(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

Of Time and the River Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Eugene Gant is leaving Altamont for study at Harvard University. His mother and his sister, Helen, stand on the station platform and wait with him for the train that will take him north. Eugene feels that he is escaping from his strange, unhappy childhood, that the train will take him away from sickness and worry over money; away from his mother’s boardinghouse, the Dixieland; away from memories of his gruff yet kind brother Ben; away from all ghosts of the past. While they wait, they meet Robert Weaver, who also is on his way to Harvard. Mrs. Gant says that Robert is a fine boy, but there is insanity in his family. Before the train arrives at the station, Mrs. Gant tells Eugene about family scandals of the town.

Eugene stops in Baltimore to visit his father, who is slowly dying of cancer. Old Gant spends much of his time on the sunlit hospital porch, dreaming of a former time and of his youth.

At Harvard, Eugene enrolls in Professor Hatcher’s drama class. Hungry for knowledge, he browses the library, pulling books from the shelves and reading them as he stands by the open stacks. He writes plays for the drama workshop. Prowling the streets of Cambridge and Boston, he wonders about the lives of people he meets, whose names he will never know.

One day, Eugene receives a note from Francis Starwick, Professor Hatcher’s assistant, asking Eugene to have dinner with him. As Eugene has made no friends at the university, he is surprised by Starwick’s invitation. Starwick turns out to be a pleasant young man who welcomes Eugene’s confidences but returns none. In Boston, Eugene meets his uncle, Bascom Pentland, and his wife. Uncle Bascom had once been a preacher, but he had left the ministry and is now working in a law office.

Eugene later receives a telegram telling him that his father is dying. He has no money for a ticket home, and so he goes to see Wang, a strange, secretive Chinese student who rooms in the same house. Wang gives him money, and Eugene goes back to Altamont, but he arrives too late to see his father alive. Old Gant had died painfully and horribly. Only with his death do his wife and children realize how much this ranting, roaring old man had meant in their lives.

Back at Harvard, Eugene and Starwick become close friends. Starwick always confuses Eugene when they are together; Eugene has the feeling that everything Starwick does or says is like the surface of a shield, protecting his real thoughts or feelings underneath.

One night, Robert Weaver visits Eugene’s room. He is drunk and shouts at the top of his voice. He wants Eugene to go out with him, but Eugene finally manages to get him to go to bed on a cot in Wang’s room.

Eugene dreams of becoming a great playwright. After he has completed his course at Harvard, he returns to Altamont and waits to have one of his plays accepted for...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)