THOMAS WOLFE was born October 3, 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina. Appetite is a word often associated with this writer. He "bolted" libraries, that is, he pounced and swallowed them whole. Over 6'6", but his metaphorical stride was even greater, his appetite insatiable, sometimes out of control. Indeed, a study of Thomas Wolfe is a study in excess, the very thing his critics are most consistent. He wanted to write the world, literally, the whole world as he saw, tasted, and felt it. And had no doubt that he could. Author James Dickey (DELIVERANCE) thought of it as a kind of morality.
Everything he sees, touches, or remembers, every object or person in his memory is someone or something to deliver himself to with absolute abandon regardless of consequences, to go for broke every second of his writing life and of his actual life, to give the world in its multifariousness his best shot, in a kind of Olympic Games of the emotions and the reactions, not with a gold medal on the line but with life-meaning itself. Nothing can be missed. Wolfe not only serves as his own best example of this attitude, but he encourages it, brings it forth in others. The process is, in its way, a kind of morality.
—James Dickey, THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF THOMAS WOLFE [Foreword], Collier Books (Macmillan), 1987.
Wolfe entered university (UNC Chapel Hill) at 16. At 22 he received his Masters degree from Harvard under the then-famous instructor in drama, George Pierce Baker (The 47 Workshop). Dying at 37 from complications (multiple tumors) in the brain, Wolfe left behind two published novels, two posthumous novels, and many short stories, most of which are drawn from his novels. He gave a lecture at the 1935 University of Colorado Writer's Conference called, a lecture he called "The Story of a Novel," from which much of this article is inspired.
A contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe was the exception (all three authors shared the same editor, Maxwell Perkins). But being the "exception" is, here, a double-edged sword.
Literary critic, Harold Bloom considers Thomas Wolfe not only a poor novelist, he insists that Wolfe is the perpetual adolescent, that his readership is just as adolescent. That explains me, I suppose. Not only does Bloom refer to Wolfe's ''almost dead reputation as a novelist,'' he adds, "There is no possibility for critical dispute about Wolfe's literary merits; he has none whatsoever." [From "Passionate Beholder of America in Trouble," by Harold Bloom, New York Times review of LOOK HOMEWARD: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, by David Herbert Donald.]
There exists the possibility that Dr. Bloom misses the point, which is unlikely, or perhaps there is another one to argue. True genius is not easily measured against conventions. When you read a Thomas Wolfe novel you're not going to get a riveting action adventure. You're not going to get Nick Adams, Daisy Buchanan, Huck Finn, or Harry Potter. You won't get plot, narrative arc, or the usual props that come with the novel. You are going to get rhapsody and excess, prose of varying colors and movement, the full liturgy of life, and in fascinating detail. Wolfe is, first, an artist, with all the curious psychology, sound, fury, and novelty that implies.
October is the season of returning: the bowels of youth are yearning with lost love. Their mouths are dry and bitter with desire: their hearts are torn with the thorns of spring. For lovely April, cruel and flowerful, will tear them with sharp joy and wordless lust. Spring has no language but a cry; but crueler than April is the asp of time.
—OF TIME AND THE RIVER, 1935
Thomas Wolfe leaned heavily on autobiography, and admits it. "It seems to me every novel, every piece of creative writing is autobiographical" (The Story of a Novel, an address to the 1935 University of Colorado Writer's Conference). idiosyncrasyAnticipating criticism for this characteristic idiosyncracy, in the introduction to his first novel, LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, Wolfe is preemptive with his own apologetic
This is a first book, and in it the author has written of experience which is now far and lost, but which was once part of the fabric of his life. If any reader, therefore, should say the book is "autobiographical" the writer has no answer for him: it seems to him that all serious work in fiction is autobiographical—that, for instance, a more autobiographical work than "Gulliver's Travels" cannot easily be imagined.
...we are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.
—LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, 1929, "To the Reader"
But there are reasons why Wolfe deserves tribute as my first literary saint (some I am still sorting out). The real charm of Thomas Wolfe, where he excels and stands alone is his style, the pearl grand movement of his prose, its unique vitality, its hint of lyricism and the equilibrium over which he labors feverishly to hold it together. The opening paragraphs LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL provide a first example.
The destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamonte over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.
Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty-thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.
This is a moment:
From there he begins his little history. And with as little as that, I was smitten. And he never lets me down. He did not sing to me or work me into a swoon, only to leave me wanting and unquenched. He created in me what French poet Paul Valery* refers to as "the poetic state" as a kind of bright delirium.
After another paragraph or two, rhapsody gives way to a prose of such polish, charm, and intelligence, I could not put the book down. Indeed, I finished my first reading of LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL's 563 pages in two days, without sleep or interruption. That is the point of a writer like Thomas Wolfe. It is not the destination as much as it is the journey itself (an attribute more given to poetry than prose). Paul Valery*, writes about the poem as a kind of dance, and a dance has no "destination" but is enjoyed for the sake of grace and movement alone. Either way, I love that in a writer. Ian McEwan affects me that way. Barbara Kingsolver. Toni Morrison. Michael Chabon. Annie Proulx. Cormac McCarthy.
When Wolfe writes about wordcraft, the first thing he emphasizes is the labor, the severity, the possession. His father was a stonecutter. Wolfe uses the stonecutter imagery to describe his own trade. If he was not satisfied with a scene or a character, he would not simply revise his draft. He would put it aside and rewrite it in a different way from start to finish. And he did not have the advantage of a computer. He worked with paper and pencil. See the image above, my favorite of Wolfe. He considered himself a laborer, who worked with his hands. The lesson is a powerful one.
There is no such thing as a time where the artist may work in a delightful and reposeful atmosphere, free of the sweat and anguish and agony that other men must know, or if the artist ever does find such a time, it is something not to be hoped for, something not to live for, something not to be sought for indefinitely. The artist must live and do and work through all the sweat and toil and grief and bitter, stern complexity of life in the same way his father and every man that ever lived have had to do.
...I learned instantly and forever that this mythical, this magical, this wonder-working, miraculous, and mysterious place to work was everywhere, was all around us, was wherever we happened to be so long as the power, the will, the overwhelming and inexorable necessity to work was in ourselves.
—THE STORY OF A NOVEL, 1935 (University of Colorado Writer's Conference)
When he writes of food he does so with such finesse and intelligence, you swear you can smell it, taste it, or see it steaming on the table. His range was Shakespearean. Unfortunately, this article can only make the introduction to genius. It is much too broad to summarize here. The best this piece can do is point and attempt to persuade. To experience Wolfe you must read Wolfe for yourself. Then come to your own conclusions. As wide as he is deep, it takes a while to get around him.
My suggestion is to read Wolfe without preconception. He too often circumnavigates them. Read him for the pure joy of language and invention, of an imagination with ridiculous reach. There is much to learn from any writer of genius, whether or not their particular style is in fashion or not, and whatever kind of writing you do. Learn to pay attention to your ear, to your instincts as you understand them, not to the latest conventions, which, paradoxically, are as necessary as they are ephemeral, fleeting. Do so wisely, but play the artist and decide for yourself how you wish to sound, what affect you want to create, and how gently or not your river of words is given to flow. Language, according to Wolfe, is not a matter of fix but flood. If you don't believe that, look at the image of the author and his book (my 2nd favorite Wolfe photo).
In closing, I would say please forgive the length of this article, but like its subject, who brought the manuscript (literally, hand-script) of his second book, OF TIME AND THE RIVER, to Maxwell Perkins in three orange crates (see image of one of those crates), brevity was not a priority.
Books by Thomas Wolfe:
LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL
OF TIME AND THE RIVER
THE WEB AND THE ROCK
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
Short Story Collections:
ONLY THE DEAD KNOW BROOKLYN
FROM DEATH TO MORNING
THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF THOMAS WOLFE ed. by James Dickey
LOOK HOMEWARD: A LIFE OF THOMAS WOLFE by David Herbert Donald
THOMAS WOLFE by Elizabeth Nowell
THOMAS WOLFE by Andrew Turnbull
* Paul Valery, THE ART OF POETRY, (Princeton University Press, 1958). From COLLECTED WORKS OF PAUL VALERY, VOLUME 7.