortyish and maimed; the other two are youthful and seemingly strong. Like the Coulsons they are ruined people. They "had lost their lives because they loved the earth too well, and somehow had been slain by their hunger" (p. 199). All three exhibit a perverse desire to forget their lostness and the meaninglessness of their lives. They give themselves to frenzied movement across the earth in pursuit of pleasure and to an unrealistically staged devotion to jazz. They are moved by "the madness of desperation, the deliberate intent of men to cover up or seek oblivion at any cost of effort from some hideous emptiness of the soul" (p. 200). Their roots have been severed. Dialogue with them cannot be established, even by others who are alone. The door between them and life is closed. So, in Section III, no door opens from the aloneness of the young writer. He too is lost, irretrievably separated from others, slain by his hunger.

The final section of No Door is the only one set in April, and significantly so. April is the month of beginnings, but not without the bitter awareness that what is born must die. "Late April: 1928" constitutes a return to New York, the setting of the first section, in a mechanical way thus unifying the short novel. In this concluding section, the protagonist seems to face up to the dilemma of man's existence, and the narrative moves toward resolutions as he comes to recognize that the door for which he has been seeking does not exist and that man's only solution to the dilemma must be acceptance.

Such acceptance is demonstrated by the truck drivers observed at the beginning of Sction IV. The vantage point from which the protagonist looks out on New York is an apartment window facing a dingy storage warehouse. The world he sees is masculine and physical. The men who work on the docks and drive the trucks are men of blood and muscle, men of oath and gesture, tough men with seamed faces, men born into and accepting the reality of the iron and asphalt city. These men are without memory. They are without dream. They live in the present, unaware of the past and unmolested by the future. They accept their aloneness, for while they work furiously, they also work unamiably. They give themselves to the "narrow frontier of their duty"; they cut their lives "sparsely into its furious and special groove." They have no hesitation, confess neither ignorance nor error, and know no doubt. They accept themselves without question, and they are not agonized by what they are not. So they stand in sharp juxtaposition to the protagonist who is haunted by the passage of time and searches for a door into understanding. His life, "by a cruel comparison with the lives of these men who had learned to use their strength and talents perfectly in a life demanding manual skill, and the mastery of sensuous materials, seemed blind, faltering, baffled, still lost in clouds of chaos and confusion" (p. 222).

Eventually one man stands out from all the others. Day after day he can be seen, always seated at a desk and always doing nothing, his face fixed with an "abstracted stare" as he looks out on the fury and desperation of life which surrounds him. In that face the young writer sees "a timeless image of fixity and judgment," and the indolent man becomes to him "the impartial, immutable censor of all the blind confusion and oblivion of a thousand city days, and of the tortured madness and unrest" of his own life. Goaded by the secrecy of the judgment and by his agonizing sense of inadequacy, he throws himself into the demented streets of night until day comes "incredibly like birth, like hope, like joy again." One could add, like April, because it is in this April that understanding begins to dawn and that the novel moves toward resolution as the protagonist comes to the very brink of discovery.

The face in the warehouse window serves as a catalyst which precipitates a vision of an unknown man sitting in the window of an old house at the end of the day. Looking out quietly, his calm and sorrowful face reflects "the immutable exile of an imprisoned spirit." His voice is soundless; but it carries the knowledge of a million tongues, for it is no less than the voice of all men and all experience. In toneless syllables it assures the young man that the madness, the hunger, the fury of youth will pass away; that the despair that comes with the cognizance that the earth is too large for one life will pass away; but that some things will never change. Above all, the voice suggests, man comes eventually to accept his limitations. He comes finally to recognize that he cannot master all knowledge, that "we know what we know, we have what we have, we are what we are." Transmuted to a fixed position in time, leaning on the sill of the window of evening, man comes to know that most things are vanity, most things are ephemeral as far as the individual is concerned; but the perennial desperation of young men en masse as they become conscious of their insignificance in the universe will not change, the miracle of life will not change, the blade and leaf will endure while the proud edifices created by men crumble. The bitterness of life will always endure, and all that belongs to the earth, "all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth" will always be the same. For "only the earth endures, but it endures forever" (pp. 229-231).

The vision is not new to the world, but it is new to each youth as he comes to the discovery of himself. Man is imprisoned by the very nature of his existence, and there is no door to lead him out of the prison of himself. He is destined to live alone, and he destined to die alone. The world he seeks to devour is too large for him to contain. He must come to know what he is, to recognize and to accept his limitations, and with the preacher to cast all idle dreams and pretense aside. He must understand that the miracle of life is eternal, and he must come to believe that it will prevail. "Child, child," counsels the tongueless image, "Have patience and belief. . . ." In this new understanding lies April, cruel April in that the knowledge is not without its portion of bitterness. It marks the beginning of life and hope which will be driven to their roots by the frost of October, but which will be sustained by the earth like a pulse, like a cry, "like a flower, forever bursting from the earth, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April." The climactic vision in No Door parallels that of Ben's ghost at the end of Look Homeward, Angel, and the message is essentially the same. One must come to know himself in his time, and he must come to believe that the spirit of man is deathless. Only thus will he find meaning in his existence.

The fact that understanding goes before acceptance is clearly reflected in the reverse structure of No Door. Understanding comes in "Late April: 1928"; but in "October: 1931," the section with which the novel begins, the writer protagonist still dreams of and hungers for an existence other than his own. He has not yet come to accept the essential and enduring truth of his insularity. He still yearns for a life other than the one he knows. It is this instinctive and stubborn and frustrating search for meaning beyond the limitations of self, this obsessive unwillingness to accept life and live it, the inability to bridge the precipitous gorge between understanding and acceptance that sustain the search motif in the novel; and it is the protagonist's failure to find fulfillment in resigning himself to the only life he has, thus escaping aloneness by identifying his state with the mortal state of all men, that gives meaning to No Door.


1The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, ed. C. Hugh Holman (New York, 1961), pp. 155-231. Citations in my text are to this volume.

2 For a brief record of the publication history of "No Door," see The Short Novels, pp. 157-158.

3 New York, 1935.

4 See Maurice Natanson, "The Privileged Moment: A Study in the Rhetoric of Thomas Wolfe," QJS, XLIII (1957), 143-150.

5Scribner's Magazine, XCVI (August, 1934), 71-81.

Leo Gurko (essay date 1975)

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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 other posthumously—stand by themselves, and are reasonably representative of his efforts along these lines. They include some particularly well-known stories, like "Chickamauga" and The Web of Earth, the one narrated by a returning veteran of the Confederate Army, the other by Eliza Gant in an extended recollection of her mountain ancestors. Both display Wolfe's underrated capacity to get out of himself and into the minds of others.

Instead of surveying everything in the two volumes, let us concentrate on two especially splendid tales, one from each book. If Wolfe had written nothing else, these would have been enough to establish his genius and justify his standing among the formidable writers of his day.

The first of these, "In The Park," appeared in the earlier collection which came out in 1935, From Death To Morning. It is a reminiscence, apparently by Mrs. Jack, of her life as a young girl in New York at the turn of the century, and of one evening in particular at the beginning of May. She was eighteen, the year before her father died, and the coming of a radiant spring that year seemed to coincide with her own age, with the sense of New York bursting with opulence and energy, and her feeling for her father, an actor with a highly developed appetite for living.

After the evening performance of the play in which he is performing, he takes her to a Broadway restaurant where they eat, drink, and chatter amiably with a pair of stagestruck priests. Then they go for a ride in a horseless carriage to Central Park. They are stopped by a mounted policeman who scolds them for frightening his horse. The car breaks down. It mysteriously starts up again, and carries them triumphantly into the park where, under the glistening stars, they ride about all night. At dawn they hear the birds breaking into song, an eloquent finale to an ecstatic occasion. And on that note the story ends.

In terms of plot it could scarcely be lighter or thinner. It consists of some engaging chatter in a restaurant and a ride in the park. Neither the conversation nor the ride leads anywhere in particular; they have no visible aim aside from registering their own existence. Yet the story is a delicate masterpiece, revealing Wolfe's ability to work in a small frame—which was quite as much within his power as his better-known, more widely publicized ability to operate in a large expanse. What he is after is the sense of joy, of life at high tide, not because anything special is happening but as a thing in itself, generating its own radiance, a radiance to which the high-spirited young girl narrating the tale in the first person is responding with uncommon depth of feeling.

This response is aroused by any number of objects: the fine spring night; the "velvety lilac texture" of the sky, "glittering with great stars"; the streets outside the theatre crowded with hansoms; New York in an intoxicating earlier era; DeWolfe Hopper, the actor, running around "pretending to be a horse and neighing, and trying to climb up a lamppost"; the old car itself with "its rich wine color, its great polished lamps of brass . . . and all its wonderful and exciting smells." These make up a rich compost of external detail, strategically drawn from both society and nature. No wonder the narrator exclaims: "Everyone seemed to be as happy and elated as we were, it seemed as if a new world and new people had burst out of the earth with the coming of spring. . . . I saw all of it, I felt myself a part of it all, I wanted to possess it all."

But the story is something more than a simple exercise in romantic enthusiasm. It is kept from soaring off into the blue by the somber presence of death. Death in two forms: as a premonition and as an actuality. On two occasions, near the beginning and just before the end, the girl mentions the fact that it all took place the year before her father died. And on a third occasion, as they enter the park and feel the first rush of ecstatic pleasure in their new surroundings, she looks at her father and suddenly knows that he is going to die. This so heightens her feelings and so sharpens her perceptions that the lengthy final paragraph of the story records in great detail and with scientific precision the exact cries of the numerous birds at dawn.

Her premonition of her father's approaching death escalates her appreciation of life and her sensory response to it. The intrusion of death jolts us but at the same time intensifies our awareness of life's familiar attractions. The birds break into their chorus every morning, though we usually pay little attention to them. By compelling our attention, death becomes an agent of life and is thus absorbed into the story's inner flow.

The naturalness and skill with which the tale is put together are revealed in the opening lines. The narrator gropes in her mind and memory to get back to that magic evening long years ago. For a few sentences she slides about uncertainly: "That year I think we were living with Bella; no, we weren't, I guess we were living with Auntie Kate—well, maybe we were staying with Bella: I don't know, we moved around so much, and it's so long ago. It gets all confused in my mind now." Then the fog of time miraculously lifts and suddenly everything is in the clear. The evening in question detaches itself from its murky background and glistens into focus. In this way, proceeding from confusion to clarity, one enters the story.

One exits from it along the same path, only in the reverse direction, from the spellbinding clarity of the bird songs to confusion and uncertainty again as memory begins to lapse. "That was the year before he died and I think we were staying at Bella's then, but maybe we were staying at the old hotel, or perhaps we had already moved to Auntie Kate's: we moved around so much, we lived in so many places, it seems so long ago, that when I try to think about it now it gets confused and I cannot remember."

This refrain at the end illustrates the familiar operation of memory. It also supplies 'Ìn The Park" with a band or circle of cottony haze inside which lies preserved and intact, like some magically propertied jewel, the briefly caught but blazingly lucid glimpse of an earlier time and place.

The same process on a larger, more complex scale is seen at work in "The Lost Boy," the second of Wolfe's superb short stories. This appeared in The Hills Beyond, the last of the books Edward Aswell assembled after the author's death. It deals with the death in boyhood of Grover, Ben Gant's twin, during the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Divided into four parts, each told from a different point of view, the story is an intricate attempt to make tragedy coherent. Grover's death from typhoid fever is cruel, unexpected, and sudden. It has a shattering effect on everyone there: on his sister Helen who had gone about town with him on that last day; on his mother, whose passion for profit had brought them to St. Louis in the first place; on Eugene, only four at the time but already conscious of the tragedy which aroused in him feelings and vibrations he would be unable to explain until many years later. The story conveys the shock of death but equally the effort to absorb the shock, recover from it, and eventually conquer it.

Part One begins with Grover back home in Altamont, standing in front of Mr. Crocker's shop in the town square, greedily contemplating the freshly made candy in the window. The temptation is too strong. He enters, buys the candy, pays Mr. Crocker—a mean, spiteful figure out of Dickens—in stamps, is cheated on the change. Burning with injustice, he rushes across the street to his father, who invades the Crocker premises, gets Grover's money back, and helps his son through a small painful crisis in his young life. In the deliberate chronology of the four parts, the first starts with the father, the source and the beginning in the biological scheme of things.

Part Two shifts to the mother. With her narration, Grover passes into the minds of others. In Part One he had appeared directly and in his own person before us, the one occasion that he was wholly alive and himself. Then, as a foreshadowing of his approaching death, he loses his status as an independent, self-contained being and begins his existence in the consciousness of those around him. Beginning with his mother, whose thoughts contain everything of Grover's life and death.

She remembers the trip to St. Louis, with the train bowling along the Indiana countryside. She remembers Grover, now twelve, working at the Fair, how good he was at shopping and bargaining, what a grave, serious, disciplined, intelligent boy he had already become. She remembers the lacerating impact of his dying, a wound that continued to bleed within her for an endless time.

She never forgets Grover. Years later, after Eugene has become a celebrated writer, a scholar came South in quest of information about him. She remembers how surprised he was when she told him that Grover had been smarter than Eugene, and in saying that and thinking it, she finds Grover becoming more vividly fixed in her memory than ever. Thus Grover's life appears in two sections, before and after death. The section before death is the shorter one, and is exceeded in both length and power by the lucidity and vibrancy of his psychological continuation in the thoughts of his survivors. The story is of course about life and death, but it is also about immortality. Grover's posthumous existence outlives his mortal one.

The speaker of Part Three is Helen, sister and next in the biological progression of "The Lost Boy." She brings us the voice of someone much closer to Grover in age than his father and mother. But she is still older than he, old enough to feel the full brunt of his death, to feel it as something ghastly and inexplicable. Now deep into her adult life, she still cannot accommodate herself to it. How could it have happened? she asks Eugene. Why is the world filled with stupid empty people who go on living while someone as fine as Grover is cut down so young? To these familiar, conventional questions she has no answer.

Helen remembers how on that last afternoon Grover had decided to spend his pay on a treat instead of dutifully bringing it home. The two of them had gone into a cheap eatery and gorged themselves on pork and beans. After all this time, she remembers the sense of liberation the "treat" had given them. And not a moment too soon, for no sooner had they gotten home, even before Grover had a chance to be properly scolded, he came down with his sudden fatal fever, and by the next day was gone. For the rest of her life Helen was distraught and baffled by the tragedy. Grover's legacy to her was a deep groove of angry bewilderment from which she was destined never to recover.

Finally, in Part Four, we come to Eugene, the youngest of the narrators. He was present when Grover died but was too young at the time to understand fully what was going on. His response, necessarily delayed, comes later, more than thirty years later in fact, and Part Four is an account of Eugene's return to St. Louis in the 1930s in search of his lost brother. He goes back to the street where they lived during the Fair, searches out the house they occupied, which miraculously is still standing, and makes his way to the very bedroom where Grover fell ill and died. None of this is easy. The city has changed, the street is not as it was, and the present owner of the house is a stranger who proves accommodating only after Eugene explains to her, not without awkwardness, what he is after.

What he is after is not wholly clear to himself. It somehow seems terrifically important that he recapture and reoccupy the original scene. By reliving Grover's death, perhaps he can exorcise it, lay it to rest, quiet and settle the spirit of his brother so prematurely lost. But he is also moved by the opposite impulse. In getting Grover to die again, this time in his mind's eye, he will absorb the event into himself in a way that he was too young to do the first time. The quest for Grover is a quest for emotional understanding.

Grover's passing must not only be witnessed, it must also be felt. It is the emotion that triumphs over death, so that Eugene's search for the emotion aroused by the original catastrophe is in some obscure way a search for life. The story reaches its final intention at this point. Man does conquer death: by feeling it in all its horror, awfulness, and pain he absorbs it into himself, and thus survives. As Grover survives, in the clarity and strength of the feelings engendered by his terrifying departure in those around him.

The climactic nature of Part Four begins to emerge. Because he was so young when Grover died, Eugene is the only figure who must voluntarily, and with an immense effort of the will, engage himself in the reenactment of the tragedy. The others—Eliza, Helen—involuntarily caught up in it as captive and compelled witnesses, were able to experience it at the time.

In going back to the place of Grover's departure, Eugene relives not only Grover's death but Grover himself. The lost boy is never so real as when he is on the abrupt verge of being snatched away. If that moment can be fixed, preserved, sealed off from time, memorialized, kept intact, then Grover cannot be reduced and is ours forever.

So Eugene obscurely reasons, or perhaps only obscurely feels. The story is a supreme episode in Wolfe's relentless quest for immortality. The search for Grover is also a search for the secret process by which the human can be saved from the dissolution of time and the laxness of memory. Wolfe was a fervent, lifelong pursuer of these matters, and "The Lost Boy" is one of his great demonstrations in the art of robbing death to shore up life.

William Domnarski (essay date 1980)

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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 DeVoto.2 Others have felt the same way, thus making the vital issue in Wolfe's critical reputation not whether he had talent, but what he did with it.

The most frequent charges levelled against Wolfe have stressed his prolixity, structural formlessness, and excessive interest in autobiography.3 These weaknesses can be seen in each of Wolfe's long novels. In contrast, however, they are not present in his short novels, which have received little attention despite their excellence.4 In many ways these short novels present the best of Wolfe. Here he is under control, with the defined length of the short novel form imposing necessary restrictions on him.

An examination of structure and theme in A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, which Wolfe completed in 1932, illustrates his achievement as a short novelist. The novel is a brilliant portrait of the eccentric Bascom Hawke, who is modelled after Wolfe's uncle Henry Westall, but it is also a book about the narrator, David Hawke, who is Wolfe himself. The contrast between the elderly, despairing uncle and his young, hopeful nephew stands at the heart of the novel, with the ideas of life and death and growth and decay dominating. Wolfe summarized his hopes for Bascom Hawke in a note to Perkins. He wrote, "I've simply tried to give you a man—as for plot, there's not any, but there's this idea which I believe is pretty plain—I've always wanted to say something about old men and young men, and that's what I've tried to do here. I hope the man seems real and living to you and that it has the unity of this feeling I spoke about."5

Wolfe overstates Bascom Hawke's lack of plot. Scenes from Bascom's past, as well as what might pass as part of a day in his life, make up most of the novel. The only present tense narrative action centers on a conversation between Bascom and his nephew David late in the book. Wolfe's novel is not rooted in the present. Rather, the present is used as a complementary means of illuminating the past—both Bascom's past and the inexorable force of time—and the future. The concept of eternal time holds the novel and its two major characters together. This continuum helps Wolfe achieve "the unity of this feeling" that he mentions to Perkins.

The plot of Bascom Hawke might be spare, but the novel is tightly structured. It opens with Bascom emerging from a Boston subway exit on his way to work as a real estate conveyancer. At this point we are part of the crowd reacting to the cadaverous, grimacing man as others on the street would. We cannot fail to notice this elderly man, whose "grimaces were made by squinting his small sharp eyes together, widening his mouth in a ghastly travesty of a grin, and convolving his chin and cheek in a rapid series of pursed lips and horrible squints as he swiftly pressed his rubbery underlip against a few enormous horse teeth that decorated his upper jaw."6 More important, we see Bascom as he verbally assaults motorists who have nearly run him over because he has ignored the rules of safe pedestrian traffic. Bascom baits these unsuspecting motorists into arguments to show, in his distinctively imperious manner, his knowledge and their ignorance of automobile law.

Wolfe seems to pause following this opening scene. A clear transition sentence announces the physical description of Bascom that will follow. The description begins with his tall, tough, and angular body and proceeds to his worn and ill-fitting clothes that make him appear more like a beggar than the prosperous businessman he is. This discrepancy leads into an account of Bascom's history. All that our narrator tells us not only helps shade in Bascom's portrait, but also heightens the tension between youth and age and furthers our understanding of Bascom's bitter despair at the novel's conclusion. In a passage that takes on increased importance as we move through the novel, our narrator tells us that "Bascom's youth, following the war between the States, had been scared by a bitter poverty: at once enriched and warped by a life that clung to the earth with a root-like tenacity, that was manual, painful, spare and stricken, and rebuilt itself—fiercely, cruelly, and richly—from the earth" (13).

Poverty constricted Bascom's physical world and turned him to literature, where he found the joys of life otherwise denied him. He read voraciously and ended up at Harvard. There he lived monkishly and established a brilliant record as an undergraduate and graduate theology student. We read that "at thirty [Bascom] was a lean fanatic, a true Yankee madman, high-boned, with gray thirsty eyes and a thick flaring sheaf of oaken hair—six feet three inches of gangling and ludicrous height, gesticulating madly and obliviously before a grinning world. But he had a grand lean head: he looked somewhat like the great Ralph Waldo Emerson—with the brakes off (14).

Like Emerson, Bascom first entered and then left the ministry. For twenty years he moved from town to town and from church to church hoping to find spiritual satisfaction. But it never came. After much soul-searching, and after investigating the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Unitarian churches, all with the hope of finding one that quelled his growing religious skepticism, Bascom turned his back on God and became an agnostic. Freed in a way, Bascom next sought to make as much money as possible as a real estate conveyancer in Boston, perhaps to avenge his youthful poverty. But he had lost more than just his faith during those twenty years. Beginning with his marriage to Louise, Bascom had also gained and lost a family. He and Louise are still together when we meet them in the novel, but Bascom sees his marriage as dead and his wife lost to him as a result of her insanity. His children, in a different way, are also lost because once they came of age they fled from home and never returned.

Having brought us up to date, Wolfe then continues the novel with scenes from a typical day at the office for Bascom. The description is again organized and meticulous. We are shown the outside and inside of the office building before meeting Bascom's office-mates. Their characters reflect the dullness of the office. There is the banal Miss Brill, the meager-looking Samuel Friedman, and the self-satisfied Stanley Ward. They do not understand Bascom and therefore make fun of his eccentricities. John T. Brill, the loud and dominating figure in the office, on the other hand, understands and respects Bascom, so much so that he brags of Bascom's intellect to visitors as though Bascom were his son. Bascom and Brill come from different backgrounds and have different sensibilities, yet there is much common ground between them; nephew David writes:

Brill was a lewd and innocent man. Like my uncle, by comparison with these other people, he seemed to belong to some earlier, richer, and grander period of the earth, and perhaps this was why there was more actual kinship between them than between any of the other members of the office. These other people . . . belonged to the myriads of the earth, to the numberless swarms that with ceaseless pullulation fill the streets of life with their gray immemorable tides. But Brill and my uncle Bascom were men in a thousand, a million: if one had seen them in a crowd he would have looked after them, if one had talked with them, he could never have forgotten them. (30-31)

One reason we cannot forget Brill's conversation is that it is earthy and vulgar. We sense that Brill naturally incorporates obscenities into his language, but we also sense that he uses as many vulgarities as possible when Bascom is around. This is consistent with Brill's character and his relationship with Bascom, for Brill takes great delight in jokingly trying to offend him. The lengthy section discussing their relationship details many examples of Brill teasing Bascom. He teases Bascom, for instance, about his eccentric aversion to eating in restaurants. Bascom tries to explain that he finds the preparation of restaurant food unhealthy and that he will eat only raw health foods, but we know, as does Brill, that Bascom is simply reluctant to spend money. The same can be said about Bascom and overcoats. He claims that he never wears them because they carry cold-inducing germs; the truth is that Bascom is too cheap to part with the money needed for a warm overcoat.

But even though Bascom cringes at Brill's coarse language, and even though he finds himself the butt of many jokes, he admires and respects Brill. Brill is a man of character—of forceful and aggressive character. Brill lusts after life, and this is reflected in his language, his "invective" as Bascom terms it. In different ways, Bascom and Brill are remarkable men in that they understand life's possibilities and have been willing, in their different ways, to go after what they want. Bascom might bristle at his coarse language, but he also wishes that he had the peculiar kind of strength to use it. Brill's scathing invective thus links the section about the two men with the following section, a digression that focuses on an extramarital affair Bascom was once tempted to have while he vacationed in Florida.

The woman, a plump, sensuous widow, appears an odd match for Bascom. She is so dull-witted, for example, that she misunderstands his long and very obvious poem about his agnosticism. Ordinarily, Bascom would be offended by such stupidity in anyone. The widow may be stupid, but she is shrewd. She recognizes that he is the man she wants and she knows how to get him: by appealing to his vanity and by appearing willing to listen to his harangues. Bascom, who feels underloved and underappreciated by his wife, falls prey to the widow. Their relationship builds and moves to a climax when the widow offers herself sexually to Bascom, who has ambivalent feelings about the offer. On the one hand, he wants to fill the void created by his marriage to Louise. At the same time he cannot break free from social and marital conventions, nor can he overcome his repressed religious beliefs defining the appropriate expressions of love and sex. He wants to defy convention in the way that Brill defies convention when he unleashes his invective, but he does not have the necessary kind of daring. He feels frustrated by his inadequacy. Hence, Bascom declines the widow's offer and the romance ends.

With the conclusion of the aborted romance, the focus of the novel shifts to David, whom we hardly know, even though fifty pages of this short novel have passed. David is ostensibly detailing a conversation he had with Bascom, but their conversation fades into the background as David tells us about himself and his life in Boston. We soon realize that David's life has certain parallels to Bascom's. Both came to Harvard from North Carolina, and both possessed a nearly insatiable appetite for books and life. The following quotations reveal much about David. In addition, the quotations illustrate the sense of vitality that Wolfe infused into Bascom Hawke. In the first quotation, David demonstrates his love for life and learning when he discusses his burning ambition to know everything, an ambition Bascom had fifty years earlier. David says:

My hunger and thirst had been immense: I was caught up for the first time in the midst of the Faustian web—there was no food that could feed me, no drink that could quench my thirst—like an insatiate and maddened animal I roamed the streets, trying to draw up mercy from the cobblestones, solace and wisdom from a million sights and faces, or prowled through the endless shelves of high-piled books tortured by everything I could not see and could not know, and growing blind, weary, and desperate from what I read and saw. I wanted to know all, have all, be all—to be one and many, to have the whole riddle of this vast and swarming earth as legible, as tangible in my hand as a coin of minted gold (50).

The second quotation reflects David's sensitivity to life, to the earth, and to the products of the earth. He says:

The air will have in it the wonderful odors of the market . . . the delicate and subtle air of spring touches all these odors with a new and delicate vitality; it draws the tar out of the pavements also, and it draws slowly, subtly, from ancient warehouses, the compacted perfumes of eighty years: the sweet thin piney scents of packing boxes, the glutinous composts of half a century, that have thickly stained old warehouse plankings, the smells of twine, tar, turpentine and hemp, and of thick molasses, ginseng, pungent vines and roots and old piled sacking; the clean ground strength of fresh coffee, brown, sultry, pungent, and exultantly fresh and clean; the smell of oats, baled hay and bran, of crated eggs and cheese and butter; and particularly the smell of meat, of frozen beeves, of slick porks and veals, of brains and livers and kidneys, of haunch, paunch, and jowl; of meat that is raw and of meat that is cooked . . . (53).

This section outlining David's exuberant view of life sets the stage for the climactic concluding section. David is in Bascom's office to visit; but what transpires is not really a conversation between the two, as Bascom does almost all the talking. Through his monologue, as well as through the further glimpses into Bascom's past that David gives us, we begin to understand the idea about young men and old men that Wolfe told Perkins he had.

Bascom's denegration of women occupies much of his harangue. The reason for this denegration stems from his unhappy marriage to Louise. Bascom had wanted to possess her totally when they married, and when he realized after they were wed that he could not do so because Louise's beauty invariably brought complimentary looks from other men, a kind of madness overcame him. He raged with a black jealousy and felt that marriage and love had betrayed him. Because his life was self-centered and self-contained, Bascom could not cope with the idea that he shared his wife, even if sharing amounted only to having other men look at her. Unable to cope, and determined to maintain his fierce individuality and integrity, Bascom did what only he could: he forgot about Louise and treated her with indifference.

The results of this indifference were profound. The gap between Bascom and Louise widened to an unbreachable abyss. Because she could not understand the cause of Bascom's indifference, Louise slowly but inexorably lost her mind. Their children were also affected by his behavior. Bascom also treated them with indifference because he saw them as his wife's children, not his own. Moreover, he imposed his miserly ways on his children and denied them many of the pleasures he too had been denied as a child. As soon as they could, the children escaped from home, bearing bitter grudges that remained with them.

