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Thomas Wolfe is best known for his four 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). Despite his premature death at the age of thirty-eight, he was also the author of an impressive body of short fiction, published in collections including From Death to Morning (1935), The Hills Beyond (1941), The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (1961), and The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe (1987). Much of Wolfe’s short fiction is autobiographical in nature and poetic in impulse, and it depicts Wolfe’s vision of human isolation and estrangement. Unlike the longer fiction, the shorter works demonstrate Wolfe’s increased ability, in his later years, to impose order and form upon his materials. Indeed, the artistic merit of some of his novellas exceeds that of any of the novels, with the possible exception of Look Homeward, Angel.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Asheville Home and World’s Fair in St. Louis
Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the eighth child of William Oliver, a stonecutter from Pennsylvania, and Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe, a native North Carolinian. In 1904 he went with his mother and some of the other children to St. Louis, where his mother kept a boardinghouse during the World’s Fair, and where his brother, Grover, died. Wolfe would reference this event with distinction in his fiction. in 1905 he began attending public school in Asheville and in 1912, moved to a private school operated by Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Roberts. Margaret Roberts was his teacher, mentor, and a major influence on his life and work.
From University Student to University Instructor
Wolfe enrolled in the University of North Carolina in 1916, and in 1918 took a course in playwriting that resulted in the 1919 performance of his one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, with Wolfe in the title role. in June 1920, he graduated from the university with a B.A. degree, and in September entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. He completed his M.A. in English in 1922, the year of his father’s death. in February 1924, he began teaching English at the Washington Square College of New York University, a task that he continued to perform intermittently until January 1930. He sailed for England in October 1924 for the first of seven European trips. After touring France, Italy, and Switzerland on his return voyage in 1925, he made the acquaintance of Aline Bernstein. Though she was eighteen years his senior and married, a stormy affair ensued. Bernstein was one of the powerful influences on his life and he dedicated his first novel to her, though he ended the affair shortly thereafter.
Publication of First Novel
In 1928 Wolfe completed the manuscript for the novel Look Homeward, Angel, which was published by Scribner’s, where he began a difficult working relationship with editor Maxwell Perkins. The book was based heavily upon his own experiences growing up in Asheville, with the main character of Eugene Gant standing in for the author. Wolfe had worried that in the autobiographical backdrop of the novel he had exposed himself too greatly, and he was relieved when most critics hailed the book with surprised superlatives. He was, however, unprepared for the howls of outrage that arose from his home town. He was irrevocably hurt when he heard that the book had been denounced from the pulpits and reviled on street corners, even though copies of the book sold there faster than they could be shipped into town. Wolfe’s trepidation increased as his close personal and working relationship with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, deteriorated. While he benefited greatly from Perkin’s faith in his writing and from his editorial expertise, Wolfe eventually sought another publisher, due to feeling that he had become too dependent on Perkins.
With the descent of the booming economy of the twenties into the Great Depression, Wolfe’s struggle to find ways to support himself so that he could write became more difficult. However, six months after publication, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and went abroad again. In Paris he felt a great wave of homesickness and, in ”the almost intolerable effort of memory and desire,” recreated and enlarged the entire progress of his life. The past came back to him ”loaded with electricity, pregnant, crested, with a kind of hurricane violence.” He says that the second book was not really written; it wrote him. The onrushing memories bore him along on a ”torrential and ungovernable flood,” thus he decided on the inevitable title Of Time and the River.
Writing and Travels
In March 1935, after the author had worked on the continuation of his (or Eugene Gant’s) story for almost six years, Of Time and the River appeared. His next novels continue the saga of the writer’s life. Wolfe’s four autobiographical novels are actually one towering autobiography.
In 1936 as he was on tour in Germany, an encounter with a Jew trying to escape Germany brought the cruel nature of the Nazi state to his attention. Upon his return to the States, the incident was transformed into one of his most powerful short works, ”I Have a Thing to Tell You,” a strong indictment of Germany, which was serialized in the New Republic. Like many of his shorter works, it was later incorporated in expanded form in one of his novels, in this case You Can’t Go Home Again.
In 1938 he embarked on a western tour after depositing a large collection of manuscripts with a new editor. While visiting Seattle in the summer of 1938, he became ill and was sent to the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, where he died of tubercular meningitis, just before his thirty-eighth birthday. After Wolfe’s death, his editor assembled and published two novels from existing manuscripts, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. Subsequently, a collection of short stories and sketches was published in 1941 as The Hills Beyond.
