Of Time and the River is the last of Thomas Wolfe’s novels to be published before his early death in 1938 (The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again were published posthumously in 1939 and 1940, respectively). It also is the last work to be completed under the extensive editorial guidance of Maxwell Perkins and is appropriately read as a sequel to Look Homeward, Angel (1929), whose hero, Eugene Gant, is Wolfe himself.
As is the case with Look Homeward, Angel, the subtitle of Of Time and the River is a somewhat useful advertisement for its contents. Wolfe subtitled his first book A Story of the Buried Life, and the strain felt by a gifted youth in confined circumstances is a salient theme. Wolfe subtitled his second novel A Legend of a Man’s Hunger in His Youth. This hunger, which is felt for somewhat more than nine hundred pages, traces Eugene’s life from his departure for graduate study at Harvard University to his days at Harvard, his return home at the time of his father’s death, his first experience of New York City (when he accepts a position to teach college composition there), his growing acquaintance with a more varied circle of people while living in New York, his extended trip to England and then France, and finally his preparations to return to America and resume teaching in New York. As the book concludes, he catches sight of a woman who is to be a fellow passenger on the ship home. In this novel she is called only Esther, but through the concluding paragraphs she is made to appear portentous in Eugene’s future. She in fact represents Aline Bernstein, an older married woman who was to play a large role in the books published after Wolfe’s death, being the great love of his life.
Wolfe toyed with more than one title for Of Time and the River before making his final choice. What these titles have in common is the word “river,” which he saw as a suitable metaphor for his task—to drain from experience and memory the enormous variety and complexity of American life, even as a river, particularly the Mississippi, drains the vast continent of North America. All...
(The entire section is 898 words.)