Bascom, then, sees his life as a series of frustrations and betrayals. His life at thirty, which had so much promise because he had been able to overcome the handicaps of youthful poverty with intelligence and perseverance, was attacked by the betrayals of his wife, his children, and his faith. These betrayals relate directly to the theme of the earth that Wolfe develops in Bascom Hawke. Wolfe describes Brill as a product of the earth, for example, because he possesses a challenging spirit and a lust for life. Similarly, Wolfe describes Bascom as a product of the earth because his tenacious desire to survive and prosper helped him escape from his bleak childhood. But at the same time, the theme of the earth also carries implications of organic unity, the sense that the individual is integrally bound with society, which represents the fruits of the earth. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Wolfe wants to show David as a product of the earth, he uses the above quotations that focus on David's relationship with the earth and its bounty. The sense of organic unity also extends to the concept of family, both in the particular terms of spouse and children and in the broader concept of the family of man. Believing he has been betrayed by a wife who is not really a wife to him, and by children who despise him, Bascom experiences frustration and bitter loneliness, a loneliness that is compounded by his loss of religious faith. Bascom communicates this genuine despair to David, who in turn tells us that by understanding Bascom we can understand the history of man's loneliness, his dignity, his grandeur, and his despair (39).

Bascom has lost and suffered much. Though some strength remains (his scolding of Boston motorists shows this), he is only a shell of the man he once was. David understands the life Bascom has lived and wants to graft Bascom's experiences onto his own to enrich the life he is to continue living. Sitting with Bascom in his office, David says:

And now, as I looked at the old man, I had a sense of union with the past. It seemed if he would only speak, the living past, the voices of lost men, the pain, the pride, the madness and despair, the million scenes of the buried life—all that an old man ever knew—would be revealed to me, would be delivered to me like a priceless treasure, as an inheritance which old men owed to young, and which should be the end and effort of all living. My savage hunger was a kind of memory: I thought if he could speak it would be fed (67).

But Bascom does not tell David what he wants to hear. Bascom only says, "It was so long ago . . . so long ago. I have lived so long. I have seen so much. I could tell you so many things" (67).

As the novel draws to its conclusion, David imagines a scene in which a group of old men and women are sitting at a dinner table. Like Bascom, they have suffered and lived on. David discovers in his vision, as he did with Bascom, that these people cannot speak of their pasts. He learns that the past cannot be transmitted. It must be lived again.

The enduring human condition is Bascom Hawke's major theme. Bascom and David epitomize the continual cycle of hope, frustration, and despair, which is followed by renewed hope for the future. Wolfe's short novel is really about the birth and death of dreams. But the acknowledgement we see in old Bascom that dreams die does not stamp Bascom Hawke with pessimism. Rather, the novel affirms life. The affirmation of life at the novel's conclusion is to seek, to live. David says this with great beauty and force after he realizes that he cannot rekindle the flame of life in Bascom. He says:

Then I got up and left him and went out into the streets where the singing and lyrical air, the man-swarm passing in its million-footed weft, the glorious women and the girls compacted into a single music of belly and breasts and thighs, the sea, the proud, potent, and clamorous city, all of the voices of time fused to a unity that was like a song, a token and a cry. Victoriously, I trod the neck of doubt as if it were a serpent: I was joined to the earth, a part of it, and I possessed it; I would be wasted and consumed, filled and renewed eternally; I would be emptied without weariness, replenished forever with strong joy. I had a tongue for agony, a food for hunger, a door for exile and a surfeit for insatiate desire: exultant certainty welled up in me, I thought I could possess it all, and I cried: 'Yes! It will be mine!' (71)

The juxtaposition between David and Bascom highlights what might be called the human cycle, which reflects nature's cycle of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth. Not surprisingly, the earth and what it represents play vital roles in Bascom Hawke. Wolfe structures his novel around the development of this theme. He begins with Bascom's youth and then amplifies this idea of the earth with comparisons and contrasts with John T. Brill, another product of the earth. David, the new Bascom, is next identified with the earth, thus providing the final contrast between youth and age. David's triumph stems from his willingness to risk life's disappointments, the disappointments of lost love and frustrated emotions that weaned the once hearty Bascom.

Wolfe knew what he was doing when he wrote Bascom Hawke. He carefully draws us into Bascom's world and then proceeds to make Bascom and his plight come alive for us in the subsequent sections. Every section has a purpose, and every character has a function. Bascom Hawke contains the great language, the great themes, and the great characterizations that Wolfe erratically achieved in novels such as Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River. Significantly, Bascom Hawke is a tightly structured work—something his long novels are not—that contains all of these elements. It is a novel that should be read and remembered.


1 Maxwell Perkins, Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), p. 68.

2 See Bernard DeVoto, "Genius Is Not Enough," Saturday Review XIII (April 25, 1936), pp. 3-4, 14-15.

3 See Robert Penn Warren, "A Note on the Hamlet of Thomas Wolfe," reprinted in Selected Essays of Robert Penn Warren (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 183.

4 Professor Hugh Holman was the first to point to Wolfe's talent as a short novelist. In his introduction to The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), Holman writes, "In the short novel form Wolfe was a master of his craft . . . these successful products of his efforts should not be forgotten."

5 Quoted in Holman's introduction to The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, p. xx.

6 Thomas Wolfe, A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, collected in The ShortNovels of Thomas Wolfe, pp. 4-5. All future references are in the text and are to this edition.

Timothy Dow Adams (essay date 1980)

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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 he returned in September 1935 to visit the actual house where he had lived during the World's Fair of 1904. Wolfe's return to St. Louis, like his first visit to Asheville following Look Homeward, Angel's publication, became a literary work, "The Lost Boy," which used a strong and particular sense of time and place to show that "you can't go home again" applies to all childhood homes.

The use of the past, coupled with a pervasive fascination with time, has been characteristic of Southern writing almost since its beginning. As Allan W. Becker notes in an essay on Ellen Glasgow's place in the Southern literary tradition, "The sense of the past which we find in these writers (Roberts, Gordon, Tate, Warren, Faulkner, Wolfe, etc.) is almost a constant in Southern fiction. Kennedy, Simms, Cooke, Caruthers—all wrote of earlier times in the South: but their viewpoint differs from the new, in that regionalism contains an awareness of the presentness of the past."1 The prevalence among Southern writers of this particular way of using the past—an awareness of its constant influence on the present—is discussed by Louis D. Rubin in an essay on Southern historical writing in which he says: "The present was focused into perspective by the image of the past lying behind it. Their own contemporary life was seen not only for its own sake but as formed and influenced by the life that had preceeded it."2 Rubin suggests that the first post-World War I generation of Southern writers was especially concerned with the past's encroachment on their present, and influence on their future, because of the time and place of their existence, because they were of the new South, but were able to understand the older South into which they had been born. Georges Poulet, in an extensive essay on time and literature, makes the point that this inner drive to isolate a moment in the present, in order to look backward and forward, is characteristic of a change in century:

Begotten by feeling, imbued more and more with feeling, the thought of the century which is ending becomes more and more apt to discover in the depths of its vibrant actuality the interflowing images of reminiscence and premonition. Always isolated in the moment which gave it form, it sees this moment incessantly invaded, disorganized. Transfigured by states of mind from beyond, there comes to be superimposed upon actual existence the awareness of another existence, an existence which overlaps the frame of each moment. It is as if to exist meant to live two lives as the same time: the life lived day by day; and the life lived before and beyond the day or the moment; a life which lengthens into duration.3

These comments on time are particularly applicable to the works of Wolfe, as Rubin has shown in his essay, "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South,"4 and as H. Blair Rouse writes in his study of time and place in Southern fiction: "In the writing of Thomas Wolfe, time is a potent factor in the presentation of all the meaning of the lives of the characters; the past merges with the present and projects into the future."5

Wolfe's long story, "The Lost Boy," is a classic example of the Southern use of time which I have been discussing, because the story studies the past's interplay with the future and the present on so many levels. The story itself illustrates the effect of time on Wolfe, because he wrote it sometime in 1937 after having visited St. Louis.6 The story reverts to an earlier time when Wolfe used Eugene Gant as his protagonist. Seeing the past come into the present by his visit to St. Louis, Wolfe wrote "The Lost Boy" which retells, from another point of view and with many embellishments, the same scene in Look Homeward, Angel described by Rubin as illustrative of Wolfe's use of the past and time.

"The Lost Boy" is organized into four sections: Grover, his mother, his sister, and his brother. The story begins with a picture of Grover, who is the lost boy, in the town square of Altamont. The second section, the mother's is a monologue, addressed to Eugene—Grover's younger brother—in which the mother rambles about Grover and the trip to the World's Fair. In the third section, Helen—Grover's and Eugene's sister—recalls the events at St Louis surrounding Grover's death. The last section details Eugene's visit to the house where Grover died, thirty years later. These four sections of the story are held together by several patterns of time.

For example, as the sections unfold, time moves in a straight chronological fashion, from the time when Grover was actually alive, through subsequent attempts to remember him, until the last section, which takes place after Eugene has tried, and failed, to get at the past by talking with his mother and sister. Each section has a different narrator but each narrator picks up the story where the previous teller has left it.

The sections of "The Lost Boy" are also held together by the concept of Eugene's growing awareness of how he had felt at the age of four about Grover. In the first section, Eugene is not mentioned. In the second, he is addressed by his mother, but he is only a small part of her recollection. In the third section, Eugene is also addressed and even questioned, but he is still a passive character, secondary to Grover. Eugene becomes progressively more a part of each section until the last, in which his point of view is presented as he tries to recapture the past as it relates to him. Eugene is interested both in reconstructing Grover from the past and in reconstructing himself. To Eugene, both Grover and himself are the lost boy. Thus the story moves from the past toward the present in an attempt to regain the past. As the sections progress, the continuing story of Grover is also being presented, so that we find out more and more information about him, in a manner similar to the revelation of the past in Absalom! Absalom!. As in Faulkner's novel, each attempt to remember the real Grover is only an approximation, filtered through the memory of each speaker.

An important device which links all four parts and which appears in various forms throughout the story, is a repeated pattern of ebb and flow, coming and going and coming again. It is a pulsating pattern of stopping and starting which imparts a definite rhythm to the story. This pattern serves not only to bind the four parts to each other, but is also, in itself, a metaphor for the way memory works. The past comes and goes in the memories of each member of Grover's family. There is an elusive quality about the past that causes the memory of it to come and go, now becoming clear, now growing vague. This ebbing and flowing is seen in the universal phenomenon of a forgotten fact which is said to be on the tip of one's tongue, floating closer to conscious knowledge, and then retreating into the recesses of the mind, only to come back again, after it is no longer needed.

The pattern of coming and going is present from the first sentence of "The Lost Boy": "Light came and went and came again, the booming strokes of three o'clock beat out across the town in thronging bronze from the courthouse bell, light winds of April blew the fountain out in rainbow sheets, until the plume returned and pulsed, as Grover turned into the square."7 There is a feeling in that sentence of ebb and flow—of pulsation. It is there in the light, which comes and goes, and in the throbbing peals of the bell, which vibrate in beats across the square. The fountain reflects this sense of pulsation, both as the spray is blown by gusts of wind and as the water spurts up from its base. In the next paragraph of the story, these images, with a little variation, are repeated. The courthouse square is a study of coming and going. Street cars come into the square from each compass point, pause briefly, and then move back out on their runs. Grover, ruminating in the midst of this flowing scene, realizes that the square remains the same, despite the changing rhythm of everything in it. Caught in the flux of life all around him, Grover is pensive. He thinks of the square as a permanent fixture. He fixes the year, month, and hour; and for a moment, he is caught on a point in time, just as old Gant and Eugene are in similar scenes in Look Homeward, Angel. After this brief moment of calmness, the story again begins to flow; Grover passes the shops, enters the candy store and encounters the proprietor. Then he is back out on the square. Wagons roll past but he does not see them. He stands in the square, again feeling that it is the center of the universe and that it represents Now. Grover enters his father's shop where the scene is quiet and restful. The stones are waiting. A stone angel, to be used as a grave-marker, is languid; there is a layer of stone dust on the chisels. The scene has a Keatsian quality of suspended action, especially when compared with the previous scenes of constant alternation of movement and calmness. Then Grover blurts out the story of the incident with the candy store owner and the father jumps into action. He comes and goes among his gravestones. He begins sentences and stops in mid-thought. With a sudden burst, he grabs Grover "and they went out flying. Down the aisle they went by all the gravestones, past the fly-specked angels waiting there, and down the wooden steps and across the Square. The fountain pulsed, the plume blew out in sheeted iridescence, and it swept across them" (p. 13). W. O. Gant atones for Crocker, the candystore owner, and his treatment of Grover by demanding his son's money back and hurling bitter words at the crippled Crocker. Suddenly Grover is alone and back out on the square again, as the light comes and goes. The switching from violent action to reflective peace continues throughout the first section. Grover knows that "something had gone out of the day and something had come in again" (p. 14). The pattern of coming and going is present in Grover's thoughts as well as in the physical action of the first section. After his father's help, Grover realizes that he has lost a measure of innocence but gained an equal amount of experience. "Out of the vision of those quiet eyes some brightness had gone, and into their vision had come some deeper color. He could not say, he did not know through what transforming shadows life had passed within that quarter hour. He only knew that something had been lost—something forever gained" (p. 14). As the first section ends, Grover sees a poster advertising the St. Louis World's Fair. The sense of ebb and flow in this section is pervasive. It can be felt in the square, in the boy's alternation between coming into others' lives, and going into the square for quiet thought before jumping back into the flow of life all around him. The pattern is seen in the movements of Crocker, who rocks as he walks, coming and going from the rear of his store, and in the boy's father, who alternates between the calmness of his work and the fury of his actions in defense of his son.

Section II is the mother's monologue. In describing Grover, she also holds to this pattern of coming and going, focusing and unfocusing. She talks about Grover and how he acted on the train to St. Louis, but she constantly interrupts her story to revert to the present. She says she can remember exactly how Grover looked on the trip, "with his black eyes, his black hair, and with the birthmark on his neck—so grave, so serious, so earnest-like—as he sat by the train window. . . . It was so long ago, but when I think of it, it all comes back, as if it happened yesterday" (p. 22). The pattern of coming and going is repeated in this section. Grover is calm in the midst of change, just as he was in the square. He quietly watches the changes in the countryside that he sees from the train window, while the other children are running up and down in the aisle, looking from side to side. As the mother talks, Grover comes and goes. She changes from the past to the present and then back to another time in the past.

Section III of "The Lost Boy"is Grover's sister Helen's monologue. At first Helen talks about the strangeness of looking at an old photograph and thinking of the present and "how everyone either dies or grows up and goes away" (p. 23). The past comes back to her while she thinks about the picture. She begins to talk about Grover and the time when the family lived in St. Louis. Helen reminds Eugene about his difficulty as a young child with the pronunciation of Grover's name. In her attempt to recall all of the events leading up to Grover's death, Helen repeats the pattern of ebb and flow that is so prevalent in the earlier sections. "My God, I wish I knew the answer to these things. I'd like to find out what is wrong—what has changed since then—and if we have the same queer look in our eyes, too. Does it happen to us all, to everyone? . . . Grover and Ben, Steve, Daisy, Luke and me—all standing there before that house on Woodson street in Altamont—there we are, and you see the way we were—and how it all gets lost. What is it, anyway, that people lost? . . . It seems that it must be something we heard somewhere—that it happened to someone else. And then it comes back again. . . . It all comes back as if it happened yesterday. And then it goes away again, and seems further off and stranger than if it happened in a dream" (p. 30).

Section IV, the last part of the story, is Eugene's portion. He is back in St. Louis looking for the house where Grover died, looking for the past, lost thirty years before. At first Eugene talks to a stranger to try to locate the house. He thinks of the street called King's Highway, which to himself as a four year old boy was "a kind of road that wound from magic out of some dim and haunted land, and that along the way it had got mixed in with Tom the Piper's son, with hot cross buns, with all the lights that came and went, and with coming down through Indiana in the morning, and the smell of engine smoke, the Union Station, and most of all with voices lost and far and long ago that said 'King's Highway"' (p. 31). Then Eugene is back in the present, still looking for the house. He sees that King's Highway is just a city street now. Eugene finds the house but feels "nothing but absence, absence, and the desolation of America" (p. 33). Again Eugene's thoughts slip back into the past. He is four years old sitting on the stairs feeling a vague sadness because everyone was gone, working at the Fair. He had waited until they would all return and spent the time wondering what the future would bring. Now in St. Louis thirty years later, knowing what the future brought, Eugene wants to return to the past by sitting on the actual stairs of his former house. He thinks that he could remember all that he had seen and been, recapture his own universe as a child.

But as he thought it, he knew that even if he could sit here alone and get it back again, it would be gone as soon as seized, just as it had been then—first coming like the vast and drowsy rumor of the distant and enchanted Fair, then fading like cloud shadows on a hill, going like faces in a dream—coming, going, coming, possessed and held, but never captured, like lost voices in the mountains long ago—and like the dark eyes and quiet face of the dark, lost boy, his brother, who, in the mysterious rhythm of his life and work, used to come into this house, then go, and then return again (p. 38).

When Eugene sees the same room where Grover died, "The years dropped off like fallen leaves: the face came back again . . ." (p. 41), and he remembers the same episode about his trying to pronounce Grover's name that his sister had told him in section III of the story. When Helen told him the story, he could not remember, but now, in the very house where it took place, he does remember—"It all came back, and faded, and was lost again" (p. 41). As Eugene leaves the house, he looks back and sees that it is only a house again. His ability to relive the past is gone now and Grover, the lost boy, is also gone, never to return. Through the constant use of the pattern I have been tracing in each section of the story, Wolfe emphasizes Eugene's attempts to escape from the distortions and blurrings of thirty years of elapsed time. He comes nearer and nearer to controlling his memories of Grover and then his ability begins to fade as he leaves the room where Grover died.

In his essay on Wolfe and time, Rubin continues his comments by saying that Wolfe "was a thoroughgoing romantic; his writing has the intensity of fiction written by an artist who is seeking furiously, through his literary craft, to impose on his recalcitrant experience his own highly personal valuations."8 This view of Wolfe as a romantic trying to evaluate his past, is described by Poulet as typical of the romantic's use of time:

Incarcerated in the instant, the romantic escapes into thought all the rest of his life. Or rather he tries to envelop his thought in the consciousness of the present moment. It is no longer a question, as it was in the preceding century, of extracting from the moment all its sensuous substance; it is a question of giving the moment all the profundity, all the infinity of duration of which man feels capable. To possess his life in the moment is the pretension or the fundamental desire of the romantic.9

"The Lost Boy" also illustrates by its use of place the pattern of coming and going and the difficulty of focusing on the past. St. Louis and the World's Fair serve as further metaphors for a looking backward and forward simultaneously. The Louisiana Purchase Universal Exposition, as the St. Louis Fair of 1904 was officially called, was designed for the dual purpose of celebrating the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase and demonstrating America's progress since 1804. Some of the major events and displays commemorated the past, but the major emphasis of the fair was on the future.10 Thomas Wolfe, returning to St. Louis after thirty-one years, must have been as surprised as the Eugene of "The Lost Boy" was to see how the entire fairgrounds had vanished. What had seemed magical to a four year old boy, seemed magical still because it had vanished completely. Part of the planning for the fair included plans for the restoration of the park where the fairgrounds were located. David R. Francis, the president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, explains in his mammoth book on the fair that the "Board of Public Improvements" required the "removal of all buildings except the palace of Art and removal of the Intramural railway,"11 as well as the following ordinance, "Within twelve months after the close of such Fair or Exposition fully restore the park selected as a site, or, in the case of Forest Park, that portion thereof above described, by doing all necessary grading, the restoration and repair, or the formation of all walks or roads, the planting of trees, the placing of sod and the planting of shrubs and plants, all in accordance with plans to be approved by the Board. . . ."12 One of the buildings became a city museum; a few others became part of Washington University, but the majority were torn down immediately.

Eugene's attempt at reconstructing the past by visiting St. Louis and looking for his house is complicated by the fact that by 1935 hardly any traces of the fair remain. Street names had been changed, vegetation had grown, and the site of the largest and most famous World's Fair ever, had been transformed into an ordinary city park. The fantastic, magical fair—"A fair so comprehensive, so perfectly planned, that had some disaster wiped out every culture on the face of the earth, all could have been reconstructed from the materials on hand . . ,"13—had come into his life and gone out of it as though a dream.

St. Louis is itself an example of the difficulty of focusing the past because it is a city whose identity has changed with time. The St. Louis celebrated by W. C. Handy in "St. Louis Blues," is in the same traditional Southern state as Mark Twain's Hannibal, but Missouri was a compromise state and by 1904 the city is thought of as only partly Southern. Eugene says of St. Louis, "He feels the way one feels when one comes back, and knows that he should not have come, and when he sees that, after all, King's Highway is—a street; and St. Louis—the enchanted name—a big, hot, common town upon the river, sweltering in wet, dreary heat, and not quite South . . ." (p. 33). Eugene's impression that St. Louis was not quite a Southern city anymore by 1904 is echoed in Henry James' The Bostonians, published only eighteen years before the St. Louis Fair, when Mrs. Farrinder declares that she has been warned not to lecture in Southern cities on the history of feminism. She is answered by Verena Tarrant, who replies, "I had a magnificent audience last spring in St. Louis."14 She is answered by an anonymous voice, "Oh, well, St. Louis—that's scarcely the South."15 St. Louis is partly Southern, partly Western and partly Mid-Western. Although the city calls itself "Gateway to the West," Wolfe thought of St. Louis as a Mid-Western city: "The loneliness and sadness of the high, hot skies, and evening coming on across the Middle West" (p. 33).

Wolfe's visit to St. Louis in 1935 and his subsequent literary use of that visit to describe the difficulty of recapturing the past by revisiting past locations, foreshadows his return to Asheville in 1937 and his well-known phrase, "you can't go home again," a phrase which Wolfe associated with "the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time,"16 and which he expressed in the pattern of ebb and flow in time and place that permeates "The Lost Boy."


1 Allan W. Becker, "Ellen Glasgow and the Southern Literary Tradition," Modern Fiction Studies, 5 (1959-60), 301.

2 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "The Historical Image of Modern Southern Writing," Journal of Southern History, 22 (May 1956), 154.

3 Georges Poulet, "The Course of Human Time," trans, by Eliot Coleman, The Hopkins Review, 6 (Spring-Summer, 1953), 27.

4 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South," Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country (Seattle, 1963), 72-104.

5 H. Blair Rouse, "Time and Place in Southern Fiction," in Southern Renascence, ed. by Louis D. Rubin, and Robert D. Jacobs (Baltimore, 1966), 132.

6 Elizabeth Nowell, Thomas Wolfe: A Biography (Garden City, 1960), 379.

7 Thomas Wolfe, "The Lost Boy," in The Hills Beyond (New York, 1941), 1. Future citations are to this edition.

8 Rubin, "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South," p. 103.

9 Poulet, p. 27.

10 Edward J. Coff, "St. Louis Celebrates," Missouri Historical Society-Bulletin, (October 1954), 54.

11 David R. Francis, The Universal Exposition of 1904 (St. Louis, 1913), 667.

12 Francis, p. 668.

13 Coff, "St. Louis Celebrates," p. 67.

14 Henry James, The Bostonians (New York, 1956), 51.

15 James, The Bostonians, p. 52.

16 Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again (New York, 1940), 706.

David K. Hall (essay date 1983)

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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.

But Wolfe was not unaware of literary device. What is more, he used it extremely well. To point this out it is expedient to lift the segment "The Child by Tiger"1 from his novel The Web and the Rock and examine in it Wolfe's use of literary device.

"The Child by Tiger" is a story about the dual nature of man; his evil and his goodness. Wolfe draws this duality in extreme forms in the single character of Dick Prosser and in the group character of the town crowd. Contrasts of imagery, character, action and point of view are the strongest literary devices in the story working to emphasize Wolfe's point about the two-sided nature of man.

Perhaps the least important of the contrasts are the changes in point of view. There are at least three of them, and all are minor variations of third-person limited narration. These point-of-view changes are most noticeable for how the story development alters with each section. Most of the story is told from a third-person "reporter" point-ofview. Yet interspersed throughout the story are lines indicating that Wolfe wants us to get a sense of some of the characters' thoughts and feelings, and the point of view is thus brought somewhat closer to a limited omniscience.

The story begins in a third-person "reporter" point-of-view, introducing George Webber, Randy Shepperton and Dick Prosser. In this section we are shown Prosser's benevolent attributes, especially as they affect George and Randy. Prosser teaches them, for instance, how to throw and kick a football, and gives them kindly-superintended sparring lessons. This also gives us some clues to Prosser's dual nature for, although we are never admitted to his thoughts, the quality of the activities he provides instruction in is rather violent. A foreshadowing (another literary device) of his role in the story is developed.

In one incident Prosser is chauffeuring Randy's father when a drunken white drives into the Sheppertons' car. The drunk and Prosser get out of their cars, and when the drunk begins punching, Prosser does not retaliate. Wolfe has effectively depicted the side of Prosser devoted to good.

But Wolfe immediately sets up a contrast of character and action. Prosser does not move after being punched, but "the whites of his eyes were shot with red," and "his bleeding lips bared for a moment over the white ivory of his teeth." Prosser's apparent surface tranquility, his subjection to the punching, is broken by his sub-surface rage that gets expressed by his reddened eyes and bared teeth. The "pure" symbolism of the words "white ivory," and the "evil" symbolism of the words "shot with red" are manifestations of a contrast specific to Prosser.

This contrast is heightened a little later when Prosser's rifle is discovered on the table in his room next to his Bible. The image is a striking one: An instrument of violence side by side with an instrument of staid meekness. And when Prosser finds the boys staring at his rifle, his menacing side is underscored again by the use of the image of reddened eyes; "he was there above them, his thick lips bared over his gums, his eyes gone small and red as rodents'."

The point of view switches shortly after this part in the story, becoming more of an effaced third-person narration. During this part of the story the action ceases, except that George Webber falls asleep, and Wolfe takes occasion to set up a mood of isolation and menace through the use of the imagery of snow in the South.2 There is a contrast between the active preceding section and this relatively actionless section. This section is not completely outside of the story,3 because it is presented as the meditation of Webber, who "went to sleep upon [the] mystery" of the falling snow.

Wolfe writes, "the storm howled on," and "all life seemed to have withdrawn into thrilling isolation." The snow brings something "dark and jubilant," and also brings "the thrilling isolation of its own white mystery." And as the snow is falling Wolfe writes about the opposing sides of nature, dividing the world into opposite symbols: "In every man there are two hemispheres of light and dark, two worlds discrete, two countries of his soul's adventure. . . . Thus, at the head of those two poles of life will lie the real, the truthful image of its immortal opposite." A strong background of isolation and conflict is established, with the "white mystery" of the snow surrounding the black Prosser. We anticipate what might result from the "powers discrete that wage perpetual warfare in the lives of all men living."4

Action resumes as the point of view returns to a third-person "reporter" narrative. Webber is suddenly awakened in the night by the sound of the town firebell ringing "bronze with peril, clamorous through the snow-numbed silence of the air." Webber and Shepperton find out that Prosser has "gone crazy and is running wild." A crowd has gathered, incensed; Prosser has gone on a killing spree. The crowd grows more and more unruly and finally breaks out in an act of violence itself, forcing its way into the hardware store and looting it of rifles. There is a single, violent mob-will which, like Prosser's dark side, Wolfe likens to an animal. The boys could hear coming from the crowd "a low and growing mutter, an ugly and insistent growl." "There was no mistaking the blood note in that foggy growl." Earlier the townsfolk had rescued Prosser from the fist-swinging drunk, but now they are a blood-thirsty savage lynch crowd gathered to track and kill him.

The events of Prosser's killing spree and the posse's search are told from the "reporter" point-of-view, but this section contains much less of the type of effaced omniscience used in the preceding section. In fact, this section begins, "This was what had happened," and the tale of Prosser's murders and run from the law is unfolded very much as if it were being recounted in a newspaper article.

Prosser's earlier kind and loyal actions are contrasted with the savage killing unfolded in this section. He has become the opposite of his earlier self, killing seven men, and Wolfe's foreboding symbolism of opposing hemispheres looms up in the mind. It doesn't seem to be too drastic a measurement of the human condition.

Descriptions of Prosser on his killing spree involve catlike imagery, suggested by phrases such as "his great black paw" implying the more brutal tiger rather than the domesticated cat. Shooting at anything in his way, Prosser "covered the ground with cat-like speed," and walked across the snow "straight as a string, right out of town." Black and white is contrasted as Prosser leaves footprints in the snow. After a day of searching the mob finds him and empties "all their ammunition on the riddled carcass." His body is brought to town and hung on display in the front window of the undertaker's where, in contrast to what they say about their abhorrence of it, the hypocrites flock to see it.

