(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

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

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

When George is about sixteen, the reader learns, his father has died, and George has become a student at a state school named Pine Rock College, where...

(The entire section is 1216 words.)