The final section of the story is two-part itself. The first part begins only "a day or two" after Prosser dies. The boys and Mr. Shepperton re-enter Prosser's room for the first time since his death and find the Bible that Prosser often read "open and face downward" on the table, apparently open to what Prosser last read from it—the twenty-third Psalm. Mr. Shepperton reads it aloud, then "closed the book and put it down upon the table, the place where Dick had left it. And they went out the door, he locked it, and they went back into that room no more, forever." It is done as though they are shutting the door on the knowledge of man's evil character, as though to help the boys keep some form of innocence, realize only the good side of man. At least George Webber can not, for in the second part of the final section Webber recalls the savage side of Prosser from an older point of view.

From this older, more mature point of view, Webber remembers Prosser before the killings, and events up through finding his Bible after the killings. From this older viewpoint he reflects on the appropriateness of the twenty-third Psalm, on the docility of the message of it. And he feels that Blake's poem about the world's unexplained savagery befits Prosser's nature better, and quotes "Tyger! Tyger!" Blake's poem effectively completes the animal images and actions of the story. Blake contrasts lamb with tiger, meek with savage, as does Wolfe. Wolfe concludes that Prosser was "a symbol of man's evil innocence, and the token of his mystery, a projection of his own unfathomed quality, a friend, a brother, and a mortal enemy, an unknown demon—our loving friend, our mortal enemy, two worlds together—tiger and a child."

The contrasting imagery, actions, characters and sections of point-of-view work well, as literary devices they help to strengthen and clarify Wolfe's point about the duality of human nature. It seems to me that Wolfe sought for these literary tools, intending to use them. Once he had found them, he used them like a true craftsman. His contrasts are well woven into the story, thus showing his mastery of the use of them. There may be something to the beauty and power of Wolfe's language which could obscure his use of literary device. But this story would certainly never have achieved its end so well had it not been crafted so well.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are taken from "The Child By Tiger" in The Thomas Wolfe Reader, edited by C. Hugh Holman (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), pp. 500-526.

2 This is suggested by Floyd C. Watkins in Thomas Wolfe's Characters (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1957), p. 106.

3 Richard S. Kennedy interprets it this way in The Window of Memory (Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 317.

4 Quoted from Wolfe by Richard Walser in Thomas Wolfe: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961), pp. 95-97.

James D. Boyer (essay date 1983)

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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 intervening years and people had forgiven him. Family and friends flocked around him, and for a while the attention was pleasant and flattering. But by fall the joys of the old home town had worn thin, and Wolfe went hurrying back to New York City. He had found that he couldn't go home again, or more accurately, that fourteen years of living in New York City had made it his real home.

When he had come to the city in 1925, Wolfe was, of course, as much the provincial as his fictional protagonists, Eugene Gant and George Webber. He had grown up in the mountain country of Asheville, had gone to a rural university in Chapel Hill, and had spent three years cloistered at Harvard. After that, from 1925 until his death in 1938, he made New York his home. He had brought to the city more than the usual number of fears and prejudices. Those fourteen years show a significant change in his feelings toward the city, a growth in understanding and sympathy for its people that is clearly reflected in his writing.

Wolfe's earliest fiction dealing with New York is "The Train and the City," a story published in Scribner's Magazine in May 1933, but written in 1930 or earlier. That story reflects deep division in the feelings of his protagonist between what he had anticipated of the city and what he found it to be. In a passage early in the story he pictures the city as he experienced it on a glorious first day of spring when everything came to life:

Over the immense and furious encampment of the city there trembled the mightly pulsations of a unity of hope and joy, a music of triumph and enchantment that suddenly wove all life into the fabric of its exultant harmonies. It quelled the blind and brutal stupefactions of the street, it pierced into a million cells, and fell upon ten thousand acts and moments of man's life and business, it hovered above him in the air, it gleamed and sparkled in the flashing tides that girdled round the city, and with a wizard's hand it drew forth from the tombs of winter the gray flesh of the living dead.

The wonders of that day rekindle in the speaker his childhood vision of the city:

It was a vision simple, golden, unperplexed, carved from deep substances of light and shade, and exultant with its prophecy of glory, love and triumph.

I heard, far-off, the deep and bee-like murmur of its million-footed life, and all the mystery of the earth and time was in that sound. I saw its thousand streets peopled with a flashing, beautiful, infinitely varied life. The city flashed before me like a glorious jewel, blazing with the thousand rich and brilliant facets of a life so good, so bountiful, so strangely and constantly beautiful and interesting that it seemed intolerable that I should miss a moment of it. I saw the streets swarming with the figures of great men and glorious women, and I walked among them like a conqueror, winning fiercely and exultantly by my talent, courage, and merit, the greatest tributes that the city had to offer, the highest prize of power, wealth, and fame, and the great emolument of love.1

The feelings are, of course, those generalized anticipations of the rural-bred youth heading for the city, a vision more powerful perhaps in the 192O's than now, but still close enough to our own experience to rekindle strong feelings, if only nostalgia.

But a few phrases in those passages—"the blind and brutal stupefaction of the streets" and "the gray flesh of the living dead"—reveal a contrasting response that surfaces in the narrator even as he tries to recapture the childhood vision. This response, a feeling of mistrust and repulsion, deepens as he moves from description of place to description of people: "'I saw again,' he says, the million faces—the faces dark, dingy, driven, harried, and corrupt, the faces stamped with all the familiar markings of suspicion and mistrust, cunning, contriving, and a hard and stupid cynicism. There were the faces thin and febrile, of the taxi drivers, the faces cunning, sly and furtive, the hard twisted mouths and rasping voices, . . . the faces cruel and arrogant and knowing of the beak-nosed Jews, the brutal heavy figures of the Irish cops." The reader feels embarrassment for the antagonism and prejudice of the narrator as he goes on: "Hard mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile." Though the narrator tries to tie these people in with his vision of wonder over the city, the reader remains unconvinced. Clearly the real city is, for the narrator, filled with strange, frightening, unfriendly people.

In another early story, Death, the Proud Brother, (Scribner's Magazine, June 1933) Wolfe gives us further insight into what was wrong with city life; here the city is impersonal, isolating, mechanical, violent. The story is a graphic account of four unrelated city deaths: a street vendor is crushed by a truck, a worker falls to his death from a steel beam high above a construction site, a skidrow bum crushes his head in a drunken fall, and an Irishman dies peacefully on a subway bench. What pervades each of these incidents is the impersonality of the city: the truck driver who has killed the street vendor continues on, unaware of the death his truck has caused; the death fall of the riviter causes a traffic jam that angers the inconvenienced people; the dead drunk is the butt of jokes by two callous sophisticates. And although the narrator describes the fourth death differently, telling how death came quietly and bestowed dignity and awe on the man in the subway, the reader is still made aware of a disturbing detachment on the part of those present—the crowd makes jokes and a young black prostitute lures away a vulpine-faced Italian. The city, judged by these four episodes, is uncaring. In it man appears to lose the capacity for compassion and brotherhood. The narrator's anger is so intense at one point that the action of these city people made him "want to smash them in the face." The tone of the story changes dramatically in the long lyric apostrophe to death, loneliness and sleep that ends it, but that beautiful lyric fails to erase the narrator's angry feelings toward man alive.

This sense of city man as "man swarm"—abrasive, strident, reptilian, vulpine and uncaring—reflects Wolfe's early response to the city. Characteristic of his writing done before 1932, the response tells us more about his own isolation and defensiveness during that period than about the city, for as he lives in the city over a period of years, especially after his move from Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1931, his angry tone is softened considerably. No Door, written after that move, shows some beginning steps in that change of feelings. In its opening section, where the narrator is conversing with a pleasant, aesthetic-looking millionaire, it is clearly the wealthy host who is naive about city life and the narrator who understands the real richness of life there. And the city people, as the narrator describes them now, contribute to the richness. Of his landlady in Brooklyn, he explains "what a good and liberal-hearted woman she is; how rough and ready, full of life and energy, how she likes drinking and the fellowship of drinking men, and knows all the rough and seamy sides of life. . . ."2 And other neighbors are favorably presented too. Even as he describes the neighbors who fight and brawl, or the prostitute in the street at 2:00 a.m. who screams at her escort, "Yah gotta pay me, yuh big bum," and the escort who counters, "I won't pay yuh until you start acting like a lady," he presents them with the pride and affection of an insider. And ironically, though the overall theme of No Door has to do with man's inescapable isolation, the narrator appears to be experiencing acceptance and feeling community with these people. No Door is clearly a turning point.

This changing attitude toward the city and its people is further illustrated in one of Wolfe's simplest and most impressive short stories, 'Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," published two years later in 1935.3 Here one of the city people, a Brooklynite, narrates the story. Like earlier city people he is pugnacious, brash, and uneducated. But he is curious and kind, too. While waiting for a subway one evening, he encounters a tall, half-drunk, half-crazed stranger. (The reader at once recognizes this stranger as the familiar Wolfe protagonist.) The stranger is exploring Brooklyn with a map and wants to find "Benson-hoist," and the Brooklynite is anxious to help. But as the stranger talks of wandering through the Red Hook section at night, clearly not a sensible thing to do, and questions what the Brooklynite would do if he ever found someone drowning in Brooklyn, the native explains that people don't drown in Brooklyn, then begins to realize just how drunk or crazy the stranger is, and gets off the subway early to escape, repeating that it would take a whole lifetime to know Brooklyn,—that in fact, only the dead really know Brooklyn.

The reader, of course, has more understanding of the whole situation than does the narrator. The reader sees that the stranger with the map is trying to absorb the city, to experience everything; he understands that drowning, while not a literal but a metaphorical danger, is a serious danger nonetheless for the stranger. (It is Wolfe's greatest struggle with the protean city.) But the final wisdom in the story is given to the city man, even though he doesn't fully understand the implications of his own words: "It'd take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo. An even den, yuh wouldn't know it all." Though the tall stranger in the story hasn't learned yet, Wolfe is clearly learning to curb the insatiable appetite for experience.

The extent to which Wolfe came to identify with the lower classes in the city—in his fiction and in his life—is spelled out in one of the final stories he worked on before his final trip west in 1938 and his death. The Party at Jack's concerns the other side of the society of the city, the very rich. Wolfe had, of course, come to know personally the ways of the rich through his relationship with Aline Bernstein. She worked as a designer in the theater, but her husband had amassed a fortune as a stockbroker, and through their parties Wolfe came to know a significant circle of the rich and powerful of the city. And for a time he had viewed that life as a glorious goal to reach out for. But through his years of living in Brooklyn, by observing first hand the poverty and deprivation of the poor, he had begun to recognize the injustice and evil of the system that supported Aline's family and others of that privileged class. Having moved from his romantic period to one of great social concern, Wolfe wrote The Party at Jack's to make clear where he stood.

The story covers a single day in 1929, just before the great stock market crash, and is set in the fashionable apartment of Esther Jack, mistress of Wolfe's final protagonist, George Webber. The central event of the story is a party George attends, at which the fashionable people gather. At the party, aspiring writer George meets other writers, critics, stage stars and aging dilettantes. Chief entertainment for the evening is Piggy Logan and his circus of wire dolls. The party is a rather dismal affair, at least for George. As it draws to a close, fire breaks out in the building, causing those still present to flee to the streets. Though the fire is soon extinguished and things returned to normal, the experiences of the evening, the luxury and pointlessness of the whole affair, convince George that he must break with Esther Jack and her world of sterile luxury.

Wolfe calls The Party at Jack's the most densely woven piece of writing that he had ever attempted. In the story, a sweeping attack on the capitalistic system, virtually everything is symbolic. Richard Kennedy, in The Window of Memory, has given a careful analysis of the social criticism.4 The apartment building, complete with elevator operators and serving girls, represents a whole world of wealth and privilege. Beneath runs the subway, whose rumblings, scarcely felt above, suggest the shakiness of this system of privilege resting on the working classes who pass beneath. The fire in the building, suggestive, perhaps, of the depression itself, causes much concern but only temporary dislocation for these privileged souls. But the uncertainty remains. Characters in the story represent important types: old John Enborg is the willing servant who works for and defends the Jacks and their class; Amy Van Leer, the aging socialite whose inability to articulate ideas—and whose bored resignation represent the "lost generation," those who had experienced too much too soon; and the Jacks themselves, the liberals of the world, basically good people who are yet caught up in and responsible for the evils of the system. And images are used to reinforce narrative: Piggy Logan's grotesque mechanical circus serves as a striking image of the tastelessness of the cult and the reduction of art among the wealthy class. Characters, events, images—all function in the story to condemn the privileges of the wealthy, the greed and the essential sterility of the upper classes. Wolfe's final statement on the city, it aims its criticism not at the city as such, but at its privileged class. It demonstrates Wolfe's real allegiance to and love for the city people he had been living with.

Though he pictured city man as poor, often the victim, often alienated, he showed a growing compassion for and identification with these people throughout his career. As a result, he was able to write of Brooklyn in summer, "There are so many million doors tonight. There's a door for everyone tonight, all's open to the air, all's interfused tonight . . . and there is something over all tonight, something fused, remote and trembling . . . upon the huge and weaving ocean of the night in Brooklyn." And before that fatal Western trip, he had carefully reinstalled himself in a Manhattan apartment. After his reconciliation with the South, he did come home again, to New York City.


1 "The Train and the City," Scribner's Magazine, 93 (May, 1933), 285-286.

2 "No Door," Scribner's Magazine, 94 (July 1933), 47.

3 "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," The New Yorker, 11 (June 15, 1935), 13-14.

4You Can't Go Home Again (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940), p. 430.

Elizabeth Evans (essay date 1984)

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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 ways of going about this deliberately and I am sure I'd fail miserably if I tried" (Letters, p. 325). Most often his short stories were segments of the larger manuscript he was always working on at the time, and he felt uncertain about excising a portion and shaping it as a short story. Once when he sent Elizabeth Nowell approximately seven typed pages out of a manuscript (a piece about two boys going to the circus) he wrote, "The thing ["Circus at Dawn"] needs an introduction which I will try to write today, but otherwise it is complete enough, although, again, I am afraid it is not what most people consider a story" (Letters, p. 402). ("Circus at Dawn" was published in Modern Monthly in 1935; it was also included in From Death to Morning). Wolfe generally left such decisions and selections up to Nowell.

All fourteen stones that From Death to Morning (1935) comprises appeared in magazines or academic journals between July 1932, when The Web of Earth was published, and October 1935, when "The Bums at Sunset" appeared. Seven of these stories were published by Scribner's Magazine, two by Modern Monthly, and one each by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, and the Virginia Quarterly Review—a wide variety of publications. Letters in 1933 indicate that Wolfe was hard pressed for money; selling stories was therefore essential. He was down to $7, he said, when the sale of NoDoor to Scribner's Magazine brought him $200. Although he welcomed this sum, Wolfe wrote George Wallace (a former member of Professor Baker's 47 Workshop at Harvard) that he was considering taking his stories to another agent, one who had indicated he could get higher prices than Scribner's Magazine, Wolfe's most frequent publisher, offered. Obviously Wolfe would indeed welcome "large fat checks" from Cosmopolitan. These stories earned him funds first as single sales and then in the collected volume From Death to Morning. This volume appeared eight months after Of Time and the River was published, making 1935 an important year of publication for Wolfe.

Wolfe attributed the unenthusiastic reviews of From Death to Morning to the criticism that continued to be made about Of Time and the River, excessive length. The favorable reviews stressed the lyrical prose, humor, realism, and engaging characters. Nevertheless, this neglected volume generally has been underrated, with just a few stories receiving serious attention; indeed, Richard Kennedy thinks that From Death to Morning is a book that discourages a second reading. While critics wisely avoid extravagant claims for this collection, they need not shy away from confidently praising Wolfe's variety of narrative forms, his range of subject matter, the large number of effectively drawn characters, the careful attention to place, and the emotional power. Indeed, emotional power is the significant feature, one that Wolfe conveys best through a pervasive feeling of loneliness in characters and through some extraordinarily violent scenes.

Narrative forms include the episodic, epistolary, stream-of-consciousness, as well as slice-of-life, the form that describes "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "The Bums at Sunset." Each of these stories concerns a problem, for which no solution is reached. Like most of the stories in this collection, these two implicitly explore the theme of loneliness that is prevalent even in The Web of Earth, a piece of writing whose main character, Wolfe says, "is grander, richer and more tremendous" than Joyce's Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses (Letters, p. 339). In both "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "The Bums at Sunset," the characters are flat, distinguished only by age and basic reactions. The bums are a chance collection of lonely men exiled for unknown reasons from families and productive work. Both stories center on the arrival of a stranger. In "The Bums at Sunset," the appearance of the young, uninitiated bum threatens those who know the ropes and are suspicious of his lack of experience. "What is dis anyway?" one of them sneers, "a noic'ry [nursery], or sump'n." In "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," the big guy who presumes to learn all of Brooklyn by asking directions and studying his map baffles the narrator, who declares, "Dere's no guy livin' dat knows Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo." While the voice of the Brooklyn native narrates this story, an omniscient voice tells the story of "The Bums at Sunset," and his diction contrasts with the bums' ungrammatical speech and limited vocabulary in its use of figurative language; for example, the fading light of sunset looks, he says, "like a delicate and ancient bronze." And in picturing these nondescript men, the narrator emphasizes that their inescapable loneliness tells "a legend of pounding wheel and thrumming rod, of bloody brawl and brutal shambles, of the savage wilderness, the wild, cruel and lonely distances of America."

"Gulliver," a brief character study of an excessively tall man, relates the discomfort of someone who never fits into chairs, beds, or Pullman car berths—of a giant in a world of normal-sized people. Furthermore, the central character is subjected to the same insults wherever he goes: "Hey-y, Mis-teh! . . . Is it rainin' up deh?" His physical size dominates the story and causes the pain and incommunicable loneliness that mark his life. In "The Far and the Near," a very short piece originally entitled "The Cottage by the Tracks," Wolfe tells a sentimental story about a railroad engineer who finally discovers the reality of what he had thought to be an idyllic scene: a mother and a daughter who live in a country cottage near the tracks. For twenty years the engineer has waved to them as his train roared past, and now that he has retired, he comes to greet them in person. From the moment the older woman opens the door, he knows he should not have come. The idyllic scene he saw for years now fades before her suspicious attitude, her harsh voice, and her unsmiling face. The engineer is left disappointed and lonely, since the reality of the unfriendly cottage inhabitants precludes his hopes of friendship with them and indeed ruins his memory. If the engineer has any other life to go to, we are not told of it.

The subjects of loneliness and death coalesce in the story of the dying man in "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time." Because he is ill, the man must go away alone for the winter to warmer climate; his wife promises that she will join him in the spring. Other people board the train, many of them talking and laughing as they leave. The dying man's wife settles him in the compartment, turns, and quickly leaves to join her young, robust lover who waits on the platform. This desertion is repeated in a lesser way with the American youth assigned to this same compartment. His good health and youth contrast sharply with the dying man's condition. And when the youth leaves the compartment for the conviviality of the dining car, the older man dies. He never fulfills his modest desire of knowing well just "vun field, vun hill, vun riffer."

As it appears in From Death to Morning, No Door is only the first segment of a much longer work of the same title, a short novel Max Perkins considered bringing out in a limited edition. He did not do so, however. In the original version, this first segment is subtitled "October 1931." Structurally, the brief version in From Death to Morning fails to develop a unified plot. The story begins in the luxurious apartment of the host, a rich man who has taken the requisite trip to Europe, collected a suitably impressive collection of sculpture and rare books, and lives among furnishings that are of "quiet but distinguished taste." His young mistress is at his side when his guest (a writer) relates painful glimpses of Brooklyn's low life. The host appears to listen, but he responds incongruously—"grand," "marvelous," "swell"—even though the young man tells of men who live in alleyways, beat their wives, and consider murder and robbery honest toil. In some detail the guest relates an episode about the loud demands of a lonely prostitute for her $3 payment. Her client refuses to pay her until, as he puts it, she will "staht actin' like a lady." Oblivious to the irony, the host continues to murmur "grand," and he envies the young man the rich experience of living among such people.

In the final pages Wolfe abandons the host, his mistress, the tinkling cocktail glasses, and the penthouse balcony to recount the haunting story of a priest's death. One of Wolfe's finest vignettes, this episode stays in the narrator's mind "like the haunting refrain of some old song—as it was heard and lost in Brooklyn." At evening, a man and a woman appear in their respective apartment windows to talk, their voices issuing banalities such as "Wat's t' noos sinct I been gone?" Although Father Grogan has died while this speaker was away, the priest's death is little more than a piece of news to be reported by one nameless character to another. It is not a grief to be shared, as one can see by the response to the news: "Gee, dat's too bad . . . I musta been away. Oddehwise I woulda hoid." Although the narrator is fully aware of the tragic implications of the priest's death, he makes no overt judgments about the insensitive speakers. The scene ends with a simple line: "A window closed, and there was silence." The casual announcement of Father Grogan's death and the equally casual reaction lead the narrator to consider time, in whose relentless power fame is lost, names are forgotten, and energy is wasted. Indeed, Father Grogan and all mankind die in darkness; they are remembered only superficially, if at all.

Related as it is to loneliness and violence, the theme of human dejection is present throughout these stories. The host may be wealthy, but he is a man who has never really lived. Indeed, Wolfe says this man measures time not by actual deeds but "in dimensions of fathomless and immovable sensations." His young guest lives in a run-down section of Brooklyn, an environment in stark contrast to his host's penthouse. When the young man describes the abject conditions of his neighborhood, the host considers such tales colorful and alive, unlike his own rich but dead world. The diverse reactions of these two men cannot be reconciled. The unrelieved loneliness, the failure of communication, and the narrator's search for certitude and meaning are problems introduced but left unresolved. Solutions are hinted at through brief passages whose imagery expresses a momentary harmony—"all of the colors of the sun and harbor, flashing, blazing, shifting in swarming motes, in an iridescent web of light and color for an instant on the blazing side of a proud white ship." The color flashes and then is gone, however; what remains for the narrator is unspeakable loneliness.

Like "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time," this short version of No Door is a poignant examination of people who do not know how to express their deepest feelings, of people who do not or cannot share the burden or happiness of another, of people who are overwhelmed by loneliness.

In June 1935, Modern Monthly published Wolfe's story "The Face of War." Much of the plot stems from the summer of 1918, when Wolfe worked in the Norfolk shipyards. Like Death the Proud Brother (the story that follows "The Face of War" in From Death to Morning) this story focuses on four separate episodes, uses shocking violence, and emphasizes loneliness. In the first episode, Wolfe objectively relates the senseless beating of a black construction worker at Langley Field by the slouchy, shambling figure of a Southern white man who is egged on by his worthless office clerk. Wolfe's imagery suggests the bestial nature of these characters. The white boss wields a club "in his meaty hand," and his abnormal voice is described "as high thick throat-scream of blood-lust and murder." His office clerk creeps about "with rat's teeth bared" and "the coward's lust to kill." The clerk keeps a safe distance from the black man and urges his boss "to shoot the bastard if he tries to hit you." After the beating, the black man staggers about with a broken nose, buckling knees, and a ripped skull. He had seen the enemy coming and had half crouched, "ape-like" with arms like "great paws." His "white eyeballs" were now fixed, and he was ready to leap or run. The victim never utters a word and finally is left unconscious before his enemies. The "paunchgut man" and his "white rat-face" clerk behind him beat the black man because the boss will be damned "if a Goddamn Nigger can talk back to a white man." This episode is particularly important since Wolfe does not include many black characters or often present racial issues and confrontations in his fiction. While he by no means attacks the subject with Faulkner's eye for its complexity, Wolfe was neither callous nor oblivious to the injustices that befell blacks.

Violence also erupts in the second episode of "The Face of War" when three young, friendly, blue-eyed, slow-talking Southern men appear. Having finished their construction job for the day, they are stopped abruptly by a foul-mouthed armed guard who accuses them of mischief. He pulls his gun, snarls, and stares at them with "eyes a-glitter, narrow as a snake." The guard's senseless verbal attack bewilders them. His crude words contrast sharply with the calm passage that had earlier described the boys as they walked near the water's edge, talking of home, college, and plans for the weekend.

Throughout the story the August sun beats mercilessly, and in the third episode it shines on the raw pine brothel set up hastily in wartime. Recruited from northern and midwestern cities, the prostitutes are neither alluring nor beautiful, and their aggressive behavior covers any display of tenderness. The men are nameless except for one called Georgia. Dressed in khaki uniforms, they stand in line, impatiently calling to the occupants of the tiny cubicles to "come on out an' give some of duh rest of us a chanct, f' r Chris' sake!" The prostitutes are rapacious, weary-eyed, and hard-visaged. Their obscene language contrasts ironically with another side of them, which Wolfe describes as a "fearful, almost timid desire to find friendship, gentleness, and even love among the rabble-rout of lost and ruined men to whom they minister." Georgia recognizes a prostitute named Margaret as a girl from home. As if they had met under proper social circumstances, she says, "How are all the folks down home? . . . Tell'em that I sent my love." She prods the youth to promise that he will "ask for Margaret" next time, and then she is gone, "engulfed into the great vortex of the war." With this unseemly collection of men and women, Wolfe symbolizes the chaotic conditions of wartime, when virtue and life are easily destroyed.

The fourth episode concerns a paternalistic army lieutenant who curses at but also protects his black charges. The loading dock is suffocatingly hot as food and munitions of all sorts are put on the war-bound ship. Described by the lieutenant as "poor dumb suffering second cousins of an owl," the black troops are nearly left behind, since they have not been cleared of venereal disease. Because the lieutenant intervenes at the last minute, they are once again checked and this time declared clean by the ship's doctor and allowed to board. Clamoring their gratitude to the white man, they rush forward, bound for war and probable death.

"The Face of War" is filled with ironic juxtapositions. The tranquility of civilian life gives way to the harsh demands of wartime. Ships carry both food and weapons; the companionship of the troops contrasts with their eagerness to kill the enemy; and the raw, sensual, make-shift brothel is the opposite of the old life Margaret and Georgia knew back home in Hopewell. At the end of the story, the ship is loaded, shouting is replaced by silence, and the oppressive heat yields to "the breath of coolness." Death may await the ship's occupants, but for this night they remain in "the oncoming, undulant stride of all-enfolding and deep-breasted night."

One of the longest stories in From Death to Morning, Death the Proud Brother, tells of four deaths in New York City that the narrator witnesses. The first three are violent and occur in different locations at different times of the year. In a swift and horrifying accident, an Italian street vendor is killed by a truck on a spring day. For five pages, Wolfe presents details that characterize the nameless victim. His small pots and pans now are rubble, and his blood stains the sidewalk that a shop owner rushes out to clean. Business resumes and the street vendor drops from the memory of those who saw him daily. Related in six pages, the second death occurs in a new downtown building on an icy night in February when a drunken bum falls into a pile of iron beams and smashes his head. Wolfe then devotes twelve pages to the third death, that of a rivet catcher who misses the fiery steel tossed to his bucket and plunges to his death. The time is a May morning, ironically bright and sparkling. In contrast to the violence of these three is the fourth death, that of a nondescript man sitting on a subway bench; he collapses almost imperceptibly. Wolfe takes twenty-six pages to relate this final episode, which occurs at 1:00 A.M. in the Times Square station.

Each death involves the reactions of strangers. City people, the narrator thinks, accept death, "its violence, bloody mutilation, and horror calmly as one of the natural consequences of daily life." For example, a wealthy lady praises her chauffeur when he extricates her car quickly from the traffic snarl following the construction worker's death. To many onlookers, this dead man is a mere statistic: "Say—dat makes duh fourt' one on dat building—did yuh know dat?" Youthful onlookers are singularly unsympathetic, existing as testimony to "a new and desolate race of youth upon the earth that men had never known before—a race hard, fruitless, and unwholesome." They are simply curious and momentarily diverted; to them grief is "out of date and falsely sentimental." Older witnesses are equally insensitive and are interested only in repeating the news: "Sure! I seen it! I seen it! Dat's what I'm tellin' yuh!" Policemen, interns, and priests perform their respective functions because they must. In the end, the police tell the crowds, "Yuh gotta move. It's all oveh," more concerned with restoring the flow of traffic than with the fact of death. Such a sweeping judgment of city dwellers makes Wolfe's criticism somewhat stereotyped; nevertheless, although he was a city dweller all of his adult life, he did remain somewhat apart from the city and somewhat suspicious of its natives.

Regardless of their backgrounds, witnesses to violent, bloody, fatal accidents press forward to stare; however, people confronted with the quiet death of the man in the subway stand back timidly. "Stunned, awed, bewildered, and frightened," they see that a man's death can come so quietly that it is difficult to perceive. In a way, this death is the most frightening because it reminds us that we face death alone. The youthful narrator, moved by these tragedies, quotes the line from a Thomas Nashe poem on the plague year, "Brightness falls from the air." Nevertheless, the narrator's own youth and vigor make him hopeful about the future: "I knew I should see light once more and know new coasts and come into strange harbors, and see again, as I had once, new lands and morning." Such bursts of lyricism are poignantly juxtaposed to the realistic details of death and dying.

Stylistically, much of Death the Proud Brother is starkly realistic. For instance, when the callous young couple pass the corpse of the bum, they look at him and remark that perhaps he might join their late night excursion: "Who else can we get?" they remark. Further, as the policemen remove the dead man from the subway station, they grumble when the lifeless arms tumble off the stretcher, and they finally secure them with the man's own necktie. Once they reach the street, a taxi driver "lifted his cap obsequiously to the dead man. Taxi, sir! Taxi!'" The policemen laugh and swear. Concrete details enhance the powerful realism in many parts of the story. For example, we are told that the Italian vendor's cart held such things as cheap candies, a greasy-looking orange-juice bottle, cheap knives, and a small oil stove. Although similes, metaphors, apostrophes, hyperbole, and catalogues are used effectively in this story, the image of the clicking turnstiles in the subway emitting their dull wooden notes perhaps makes the most profound impression. Through those turnstiles scurry passengers who rush to meet their schedules, and their routine leaves little time even to observe that a man has died. The dead man in the subway will probably go to a pauper's grave, mourned and remembered by none. All four of these victims led commonplace lives, but each is given "for an instant the immortal dignities of death, proud death, even when it rested on the poorest cipher in the street."

By far the most significant selection in From Death to Morning is the long story (or novella) The Web of Earth. This piece, a complicated monologue delivered by Eliza Gant to her son during a visit to his Brooklyn Heights apartment, consists of tales linked weblike by the filament of association. A word or a sound in the tale she is telling sends Eliza to another story, but no matter how far the new directions takes her, she retraces her steps, finishing each tale in turn. She begins with her earliest recollections at age two and continues with events from childhood, marriage, motherhood, and old age. Her memories are almost all sad and painful, but her spirit is resilient. The first tale is of men she saw returning from the Civil War shoeless, hungry, aged; their joy in reunion is undercut by their lament for the dead. Her other childhood memories are of vicious tricks played by brothers, sisters, and cousins on each other; she does not relate any pleasant childhood adventures.

Recollections of W. O.'s imprudent behavior color her memories about married life. Once when Eliza was pregnant and W. O. had begun a drinking spree, she walked into Ambrose Radiker's saloon and demanded that he sell W. O. no more liquor. It was a request Radiker would gladly have granted if he could, since W. O. often attacked the saloon's light-skinned black worker. W. O. would swear the man was Chinese, a race of which he had an unexplained terror. The latter fact moves Eliza's attention to W. O.'s comic, but appalling, display in a Chinese laundry, where, accompanied by Eliza, Ben, and Luke, he retrieves his shirts after much arguing and many threats. W. O. never does produce the much-called-for laundry ticket, to the frustration of the owner.

A lot of what Eliza tells concerns death: the Civil War victims; Bill Pentland, who announced the day and hour of his death, turned his head to the wall and fulfilled his prediction; W. O.'s first wife, Cynthia, who died of consumption; and the cold-blooded murders committed by Ed Mears and Lawrence Wayne. This latter episode includes details of the murderers' escape from prison, their separation and flight, and their later days out west. When Mears first escapes, he comes to the Gants' house, since he has no shoes and only W. O.'s will fit him. Throughout all these tales, Eliza's strength never wavers. She survives the births of children and drunken days of W. O.; she even lectures the murderer Ed Mears so effectively that he hands her his gun before he flees across the mountains.

The structure of the story defies analysis, so intricately are Eliza's tales interconnected. Rereading The Web of Earth impresses one with Wolfe's technical skill as well as with the stamina of the protagonist, an old woman who has survived much. The ending unifies the themes of suffering, endurance, and hope when after countless digressions, Eliza finally explains the mysterious words that opened the story: "Two . . . two . . . twenty . . . twenty." These words are a sign of the birth of the twins, Grover and Ben, twenty days after the evening Ed Mears came to beg shoes "at twenty minutes to ten o'clock on the seventeenth of October." (Yet both Grover and Ben, of course, died young.)

Eliza conveys present time by commenting on the sound of the ships in the Brooklyn harbor, and her son must keep pointing out to her the direction of those ships. This setting is new to her, and she has difficulty in getting her bearings. However, she is, in a sense, a compendium of human experience, and she admonishes her son, "My dear child, eat good food and watch and guard your health: it worries me to think of you alone with strangers." She herself has endured a life filled with sadness, loss, and disappointment. Yet when her contemporary, Miller Wright, weighed down with the burdens of the Depression, asks her, "Eliza, what are you going to do?" she says, "Do! . . . I'm going to pitch right in and work till I'm eighty and then . . . I'm goin' to cut loose and just raise hell!" Although her optimism is unfailing, the story is filled with tales and recollections that tell of death, despair, and loneliness.

While the pieces in From Death to Morning vary sharply in quality and while many are more accurately described as sketches than short stories, Wolfe emerges in this work as "a serious experimenter in fiction" (Holman, Loneliness, p. 14). The Hills Beyond (1941), the last book from Wolfe's posthumous papers edited and published by Edward Aswell, falls into three parts. First there are ten pieces ranging from two of Wolfe's best short stories ("The Lost Boy" and "Chickamauga") to short sketches such as "No Cure for It," which may have been written, Aswell contends, as early as 1929. The second part, entitled The Hills Beyond, is a ten-chapter fragment of a novel set in Old Catawba (North Carolina). Although Wolfe goes back as far as September 1593 to relate the setting of the state of Old Catawba (a story similar to that of the Lost Colony in North Carolina), the fragment centers on the patriarch William "Bear" Joyner and his numerous offspring from two marriages. The final portion of the volume is a forty-page note that Edward Aswell wrote about his role as Wolfe's editor. Here Aswell comments on Wolfe's working habits during the last year of his life as well as on various pieces included in the volume. Unfortunately, except for the two excellent stories mentioned above, there is little in The Hills Beyond that enhances Wolfe's reputation. However, some critics have seen significance in Wolfe's returning to the North Carolina mountains for his setting and subject matter and others have praised his detached third-person narration in the novel fragment.

"The Lost Boy," by far the best piece in the volume, uses the Gant family again and focuses upon Grover's childhood in Part I, particularly his initiation experience in the Crockers' candy store. Paid in postage stamps for work he has done at Reed's drugstore, Grover, age eleven, cannot resist the smells of the candy and breaks his own resolve to stay away from the stingy Crockers. He goes into the store for 15 cents' worth of chocolate fudge. His stamps had been accepted as payment before, but now Crocker will not refund three one-cent stamps that represent an overpayment. The boy asks for their return, but he has an inherent respect for his elders. These old people who run the candy store are neither plump nor cheerful as such owners might be expected to be. Their hands are like bird talons; furthermore, they accuse Grover of misdealings and threaten to call the police about the postage stamps. Grover's embarrassment sends him to his father, who storms from his shop across the street into the Crockers' store. W. O. throws down the needed pennies, retrieves the boy's stamps, and delivers an invective against the Crockers worthy of the Old Testament prophets: "God has cursed you. He has made you lame and childless as you are—and lame and childless, miserable as you are, you will go to your grave and be forgotten!"

Through the images that begin the story, "light came and went and came again," Wolfe suggests the realization that Grover has come to. Adults, he had thought, are to be respected and depended upon. The Crockers, however, accuse him falsely and humiliate him. Although W. O. rescues him, afterwards he says only "Be a good boy" to a child who has never been anything but good. Grover struggles to regain his sense of reality and looks carefully at his physical surroundings: things are just as they have always been—the square, the fountain, the horse at the water trough, his father's shop. Irrevocable change, however, has come to Grover himself:

But something had gone out of the day, and something had come in again. Out of the vision of those quiet eyes some brightness had gone, and into their vision had come some deeper color. He could not say, he did not know through what transforming shadows life had passed within that quarter hour. He only knew that something had been lost—something forever gained.

What Grover has lost is a great part of his childhood innocence; what he has gained is the inevitable experience of the world.

The remaining three parts of this story take place years after Grover's death at age twelve, as the mother, sister, and brother remember Grover and in so doing reveal much about themselves. Part II is Eliza's monologue as she talks to Eugene, telling him again about the trip to St. Louis long ago. In particular, she relates details about the Fair in St. Louis and remarks on Grover's maturity and manliness. She coyly recounts how she fooled the reporter from New Jersey who came to interview her about her famous son, Eugene the novelist. Eliza hinted to the reporter that Grover, not Eugene, was her brightest son. Her bragging memories mingle and reveal much of her past. At the end of this section, Wolfe returns to the pervasive idea of time and loss as Eliza says, "It was so long ago, but when I think of it, it all comes back, as if it happened yesterday. Now all of you have either died or grown up and gone away, and nothing is the same as it was then."

Part III, "The Sister," is Helen's monologue. Like the Ancient Mariner, Eugene's older sister is compelled to tell her story, and she tells Eugene about the time in St. Louis that led to Grover's illness and death. Now in middle age, Helen realizes that her ambitions are unfulfilled—she will never be a famous singer in an opera house. Since Eugene has been to college and reads books, he should have answers to her questions. What happens, she wants to know, to all of our expectations and dreams? Wolfe uses a photograph of the Gant family when they were young and full of plans to symbolize the dreams of youth. Helen ponders the photograph; turning to Eugene, she asks, "Does it happen to us all, to everyone? . . . Grover and Ben, Steve, Daisy, Luke and me—all standing there before the house on Woodson Street in Altamont—there we are, and you see the way we were—and now it all gets lost. What is it, anyway, that people lose?"

Part IV, "The Brother," shows Eugene's attempt to answer Helen's questions. As a grown man, Eugene goes to St. Louis. Working from fragments of childhood memories, he finds the house where the Gants lived during the summer of 1904, the summer of the World's Fair, the summer that Grover died. Inside the house, Eugene peers into a mirror at the bottom of the stairs and momentarily enters the past. He hears Grover's voice, but the recapturing of this childhood experience lasts only for an instant. The "lost boy" of the title is not just Grover, who was lost through death at an early age. It is also Eugene, who learns that one cannot recapture the past save for a fleeting moment. Helen must face the fact that the dreams of childhood often are unrealized; Eugene learns that none of the past can be recaptured, and Helen will learn this too. From all four points of view in this story, Wolfe explores the idea of time and loss and most effectively shows the regret adults have for the past and many of its associations.

"Chickamauga" is the first-person narrative of a Civil War veteran who will be 95 on his next birthday. Although the digressions are not as numerous as Eliza's in The Web of Earth, several features in these two works are similar. Like Eliza, the old veteran has a remarkable memory. He recalls that, seventy-five years before, on August 7, 1861, "at seven-thirty in the morning . . . I started out from home and walked the whole way to Clingman." There he joined the Twenty-ninth Regiment and headed for battle. Wolfe effectively uses the Civil War as subject matter and renders experience other than his own. The narrator and his friend, Jim Weaver, march off to war; Jim resents every day that keeps him away from home and his love, Martha Patton. Now the old man, Jim's friend so many years ago, describes a day of battle: "The bloodiest fightin' that was ever knowed, until that cedar thicket was soaked red with blood, and than was hardly a place left in thar where a sparrer could have perched." The narrator describes in homely terms the difficulty of taking Missionary Ridge: it was "like tryin' to swim the Mississippi upstream on a boneyard mule." When Jim Weaver dies in battle, the narrator retrieves from Jim's pockets his watch, his pocket knife, and Martha Patton's letters. Like the sister in "The Lost Boy," the narrator is bewildered at this turn of events: "Hit's funny how hit all turns out—how none of hit is like what we expect." His friend is dead; it is the narrator who lives, goes home, and marries Martha Patton.

In comparison to "The Lost Boy" and "Chickamauga," the remaining stories and sketches in The Hills Beyond are slight indeed. "No Cure for It" is a brief sketch about the growing pains of a gangly boy. Here Wolfe revives names from Look Homeward, Angel—Eliza, Gant, Dr. McGuire—and the material in this sketch is similar in tone to that first novel. "Gentlemen of the Press," a short piece that was probably written in 1930, uses the devices of a play script to designate speakers, time, and setting. The cub reporter, Red, spins an outlandish tale about Abraham Lincoln being a descendant of Napoleon, and the older men listen with amused tolerance. Red's earnestness is a part of his youth. His ridiculous tale, however, is juxtaposed with reports coming in over the wire services telling of new French casualties in World War I.

"A Kinsman of His Blood" is similar to the Bascom Pentland material in Of Time and the River. In this story, Wolfe changes Pentland's name to an earlier version—Bascom Hawke—and tells about one of Bascom's children, who changes his identity and loses touch with reality, talking of nonexistent love affairs. "The Return of the Prodigal" is in two parts: "The Thing Imagined," which is an imagined account by Eugene Gant of his coming home, and "The Real Thing," which is a realistic account of Eugene's return to Altamont. In the second part, Wolfe uses many details of his 1937 trip to Asheville, including a street shooting he witnessed in nearby Burnsville, North Carolina, while he was en route.

The brief sketch "On Leprechauns" belongs to the George Webber material, and "Portrait of a Literary Critic" is Wolfe's satirical picture of the inept type of critic that he loathed. "The Lion at Morning," which belongs to the pre-Depression sections of You Can't Go Home Again, portrays James Wyman, Sr., a wealthy banker who begins his day amid routine luxury and unexpected scandal. "God's Lonely Man" is Wolfe's personal anatomy of loneliness. As well suggests that his version went through several drafts and at one point had the title "On Loneliness at Twenty-three."

Besides these stories and sketches, this collection contains the first six chapters of a novel that was to be called by the title Aswell used for the posthumous collection of fragments The Hills Beyond. These chapters tell the stories of George Webber's maternal ancestors, the Joyners, whose history begins with William "Bear" Joyner. Wolfe traces the founding of the state, Old Catawba, and particularly satirizes the desire among some of these residents to trace their ancestry:

In the South, particularly, this preoccupation seems to absorb most of the spare energies of the female population for it is an axiom of Southern life that a woman without "family" is nothing. A woman may be poor; she may be abysmally ignorant (and usually is); she may have read nothing, seen nothing, gone nowhere; she may be lazy, nasty, vain, arrogant, venomous, and dishonest; her standards of morality, government, justice may not differ one whit from that of the lynching mob: but if she can assert, loudly and without challenge, that her "family" is older (and therefore better) than other families, then her position in the community is unquestioned, she is the delicate flower of "Southern culture," she must not be "talked back to"—she is, in short, "a lady."

Wolfe's satire includes The Society of the Sons and Daughters of the Aborigines, who would grasp dueling pistols if anyone hinted at a drop of black blood in their ancestry. Just as fervently, however, they claim kin with Indians, "their dusky ancestors of some two and a half centuries before."

William "Bear" Joyner is Wolfe's legendary character, a descendant of Mike Fink, Davy Crockett, and Paul Bunyan, and the Yankee peddler. Extraordinary in every way, Bear founded a large clan. His first wife, Martha Creasman, died in childbirth, and the fates of their surviving children (Zacharias, Hattie, Robert, Theodore, and Rufe) are the primary subject matter of the fragment. Even though Bear's second wife bore him "fourteen or sixteen children . . . there were so many of them, and their destinies were so diverse, that even their number has been disrupted," it is the first set of children who are considered in the narrative. A lawyer like his brother Robert, the colorful Zacharias becomes governor of Old Catawba and later a United States senator. In whatever office he holds, he is generally effective. He exposes social climbers by telling their true history: many have descended from escaped convicts and are themselves people "raised on hawg and hominy." Wolfe perhaps reflects his own distrust of lawyers when he describes them here as "that articulate tribe which was to breed and multiply with such astonishing proliferation during the next century." The assumption that lawyers will enter politics is borne out in Zacharias; however, his brother Robert has no desire to "get into politics." Robert is content to remain a lawyer; his refusing the gains that politics can bring leads people to say that "he was a fine man, of course, but a little queer."

The most elaborate satire in the fragment concerns the brother Theodore. Unable to pass the bar, Theodore marries a "Drumgoole of the Virginia Drumgooles," produces several children, and operates a "military school," the Joyner Heights Military Academy. Zacharias calls Joyner Heights "Hogwart Heights" and derides his brother's every endeavor, especially the pretentious military training provided at the school when the Civil War is imminent. Zack declares that "they had a devil of a time getting those twenty-seven pimply boys straightened up as straight as they could get—which is to say, about as straight as a row of crooked radishes." But when the war comes, those same pimply boys march off and many die. Theodore becomes more foolish after the war. Although he has no legitimate military claim, he is now Colonel Joyner and bears himself, the narrator says, as if "a whole regiment of plumed knights [were] in his own person."

The final four chapters of the fragment center on Robert Joyner, who lost a leg in the Civil War—a fact, that his son Edward learns from a history book. Reading an account of the Battle of Spottsylvania, Edward comes upon the name Joyner in a passage that ends, "among others, I saw Joyner among his gallant mountaineers firing and loading until he was himself shot down and borne away by his own men, his right leg so shattered by a minie ball that amputation was imperative." Bewildered, the boy takes the book to his mother and asks, "What the book says—is that father?" Her answer comes quickly: "Your father is so proud, and in some ways a child himself. He wouldn't tell you. He could not bear to have his son think that his father was a cripple." Now a judge, Robert Joyner is impatient with the old veterans who hang around the courthouse hoping for sympathy. Robert befriends John Webber, a stranger to Libya Hill who arrives with the construction crew of the hotel. Webber's reputation as a fine workman earns him respect, and Wolfe seems to pair him with Robert Joyner, implying that these two men share many of the same good qualities.

The fragment ends with Edward Joyner, now fifty, recalling the day years ago when he discovered that his father had been a Civil War hero. That discovery in turn explains his father's impatience long ago with the hangers on from the war who haunted the courthouse for undeserved sympathy. With Edward's recollection, Wolfe abandons the objective narration that characterizes the fragment and concludes with a meditation on time that is, like so many of Wolfe's lyric passages, quite effective: "And time still passing . . . time passing like river flowing . . . knowing that this earth, this time, this life, are stranger than a dream."

The material in The Hills Beyond deserves attention primarily because it shows the variety of writing styles Wolfe tried. But the six chapters of the title fragment are not promising, and certainly the fragment provides no evidence, as some have claimed, that Wolfe's writing had taken a turn away from the autobiographical style of the earlier work. Much material here derives from the folklore tradition and also from Wolfe's own early work. Furthermore, although satire is prevalent throughout the fragment and in some of the stories, it lacks the power to chastise and reform. Except for making "The Lost Boy" and "Chickamauga" more readily available in this volume, Edward Aswell did little to advance Wolfe's reputation by publishing The Hills Beyond, a book that contains much mediocre writing.

In 1961, Scribner's published The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, a volume edited by C. Hugh Holman, whose introduction and headnotes, along with Wolfe's texts, constitute an indispensable part of the Wolfe canon. Wolfe had difficulty determining what a short story should be, and he agonized over the proper form of a novel. Only a handful of his short stories are first rate, and among his novels only Look Homeward, Angel achieves satisfactory form. However, he wrote some of his most successful work in the intermediate-length form of the novella (roughly 20,000 to 30,000 words). In addition to the five short novels in this edition, Holman mentions three others. "The Train and the City," a 12,000-word story, appeared in Scribner's Magazine in May 1934. The longer and more successful work Death the Proud Brother appeared in the June 1934 issue of the same publication. Boom Town, which was published in the May 1934 issue of the American Mercury, satirizes the real estate craze that swept Asheville before the Depression. Like the previous two works, Boom Town was drawn from the large manuscript Wolfe was writing; furthermore, this long story was the first of Wolfe's work that Elizabeth Nowell placed after she became his agent. The five short novels that Holman edited represent Wolfe's best work except for Look Homeward, Angel (see additional discussions of these short novels earlier in this chapter). Each had been published in magazines in the 1930s, and except for The Web of Earth all were then placed in various sections of Wolfe's last three novels. At the time, these magazine publications provided a much-needed source of income for Wolfe; indeed, one of the short novels, A Portrait of Bascom Hawke, tied for the Scribner's Magazine short-novel contest. Wolfe split the $5,000 prize with John Herrmann. Based on Wolfe's uncle Henry Westall, Bascom Hawke is Wolfe's most eccentric character. After A Portrait of Bascom Hawke appeared in Scribner's Magazine, the material it contains was widely dispersed into various sections of Of Time and the River. Although the appearance of Bascom in the novel is most interesting, the full short novel presents him, his family, and his co-workers more colorfully and appealingly. The unity gained in the short novel form was almost totally lost when the work was broken apart.

The longest of the five novellas, The Web of Earth, appeared in Scribner's Magazine in July 1932. When he included this Joycean interior monologue in the collection From Death to Morning, Wolfe changed the protagonist's name from Delia Hawke to Eliza Gant and made a few minor additions. Thus, unlike the other titles in the Holman edition of the short novels, The Web of Earth has always been readily available in its original form.

Until the Holman edition appeared, however, No Door had never been published in its original four parts, which total some 31,000 words. Since this version was much too long for a single issue, Scribner's Magazine published it as two long stories, the first entitled No Door, and the second "The House of the Far and Lost." Later the first episode of the original version was used as a short story in From Death to Morning and "The House of the Far and Lost" was used virtually unchanged in Of Time and the River. The remainder of the total 31,000-word version was worked into five sections of Of Time and the River and one section of You Can't Go Home Again. Without question the discussion of the Coulsons, an English family, is the most interesting part of No Door. Wolfe presents the alcoholic husband, the wife who gazes out upon the foggy cold weather and declares that in her heart Italy is home, and the daughter, Edith, who in young womanhood resigns herself to a bleak family existence. When Eugene urges Edith to come away with him to America, he declares to her, "Failure and defeat won't last forever." To these words Edith responds, "Sometimes they do." Some secret in the past surrounds this family, but Eugene never learns what it is. Furthermore, he never comes to know his fellow boarders, the three men who squeeze into their small car each day, speed to their factory work, and spend every evening performing American jazz. These men seem compelled to play, yet they do not seem to enjoy the music. The leader, Captain Nicholl, has a mutilated arm; his disfigurement suggests the spiritual wound in the Coulson family. They may be a family that lives beneath a common roof, but each lives a separate life.

The last two short novels in the Holman edition are convincing evidence of Wolfe's growing social awareness and of his ability to write direct, simple, and objective prose. IHave a Thing to Tell You was Wolfe's awakening to the perils of Nazi Germany. He portrays Berlin no longer as a city of enchantment and friends but instead as a "world hived of four million lives, of hope and fear and hatred, anguish and despair, of love, of cruelty and devotion." Wolfe insisted that this work was not intended as propaganda, and to prevent such accusations he refused to allow a Yiddish translation.

As many critics have pointed out, Wolfe was fortunate that his first publisher had a monthly publication; indeed, Scribner's Magazine brought out much of Wolfe's work. His stories and short novels that appeared in this magazine gave Wolfe needed income and kept his name before the reading public, thus enhancing his critical reputation. It was fitting that the May 1939 issue of Scribner's Magazine published one of the last pieces Wolfe wrote, The Party at Jack's, some nine months after Wolfe's death. The editor commented on Wolfe's career and included in the issue's preliminary pages a letter from Max Perkins, who had written, "The credit for Thomas Wolfe belongs to Scribner's if to anyone." Heeding Perkins's suggestion, the editor also included a photograph of the recently completed oil portrait of Wolfe painted by Perkins's son-in-law, Douglas Gorsline.

The Party at Jack's was the last piece of Wolfe's unpublished work that Scribner's Magazine brought out; in the same issue, however, "An Angel on the Porch" was reprinted with this editorial note:

Thomas Wolfe's "An Angel on the Porch" was published in the August 1929 issue of Scribner's Magazine with these words . . . "The first work of a new writer about whom much will be heard this fall." That was almost exactly nine years before Wolfe's death. We are republishing "An Angel on the Porch" in this issue as an appropriate companion for TheParty atJack's. The first and we are sorry to say, the last Thomas Wolfe to appear in Scribner's Magazine.

Like I Have a Thing to Tell You, this final short novel is a statement of strong social concern written in taut, objective prose. The reader who assumes that Wolfe's writing was always lengthy, discursive, and laden with rhetorical devices probably would not guess these last two short novels to be his work. Wolfe spent much of the summer of 1937 finishing The Party at Jack's; much of this work was done while he stayed in a cabin near his Asheville home for several weeks. Holman considers it one of Wolfe's "most impressive accomplishments" (Short Novels, p. xvi).

As previously discussed, the social satire in The Party at Jack's focuses on the absurd performance of Piggy Logan and his circus as well as on the wealthy residents of a luxury Park Avenue apartment building. This short novel also includes Wolfe's invective against pompous literary critics, particularly in the character Seamus Malone. In addition, the action places George Webber in the home of his mistress, Esther Jack. Here he watches her fulfill the roles required of her without ever entirely ignoring him. For George, she is the ideal woman, as appealing in middle age as she is in the portrait painted of her when she was twenty-five. The portrait hangs in Jack's apartment and during the party several guests comment that both portrait and subject have lasting beauty and grace. Of this George Webber is certain.

Thomas Wolfe did not live to have a second act as a writer; critics continue to speculate whether or not his stylistic excesses might have been curtailed had he continued to write throughout a long life. Although the published corpus is fairly substantial, it is by no means of uniform worth. Wolfe's reputation in the 1980s suffers because his major works are severely flawed. He suffers too because many people, discouraged by the length and the obvious indulgences in style, do not read him, except perhaps for Look Homeward, Angel. The charges of egotism, of autobiographical dependence, of rhetorical excess, and of lack of narrative control are made again and again. And although Wolfe's accomplishments are considerable if one evaluates all of his work, most careful readers nevertheless judge him to be a failed artist.

Suzanne Stutman (essay date 1985)

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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 autobiography instead of using these elements to create inspired fiction. The implication which persists to this day sustains the position that Wolfe's work at its best represents a kind of "happy accident" accomplished by some miraculous or haphazard circumstance. In addition, it is perceived that all of Wolfe's manuscripts required some outside editing, of which Wolfe himself was incapable: a Perkins, if you will, to cut and paste together the best of Thomas Wolfe, leaving the extraneous and purple passages forgotten on the cutting room floor. A close study of the short story "Child by Tiger"refutes such allegations. Indeed, in this story of a black man's rampage through a small Southern town and the ultimate complicity of evil he evokes in the white townspeople, Wolfe has fashioned a tale of great artistry and technical perfection. His careful treatment of character, point of view, imagery and theme come flawlessly together to present his own "meditation on history." In "Child by Tiger" Wolfe has fashioned a notable artistic statement about one man's quest for selfhood and mankind's inescapable and tragic inhumanity.

Wolfe's story about a black man who goes berserk and kills several people, black and white, before he is himself killed, took many years to evolve into its final form. As did Styron some thirty years later, in Confessions of Nat Turner, Wolfe used an actual occurrence as the backbone for his tale. In 1906, when Wolfe was six years old, Willie Harris, alias James Harvie, came to the town of Asheville. After buying a secondhand gun, Harris proceeded on a rampage through the town, killing five people. (Dick Prosser, even more dramatically, killed nine.) This event caused quite a stir in the quiet little town of Asheville. It was recorded in The Asheville Citizen from November 14 to 16, 1906. It is possible that as a child Wolfe remembered viewing the riddled body of the Negro as it was displayed morbidly in a shopkeeper's window. In addition to using this information as part of his story about the black man, he also made reference to the incident at the end of You Can't Go Home Again, when recounting the capture of "Fuss and Fidget," the nervous little Jewish man who attempted to escape from Nazi Germany: "This is the tragedy of man's cruelty and his lust for pain—the tragic weakness which corrupts him, which he loathes, yet he cannot cure. As a child, George had seen it on the faces of men standing before a window of a shabby little undertaker's place, looking at the bloody, riddled carcass of a Negro which the mob had caught and killed" (692-693).

One thing is relatively certain. As Richard Kennedy states, the major fabric of the story came from Wolfe's imagination, for "Wolfe had only heard the story; he did no research" and had probably never even seen the newspaper articles describing the event (321, n. 13).

The complex character of Dick Prosser which evolved was, according to Floyd Watkins, a composite of three black men: first, Willie Harris; second, a beloved Negro janitor of the Bingham Academy in Asheville, admired for his "intelligence, good humor, devotion, meticulousness and humility"; and third, the Reverend Robert Parker Rumley, a fanatic black preacher who preached the same sermon, "De Dry Bones in De Valley," over and over again (108, 109). This sermon was transcribed and printed in Asheville in 1896, and is quoted in part by Dick when, in a moment of almost mystical transfixion, he prophesies to the awestruck boys the coming of the Day of Judgment.

It took a full seven years for the story of Dick Prosser to evolve into its final form. As early as 1930, Wolfe mentioned a black man in a letter to Perkins in regard to his then current work-in-progress: ". . . in the chapter called 'The Congo,' the wandering negro who goes crazy and kills people and is finally killed by the posse as he crosses the creek, is known to David, the boy . . ." (174-175). Originally, Wolfe had intended his black man to be a much less complex character than he later became, one who would primarily depict the savage nature akin to the character in Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." In his Notebook in 1930 he mentions the black man in degrading animalistic terms as "Nigger Dick—the coon who is hunted by the posse" (Kennedy and Reeves, 518). By 1933, the story was mentioned in the Notebooks, in one of Wolfe's legendary lists, as "The Nigger Killer" (Kennedy and Reeves, 607).

Other circumstances occurred to influence Wolfe and to alter his method of composition before he once again took up the material concerning the rebel black man. In 1935, Wolfe had begun a new method of composition which allowed him greater technical control over his material. He would dictate to a secretary, then revise the triple spaced typewritten manuscripts by adding or deleting information, writing between the lines and in the margins. After the secretary once again retyped his new revisions, he would either refile them for later use, or, with the help of Elizabeth Nowell, reword those which seemed to possess enough original integrity to be used as short stories. His trip to Nazi Germany in 1936 certainly served to enhance Wolfe's social awareness, as he became increasingly preoccupied with the theme of man's inhumanity to man—a theme which pervades much of his later literature. His empathy for Jesse Owens, whom he had cheered in the Olympic Games, also served to deepen his awareness of the suffering which man inflicts upon his fellow man. From January 1 until July 1, 1937, Wolfe worked upon his story of Dick Prosser. What had begun as "The Congo" seven years earlier had evolved into his greatest short story, and the one for which he was paid the highest amount: a staggering $1200.00 when it was published by The Saturday Evening Post on September 11, 1937. In addition, with other revisions, including a change from the first person to the third person point of view, this story later took its place in Part I of The Web and the Rock as one of the episodes in the early life of George Webber, the young seer who brings together in Whitmanesque fashion all of the events which happen in the life of a small Southern town.

As early as 1930, Wolfe had fixed on the general narrative method of his work-in-progress, which incorporated the earliest framework of his future tale as well:

"Now the general movement of the book is
from the universal to the individual:
in Part I we have a symphony of many voices
. . . through which a thread begins to
run . . . we have a character which appears
at first only as a window, an eye, a . . .
seer . . ." (Nowell, 174).

The unravelling action, the complex and mysterious personality of Dick, the growing awareness of evil which subtly enters the lives of these innocent and uninitiated boys, is all filtered through the consciousness of the young narrator. As "seer" he is able to record events objectively, as a sensitive "eye" he sees and responds to all of the subtle contradictions involved in Dick's complex and provocative personality, while also recording his own sensitive perceptions and the reactions of the crowd around him. It is through the narrator's all-encompassing, everexpanding awareness that we experience the story, a point of view so finely perceived and described that we are almost within the mind of the central character and the action of the tale.

Because of their innocence, the boys are able to accept Dick not only as the stereotyped "darkie" the adults assign him to be, but as their friend. Dick fills an important gap in their lives, becoming like a kindly, all-knowing, and all-powerful big brother. He plays football with them, and coaches them at boxing, seeing to it "with his quick wrathfulness, his gentle and persuasive tact," that they don't hurt one another. They are proud when the grownups as well realize that Dick is exceptional—no ordinary "darkie": "He could cook, he could tend the furnace, he could do odd jobs, he was handy at carpentry, he knew how to drive a car—in fact, it seemed to the boys that there was very little that Dick Prosser could not do." Mr. Shepperton himself declared that Dick was "the smartest darkie that he'd ever known." In addition, he "knew his place," and had gone around to the Shepperton's back door to present his qualifications. He was willing, he modestly stated from the start, to do any job for any wage. Indeed, he delivered to his masters more than they bargained for.

Dick is a good man, a religious man, a meticulous and orderly former military man. He exhibits in all he does a sense of reason, a rage for order and discipline. When the boys, Dick's trusted friends, are granted entrance to his immaculate whitewashed room, his few possessions are neatly in place, and on the table George observes with reassurance that "there was always just one object—an old Bible with a limp cover, almost worn out with constant use, for Dick was a deeply religious man." And yet, there seems to be another side to this mysterious black man, a side which frightens the children without their knowing why: "He went too softly, at too swift a pace. He was there upon them sometimes like a cat," and at times he appears mysteriously, "like a shadow." Indeed, Dick begins to evolve throughout the tale as a kind of mysterious doppleganger, representing symbolically the shadowy other, lurking, ever ready to leap, within the dark hemisphere of man's unconscious. At times, after reading the Bible, he would enter into a trance-like state, translating their white man's familiar and comfortable religion into an alien form:

There would be times when he would almost moan when he talked to them, a kind of hymnal chant, a religious ecstasy, some deep intoxication of the spirit, and that transported him. For the boys, it was a troubling and bewildering experience. . . . there was something in it so dark and strange and full of a feeling they could not fathom . . . and the trouble in their minds and in their hearts remained. . . .

Then he would speak mysteriously of the Day of Judgment:

O young white fokes. . . . de day is comin' when He's comin' on dis earth again to sit in judgment. . . . O white fokes, white fokes—de Armageddon day's acomin', white fokes—and de dry bones in de valley.

The boys would cast aside their shadowy apprehensions, however, as they listened to Dick singing "in his voice so full of Africa" their own, familiar hymns, just as they cast aside their misgivings when they enter into Dick's unlocked room and find the rifle. Next to the Bible on the table, in contrast to its reassuring image, they see the black box containing one hundred rounds of ammunition. Suddenly, Dick is upon them "like a cat . . . a shadow . . . his eyes . . . small and red as rodents." He reassures the boys that he has bought the rifle so that he can take them shooting on Christmas morning. Swearing to keep Dick's secret, they enter into the conspiracy, what becomes to their horror as the tale unravels, a guilty partnership of evil into which, ultimately, all of the characters, old and young, black and white, are united.

With careful use of imagery, characterization, and symbolism, Wolfe had laid the allegorical groundwork for his tale. Through his description of the actual insurrection and the reaction of the townspeople, he is free to develop even further his contrasting themes and images of good versus evil, black versus white, man versus beast, North versus South, and finally, known versus unknown. George Webber "went to sleep upon this mystery, lying in the darkness listening to that exultancy of storm, to that dumb wonder, that enormous and attentive quietness of snow, with something dark and jubilant in his soul that he could not utter." The snow, coming from the alien North, brings with it its own "white mystery." Through this oxymoron Wolfe establishes the polarity, the complex worlds of contradiction that exist not only within Dick, but within all mankind: "In every man there are two hemispheres of light and dark, two worlds discreet, two countries of his soul's adventure."

Imagery of sound is added to the imagery of light and dark when George awakens at two in the morning to the sound of the alarm. The town is "ablaze with light from top to bottom," as the bell speaks an alien tongue similar to that mysterious moaning jargon of Dick's religious chanting, "a savage, brazen tongue calling the town to action, warning mankind against the menace of some peril, secret, dark, unknown, greater than fire or flood could ever be." Perhaps, then, this is the judgment day which Dick had prophesied. "It's that nigger!" Nebraska Crane shouts. Randy, his face "white as a sheet," tells George "It's Dick! . . . They say he killed four people." Suddenly they become aware of their complicity in evil: ". . . two white-faced boys, aware now of the full and murderous significance of the secret they had kept, the confidence they had not violated, with a sudden sense of guilt and fear as if somehow the crime lay on their shoulders." Having established this pattern, or melody, or imagery, Wolfe can now with a few deft strokes establish his central theme: that of man's common propensity for both good and evil. As the boys "lit" out for town, they noticed that every house was "lighted up." Even the hospital was "ablaze" with light. Against the backdrop of artificial lights, the imagery reverses itself: the white men who form the mob are transformed into "the dark figures of running men across the white carpet of the square."

Animal imagery, as well as imagery of blood and sound and darkness, fuse together as the violence of the black man is answered by the reaction of the white mob: "From that crowd came a low and growing mutter, an ugly and insistent growl" and George hears ". . . the blood note in that foggy growl." As if in response to this sound from the mob, the boys hear behind them "one of the most savagely mournful and terrifying sounds that night could know. . . . the savagery of blood was in it and the savagery of man's guilty doom was in it too" as the hounds raced "across the snow-white darkness of the Square." Reaching a crescendo of violence the lynch mob "writhing angrily now, like a snake" lets out a "bloody roar" and breaks the window of Joyner's store to loot for guns. The storm from the North which brought the evil gust of snow is "answered" by the storm of violence with which the mob hurls itself upon the Square, until it "looked as if a hurricane had hit it." Black and white have been fused now, in a corresponding cacophony of violence.

It is only after this dramatic comingling of imagery has reached its climax that Wolfe allows the narrator and the reader to piece together the chronology of events. That Dick was having an affair with Pansy Harris, "the Negro wench," was unimportant, for "adultry among Negroes was assumed." As his first black victim fell upon the snowy ground "a huge dark stain of blood soaked-snow widened out around him." Dick proceeds on his mission of destruction methodically, like an angel of death, destroying anyone in his path, white or black. As more and more information is filtered through, the town intensifies its waking nightmare. George notes that "there was no more sleep for anyone that night. Black Dick had murdered sleep."

By the creek, when he knows he has been surrounded, Dick responds as mysteriously as before. Instead of running for freedom, as a caged animal would do, Dick reacts like a soldier preparing to sleep for the night: ". . . and, as quietly and methodically as if he were seated in his army barracks, he unlaced his shoes, took them off, placed them together neatly at his side, and then stood up like a soldier, erect, in his bare feet, and faced the mob." Dick restores to himself his sense of quiet and military order. He chooses to die not like a cornered beast, but with dignity, like a man. The mob, in an orgy of violence, riddles the body, again and again. "It was in this way," George notes, "bullet riddled, shot to pieces, open to the vengeful and the morbid gaze of all, that Dick came back to town." After the body has been placed in the undertaker's window, the boys, who had been Dick's closest friends, come to look at the body with the rest of the town. In so doing, by participating in the dark and morbid curiosity of the crowd, their initiation into evil, into man's archetypal heart of darkness, has been complete.

And something had come into life—into their lives—that they had never known about before. It was a kind of shadow, a poisonous blackness filled with bewildered loathing. The snow would go, they knew . . . and all of this would be as if it had never been. . . . For they would still remember the old dark doubt and loathing of their kind, of something hateful and unspeakable in the souls of men. They knew that they would not forget.

Dick has transcended his blackness to become the unifying symbol of all mankind: man, mysterious, ineffable, containing within himself the paradoxical polarity of good and evil:

. . . a symbol of man's evil innocence, and the token of his mystery. A projection of his own unfathomed quality, a friend, a brother, and a mortal enemy, an unknown demon—our loving friend, our mortal enemy, two worlds together—a tiger and a child.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.

Kennedy, Richard S. and Paschal Reeves. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe, Vol. II. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1960.

Watkins, Floyd C. Thomas Wolfe's Characters: Portraits from Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940.

James D. Boyer (essay date 1987)

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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 the Dead Know Brooklyn." That story, often anthologized, is a fine one, capable of illustrating through its structure and its theme much about Wolfe's growth as a short story writer. Unfortunately Bloom gets things jumbled in his analysis, obscuring what is an important theme for Wolfe and an important recognition for those who wish to assess his development. Bloom's analysis has stood unchallenged in the literature for eighteen years. I should like here to reexamine the story, to clarify Wolfe's theme, and to explain why this story is especially useful in understanding Wolfe's development.

"Only The Dead Know Brooklyn" was first published in The New Yorker in 1935, one of thirteen Wolfe stories placed in nine different magazines that year. Often these stories show the extent of his experimentation with form in ways that the novels don't. Here the most striking formal aspect is the point of view. The reader may recall that all of Wolfe's novels and the fragmentary HillsBeyond come to us through third-person narration, almost always through the angle of vision of the Eugene Gant-George Webber protagonist; only Esther Jack is given any substantial separate point of view, and her speculations and concerns center primarily on George, too. By contrast, already in earlier stories, The Web of Earth and "One of the Girls in Our Party," Wolfe had successfully used different first-person narrative voices, both of them women. In "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" we encounter still another voice, this time that of a Brooklyn tough guy.

This Brooklynite differs markedly from Wolfe's earlier fictional portraits of city people. If we look carefully at the city people in "The Train and the City" or Death, the Proud Brother, Wolfe's earliest fictional renderings of the city, we see a sneering, strident, insensitive, combative city dweller, one who produces revulsion in the young narrator of those stories: "Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile" (TTatC, 293). But years of living in the city (he lived in Brooklyn itself from March, 1931, to February, 1935) were changing Wolfe's feelings toward these city dwellers, and we see the change clearly reflected in this narrator: more like Grogan in the companion Brooklyn story "Gulliver" than like those earlier voices, he is still pugnacious, brash, uneducated, assertive, but he is curious and kind, too, anxious to understand and help the stranger whose adventure in Brooklyn he gets tangled in, and willing to put himself out to do so, up to a point.

In a subway station the Brooklynite meets this tall stranger, who is asking directions to (as the narrator says it) "Eighteent Avenoo an' Sixty-sevent' Street." After a near fist fight with another Brooklyn native who tries to give directions to the tall stranger and claims to know more of Brooklyn than he, the narrator boards the subway with the stranger to give him further directions unhindered. But as the stranger talks oddly of getting to know Brooklyn by wandering the streets, of visiting "Bensonhoist" at night just to see it, of the map that had guided him to Red Hook the night before, and finally of the peculiar fear of "drownin' in Brooklyn," the narrator decides to get off the subway at the next stop: "I could see by den he was some kind of nut," he says. "He had dat crazy expression in his eyes an' I didn't know what he might do." Looking back from some later, unspecified vantage point, the narrator speculates, "Maybe he's found out by now dat he'll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn."

The reader's understanding of the action of the story, at least if he has read the Wolfe novels, goes far beyond that of the bewildered narrator. We begin to recognize this big stranger from the start, when the Brooklynite tells us, "Well, he's lookin' wild, y'know, an' I can see dat he's had plenty, but still he's holdin' it; he talks good an' is walking straight enough." And his identity is absolutely confirmed when we find him determinedly exploring Brooklyn with a map of Red Hook and "Bensonhoist." He is indeed the familiar protagonist of Of Time and the River, though now, as we have said, viewed from the outside. We remember from that novel his incessant reading of books, followed by his incessant prowling of the city streets, his frantic trips out into the country followed by his frantic returns lest he miss any activity in the city. We perceive here in this story his all-too-real frantic state of mind, his endless searches for understanding through physical contact, his determination to "know" Brooklyn, to follow his map.

When the Brooklynite asks the stranger what specific address he's looking for, the tall man answers that he's not looking for any in particular: "Oh," dat guy says, "I'm just goin' out to see duh place . . . I just like duh sound of duh name—Bensonhoist, y'know—So I fought I'd go out an' have a look at it." The reader understands this explanation, but suspicion grows in the narrator that a joke is being played upon him. He is reassured that he is being told the truth when the tall man really does produce a well-marked map and describes some of his experiences in the late-night bars, but he feels increasing apprehension when the tall man talks of his fear of drowning. The stranger is talking of drowning in the kaleidoscope of city life, but the narrator, literal-minded, understands the metaphor not at all. Thus there is both good humor and pathos in their short exchange:

"What becomes of people after dey have drowned out heah?" [the tall stranger] says.

"Drowned out where?" I says.

"Out heah in Brooklyn."

"I don't know watcha mean," I says. "Neveh hoid of no one drowning heah in Brooklyn unless you mean a swimmin' pool. Yuh can't drown in Brooklyn," I says. "Yuh gotta drown somewhere else—in duh ocean where dere's wateh."

"Drownin'," duh guy says, lookin' at his map.


Which, as we have said, causes the alarmed narrator to get off at the next stop.

Much of the pleasure we experience in reading the story grows from the dramatic irony. We see this tough city character frightened by a man we know to be neither dangerous nor crazy. But though we know that the narrator doesn't understand the real plight of the stranger, we also come to see that in unconscious ways he is voicing a greater wisdom than the tall stranger's. When the stranger asks him, "How long would it take a guy to know duh place?" the narrator says, "You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now . . . you ain't neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn." And when the stranger protests that he has a map, the narrator insists, "You ain't gonna get to know Brooklyn wit no map." We see that the narrator is right on both the literal and the metaphorical levels, even though he does not comprehend the real nature of the stranger's search.

We see that the tall man's sense of drowning comes not from the substance of his life but from a faulty perception of it. He is driven to try to see all, to experience all, to explore each street personally. He is suffering from what Wolfe elsewhere refers to as the "Faustian sickness." His prowling of the streets brings him not more knowledge or satisfaction but an increasing, franitc state of unrest. Wolfe gives the final word and the final wisdom to the Brooklynite who, without fully comprehending, says at the end of the story, "Maybe he's found out by now dat he'll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn." In fact, only the dead can know.

In his commentary in Three Decades, the only previous extended analysis of the story, Bloom sees the stranger's search in a very different way from that sketched above. "Looking for an ultimate truth which he cannot readily isolate," Bloom asserts, "he [the tall stranger] nevertheless persists. Indeed, to cease striving, to endure the atrophy of the sense of wonder and inquiry—as the narrator has done—is to perish. . . . The search for order, beauty and individuality, it is suggested, may indeed be fruitless but must never be abandoned" (270).

But the narrator has not suffered the "atrophy" of his "sense of wonder and inquiry"; it is in his mind, filled with wondering, that the story takes place. He keeps trying to figure this fellow out, and his genuine helpfulness and sympathy for this stranger tell us something about Wolfe's growing understanding of the city people among whom he lived during his Brooklyn years.

And the drowning that the tall stranger fears is a metaphor not, as Bloom describes it, for "the wasting away of the spirit," but for life's overabundance. Wolfe had, earlier in his career, seemed to defend this insatiable desire to see, say, think and feel all, in a highly romantic scene in Of Time and the River, when Eugene Gant takes final leave of Francis Starwick, who had been his closest friend but who had turned out to be a "mortal enemy" of art and of Eugene. He is, Eugene has come to believe, a sterile, decadent poseur, and in this melodramatic scene Eugene tells him so. And Starwick, accepting Eugene's picture of him, glorifies Eugene's excessive lust for experience: "Whatever anguish and suffering this mad hunger, this impossible desire, has caused you. . . . I would give my whole life. . . . [to] know for one hour an atom of your anguish and your hunger and your hope" (783).

But Wolfe had matured since he had written that scene, and in fact, in this story the tall man's search is not for "order" or "beauty" or "individuality" as Bloom suggests; it is for raw, undifferentiated experience, unending and unnecessary—what Wolfe calls in The Story of a Novel, which he also published in 1935, "an almost insane hunger to devour the entire body of human experience" (46). Wolfe has come to see, as he describes later in that same work, that "the unlimited extent of human experience is not so important for [the writer] as the depth and intensity with which he experiences things" (47). He has discovered, in fact, what the Brooklynite knows—"You'll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn." When Wolfe republishes this story in From Death to Morning, he follows it with "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time," a story in which an old, dying German delivers the same message to the young man: "You are very young. Yes. Now you want to see it all, to haf it all—but you haf nothing. Zat is right—yes? Fields, hills, mountains, riffers, cities, peoples—you wish to know about zem all. Vun field, vun hill, vun riffer . . . zat iss enough" (109).

What seems significant to me for this discussion is not only the interpretation of this story, but the clue it gives us to the direction of Wolfe's writing career. Not only does the writing from this time on move outward, away from its early concern with the exuberant young man, but the focus becomes simpler and surer—one little charwoman to illustrate the little people of Britain, one black killer on a rampage to illustrate the plight of the black man in the South, one timid little lawyer to illustrate the plight of man living in fascist Germany. This is not to suggest that Wolfe ever became a taker-outer rather than a putter-iner, as Fitzgerald had urged him to become, but it is to insist that there is dramatic, observable change in both the theme and structure of his later fiction, and that we see that change already taking place in 1935, when "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" was first published.

This story is one of Wolfe's shortest and best of his middle period of production. Its effectiveness rests on its humorous and believable narrative voice, on the dramatic irony springing from that voice, and on a dramatic tension between the lightness of tone and the seriousness of the protagonist's concern. And its message, that the writer must not experience all, but must experience a few things intensely, shows important growth in Wolfe as a writer and as a man.

Works Cited

Bloom, Edward A. "Critical Commentary on 'Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,'" in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Literary Criticism. Ed., Leslie Field. New York University Press, 1968.

Wolfe, Thomas. From Death to Morning. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935.

——. Of Time and the River. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935.

——. "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," The New Yorker. II (June 15, 1935), 13-14.

——. The Story of a Novel. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936.

——. "The Train and the City," Scribner's Magazine, XCIII (May, 1933), 285-294.

Carol Johnston (essay date 1989)

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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 Thomas Wolfe's first nationally published story and his first novel; THE ANGEL that in its description mimics the one that W. O. Gant first spied in a Baltimore shop window and that made him want to become a stonecutter; THE ANGEL of white Carrara marble that he sold decades later to the proprietor of a house of ill-repute; THE ANGEL that walks to and fro like a huge wound doll of stone—at best a mute and mechanical representation of death—as Eugene confers with the reality of death, his brother's ghost, in the last chapter of Look Homeward, Angel; THE ANGEL whose inscrutable smile stands for the unverifiable promise of salvation—at once the marker of death and the covenant of life; THE ANGEL poised clumsily upon cold phthisic feet, holding a stone lily in one hand and wearing "a smile of soft stone idiocy" on its face that Gant both cursed and loved—the marble focus of his life's intensity and waste: the art never mastered, the ideal never achieved, the romanticized vision of life and death that misleads him, the wife—long dead—and cold, the harlot buried, the ambition thwarted, the lifeblood of sexuality—frozen, the spiritual design perverted into commodity, the artistic dream corrupted both by the warm temptation of women and the cold, parsimonious nature of wife; THE ANGEL that, more than any other symbol, has become identified with the work of Thomas Wolfe—not with the marbles of the father's failed art and life, but with the transformation of all the beauty and passion of that failure into art—into a novel that his son would call Look Homeward, Angel.

Yet, for at least one moment in January 1929, just returned from Europe, penniless, Thomas Wolfe would have scrapped the entire scene in chapter 19 in which THE ANGEL is sold—torn all but a few brief scattered mentions of THE ANGEL out of the novel, leaving in it and in our consciousness as "barren a crater" as was left in old Gant's heart when at 64 he too parted with it and, for one brief moment, saw himself move "deathward in a world of seemings." It would have indeed been a dark irony if Wolfe—whose vision of old Gant's artistic failure was so closely identified with his selling of THE ANGEL—had also, in a moment of desperation, abandoned it—in an attempt to find a publisher for his novel.

The moment took place during Wolfe's first meeting with Maxwell Perkins in the Scribner's office on 2 January 1929. Wolfe was trembling visibly and with good reason: of his fourteen publications, all—with the exception of a prize-winning undergraduate essay and an article published in his hometown newspaper—had appeared in University of North Carolina publications. If the term "writer" should be applied to someone who at least in part supports himself with his writing, Wolfe was—despite the prodigious number of pages he had produced—no writer. He had come to discuss the publication of his manuscript, O Lost, a loosely-structured novel that had already been rejected by several publishers. It was with some surprise, then, that he found the discussion between himself and the unknown young editor before him focused not on that novel, but on a single chapter—the section in which W. O. Gant sells the marble angel to "Queen" Elizabeth, a local madam, to be erected over the grave of a twenty-two year old prostitute, Lily Reed. Wolfe, sensitive to the coarse suggestiveness of the section, began to backpedal: "I know you can't print it," he broke in. "I'll take it out at once." Perkins was undoubtedly startled, as his response suggests: "Take it out. Why it's one of the greatest short stories I've ever read." Wolfe hung between hope and despair for several minutes, interpreting the response to mean that Perkins and Scribner's were interested in publishing a story taken from the novel—and not the novel itself. By the end of the session, however, the order of printing had been decided: Wolfe was to revise the "Queen" Elizabeth section, adding introductory material, and then submit it to Scribner's Magazine, which as Perkins assured him, would almost certainly accept it; he was in addition to rework sections of the novel that they had discussed and return with those sections within the week (See Nowell, Letters, pp. 168-169; Turnbull, pp. 138-139; and Berg, pp. 131-132).

Five days later, on 7 January, following a second meeting with Perkins, Wolfe emerged from that same office a professional writer: he had an unsigned contract for the publication of his first novel and an advance of $500 in his pocket, only 10% or $50 of which was ear-marked for his literary agent, Madeline Boyd (Nowell, Letters, p. 164). Within the week he would write his sister Mabel that Scribner's Magazine had accepted the story, offering him $150 for it (Nowell, Letters, p. 173). At first, he called it "Look Homeward, Angel," after the line in Milton's "Lycidas," but reconsidered and changed it to "An Angel on the Porch." Months later, as his first novel went to press, the Scribner's editors urged him to find a new title for the novel O Lost. He made a number of suggestions, none of which clicked, before one editor asked him what the original title of "An Angel on the Porch" had been. His response, "Look Homeward, Angel," became the title of the new novel (Magi and Walser, p. 117), and THE ANGEL, itself, assumed a position of emphasis and symbolic value in the novel that, had the novel remained titled O Lost or the nineteenth chapter been removed, it would never have assumed.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of "An Angel on the Porch" are intriguing. First, there is genuine disparity in critical response to it: Floyd Watkins, in his Thomas Wolfe's Characters: Portraits From Life, describes the scene as "relatively minor" (p. 18); yet Maxwell Perkins thought it a "great" short story—and prior to his meeting with Wolfe about it, read the piece to Ernest Hemingway (Nowell, Letters, p. 168). Neither Perkins nor Hemingway nor any of the editors at Scribners could have known, as the late Charmian Green has only recently shown in her article "Wolfe's Stonecutter Once Again: An Unpublished Episode," that the seed of that scene had existed in Wolfe's imagination as early as 1920-1923, long before he began work on Look Homeward, Angel Nor, in choosing the story as a means of introducing Wolfe to the American Public in Scribner's Magazine could Perkins have foreseen the circumstances that would result in the retitling of that novel after the central symbol in that story.

We have good reason, then, to ask at least four questions about "An Angel on the Porch": (1) Why did Perkins choose to introduce Wolfe to the American public by publishing this particular selection from the novel in Scribner's Magazine? (2) Why was Wolfe so willing to see this material cut from the novel? (3) How does our reading of the selection as a short story differ from our reading of it as a chapter within the context of the novel? and (4) Is "An Angel on the Porch" as fine a short story as Perkins credited it with being?

The answer to questions one and two—why Perkins chose to publish the story and why Wolfe was willing to sacrifice it—may well be the same: the coarseness and unconventionality of the subject matter. Although today madams and prostitutes dot the TV set, in the late 192O's the introduction of the owner of a house of ill repute and the description of the death of a young prostitute from what appears to have been an abortion would have been considered sensitive. As Wolfe wrote in a 27 March 1928 letter to Dr. James B. Munn:

I give you my book with a feeling of strong fear. When you read my play two or three years ago, you spoke about it in a way I shall not forget. The one criticism I remember concerned a page or two of dialogue which was tainted by coarseness. You spoke mildly and gently of that, but I felt you were sorry it had been written in. Now I give you a book on which I have wrought out my brain and my heart for twenty months. There are places in it which are foul, obscene, and repulsive. Most of those will come out on revision. But please, Dr. Munn, believe that this book was honestly and innocently written. Forgive me the bad parts, and remember me for the beauty and passion I have tried to put in it. It is not immoral, it is not dirty—it simply represents an enormous excavation in my spirit. (Nowell, Letters, pp. 131-132)

In 1928, Charles Scribner's Sons, with its long background of serious religious publishing, was particularly conservative. Scribner's Magazine, its house organ, was used as collateral reading by many schools in mixed classes, and its editors felt obliged to refrain from assailing the ears of vulnerable young schoolgirls with coarse or vulgar scenes (Berg, pp. 107-108). Wolfe had good reason, then, to expect that Scribner's would ask him to eliminate some of the coarser scenes from the novel—and this undoubtedly, led to the confusion about the "Queen" Elizabeth scene in Perkins's office at his first meeting with Wolfe. What Wolfe had no way of knowing was, as Roger Burlingame has noted, that 1928 was a turning point in the firm—and that the time was ripe for publication of just that kind of frank realistic material that Wolfe was most afraid would damage his chance for publication. As Burlingame comments, by 1928 "Some of the younger, restive folk in the house seemed to feel that Scribner's Magazine was 'in a rut'" (Berg, pp. 110-111). Perkins was one of these. The effect was to create a questioning of Scribners' conservatism at all levels, which resulted in a liberalizing of its publishing policies at almost the exact moment that Look Homeward, Angel was submitted to that publishing house.

Just three months before the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, the short story "An Angel on the Porch" appeared in the August 1929 issue of Scribner's Magazine, an issue that featured the fourth installment of A Farewell to Arms. The first installment of the Hemingway novel, published in the May issue, had resulted in the banning of the June issue in Boston and, as Scribner's noted, in a run on the remaining issues in other cities. Wolfe's story of an old man's movement toward death and the purchase of a "soft faced angel" to memorialize the grave of a young prostitute appears, with several other pieces, lodged between the beginning of the fourth installment of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and its conclusion. It was, thus, securely positioned at a point in the issue through which Hemingway's readers would have had to pass as they read the installment—between what many consider the coarsest scene in Hemingway's novel, Frederic Henry's return to his unit prior to the attack on Caporetto, his friend Rinaldi's discussion of syphilis, their suspicion that the unit priest is also a victim of that disease—and, several pages later, the implied seduction of two Italian schoolgirls. "An Angel on the Porch" and A Farewell to Arms stand alone in their realism in an issue filled with genteel reading that includes an article on bronco-busting by Will James and historical and romantic fiction by Conrad Aiken and others. Perkins had made his statement.

All this suggests why Perkins was open to publishing a particularly unconventional section of Look Homeward, Angel in the August issue of Scribner's, but it does not explain why he chose to publish this particular section. Possibly he felt it was a portion of the novel that could stand on its own while suggesting to Scribner's readers the nature of Wolfe's subject matter and the quality of his prose. Although "Queen" Elizabeth never appears at any other place in the novel and is only mentioned at one other point, references to the angel and to Gant's obsession with it are made throughout the novel. In addition, the quality of Wolfe's prose in this section is as good as it is anywhere else in the novel, with the possible exception of his description of his brother Ben's death. The novelty of the subject matter, the potential of the section to stand on its own, and the virtuosity of the prose style may well have prompted Perkins's decision. It remains to be seen, however, whether "An Angel on the Porch" is truly a "great" short story.

It is almost impossible, with Wolfe's epic work etched into our imaginations, to perceive how this section of the novel functions outside of the novel: to distinguish between the ironies of the prose text itself as opposed to the ironies that develop as a result of its context. The reader of the Scribner's Magazine story in August 1929 would have been unaware, however, of several things that deepen our sense of the irony of the story. (1) He would not have known that W. O. is in the process of selling the very monument that mimics in its description the angel of the first chapter that prompted him to become a stonecutter—and, because of that, unaware that the act symbolizes the selling-out of the dream of a failed artist; (2) that Gant had never himself been able to carve the face of an angel, but had been limited to carved lambs and hands; (3) that "Queen" Elizabeth shares, in at least the first five letters of her name, the name of Gant's wife Eliza; (4) as Gant praises the "Queen's" business skills—her wealth and her property—the reader of the short story would be unaware that these are the same traits he denounces in his wife; (5) that throughout the early chapters of the novel Eliza is likened several times to an angel (Eugene describes her on one occasion when she turns on him as a "dark angel" and Ben refers to her by the same name); (6) that W. O.'s attack on the angel at the end of the story: "Fiend out of hell . . . you have impoverished me, you have ruined me, you have cursed my declining years, and now you will crush me to death—fearful, awful, and unnatural monster that you are" ("An Angel on the Porch," 209), echoes his invective toward Eliza in Chap. 11 of the novel:

Woman, you have deserted my bed and board, you have made a laughing stock of me before the world, and left your children to perish. Fiend that you are, there is nothing that you would not do to torture, humiliate and degrade me. You have deserted me in my old age; you have left me to die alone. Ah, Lord! It was a bitter day for us all when your gloating eyes first fell upon this damnable, this awful, this murderous and bloody Barn. There is no ignominy to which you will not stoop if you think it will put a nickel in your pocket. You have fallen so low not even your own brothers will come near you. "Nor beast, nor man hath fallen so far." (Look Homeward, Angel, p. 132)

(7) he would have been unaware that Gant's wife Cynthia had died of a tubercular hemorrhage, but a hemorrhage nonetheless, as Lily Reed dies of a hemorrhage; (8) that as W. O. struggles with cancer and his body becomes waxy and translucent and, ultimately, paralyzed, he will take on the characteristics of the angel he curses and reviles, and that at the moment he learns of his cancer he is described as sitting "like a broken statue, among the marbles" (Look Homeward, Angel, p. 432); (9) that the $420 that Elizabeth pays for the statue echoes the $450 Horse Hines quotes Luke for Ben's casket—leading the narrator to comment that in death Ben had been given more money than he had ever been given living (Look Homeward, Angel, p. 569); (10) he would have been unaware of the manic struggle for life that would follow upon the heels of Gant's recognition of his own mortality or (11) of Eugene's sentimentalized recreation of Lily Reed's fate in Chap. 20—in which the obviously pregnant girl is saved not only from "death" but from "a fate worse than death." (12) And, finally, he would have been unaware that Lily Reed's dance with the bashful cowboy ghost in that chapter would prefigure the counterpoint of the angel and ghost in the novel's last chapter—a careful contrast of romanticized and realistic views of life and death.

So what would that reader in August 1929 have seen in the story? Obviously he would have seen the humor and irony in a brothel owner's purchase of a marble angel to mark the grave of a prostitute of "great opportunity." He would have noted the irony of the maudlin verse that W. O. and Elizabeth choose to inscribe on the monument and seen in it an attack on Romantic literature:

She went away in beauty's flower,
Before her youth was spent;
Ere life and love had lived their hour
God called her, and she went.

Yet whispers Faith upon the wind:
No grief to her was given.
She left your love and went to find
A greater one in heaven.

Not only do the traditional rhyme scheme and meter reduce the moment of death to a romantic cliché, but the passage, like the angel monument, is inappropriate for this young girl. Lily Reed, a young prostitute, could hardly have been assumed to have died "Ere . . . love had lived its hour." Neither can it be assumed that in her death brought on by an abortion "No . . . grief to her was given." In addition the implication of the last two lines, "She left your love and went to find / A greater one in heaven" is that she has moved from one house of ill repute on earth to a big one in the sky.

Apart from the hints of complexity of character—the brothel madam whose genteel manners result in her being likened to royalty and who "loves" one of her girls enough to purchase an expensive and ornate monument for her grave—and the marbleman, marking his own movement toward death as he creates the markers for the death of others, abusing and reviling all that he loves in the angel, while treating the town prostitute with gallantry, there is much in this story that is extraordinary even when it is read outside of the context of the novel. Much of that has to do with Wolfe's complex prose style: his ability to create rhapsodic moments and his ability to lead his characters and his readers to epiphanies.

As printed in Scribner's Magazine, the story consists of 87 paragraphs, 54 of dialogue and 33 of exposition. The dialogue between Gant and Jannadeau, and Gant and Elizabeth moves the story along a simple sequential time line—from late afternoon to evening. Basically, the dialogue delineates a simple business transaction between a local madam and a stonecutter. The expository paragraphs, however, use repetitive structures—words and phrases, grammatical structures, and alliterated sounds—to create an echo effect in the narrative that signals W. O.'s increasing obsession with memory. These repetitive structures build to the epiphany of the story's final paragraphs in which the action appears to freeze, dialogue fades into the background, and time collapses in on itself. In these final paragraphs, life stops "like an arrested gesture, in photographic abeyance" and Gant feels himself move "deathward." The final epiphany is represented in a meeting of the man and the moment—in which the action, like the angel or any work of art—freezes in time—and the memories of youth and age collapse in upon each other. In this moment Gant, whose intense struggle to live will unleash almost manic energies, perceives the inevitability of his own death.

The story line begins and ends with a reference to time; progressing naturally from late afternoon to evening; yet both the initial and the final time references carry within themselves the seeds of the sense of simultaneity created by memory—the collapse of time in the face of death—on which the story focuses. It is no coincidence that the only important character in the story beside Gant and Elizabeth is Jannadeau, a man involved in maintaining timepieces. At the beginning of the story he courts Gant's conversation in a discussion of current events, but when at the end Gant drifts off into memory, Jannadeau draws "his great head turtlewise a little farther into the protective hunch of his burly shoulders" and ignores him. The first sentence of the story sets the action in the late afternoon; yet, the time reference is only apparently simple—it is a "late afternoon" in "young summer." The contrast of age and youth is obvious, what is less obvious is that this particular "late afternoon" in which Wolfe sets the story (and which corresponds with the late afternoon of Gant's maturity) functions within the context and not in opposition to the "young summer." So in the story, Gant's memories of his relationship with Elizabeth twelve years earlier form the context within which his actions on the day of the story have meaning. Similarly, at the end of the story, in paragraph 85, the moon is described as standing like a phantom of itself. Late afternoon has become evening. The moon—like Gant with his memories—carries within itself its own prefiguration. The sense of simultaneity—the confusion of past and present—is further complicated by the stonecutter's gallant greeting "Good evening" in the fourth paragraph of the story—only three paragraphs after the reader has been told that it is late afternoon—and long before the moon is pictured as a phantom of itself. Medial time references, appearing in paragraphs 26, 30, 48, and 54, are inevitably incremental. The first mentions 12 years (the passage of time since Elizabeth and Gant have known each other physically), the second 15 years (the time within which Elizabeth has not changed), the third 22 years (the age of Lily Reed at her death), and the last 64 (Gant's age at the time of the story).

Wolfe was the master of repetition. And this particular story is a study in the use of repetition as a unifying element as well as a rhapsodic element. The most emphatic repetitions revolve around the description of the angel and are clustered around paragraphs 5, 10, and 67. The "stones, the slabs, and the cold carved lambs of death" described in the second sentence of the first paragraph are repeated with variation in paragraphs 5, 10, and 11. The variation is at points minute, but enough to create an echo effect: the sense of something heard before—but somehow differently. In paragraph 5 the "stones, the slabs, and the cold carved lambs of death" becomes "smooth granite slabs of death, carved lambs and cherubim." In paragraph 10 the initial phrase is repeated exactly as it appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph 11 the variation is significant and the phrase mutates into "the dove, the lamb, and the cold joined hands of death." Other examples of this kind of repetition are the reference to the angel's inappropriate leer in paragraphs 10 and 84; the echo of the young prostitute's name, Lily, in the flower held in the angel's hand; the almost verbatim repetition of Elizabeth's professed love for Lily in paragraphs 46 and 55; the repetition of the word "pity" in paragraphs 49 and 54; the repetition of the word "gallantly" in reference to Gant in paragraphs 4 and 10 (reminiscent of Eliza's father's playful description of Gant not as W. O., but as L. E. Gant earlier in the novel); and the play between Gant's "furtive" and "fugitive" eyes appearing in paragraphs 10, 20, and 23.

All of this repetition creates a powerful sense of déja vu which, along with the redundancy in the rhythmic structure (over 1/4 of the paragraphs are three or four sentences in length: generally a short introductory sentence, a long medial sentence with periodic elements in it, and a short concluding sentence) creates a kind of incantation building to the transcendent vision of the next-to-the-last paragraph. This effect is even further magnified by Wolfe's careful use of consonance and assonance, as in the masterful interplay of "s," "o," "a," "c," "1," "m," and "n" sounds in the second sentence of the story:

Surrounded by the stones, the slabs, the cold carved lambs of death, the stonecutter leaned upon the rail and talked with Jannadeau, the faithful burly Swiss who, fenced in a little rented place among Gant's marbles, was probing with delicate monocled intentness into the entrails of a watch.

The same sounds are repeated and emphasized in paragraphs 5, 11, and 67—in the reverberated sibilance of the three descriptions of the angel in the story: in paragraph 5 "an angel poised upon cold phthisic feet, with a smile of soft stone idiocy, stationed beside the door upon Gant's little porch" (in this 22-word passage "s" and "th" sounds are repeated 10 times); in paragraph 11 "the soft stone face of the angel" (in this 7-word passage "s" and "th" sounds are repeated 3 times); and in paragraph 67 "it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore a smile of soft stone idiocy" (in this passage of 39 words the "s" and "th" sounds are repeated 13 times). This repetition, then, builds to the resounding sibilance of the first sentence of the 86th paragraph, the final reverie:

And in that second the slow pulse of the fountain was suspended, life was held, like an arrested gesture, in photographic abeyance, and Gant felt himself alone move deathward in a world of seemings . . . (In this 34-word passage, the "s" and "th" sounds are repeated 14 times).

Thomas Wolfe when he put his mind to it—which was most of the time—could write. I want to establish the virtuosity of this particular short story—and to suggest, by doing so, that it has been undervalued and unappreciated. I was able to locate numerous anthologized printings of "The Child by Tiger" (6); "The Far and the Near" (4); "House of the Far and Lost" (4), "The Lost Boy" (6), and "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" (8), but no anthologized printings of "An Angel on the Porch." Yet this is an ideal work for introducing students to Wolfe's characters and to his prose style—a microcosm of Look Homeward, Angel. I suspect this is why Perkins chose it as a means of introducing Wolfe to the American public. As to the quality of the story itself, it lacks the social tensions and conflicts of "The Child by Tiger" (which may still lay claim to being Wolfe's "finest" short story), but it is a far more complexly crafted and important piece, both within and without the novel, than it has been credited with being.

Works Cited

Berg, A. Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.

Green, Charmian. "Wolfe's Stonecutter Once Again: An Unpublished Episode." Mississippi Quarterly, 30 (Fall 1977), 611-623.

Magi, Aldo P., and Richard Walser. Thomas Wolfe Interviewed: 1929-1938. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1960.

——. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Scribners, 1956.

Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Scribners, 1967.

Watkins, Floyd. Thomas Wolfe's Characters: Portraits From Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

Wolfe, Thomas. "An Angel on the Porch." Scribner's Magazine, 86 (August 1929), 205-210.

——. Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Scribner's, 1929.

Patricia Gantt (essay date 1993)

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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, knowing the story appears in chapter 8 of The Web and the Rock (1939), have regarded how it figures into the Bildungsroman or the Wolfe canon. More recent critics have historicized Wolfe's narrative as a document of class and race tensions of the time.

These disparate views have focused on several of the same questions, all centering on Dick Prosser, the compelling protagonist: How do we account for this man? Why does he turn "overnight" from a solicitous mentor into a mass murderer? Of what social forces is he an emblem? As readers we continue to be intrigued, like the citizens of the author's literary locale, Libya Hill: "It was a mystery and a wonder. . . . Men debated and discussed these things a thousand times—who and what he had been, what he had done, where he had come from—" (39-40).1 Indeed, Wolfe does present a powerful enigma in Prosser, a man so strongly constituted of both innocence and experience.

Yet "The Child by Tiger" has dimensions beyond our enduring fascination with its protagonist. Wolfe's story is not only a matter of plot, character or theme (narrative product), but an example of the weaving of discourse (narrative process). It illustrates not only how one man changes a small mountain town, but how fiction comes to be, and invites us to posit the Bakhtinian questions: Who speaks? What is the speaker's dialogic imperative? Where do the heteroglot forces of language collide? And—since one cannot separate discourse from the ideology which both produces it and is shaped by it—whose speech is precluded, and by whom?

The narrating voice Wolfe has chosen is George ("Monk") Webber, a man relating a series of events he has played over and over in his mind since their occurrence twenty-five years before. Thus we encounter the first "mixture of social languages within the limits of a single utterance" (Bakhtin 358). There is not just one point of view, but a genuine hybridization of a whole triad of discourses: that of the artist, that of the narrator as an adult and that of the "somnambulist," memory, through which the story unfolds (Welty 223). Events appear to come not from an authorial presence, but from a second party who searches for "the answer" to acts of individual and community violence witnessed as a child (Wolfe 40). Webber seeks through telling the story to recover the past, which Peter Brooks perceives as "the aim of narrative" (311).

Further, Wolfe employs the narratological device of seeming to relate the tale to an outsider, someone who—like its teller—has an urge for closure which time has not provided: "that bloody chronicle of night," though remembered, is still unaccounted for (Wolfe 33). To multiply the hybridization, much of what is thought to have happened has been pieced together from a series of stories told by various people, who are themselves weavers of narratives rising from whatever ideologies they hold, and therefore just as unreliable as he. There can be no "the truth," no closure, no "meaning," only a nexus of perspectives. Characters sometimes reflect, sometimes refract the ideology of the narrator—and all are manipulated by the author.

An early consideration in uncovering what M. M. Bakhtin calls "all the available orchestrating languages" in Wolfe's story is its editing history (416). The 1936 working title for his fictional account of the 1906 Asheville incident was "Nigger Dick" (Donald 409). Before the story could be published, Wolfe traveled to Berlin to spend royalties from the sale of his books in Germany, since Hitler would not permit such monies to be sent out of the Reich (Daniels 1). His trip coincided with the 1936 Olympics. Inspired by Jesse Owens's showing there, as well as by Hitler's display of intolerance and the ominous strengthening of the regime in which that intolerance thrived, Wolfe rewrote his early draft (Donald 410). His revision gives a more balanced, thoughtful picture than can be found in the earlier version, both of the man who commits the initial violence and of the even more brutal mob which pursues and mutilates him. The "new" story appeared as "The Child by Tiger" in the Saturday Evening Post for 11 September 1937 (409). After Wolfe's death a few months later, his editor, Edward Aswell, bypassed the revision and returned to the original "Nigger Dick" draft for inclusion in a text he was piecing together from various fragments of the writer's work. Although retaining the Post title, he made another major change in shifting from the original first-person point of view to third person (468). Thus one faces a multiple language even before considering the internal elements of the piece, since there are three textual variants with conflicting ideological subtexts.

The author's designation of a dual-voiced narrator is plain from the first line of the story. It begins with four words set in the past ("One day after school"), and counterbalances with an almost identical number of syllables reminding us of the present ("twenty-five years ago") (24). Though Wolfe gives an individual narrator ostensible control over the telling, the story is in no way single or linear. The author layers the narrating voice with rich textures of other voices, both from within the story and from a multiplicity of exterior sources. George Webber expresses

an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (syntactic) and compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains within it [multiple] utterances . . . speech manners . . . styles . . . "language" . . . semantic and axiological belief systems . . . there is no formal—compositional and syntactic—boundary between these utterances, styles, languages, belief systems (Bakhtin 304-05).

The interplay of these multiple languages and perspectives, their "hybrid construction," is one of the most intricate aspects of Wolfe's story, as well as a possibility of speech Bakhtin considers particular to fiction (304).

The past "I" is the voice of Monk Webber, an easily-impressed, hero-worshipping boy who takes most statements at their literal value. He is fascinated with "Shepperton's new Negro man" because Prosser incorporates all the macho virtues Monk's little neighborhood gang prizes: he can play football, shoot and box; to Monk's friends, "There [is] nothing that he [does] not know" (26). In addition, Prosser treats the boys with a dignity they are unused to, but welcome immensely, calling each one "Mister" except the son of his employer, for whom he reserves the title "Cap'n." Frozen in time by memory, Monk remains essentially the same throughout the story, acknowledging himself to be emotionally still a "boy" after the recalled violence has played out (38).

The present "I" is a grown-up Monk—now George—who reflects on these long-ago incidents from an adult's point of view. While remembering those times when Prosser instructs the boys in boxing, Wolfe merges both voices, past and present, in Webber. The narrator says, "He never boxed with us, of course," blending both the awe-stricken boy and the adult, and follows with a purely adult perspective: "There was something amazingly tender and watchful about him" (24-25). Presenting the passage as a stylistic unit, Wolfe interweaves two dialogues—that of a child who does not dare to hope for full status with an adult, and that of the adult who realizes the operative racism precluding their interaction as equals, a bias having nothing to do with the disparities in their ages and amounts of strength. He also mixes the freshness of re-called impressions from childhood with an adult's more sophisticated ability to articulate them, a technique we see practiced in fiction more contemporaneous to ourselves—say, by Frank O'Connor or Shirley Ann Grau—than to Wolfe's fellow modernists. The child grown up can better evaluate and possibly identify with Prosser's protectiveness, even as in retrospect he senses implicit social undercurrents in their relationship.

Frequently the narrator's child/man voice seems a vehicle for expressions of "the intentions and actions of the author," as in the selection of incidents designed to enhance the reader's esteem for Prosser (Bakhtin 314). At other times the narrator conveys incidents and ideologies the boy Monk would not have been privy to—exchanges he admits "no one ever saw" which must have taken place in the Sheppertons' kitchen, for example—to convey ideology elsewhere (28). The narrator is variously at one with and in opposition to the boys and the town, mixing discourses of adult and child, poor white and middle class, self-styled hero and legal authority, black women and white, male and female, the law-and-order advocate and the mob. In all these dialogues we see tensions between belief systems—apparent, too, in more directly-provided detail, such as the emblematic naming of the town merchant who capitalizes on the tragedy as Cash Eager.

An especially notable hybrid, ideologically-loaded construction occurs when Ben Pounders declaims his important role in the "accomplishments" of the posse that has tracked Prosser down (Wolfe 38). Ostensibly a monologue, the passage is actually an act of "authorial unmasking," exposing the speaker, as well as that segment of society which both absorbs his exaggerations and extols his behavior (Bakhtin 304). Pounders describes his "heroic accomplishments" to a "fascinated" crowd; he "boasts of another triumph," is said to be a "proud possessor of another scalp" and is even called a "hero" (Wolfe 38).

Yet it is clear that he is anything but heroic when one looks at the dialogic descriptions of the man and his audience. The animal imagery Wolfe employs in depicting Pounders invokes odium rather than approbation. Pounders has a "ferret face," a "mongrel mouth"—both indications of slyness and inferiority (38). He has a "furtive and uneasy eye" (38). His occupation, "collector of usurious lendings to the blacks," also indicts him, carrying the weight of Biblical injunction (38). The title "nigger hunter" is applied to Pounders only with an obvious sneer (38). The author further has the braggart spit tobacco juice into the slush of filthy snow and point grotesquely at a hole in Prosser's corpse "with a dirty finger" (38). Hardly descriptive of one worth emulating.

Note, too, the juxtaposition of the leader of the boys' gang, Nebraska Crane—"fearless, blunt, outspoken as he always was"—against the "little group of fascinated listeners" who "goggled with a drugged and feeding stare" (38). Set against "the leaden reek of day, the dreary vapor of the sky," the faces and bloodlust of "the poolroom loafers, the town toughs, the mongrel conquerers of the earth" invite disgust (38). Nebraska is the only one present strong enough to confront Pounders; though a boy, he is the only "man" there worthy of the name. When Pounders pauses for admiration, Nebraska

put two fingers to his lips and spat between them, widely and contemptuously.

"Yeah—we!" he grunted. "We killed a big one! We—we killed a b'ar, we did! . . . Come on, boys," he said gruffly. "Let's be on our way!"

And, fearless and unshaken, untouched by any terror or any doubt, he moved away. And two white-faced, nauseated boys went with him. (38)

Nebraska's inherent assessment of Pounders and his cronies is clear: they do not even have the grace to feel shame for their vindictive bloodletting. Nor do they at any level acknowledge the irony in having creatures like themselves control the destiny of a man like Prosser, merely because they are white and he is black. Wolfe has unmasked their self-absorbed ideology of oppression through the guise of reportage, with double voicing that assures Pounders's pronouncements will not have the authority generally invested in monologue. Following that boasting with Nebraska's incisive undercuts, the author both demonstrates the mixture of language systems which constitutes narrative and privileges a more egalitarian ideology.

One of the most fundamental aspects of the novel as narrative is its spongelike quality, its ability to incorporate various genres, to re-accentuate "both artistic (inserted short stories, lyrical songs, poems, dramatic scenes, etc.) and extra-artistic (everyday, rhetorical, scholarly, religious genres and others)" (Bakhtin 320). Wolfe's "The Child by Tiger" is particularly rich in this regard, for it makes extensive use of both artistic and extra-artistic genres. Language sources range from weather reports and excerpts from Asheville newspapers to Shakespearean drama, romantic poetry and contemporary fiction. Wolfe also interweaves the language of hymns and the Bible, as well as both the style of delivery and the substance of a familiar black folk sermon. No component of the story is more illustrative of narrative's status as a heteroglot medium.

The title, as well as story itself, is dependent on William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, especially the "Tiger," which is quoted within the narrative as a possible key to the puzzle of Dick Prosser. The headnote to the story is the first four lines of the poem: "Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame they fearful symmetry?" (24). Blake's lyric serves the Bakhtinian function of allowing the novel to "reprocess reality," as George Webber uses its central probes to speculate about his childhood hero: "'What the hammer? What the chain?' No one ever knew" (Bakhtin 321, Wolfe 39). The poem is also the indirect source for the many parallel cat images that dot the description of Prosser. The first sentence in which he appears mentions "his great black paw" (25). With his several admirable skills, he is described as being "crafty as a cat" (25). His movements, too, are catlike: Wolfe says, "He was there upon you sometimes like a cat"; "The Negro was out of the car like a cat"; "then he was on us like a cat" (26-28). To reinforce the feral image, Prosser's eyes go red when he is angered, as when a drunk who has sideswiped Shepperton's car smashes Dick in the face: "But suddenly the whites of his eyes were shot with red, his bleeding lips bared for a moment over the white ivory of his teeth. . . . there were those who saw it and remembered later how the eyes went red" (27). Only Prosser's eyes show resistance, for the code of that small southern town says he cannot defend himself against any white man. The narrator refers to this encounter with the drunk as an example of "a flying hint," recalled afterwards when the town attempts to comprehend Dick's behavior (27). Incidents like this one go far in explaining the man's sudden release of long-held frustrations into blind violence. Wolfe later drops the cat imagery for a time, returning to it only after Prosser's grisly death—his lifeless body riddled with bullets twice, then senselessly hanged and riddled again—to depict Ben Pounders with his "mongrel mouth" (38). Narratological closure includes two additional stanzas of Blake's poem and a last feline image—"He was . . . a tiger and a child" (40). Thus Wolfe leaves the reader with an expression of the dual sides of Prosser and, by obvious extension, of us all.

Then, too, the adversarial position of town whites plays off Prosser's feline qualities. While he is the independent cat, the townspeople are painted as dogs. More powerful than the author's "cat," they are also cruder, more brutal and more conforming than he. When Monk gets to the square shortly after the alarm goes out that "that nigger" has "gone crazy and is running wild," he learns that Dick has "killed six men" (30-31). The confusion at the square reminds the boy of "a dog fight"; he mentions the "ugly and insistent growl" of the crowd, its "blood note in that foggy growl" more frightening than that of actual hounds which arrive "swiftly, fairly baying at our heels" (32). Dehumanizing the wild mob gathering in the square works well to reinforce their pack mentality, which does not seek the why of events, only someone to punish. Town society—except for the boys and to some extent the elder Shepperton—fails to show Prosser respect, fearing his skills and apparent self-possession.

Although he is the focus of the story, Dick Prosser actually is given very little to say, underscoring the voicelessness endemic to southern blacks in the early years of this century. His every word is mantled in borrowed language or masked in terms acceptable to the white society which pushes him aside and effectively robs him of power. Who speaks for him? Boys, a white adult narrator, other whites in the town, etc.—never the man directly for himself, unless we interpret his violence as a kind of discourse. A telling scene is when Dick stands, cap in hand, at the side door of a "white" church he is not allowed to attend, listening "during the course of the entire sermon" (27). There can be no doubt that he has much to articulate, for he carries the burden Toni Morrison describes as "adult pain that rest[s] somewhere under the eyelids" (2 October 1990). What he does give voice to consists mostly of a passion-filled amalgam of Bible verses, snatches of sermons and hymn lyrics, shared not with other adults, but with the boys only. It is comparatively safe for him to reveal his thoughts to children, who customarily have little social power. They are the only ones, for instance, to whom he shows his gun, left over from a mysterious—possibly military—past.

Central to Dick's less guarded speech is his call for racial equality, expressed in pleadings to "love each othah like a brothah" and implicit warnings that "judgment day" is coming:

"Oh, young white fokes," he would begin, moaning gently, "de dry bones in de valley. I tell you, white fokes, de day is comin' when He's comin' on dis earth again to sit in judgment. He'll put de sheep upon de right hand and de goats upon de left. Oh white fokes, white fokes, de Armageddon day's a-comin,' white fokes, an' de dry bones in de valley." (26,27)

Although these nonsecular speeches are admittedly a form of social mask—especially since couched in dialect—they are the least inhibited ones given to any black in the piece, and the only ones made by a black character who is not at the time wearing the expected mask of subservience. Such passages invite the reader to view Dick's night of violence as a specie of Armageddon and the man himself as an avenging angel, destroying agents of oppression and those complicitous with it. Like Bigger Thomas, Prosser argues through his acts of violence for an acknowledged sense of self.

Wolfe's source for Prosser's sacred text is apparently a traveling African-American preacher, Robert Parker Rumley, who "won fame throughout Western North Carolina" delivering essentially the same sermon to crowds of blacks and whites (Watkins 138). Based on Ezekiel 37: 1-10, it is referred to as "De Dry Bones in de Valley." Wolfe was born four years after the publication of Rumley's sermon and "must have heard it or stories about it" (139). Certainly the words of the "deeply religious" Prosser echo Rumley's oration and provide increasingly complex texture to the narrative (Wolfe 25).

Direct incorporation of biblical language is a part of Wolfe's weave of discourse, as well. Prosser spends long hours reading the Bible in his monklike cell at the Sheppertons, emerging with his eyes red with weeping. Days after the terrible violence has taken place, Shepperton and the boys go into that room, only to find a Bible symbolically "open and face downward" in rejection, turned to the Twenty-third Psalm (39). Whether Prosser has rejected God and holy text, or simply been unable to find solace there when faced with daily exhibitions of men's unholiness, we cannot know. Certainly the instruction of the biblical voice in those spare surroundings serves as a vivid counterpoint to the violence and chaos that have come into their lives. Shepperton begins to read "The Lord is my shepherd," but stops when he reaches "the valley of the shadow of death" with its threat of evil (39). Wolfe's choice of this particular passage underscores Prosser's faith, since the Bible is the only personal object in his austere room. Our sympathy for the man, increases, too, as we recall his habit of emerging after hours spent with the Bible, eyes "red, as if he had been weeping" (26). In Wolfe's selection and Shepperton's reading, we read Prosser's struggle for ascendency of the lamb over the tiger within him.

In addition to borrowing actual words from extratextual sources and reinvesting them with meaning, Wolfe's narrative reaccentuates other genres merely by adopting the cadence of familiar lines. A pointed example is his use of a rhythm unmistakably derived from Shakespeare's Macbeth. When the ambitious Thane of Cawdor emerges from Duncan's chamber with his guilty, bloodstained hands, he says, "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep'" (II, ii 35-36). Wolfe evokes that exact cadence when he describes the aftermath of the blood scene around the square: "But there was no more sleep, I think, for anyone that night. Black Dick had murdered sleep" (36, emphasis added). Those six syllables, accented just as the original ones were when written centuries ago, are to Albert E. Wilhelm an "obvious" framing gesture (179). They demonstrate the liveliness of narrative prose, which cannot be confined to "one linguistic timbre," but can embrace other works just by taking on their peculiar rhythms (Bakhtin 324).

Narratives at times weave in other narratives. Voices they subsume can contain declarations of authorial intention to call up themes embedded in works recast. Wolfe does so in concluding with a direct echoing of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The struggle between good and evil—even between shades of evil—so manifest in Conrad's tale is an inherent part of Wolfe's. In fact, that struggle is the subtext of all the languages and genres he incorporates in "The Child by Tiger." The narrator says of Dick Prosser:

He came from darkness. He came out of the heart of darkness, from the dark heart of the secret and undiscovered South. He came by night, just as he passed by night. He was night's child and partner, a token of the other side of man's dark soul, a symbol of those things that pass by darkness and that still remain, a symbol of man's evil innocence, and the token of his mystery, a projection of his own unfathomed quality, a friend, a brother and a mortal enemy, an unknown demon, two worlds together—a tiger and a child (40).

The evocation is multiple, drawing parallels between colonialist Africa and the modern South. Primarily it connotes Kurtz, Conrad's protagonist, who looks into his own heart, sees there man's potential for evil, and dies screaming, "The horror! The horror!" (147). The narrator uses this recasting of Conrad's title and theme to posit by inference his theory that each of us has within the dual sides of a Kurtz or a Dick Prosser—"a tiger and a child" (40). Wolfe borrows Conrad here to exemplify "the potential for violence that [lies] in the hearts of all men," rather than the violent outpourings of one aberrant human being (Donald 409). Weaving this story into his own allows Wolfe another langue for discourse, since Conrad's tale of imperialism carries an implicit political context.

The extra-artistic genres Wolfe incorporates in his narrative web provide some of the most interesting double-voicedness. A child of six when the occurrences he drew from for his tale took place, Wolfe would assuredly have heard Asheville townspeople speak of them then and for many years to follow, their biases framing the tellings. Later, when the author could have direct access to newspaper accounts of 14-20 November 1906, he would find them to be also only "the story as we get it, pieced together," full of the ideologies of those who fabricated them (Wolfe 35). The Asheville Citizen for 14 November carries the headline: "Brave City Officers Fall Dead on Streets Acting in Line of Duty" (1). Under the guise of journalistic objectivity, this newspaper and those of the next week are in fact like all discourse—fraught with the prejudices of their creators, whose utterances are produced by a matrix of social forces.

The paper traces the story of Will Harris (Dick Prosser), naming him a "fiend" who so terrifies the "childlike" "negroes of that distici" that they could provide "absolutely no valuable information" (1). It also records the cries of townspeople for "another Ku Klux . . . And had a Ben Cameron (Ben Pounders?) arisen from the crowd and given the old war cry of the Klan, thousands would have followed" (1). Subsequent papers bear weighted reports such as this: "The negro was desperate, inspired by bravado at this time. Clearly he wished to defy all the world—he cared nothing for consequences" (15 November: 6). Harris is purported to have said, "I am from Hell and don't care who sends me back" (6). The Citizen from the day Harris's body was brought back into town depicts "a vast, seething, excited crowd" in danger of crushing one another in their eagerness to view the "mutilated desperado" on display; the same edition contains the story of an innocent black man, shot by mistake by an overly-enthusiastic deputy (1). The next day's editorial is a congratulatory message to the "southern manhood" of Asheville who "remained cool and acted with wisdom" (4). A visiting salesman, for some reason asked to comment, said he "expected to see a good deal of shooting and general disorder" (4). Such an ideological context must have influenced Wolfe, causing him to speak of the episode of "the coon who is hunted by the posse" as a good source for fiction (Donald 409). The story as told in The Web and the Rock is a more direct descendant of racist accounts in the newspapers, but both narratives probably reflect the Citizen's designation of Harris as a "wild beast" and its accounts of the rivalry over who fired "the fatal bullets" (16 November: 1). Headlines and columns, whether directly or indirectly incorporated by Wolfe, present another thread in the weaving of discourse.

History, too, enters into the meshing of Wolfe's narrative. It can be no coincidence that the one man who tries to maintain calm in the crowd is Hugh McNair, "taller by half a foot than anyone around him, his long gaunt figure, the gaunt passion of his face, even the attitude of his outstretched bony arms, strangely, movingly Lincolnesque" (32). Wolfe inserts this physical comparison to the Great Emancipator as an apparent commentary on the nobility of one who speaks up for reason and equity over passion and vengeance. In just this way, an author utilizes "every utterance as an ideologeme" (Bakhtin 429). Wolfe's analogy to Lincoln is both an indicator of the spirit of the mob and the author's valorization of McNair's appeal to them to be rational: "Wait a minute!" he says. "You men wait a minute! . . . You'll gain nothing, you'll help nothing if you do this thing!" (32). But McNair is shouted down.

Wolfe's "polyphonic" discourse contains a variety of other sources, most embedded in dialogue. He inserts folk sayings ("straight as string" and "We—we killed a b'ar, we did!"), idiomatic expressions ("tote" for carry), dialect ("When you gits a little oldah yo' handses gits biggah and you gits a bettah grip") and even a verbal palimpsest from a speech by another of white society's victims, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians (35, 38, 26). Telling of the visit the boys and Shepperton make to Prosser's room, the narrator says, "And we went out the door, he locked it, and we went back into that room no more forever" (39). That unusual phrase, "no more forever," surely recalls Chief Joseph's declaration that he "will fight no more forever" (Linton 216). Such a diversified chorus of artistic and extra-artistic voices ensures the richness of narrative discourse.

What do we do, then, after we have noted all this verbal luxuriance, this intricate dialogic weave Wolfe has created? Granted that it provides a useful—even fascinating—way into a clearer understanding of fiction, that it illustrates the all-inclusive possibilities of the novel, that it guarantees the dynamism of that genre as an art form in a state of becoming. But there is more. Terry Eagleton has expressed the aim of our investigation this way:

Any body of theory concerned with human meaning, value, language, feeling and experience will inevitably engage with broader, deeper beliefs about the nature of human individuals and societies, problems of power and sexuality, interpretations of past history, versions of the present and hopes for the future. (195)

"The Child by Tiger" is not a record of aseptic discourse. There is no such thing, as both Bakhtin and Eagleton declare. The story is a record of power—or rather, of powerlessness—a testimony to the politics immanent in every discourse, every text. Thus comes the final inquiry: Who speaks for whom?

Wolfe's narrative, like the "bloody chronicle" which inspired and the newspaper articles which influenced it, remains enmeshed in racist ideology. Consider the newspaper accounts of those appalling November days. They are a tissue of remarks by the white power structure of community and press—even a traveling salesman gets to speak. But where are the remarks from the actual black community? Even though several blacks are directly involved—eyewitnesses, victims of the violence, donators of money to aid families of policemen shot by Harris—they are given no chance to comment on what happens. Their donations are cited Jim Crow style, at the end of the published list, with the designation "colored" by each (15 November: 1). Common practice allowed the newspaper, ironically called the Citizen, to refer to a black man as "the little darkey" (17 November: 5). We need not ask which citizens the paper primarily wished to serve.

This same prejudicial ideology is what Wolfe tried to eradicate from his story when he changed its title from "Nigger Dick" and revised the content. He told Jonathan Daniels that his view of the "poisonous and constricted hatreds" he witnessed during his 1936 trip to Germany had made him "enormously interested in politics for the first time in my life," and that he wished to work for "social progress and social justice" (Daniels, 23 October 1936: 3-4). He started with his writing. We can only speculate about the increasingly liberal course his fiction might have taken had he lived long enough to effect more of the changes he spoke to Daniels about. That he was partially successful is evident from the many racial and anti-Semitic slurs deleted from the version Aswell chose for The Web and the Rock. The public at the time of the story's first appearance thought it quite liberal. In fact, it nearly became a casualty to the dominant white ideology of 1937, when few wanted to read stories of black men's rage. Both Collier's and Redbook rejected it before the Post bought it, fully expecting to lose some of their usual readership by daring to print such a controversial piece (Kennedy 56-59). Wolfe's portrayal of Dick Prosser in the Post version is, however, far from being "the one fullscale Afro-American in his writing . . . neither patronizing nor prejudiced" that Donald claims it to be (409). Its saturation with racism, expressed mostly by the adult narrator, marks it as a document of disempowerment.

Even in revision, Wolfe first mentions Prosser as a generic, owned thing: "Shepperton's new Negro man"; Shepperton himself declares Dick to be "the smartest darkey that he'd ever known" (24, 26). The dialect in which Wolfe cloaks Prosser's words makes him sound like Uncle Remus ("Ise tellin' you," etc.) (26). His voice is said to be "full of Africa," although other characters' voices are not full of the lands of their white origins (27). Prosser has been "in the service of former masters" (27). His Army days are spent as a member of "crack Negro troops" (25). He drives the Sheppertons to a church he cannot attend; hit by a drunken white, he cannot retaliate. His friend Pansy is described as "a comely Negro wench . . . black as the ace of spades," who nightly carries home scraps from the Shepperton kitchen where she cooks (27). When Prosser discovers the boys peeping into his room, his one sanctuary, he flashes into anger, then reassumes his mask, chuckling and cajoling them not to report what they have seen. When the narrator fixes on the Blake poem for the image which best suits Prosser, it is one, he remarks condescendingly, "Dick, I know, had never heard, and one perhaps he might not have understood" (39). While we can commend Wolfe for improvements that he did make, we can also draw a significant observation from the catalog of what he includes, even in the "purged" version. That observation impacts not only on Wolfe studies, but on our canonical choices or investigations of other authors, and certainly on our own speech acts.

Bakhtin reminds us of how politically-invested the threads we weave into our discourse are, both through accident and careful crafting. Our very medium is one where ideologies "battle it out in the arena of utterances" (Bakhtin 431). Do we not, then, have an obligation not only to examine texts, but to re-examine the languages in which we speak, as well as those we validate by their inclusion in the canon, to see if we are encouraging a diverse chorus of social voices? I say yes. My Eagletonian "hope for the future" is that in our search for more than "meaning" in a text, we be aware of how language is put together—and why. Bakhtin says the novel is "the encyclopedia of the life of the era . . . the maximally complete register of all social voices of the era" (430). When we examine texts, we must ask not only "What do they mean?" but treat them as the political documents they are. We can be especially alert to whether all the social voices of an era have had a chance to be heard, or if they speak only through their silences. We must ask: "Who speaks?" "In what way?" "Why does s/he speak?" "What is omitted in that speech?" "For whom does s/he speak?" and—most significantly—"Who never gets to speaks at all, and what shall we do about it?" In that way, we will use our considerable power as scholars for acts of reclaiming.


1 For fidelity to authorial intentions, I have chosen to deal with Perrine's reprint of the story as Wolfe last saw it published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1937. For critical convenience, I borrow the name of the narrator, George ("Monk") Webber, from the Aswell fabrication; the narrator is nameless in "The Child by Tiger."

Works Cited

Asheville Citizen. 14 Nov.-20 Nov. 1906.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Conrad, Joseph. Into the Heart of Darkness. New York: Harper, 1910.

Daniels, Josephus. Papers. Southern Historical Collection. Wilson Library, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Little, 1987.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Kennedy, Richard S., ed. Beyond Love and Loyalty: The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Elizabeth Nowell. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1983.

Linton, Calvin D., ed. The Bicentennial Almanac. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1975.

Morrison, Toni. Address. U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 2 Oct. 1990.

Watkins, Floyd C. "De Dry Bones in de Valley." Southern Folklore Quarterly (June 1985): 136-40.

Welty, Eudora. The Optimist's Daughter. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Wilhelm, Albert E. "Borrowings from Macbeth in Wolfe's 'The Child by Tiger.'" Studies in Short Fiction 14 (Spring 1977): 179-80.

Wolfe, Thomas. "The Child by Tiger." Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Ed. Laurence Perrine. Atlanta: Harcourt, 1978. 24-40.

——. The Web and the Rock. New York: Harper, 1939.

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

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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 have a tremendous press there, I have many friends there, and I like the country and the people enormously. But the story wrote itself. It was the truth as I could see it, and I decided that a man's own self-respect and integrity is worth more than his comfort or material advantage. (Letters 614)

When Wolfe speaks of the story's having written itself, he is, of course, speaking as an experienced writer, as a practiced hand now turning out some of his best pieces of fiction. It is possible, too, that he means to suggest that the action of the piece occurred in real life pretty much as he presents it in the story. Thus, he could mean that the plot took care of itself, the real-life happenings providing a suitable beginning, middle, and end. Whether the plot easily came to him because of his experience as a storyteller or from his faithful recording of events as they unfolded as he left Germany by train in early September 1936, Wolfe wanted to engage his readers in a narrative discourse, to reveal the truth as he saw it, to ask his readers to make a metaphoric transference from this one example of Nazi oppression to whatever land or ruler tried to imprison people physically or spiritually. The thing he had to tell was both a protest against abridged or denied civil rights and a testimony of his commitment to expose man's inhumanity to man. What he had just witnessed in Hitler's Germany deeply concerned him, had revealed to him something dark, ugly, and vicious, had shown him that the country he revered next to his own was headed toward unspeakable atrocities.

The impulse driving Wolfe to tell his story, to engage his readers in narrative discourse, seems readily explainable as one of "the motors of desire" that Peter Brooks identified as forces impelling narratives in his Reading for Plot:

Narratives portray the motors of desire that drive and consume their plots, and they also lay bare the nature of narration as a form of human desire: the need to tell as a primary human drive that seeks to seduce and to subjugate the listener, to implicate him in the thrust of a desire that can never quite speak its name—never can quite come to the point—but that insists on speaking over and over again its movement toward that name. (61)

What seems clear from a close reading of I Have a Thing to Tell You is that the "motors of desire" driving Wolfe were diametrically opposing forces, forces causing him personal anguish, forces convincing him, ultimately, that he must relate his story as persuasively as possible if humanity were to be warned about falling victim to dark, evil, malicious powers. One motor of his desire was his enjoyment of Germany's celebration of his work, an eager acceptance bringing with it fame, money and lavish hospitality, lionizing at its best. Another motor of desire, driven by his sense of his paternal ancestry, was his love of Germany, its people, its accomplishments, its romantic ambience. Tugging at him in a contrary direction was the desire to reveal how far Hitler's Germany had gone in breeding hatred, mistrust, and betrayal among its citizens and how far Hitler and his henchman were willing to go to crush citizens who still cherished freedom of thought, movement and association. To embody those desires in a plot, Wolfe traced the experiences of his protagonist as he bid farewell to German friends and took a train to Paris.

Of course, as a plot device, a trip is no doubt as old as the art of storytelling, as classical, biblical and Oriental examples remind us. In the version I am using (bMS Am 1883 [734] in the Wisdom Collection), a second draft changed slightly and added to by Wolfe and used by Edward Aswell as Book VI of You Can 't Go Home Again, Wolfe divided the typescript into three uneven sections, marked "The Hotel," "The Station," and "The Train." I choose that version because it represents the story as Wolfe shaped it for publication before it was trimmed by him and Elizabeth Nowell for its appearance in The New Republic in three installments in March 1937. (The section entitled "The Dark Messiah" in Book VI of You Can't Go Home Again was not part of the original novella, most of it having been written in February of 1938 [Kennedy 333] ). This second typescript version is told from the first-person point of view and narrates the experiences of Paul Spangler (later to be called George Webber).

Behind the novella lie some notebook entries of considerable interest, many of them tellingly political. On the topic of freedom of speech and thought Wolfe scribbled, "In Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America you are not free to say this" (Notebooks 829). But the freedom to write ethnic slurs was being bought at a very high price:

Nothing good can be said about the Italian or German dictatorships. If one suggests that benefits from these dictatorships have been considerable, the slot-machine answer, with a slight sneer is, "Oh, yes, we know—the streets are clean and the trains run on time, but do you think that these blessings compensate for the loss of human liberties, freedom of speech, etc., etc." (Notebooks 830)

Continuing his weighing of fascism as he had come to know it, he jotted down a list of pros and cons:

For Against
Physical Clean-ness Repression of free speech
Healthy People A Cult of Insular Superiority
Effective Relief With This a Need for Insular Dominion
A Concentration of National Energy
(Notebooks 831)

Still later he recorded a plan taking shape for a new story: "I am going to tell you a little story and it is a little story that may hurt me too. I am taking a chance when I tell it" (Notebooks 835). Musing further on a problem forced upon him by the ethnic background of one of the characters to appear in the story, Wolfe confessed: "I don't like Jews, and if most of the people that I know would tell the truth about their feelings, I wonder how many of them would be able to say that they liked Jews" (Notebooks 835). But his perception of what lay ahead for humanity if Hitler and his followers were not checked led him to proclaim: "I have a thing to tell you. . . . brothers, we must brothers be—or die" (Notebooks 835). In foreseeing that he would be hurt by publishing the projected story, Wolfe was right. Following its publication, Wolfe's works were banned in Nazi Germany.

He sensed that the narrative discourse generated by the story would proclaim his steadfast opposition to the suspicion, mistrust, hatred, betrayal and atrocities in German society under Hitler's crazed sway. His story would expose Nazism as he had come to know it and dramatize how the chain of humanity could be severed if mankind refused to acknowledge and defend brotherhood

How best to embody those ideas in his story was a question that Wolfe as a storyteller had to answer through plot. His opening scene, Paul Spangler's conversation with Franz Heilig, establishes the fact that Hitler's Germany has created suspicion, mistrust and hatred. In heavy irony, Franz, confiding his fear that he will be punished for having his girl share his one-room place with him, says, "I vill now tell you somesing. Under ze Dritte Reich ve are all so happy, everysing is so fine and healsy zat it is perfectly God damn dretful." Through Franz, Wolfe reveals how the Nazis have treated Jews:

"All ze Chews have been taken from zeir work, zey have nozzing to do any more. Zese people come around—some stupid people in zeir uniforms," he said contemptuously. "And zey say zat everyone must be an Aryan man—zis wonderful plue-eyed person eight feet tall who has been Aryan in his family since 1820. If zere is a little Chew back zere—zen it is a pity." (bMS Am 1883 [734], 7, 14)

These passages prepare readers for actions taken later at Aachen against a Jewish lawyer trying to leave the country with more marks than permissible. Franz's statement about Paul's current fame in Germany and the risk he would run if he wrote a story criticizing Hitler's regime carry Wolfe further into the narrative discourse now being opened with his readers. German repression of anything unfavorable to the Nazi line touches not only living arrangements and harassment of Jews but the freedom of artistic expression as well. Wolfe here reminds readers that writers in America suffer repression, too, not as victims of official government action but as targets of leftist or rightist groups more concerned with political correctness than with artistic merit. Spewing acid for Wolfe on both esthetic and political groups, Franz spits out his loathing for Expressionists, Surrealists, Communists and anyone dedicated to spreading or promoting propaganda: "I hate them—zese bloody awful little men" (23). Franz tears into them because he considers these special interest groups enemies of free expression: "You must say ze sings zey want you to say or zey kill you" (25).

This opening scene with Franz thus opens the questions that Wolfe wishes to pursue, offers firsthand evidence of the troubling discoveries he is making about Nazi Germany, and prepares us to accept a developing thesis that Germany's crushing of political and artistic freedom could be setting a pattern for much of Europe and the United States.

The second scene, set on the platform of the Bahnhof Am Zoo, forces us to respond to the hints about suspicion and mistrust offered in the first scene. When Paul introduces Else von Kohler to Franz, the two Germans stare at each other coldly, hostilely, a response leading Paul to observe: "It had in it a quality that was different from anything I had ever seen at home, a quality that was at once shockingly cold and naked and disturbingly subtle. It was as hard as steel and flashing as a rapier" (31). The issue here seems to be less esthetic than sexual, though the former does arise in Else's critique of the drawing of Paul by Franz's friend. Franz appears to move in Berlin's homosexual circle, whereas Else seems to embody the essence of heterosexuality.

This scene continues its revelation of the German character when Paul's friend Lewald joins the farewell party on the platform. When Lewald speaks to Else, his manner seems bluff, boyish, and exuberant, indeed full of high spirits and "jolly good will" (38). Paul finally sees that Lewald's "boyish ingenuousness was just a mask" and that his "soul and character were sly, shrewd, subtle, devious, crafty, cunning, dexterous as hell" (38). This episode eventually underscores the feelings of hostility and alienation existing among Paul's German friends. Hoping that Paul won't be caught up in bitter rivalries for his allegiance or by some group's hope that his pen will be used in their behalf, Else says to him in reference to Franz: "You must not listen to zis bitter man! . . . You are religious man. You are artist. And ze artist is religious man" (33).

The third part of the story proves that statement to be true, for it is there that Paul and the people he encounters in his compartment on the train to Paris come to realize the need to become their brother's keeper if civilized society is to survive. The narrative thread holding this third section together is more tightly woven than the thread running through the first two parts. Whereas there has been a degree of acquaintance among the Germans of the first two parts, all but the Rubenesque mannequin manufacturer and her employee, a young sculptor, are utter strangers. At first glance it is difficult for Paul to understand why the German woman and the young man should be traveling together, so different seem their mien and breeding, she appearing theatrical, he, countrified. Puzzling as this unlikely couple is, Paul has trouble getting a fix on an elegantly dressed young man sitting by the window. "Certainly he did not look English or American. There was a kind of foppish, almost sugared elegance about this costume that one felt somehow was continental, even though one did not know from what place on the continent he came" (44). But what strikes Paul with a "sense of shock" is the fact that the young man is reading an American book, a popular work entitled The Saga of Democracy. For the time being, this passenger will remain another "isolato," to borrow one of Melville's most profound coinages.

Still to be introduced is the person whose arrest at Aachen will prove once again Melville's assertion that "every mortal that breathes . . . has [a] Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals" (320). That last person to enter the compartment is "a drab, stuffy, irascible-looking little fellow of the type that one sees a thousand times a day" . . . "the kind of fellow" . . . who is "always fidgeting and fuming about . . . always, in short, trying by every crusty, crotchety, sour, ill-tempered method in his equipment to make himself as unpleasant, and his traveling companions as uncomfortable, as possible" (48-49). His mannerisms will eventually lead Paul to call him "old Fuss-and-Fidget." His nervousness, looks of suspicion, and his pointing at the "Nicht Raucher" sign when Paul and the elegant young man take out cigarettes present serious obstacles if "a Siamese connexion" is ever to be formed with him. He will be, in short, the most isolated of the isolatoes as the train rushes across the German countryside from Berlin to Hanover. In his isolation, Paul tries to pass a wearisome time by dozing.

Time after time I started out of this doze to find old Fuss-and-Fidget's eyes fixed on me in a look of such suspicion and ill-tempered sourness that the expression barely escaped malevolence. I woke up one time to find his gaze fixed on me in a stare that was so protracted, so unfriendly, that I felt anger boiling up in me. (51-52)

Not until Hanover is the ice broken among members of this group. The first bond to be formed is between Paul and the elegantly dressed young man with a continental look, the naturalized American now identified as Johnnie Adamowski, symbolically much more appropriate than the surname Stefanowski used in The New Republic version of the story. This naturalized American, this new Adam, enables Wolfe to give voice, even if it is a bit on the enthusiastic side, to American ideas. Unhappy about conditions in Europe during his return to Poland to visit relatives, Adamowski asserts, "I am sick of Europe. Every time I come I am fed up. I am tired of all this foolish business, these politics, this hate, these armies and this talk of war. . . . It will be good after all this to back [in America] where all is Peace—where all is Friendship—where all is Love" (54-55). In his role as narrator, Paul confides that he had "reservations on this score but did not utter them" (55). Despite Paul's reluctance to argue, Wolfe effectively highlights America's most cherished values by having Adamowski state his preference for the New World, where New Adam is free to try to achieve his highest dreams.

Once the ice is broken, Paul and Johnnie rapidly establish bonds: they have mutual friends in New York, enjoy eating and drinking together, and share the goal of spending all their German marks before the train reaches the border. When they return to their compartment, their eager and easy dialogue begins to draw the others into conversation as well. It becomes obvious that their companions have discussed them during their absence/Now curiosity begins to bind them. The mannequin maker and her youthful companion begin to open up, and even Fuss-and-Fidget relaxes somewhat and finally identifies himself as a lawyer on his way to a Parisian conference. Helping to break down any remaining reserve is Johnnie's sharing of the food his family had packed for him. The group is becoming, as Chapter 42 of You Can't Go Home Again would have it, "The Family of Earth." A "Siamese connexion" has been formed; a monkey rope has been found.

Another bond cementing them, one that leads to a test of its strength and one that leads to the arrest of Fuss-and-Fidget, is money. Their grievance about German policy restricting the amount of money a person can take out of Germany prompts them to acts of friendship, acts of brother-keeping, that mere fellow companions on a train trip would never perform. Evidence of this appears in Johnnie's eagerness to befriend the German woman by taking into his keeping some of her excessive marks and Paul's acceptance of Fuss-and-Fidget's proffered ten marks. Through these actions, Wolfe involves his readers even more deeply in the narrative discourse he has been conducting as the action of his plot further unfolds itself. These passengers have discovered their common humanity and are acting to protect one another from oppressive political policy.

But instantly the discourse has a darker, terrifying, and fearful symbolic element added. That comes with the appearance of the customs official, "a burly-looking fellow . . . a Germanic type with high blunt cheekbones, a florid face and tawny mustaches, combed out sprouting, in the Kaiser Wilhelm way. His head was shaven, and there were thick creases at the base of his skull and across his fleshy neck" (80). He will symbolize all that is "loathsome, sinister, and repellent" (80) in Hitler's government. Paul's "trembling with a murderous and incomprehensible anger" and desire "to smash that fat neck" and "pound that inflamed and blunted face into a jelly" (80-81) catch us up in his revulsion. We feel that he indeed does have something vitally important to tell us about man's inhumanity and the need to stand together against it.

All these humane feelings in Paul now well up for Fuss-and-Fidget, now identified for the first time as a Jew. Paul's informant is the Rubenesque mannequin maker, who now rejects part of the bond she had formed because she shares many of her countrymen's biases against Jews: "These Jews!" she cried, "These things would never happen if it were not for them! They make all the trouble. Germany has had to protect herself. The Jews were taking all the money from the country" (89).

With the revelation of her feelings Wolfe asks us to make still another metaphoric transference, this one demanding that we acknowledge that seemingly decent German citizens, whom this culturally rich fading beauty symbolizes, share heavily in Germany's mistrust and mistreatment of Jews. That becomes part of what Paul feels he must tell us, too. Still, Wolfe leaves her some humanity, despite her energetic attempt at justifying Fuss-and-Fidget's arrest. As the regathered companions reflect on his fate, she finally "gravely, quietly" said, "He must have wanted very badly to escape" (89).

Before his discourse could end, Wolfe had one more drive to ponder, one more metaphoric transfer to request of his readers. This drive was how now to deal with his love of Germany, a land that seemed more than a mere second home to him. No doubt speaking through Paul, he wrote, "I was the other half of my heart's home, a haunted part of dark desire. . . . It was the dark lost Helen I had found, it was the dark found Helen I had lost—and now I knew, as I had never known before, the priceless measure of my loss,—the priceless measure of my gain" (92). He came to realize that he had to give up Germany, to suffer the consequences of his desire to tell the truth. And he came, more profoundly still, to realize that he must one day give up the earth, for

something has spoken in the night; and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying, "To lose the earth you know for greater knowing, losing the life you have, for greater life; leaving friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. (93)

Thus the final words of the narrative discourse conducted through this simple and much tested travel plot invite us to join Wolfe in his concluding metaphoric transfer. The sustaining metonymy of the train trip is that humanity rides together to eternity. The best hope that each passenger will arrive unscarred by atrocities is to travel together as brothers and sisters, to keep charged, in Hawthorne's phrase, "the magnetic chain of humanity" (1064).

Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tales and Sketches. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1962.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U—Newberry Library, 1988.

Wolfe, Thomas. "I Have a Thing to Tell You." William Wisdom Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University (bMs Am 1883 [734]). Quoted by permission of Paul Gitlin, Administrator, C.T.A., Estate of Thomas Wolfe, 919 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10022 and the William Wisdom Collection, Harvard University, by permission of the Houghton Library. The periodical version of the story appears in three installments in The New Republic, 10 March 1937, pp. 132-36; 17 March, pp. 159-64; 24 March, pp. 202-207. As a section of You Can't Go Home Again, it runs from page 634 through page 704.

——. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner's, 1956.

——. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970.

Joseph Bentz (essay date 1994)

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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 looseness of form. DeVoto blasts Look Homeward, Angel for "long whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction, badly if not altogether unacceptably written, raw gobs of emotion, aimless and quite meaningless jabber, claptrap, belches, grunts, and Tarzanlike screams" (132). The other two familiar criticisms in DeVoto's essay are that Wolfe's editors ("the assembly line at Scribner's") made too many of the artistic decisions that should have been made by the novelist, and that Wolfe misused and overused autobiographical material. Not all critics have been as hostile as DeVoto, and certainly Wolfe has had his defenders, but the issues DeVoto raised have set the agenda for much of the debate about Wolfe for the past 50 years.

Most of the critical focus over the years has centered on Wolfe's sprawling novels, but with the publication in 1987 of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, this other body of his work has begun to receive attention. Wolfe wrote 58 short stories, but until the complete collection was published, 35 of these stories had never been published in book form, and one had never been published anywhere (Skipp xvii). The overemphasis on Wolfe's seemingly loosely structured novels has obscured his experimentation in the short story. While the structure of his novels owes a greater debt to nineteenth-century fiction than to the modernist fiction of the 1920s and '30s, the structure of many of Wolfe's short stories was heavily influenced by modernism.

Modernist short-story writers rejected traditional attitudes toward form in the short story. Richard Kostelanetz, an historian of the American short story, describes some key features of modernist short-story structure:

In the short story of the 1920's . . . the action is greatly pruned until the story appears rather plotless. Yet every detail serves an artistic function; nothing seems unconsidered or accidental. The short stories in the Twenties exhibit greater emotional complexity and ambiguity, as well as a more discriminating sense of emphasis and an increased brevity of representation (in short, a modified, more selective, realism). . . . Instead of concentrating on plot development, the authors resort to rhetorical strategies and parallelism and repetition; the narrator often speaks in the first person and may be a major participant in the action rather than just an observer of it; and the story's end comes as an anticlimax after the earlier epiphany. (220)

Modernists rejected traditional form in the short story because they believed that form presents a misleading picture of the nature of reality. As Clare Hanson explains, "Modernist short fiction writers distrusted the well-wrought tale for a variety of reasons. Most importantly they argued that the pleasing shape and coherence of the traditional short story represented a falsification of the discrete and heterogeneous nature of experience" (55). She adds that the "rounded finality of the tale" was rejected, "for story in this sense seemed to convey the misleading notion of something finished, absolute, and wholly understood" (55).

Scholars have generally understood and accepted the modernist approach in the fiction of Wolfe's contemporaries, but Wolfe's experiments in modernism have often faced hostility. When Wolfe rejects a traditional plot story for a more experimental approach, his work is called "formless"; when his contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson engage in similar experiments, it is called "modernism." A brief look at the critical response to Anderson will illuminate some of the points I wish to make about Wolfe.

Arthur Voss, in his history of the short story in America, credits Anderson with the "liberation" of the short story (183). Anderson, as he puts it, "revolted against the stereotyped and conventional fiction of his time" (183). Anderson's novel Winesburg, Ohio, like many of Wolfe's stories, does not have a plot in the traditional sense of the term. The "plot story," as A. L. Bader defines it, is any story

(1) which derives its structure from plot based on a conflict and issuing in action; (2) whose action is sequential, progressive, that is, offers something for the reader to watch unfold and develop, usually by means of a series of complications, thus evoking suspense; and (3) whose action finally resolves the conflict, thus giving the story "point." (108)

Waldo Frank describes the form of Anderson's stories, in contrast, with a term that has often been applied to aspects of Wolfe's writing. He says, "The form is lyrical" (84). He compares the form, for instance, to the "lyrical art of the Old Testament psalmists and prophets in whom the literary medium was so allied to music that their texts have always been sung in synagogues" (Frank 85). He describes the design of individual stories as "a theme-statement of a character with his mood, followed by a recounting of actions that are merely variations on the theme" (85). The few stories in which Anderson attempts a straight narrative, Frank argues, are the least successful. Frank is not the only scholar to describe the structure of Winesburg, Ohio in terms of its lyrical nature. Irving Howe says the stories' impact depends "less on dramatic action than on a climactic lyrical insight" (103).

The point here is not to say that Anderson and Wolfe were trying to accomplish the same goals. They are very different writers. But their stories share an emphasis on a "climactic lyrical insight" rather than on traditional plot. Because some critics have insisted on foisting a traditional attitude toward structure on Wolfe's work, what passes for a "lyrical form" in Anderson might be called "long whirling discharges of words" in Wolfe.

As A. L. Bader points out, the critics' reaction to modernist short-story structure has often been one of puzzlement or outright hostility:

Readers and critics accustomed to an older type of story are baffled by a newer type. They sense the underlying and unifying design of the one, but they find nothing equivalent to it in the other. Hence they maintain that the modern short story is plotless, static, fragmentary, amorphous—frequently a mere character sketch or vignette, or a mere reporting of a transient moment, or the capturing of a mood or nuance—everything, in fact, except a story. (107)

It is interesting to note how similar this reaction is to the reaction Wolfe's stories have received from some critics. When Wolfe's first collection of short stories, From Death to Morning, was published in 1935, for example, the reviewers had trouble categorizing the stories. Ferner Nuhn wrote that few of the pieces could be called short stories "in any strict sense; lyrical essays, themes with variations, moods of reminiscence, they might perhaps be called" (7). Harold Mumford Jones wrote,

I think it is Chesterton who remarks there is no such thing as a Dickens novel, but only a series of segments cut off from that vast and flowing thing which is Dickens. From Death to Morning is a collection of fourteen segments cut off from that vast and flowing thing which is Thomas Wolfe. (13)

Jones said the collection could best be described as "a group of sketches, for none of them rises into a full-bodied short story" (13).

Later critics were even more hostile toward Wolfe's approach toward form. Martin Maloney, for instance, wrote in 1955,

In Wolfe's Faustian world, "stories," (meaning the common conventions of modern fiction) did not and probably could not exist: 'life' alone mattered. Wolfe did not write 'stories,' but instead produced a single, long, complex narrative, imposing no formal structure on it. . . . (168)

This stereotype about the structure of Wolfe's stories remains to this day. In a review of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, in 1987, Monroe K. Spears praised many of the stories but also claimed that "Wolfe was afflicted by a kind of literary bulimia, devouring life insatiably and expelling it in his writing, which he was unable to restrain or control" (34).

How did Wolfe approach the structure of the short story? Wolfe had trouble fitting his work into established categories no matter what genre he experimented with. He gave up drama because his plays were too long and wordy, but when he switched to the novel, which better suited his talents, he still had difficulty keeping his work short enough to meet his publisher's expectations. For instance, Wolfe's first manuscript, "O Lost," which later was trimmed to become Look Homeward, Angel, was 1,113 typed pages long, or about 330,000 words, which was about three times the length of most novels in the 1920s (Donald 176). Wolfe also liked to save material discarded from one project to use it in a later one. As Leslie Field explains,

Wolfe was not the sort of writer who creates a novel and then a second one with freshly composed material. . . . Thus some of his writing for You Can't Go Home Again could belong to the Look Homeward, Angel period of composition, or sections of The Web and the Rock could very well be discards from Of Time and the River. (Field, TW and His Editors 3-4)

Wolfe took an equally unconventional approach toward short-story writing. Most of the stories were adapted from the massive manuscripts that eventually became his novels. Some stories, because of their innovative approach toward point of view, narrative technique, or subject matter, could not be fit into the novels and stood alone as short stories. Often the stories were published to keep Wolfe's name before the public or to earn him badly needed money. Not surprisingly, Wolfe's unconventional approach toward short-story writing brought mixed results. As J. R. Morris describes Wolfe's achievement in a review of the 1987 collection, "Whether they are truly short stories or simply fragments of that one endless story Thomas Wolfe spent his life writing, the 58 pieces of short fiction in The Complete Short Stories include some of Wolfe's best writing, and, alas, some of his worst" (127).

Despite Wolfe's unusual writing methods, his stories share important characteristics with those of his contemporaries in the modernist era. Short-story historian Eileen Baldeshwiler identifies two types of stories that were prominent in the modernist period. The larger group of narratives, which she calls "epical," are "marked by external action developed 'syllogistically' through characters fabricated mainly to forward plot, culminating in a decisive ending that sometimes affords a universal insight, and expressed in the serviceably inconspicuous language of prose realism" (443). This kind of short story, which I earlier identified as the "plot story," is the kind critics say Wolfe had difficulty structuring. The second kind of story, which Baldeshwiler calls "lyrical," and which I call "modernist," "concentrates on internal changes, moods, and feelings, utilizing a variety of structural patterns depending on the shape of the emotion itself, relies for the most part on the open ending, and is expressed in the condensed, evocative, often figured language of the poem" (443).

Besides its open ending and heightened language, the modernist short story also emphasizes not a linear plot, but rather a single significant moment of insight. In Clare Hanson's words, "The emphasis of modernist short fiction was on a single moment of intense or significant experience" (55). Nadine Gordimer writes, "Short story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment. Ideally, they have learned to do without explanation of what went before, and what happens beyond this point" (180). Various scholars have commented on James Joyce's influence on Wolfe. Joyce's term for the "light of the flash" was "epiphany." It is appropriate to examine Wolfe's stories using that term. In Stephen Hero Joyce defined the term:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. (Joyce 211)

Wolfe was aware that stories that abandon the traditional linear plot structure in favor of the more open-ended modernist structure were often misunderstood by readers and critics. In a letter to Hamilton Basso he wrote,

We [Americans] have hunted always for the short cut, the practicable way, and I think the effect of this—it does not seem to me at all far fetched to think—has been to hunt for the short cut, the easy and practicable way, the neat definition, everywhere: hence the neat glib finish of the O. Henry type of short story, the "punch at the end," the "gag," and many other kinds of gimcrackery. (Letters 632-33)

Wolfe insisted on breaking free of such constraints in many stories. Not all of his stories fit the modernist mode; many of them are more traditionally structured, and some of them defy categories altogether. But measuring some of them against modernist rather than traditional criteria may reveal Wolfe's real artistic achievement.

A good example of a Wolfe story written in the modernist mode is "No Cure for It," published in The Hills Beyond. An amusing story of about 2,000 words, it records an incident in which a worried mother, Eliza Gant, calls Doctor McGuire to her home to examine her seven-year-old son Eugene, because the ways in which his body is maturing "don't seem natural" ("No Cure" 534). His arms and legs seem too long and out of proportion to the rest of his body, she thinks. Doctor McGuire, who is more amused than concerned by Eugene's condition, asks the boy to wrap his leg around his neck, which the boy does with no problem, as Eliza puckers her face in worry and disapproval and says, "Get out of here! I don't like to look at anything like that!" Doctor McGuire declares that Eugene is all right, but calls him "a little monkey" (534). The doctor says, "He'll get all of his parts together some day and grow out of it!" At this point Eugene's father, who has a penchant for hyperbolic rhetoric, comes home and blames the boy's condition on Eliza: "Woman, this is your work! Unnatural female that you are, you have given birth to a monster who will not rest until he has ruined us all, eaten us out of house and home, and sent me to the poorhouse to perish in a pauper's grave!" (535). But later he tones down this rhetoric, reassuring Eugene by telling his son it was the same with him when he grew up, and that someday Eugene will be a big man.

The story at first glance is a comic anecdote about growing up, made funnier by Eliza's exaggerated worry, the father's outrageous hyperbole, and the doctor's amusement at the whole situation. The story gains further significance, however, by the references Wolfe includes about the flux of time and time's impingement upon the boy's life. The story begins with Eliza calling the boy, and the next sentence says, "He heard her call again, and listened plainly to her now, and knew she would break in upon his life, his spell of time, and wondered what it was she wanted of him" (533). He makes no move and does not answer her. He merely listens as she invites the doctor inside and has a conversation with him. When they reach the room where he is stretched out on the couch, he continues to lie there, "listening to the time-strange tocking of the clock" and regarding his brown bare legs and sun-browned toes "with a look of dreamy satisfaction" (533). It is as if time has transported him beyond the here and now, giving him a fascinating sense of detachment from himself. When Eliza scolds him for not answering her, he scrambles up sheepishly, "unable to deny that he had heard her, yet knowing, somehow, that he had not willingly disobeyed her" (533). He did not have the words to identify or describe the detachment this new awareness of time had given him, but it had made him unable to respond to her before.

Wolfe returns to the theme of time at the end of the story. Eugene's father has just comforted him by telling the boy he will grow up to be a big man someday. The last paragraph is a scene of suspended animation, with the mother, father, and doctor looking at the boy, as he considers them. The story ends, "He thought his father was the grandest, finest person in the world, and as the three of them looked at him he could hear, in the hush of brooding noon, the time-strange tocking of his father's clock" (536). This story does not follow a traditional plot. It is modernist in its emphasis on, in Hanson's words, the "single moment of intense or significant experience" (180). There is nothing inherent in the fairly ordinary incident that makes it a "significant moment" for the protagonist. It is only the boy's ability, even if he cannot verbalize it, to connect that moment with the past, future, and eternal time, that makes the experience so important.

What does the boy learn about time? It would be easy to answer too reductively, but a few discoveries are clear. At the beginning of the story he discovers he can lose himself in a "spell of time," a period of reflectiveness in which time seems suspended, until ordinary reality, in the form of Eliza, breaks him out of it. He gets a taste of being outside of time, but he cannot stay out of its flow for long. At the end of the story he discovers that even though at present his body is all out of proportion, time brings change. The sound of his father's clock represents the force of time that will make him a man. Therefore, as he gazes at his parents and the doctor at the end of the story, he grins proudly and is "worried about nothing" (536).

Wolfe uses time in an even more elaborate way in one of his best and most famous stories, "The Lost Boy." The story was published by Redbook in 1937 and appeared with some changes in The Hills Beyond. In 1992 Wolfe scholar James Clark edited a much longer version of the story, which was published as a novella by the University of North Carolina Press. The version I refer to here is the Redbook version, which is the one included in The Complete Stories. This story, like "No Cure for It," has no plot in the traditional sense. It is, however, carefully structured. The story is about the narrator's attempt to "find" his brother who died more than 30 years before at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The narrator searches for him by recreating the stories he has heard about him and by going to St. Louis to see the house where his brother Robert had died when the narrator was only four years old.

The story is in four parts. The first part is the narrative of an incident that happened to Robert in his hometown before the family went to the fair. The second section is from Robert's mother's point of view and includes her reminiscences of him. The third section contains memories of Robert from his sister's point of view. The last section is from the narrator's point of view, in which he describes his visit to the house where Robert died.

The story shares a number of structural and thematic characteristics with "No Cure for It." "The Lost Boy," like the other story, contains an epiphanic moment in which the character comes to a realization about time and his own relationship to it. In fact, "The Lost Boy" contains two such moments, one for Robert, the "lost" brother whom the narrator is trying to search through time to "find" or recreate, and one for the narrator himself, as his search reaches its climax. In both stories the encounters with time are presented in the mystical or "lyrical" language that was such a hallmark of Wolfe's writing.

Wolfe's symbol for "time immutable" in "The Lost Boy," as well as in other stories, such as "An Angel on the Porch," "The Bell Remembered," and the novel Look Homeward, Angel, is the town square. Robert begins the story in the square, where he senses "the union of Forever and Now":

Light came and went and came again: the great plume of the fountain pulsed, and the winds of April sheeted it across the Square in rainbow gossamer of spray. The street cars ground into the Square from every portion of the town's small compass and halted briefly like wound toys in their old quarter-hourly formula of assembled Eight. The courthouse bell boomed out is solemn warning of immediate Three, and everything was just the same as it had always been. (Wolfe, "Lost Boy" 359)

Robert surveys every building and landmark on the square, listing them one by one, and concludes, "here is the Square that never changes; here is Robert almost twelve—and here is Time" (359). As Wallace Stegner describes this section of the story, "There is a quality of trance: the returning plume of the fountain, the returning winds of April, the streetcars going and coming, the chanting of the strong repetitious rhetoric and the sonority of recurrent sounds put a magic on this Square even at its most real" (256).

After the description of the Square at the beginning of the story, Robert has his confrontation with "old stingy Crockers," the candy shop owner. Robert does not have enough money to pay for the candy, so he uses postage stamps to pay for part of it, as he had done before in Crocker's store. Robert accidentally overpays Crocker by three one-cent stamps. Realizing his mistake, Robert asks Crocker to give him back the three stamps. Crocker ponders for a moment, and then answers, "I don't like this kind of business. I'm not a post office. The next time you come in here and want anything, you'll have to have the money for it" (362). He does not return the stamps. When Robert again demands that Crocker return the stamps, Crocker and his wife imply that Robert probably stole the stamps anyway. Crocker shouts at the boy, ordering him to leave the store and never come back.

Angry and humiliated, Robert leaves the store and steps onto the Square, which just moments before this humiliating incident had represented stability and time immutable to him. People walk by, but he doesn't notice them. He stands "blindly, in the watches of the sun, but something had gone out of the day" (363). His anger gives way to the "soul-sickening guilt that all the children, all the good men of the earth, have felt since time began. And even anger had been drowned out, in the swelling tide of guilt." His sense of stability had been shattered. In his own way he realizes that unlike the Square, he is subject to the sometimes violent flow of present time: "There is the Square,' thought Robert as before. This is Now. There is my father's shop. And all of it is as it has always been—save I'" (364).

Robert immediately goes to his father's stonecutting shop nearby and tells him what has happened. His father takes Robert back to the store and humiliates Crocker into returning the stamps. Though Robert and his father are triumphant, Robert realizes the experience has changed him. He has become aware of two kinds of time: present time, in whose flow he finds himself caught, and time immutable, in whose stability he had always depended. His realization is presented this way:

And light came and went and came again into the Square—but now not quite the same as it had done before. He saw that pattern of familiar shapes, and knew that they were just the same as they had always been. But something had gone out of the day, and something had come in again: out of the vision of those quiet eyes some brightness had been lost; into their vision some deeper color come. He could not say, he did not know through what transforming shadows life had passed within that quarter-hour. He only knew that something had been gained forever—something lost. (366)

The narrator, who is Robert's younger brother, has a very different but equally significant encounter with time in the last section of the story. In this section the narrator, now a man in his thirties, goes back to St. Louis, where his brother Robert had died 30 years before when part of the family lived there during the 1904 World's Fair. The narrator finds King's Highway, which was near the house where the family had lived. Memories of this place begin to flood his mind, and he searches some more until he finds the house. He is ready for some kind of encounter with the lost brother, and with Time. He says, "And again, again, I turned into the street, finding the place where the two corners meet, the huddled block, the turret, and the steps, and paused a moment, as if the street was Time" (375). He has prepared the reader for this encounter too, because before this point the story has presented not only Robert's encounter with Crockers, but also reminiscences of Robert from his mother's voice and memories of Robert from his sister's voice. Before the reader arrives in St. Louis with the narrator, the reader knows the same family legends about Robert that the narrator remembers. When the narrator reaches the house where the family had lived, he, as well as the reader, expects to "find" Robert.

Someone is living in the house, but the narrator knocks on the door and explains to the current resident that he had lived there during the World's Fair. They discuss all the changes that have been made to the house, and finally she invites him in. As soon as he goes in he is almost able to cut through time and bring back the brother who was lost in it. But the past keeps fading away from him, and he cannot quite keep it in his grasp:

All of it was just the same except the strained light of absence in the afternoon, and the child who sat there, waiting on the stairs, and something fading like a dream, something coming like a light, something going, passing fading like the shadows of a wood. And then it would be gone again, fading like cloud shadows in the hills . . . like the dark eyes and the quiet face, the dark lost boy, my brother, who himself like shadows, or like absence in the house, would come, would go, and would return again. (378)

The woman takes the narrator through the house, and he tells what the place used to be like. Finally they go into the room where Robert had died, and he tells her of his brother's death. After they discuss him for a while, she says, "I guess you don't remember him, do you? I shouldn't think you would." Though he answers, "No, not much," her question triggers the encounter with the past that he had been waiting for:

The years dropped off like fallen leaves: the face came back again—the soft dark oval, the dark eyes, the soft brown berry on the neck, the raven hair, all bending down, approaching—the whole ghost-wise, intent and instant, like faces from a haunted wood. (379)

What follows is a flashback scene in which the older brother is trying to get the young narrator to say "Robert," but he can only manage to say "Wobbut." It is the climactic scene—the epiphany—of the story, and when it is over, so is the narrator's search for the lost boy: "I knew that I would never come again, and that lost magic would not come again . . . " (380). The narrator had been able to "find" the brother for a fleeting moment, but now he knows, as the last line of the story says, that the boy "was gone forever and would not return" (380). Robert's encounter in the story is with present time, and the narrator's is with the past, but both of them come to the understanding in the story that they are caught in time's flow and can do nothing to stop it.

Wolfe's achievement in "The Lost Boy" would have been impossible if he had used a traditional plot structure. The purpose of each section of the story is to recreate or "find" the lost boy in a new way. Each section looks at him from a different perspective until, in the final section, when the narrator has his mystical encounter with the boy in the house where Robert died, the reader has been so saturated with details about the boy that the reader is just as ready as the narrator is for the epiphanic encounter. Robert's life is not told in chronological order. Instead, he is recreated the way dead loved ones most often are—by the scattered anecdotes and memories of family legend. In the middle section the narrator allows Robert's mother and sister to relate their memories of the boy in their own voices. Like the narrator, the mother and sister are "searching" for Robert in their memories of him. Their stories are not concise little anecdotes, but instead are halting, full of ellipses, full of digressions. Their stories of Robert become entangled with stories of their own lives. We see clearly that they are not showing us the Robert, but only a Robert who is a product not only of their memory but partially of their imagination. Like the narrator, we must sift through the various versions of Robert to "find" the lost boy. Robert's sister, for instance, intertwines the story of her own life with her memories of Robert's life. Throughout her section of the story the sister refers to a family photograph that prompts her memories.

I was thinking of it just the other day, and I wonder what Robert would say now if he could see that picture. For when you look at it, it all comes back—the boarding house, St. Louis and the Fair. . . . And all of it is just the same as it has always been, as if it happened yesterday. . . . And all of us have grown up and gone away. And nothing has turned out the way we thought it would. . . . And all my hopes and dreams and big ambitions have come to nothing. (374; original ellipses)

In a modernist way, "The Lost Boy" searches through time and memory in order to find the moment of significance. It meanders around the way memory does. Wallace Stegner's final comment on "The Lost Boy" is also true of "No Cure for It":

Not a line of this story, not a trick in it, could have been learned from any generalization about the shaping of fiction. The shape this story takes it takes by a process of transplantation, associated images and ideas being moved from one category of thought to another. (260)

"The Lost Boy" and "No Cure for It" are just two of Wolfe's stories influenced by modernist structure, but there are numerous others. Some of the best examples include "The Train and the City," "The Four Lost Men," and "A Prologue to America." Other stories have modernist characteristics, even though they are not predominantly modernist. The end of "An Angel on the Porch," for instance, deals with time in an epiphanic and mystical way that is similar to "No Cure for It" and "The Lost Boy."

"Circus at Dawn," "April, Late April," "The Promise of America," "The Newspaper," and "No More Rivers" also contain certain characteristics of modernist structure. Wolfe's work does not fit into generic categories very neatly. But analyzing the stories according to their modernist characteristics shows that contrary to what many critics have written, the unusual structure of many of his works was due not to a lack of concern for form or an inability to control his art; instead, Wolfe's works show that he was an experimentalist very much in tune with the bold new approach to fiction that characterizes the writers of his time.

Works Cited

Bader, A. L. "The Structure of the Modern Short Story." May 107-15.

Baldeshwiler, Eileen. "The Lyric Short Story: The Sketch of a History." Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 443-53. Rpt. in May 202-13.

Clark, James W., Jr., ed. The Lost Boy: A Novella. By Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

DeVoto, Bernard. "Genius is Not Enough." Field, TW: Three Decades, 85-104.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Fawcett, 1987.

Field, Leslie. Thomas Wolfe and His Editors. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987.

——, ed. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: New York UP, 1968.

Frank, Waldo. "Winesburg, Ohio After Twenty Years." White 84-88.

Gordimer, Nadine. "South Africa." Kenyon Review 30 (1968): 457-61. Rpt. as "The Flash of Fireflies" in May 178-81.

Hanson, Clare. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Howe, Irving. "The Book of the Grotesque." White 101-13.

Jones, Howard Mumford. "Thomas Wolfe's Short Stories." Rev. of From Death to Morning, by Thomas Wolfe. Saturday Review of Literature. 30 Nov. 1935: 13. Rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception. Ed. Paschal Reeves. New York: David Lewis, 1974. 80-82.

Joyce, James. Stephen Hero. Ed. John J. Slocum and Herbert Cahoon. New York: New Directions, 1944.

Kostelanetz, Richard. "The Short Story in Search of Status." Twentieth Century 174 (Autumn 1965): 65-69. Rpt. in May 214-25.

Maloney, Martin. "A Study of Semantic States: Thomas Wolfe and the Faustian Sickness." Field, TW: Three Decades, 153-76.

May, Charles E., ed. Short Story Theories. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976.

Nuhn, Ferner. "Thomas Wolfe, Six-Foot-Six." Rev. of From Death toMorning, by Thomas Wolfe. New York Herald Tribune Books. 17 Nov. 1935: 7. Rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception. Ed. Paschal Reeves. New York: David Lewis, 1974. 79-80.

Skipp, Francis E., ed. Preface. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Scribner's, 1987. xvii-xxvii.

Spears, Monroe K. "Big Bad Wolfe?" Rev. of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York Review of Books 24 Sept. 1987: 34-37.

Stegner, Wallace. "Analysis of 'The Lost Boy.'" Field, TW: Three Decades, 255-60.

Voss, Arthur. The American Short Story. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1973.

White, Ray Lewis. Studies in Winesburg, Ohio. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1971.

Wolfe, Thomas. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987.

——. "The Lost Boy." Complete Stories 359-80.

——. "No Cure for It." Complete Stories 533-36.

——. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner's, 1956.

——. The Story of a Novel. The Autobiography of an American Novelist. Ed. Leslie Field. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983. 3-89.


Wolfe, Thomas (Literary Masters)