Works in Literary Context
Though his life was short, Wolfe’s literary accomplishments were exceptional, despite the critical approbation toward his somewhat robust rhetoric. Writing prose based on his life and his search for fulfillment, Wolfe develops strong characterizations and memorable protagonists who are reflections of himself. He is represented initially by Eugene Gant, the main character in his first two novels, and subsequently by George Webber in his final two books. Wolfe’s egocentric exaggerations and overextended raptures are generally accepted as stylistic manifestations of the author and man. In balance, the defects are minor when weighed against Wolfe’s major accomplishments that offer an indelible portrayal of the voice of alienated adolescence and the artful search for fulfillment.
Southern provincialism of post Civil War North Carolina is the setting and occasional subject of Wolfe’s fond memories of his youth. In his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe details life in the thinly disguised town of Asheville. His eye for nuanced description and his ear for dialect present powerfully drawn narratives of his Southern home and heritage. Using satire and caricature, he attacked, yet reveled in the richness of his life in the South. However, by his final novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, the idealistic Libya Hill has also been infected by the march of materialistic progress.
Wolfe’s writing was described by John Chamberlain in a 1929 issue of The Bookman as ”a rich, positive grappling with life, a remembrance of things past untinged by the shadow of regret, of one who has found his youthful experiences full of savor.” Mark Schorer appraises Wolfe’s thinly disguised autobiographical works as ”extraordinary books” that will remain, at minimum, literary curiosities. He continues, ”In fiction there has never been such a protracted demonstration of frank self-involvment.” As other modernists like Henry James’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916), Wolfe’s tetralogy illustrates the isolation of modern man and the search for something lost in the prevailing milieu of displacement. Wolfe’s final novel deals with the ultimate loss of innocence and idealism in America due to the corruption by economic opportunism of the booming twenties followed by the depression years.
Works in Critical Context
Writing came easily—often too easily—to Wolfe. Wolfe tried too hard and stretched himself too far for perfection, but perfection was scarcely his aim. His furious desire to outreach time and space was bound to fail. But, as William Faulkner, Wolfe’s fellow Southerner and in many ways his opposite, contended, ”Wolfe made the best failure because…. [h]e was willing to throw away style, coherence, all the rules of preciseness, to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin.”
In order to affect this all-encompassing experience within the modernist literature of memory, Wolfe utilized frame-breaking tendencies that shattered the traditional literary bounds of time and order according to John Rowan Raper. Furthermore, Raper, writing in the Southern Literary Journal, notes that the narratives of Wolfe embrace and witness the modern ”surrealism and expressionism that were flourishing literary movements,” which Wolfe would have encountered in his European travels. In the Mississippi Quarterly Joseph M. Flora elaborates on the modernism of Wolfe’s supernatural narrative elements, ”Harry Potter fans will be amused to discover in ‘The Plumed Knight,’ Wolfe’s satire of post-bellum military schools, that Theodore Joyner’s academy is called Hogwart; Wolfe does seem to have regarded Lost Cause fanatics like Joyner as practicing a kind of witchcraft and wizardry.”
Wolfe’s short life afforded him time to paint his expansive narratives in with vivid color, jarring prose and memory for detail, yet ever short of his quest to capture ”the full flood and fabric of.. .life itself.” Daniel Young, Floyd Watkins and Richmond Beatty, writing in The Literature of the South, note that among his final passages, ”To lose the earth you know, for the greater knowing” is his wistful evocation of the Wordsworthian concept of a Lost Paradise.
Look Homeward, Angel
Wolfe’s first novel achieved critical acclaim as it displayed the immense and exuberant talent of the author. John Chamberlain termed it as substantially rich: ”Look Homeward, Angel has its faults, but they are not those springing from a poverty of material. Mr. Wolfe gives the impression of being inexhaustible.” Raper critques Wolfe’s novel as one that overwhelms readers and biographers with its loyalty to real life” Furthermore, Raper notes that Wolfe then bursts the established realism upon entering the fantastical realm where the boy encounters the avatars of his past life . . . confronts the ghost of his dead brother, Ben, and receives instruction from beyond the grave that clarifies the quest lying ahead.”
You Can’t Go Home Again
In reviewing the last of Wolfe’s autobiographical novels, Cliff Fadiman, writing for the The New Yorker, praises the author as one inspired. No one of his generation had his command of language, his passion, his energy.” You Can’t Go Home Again has often been critiqued as a more restrained, more socially conscious, and more satirical book than any of its predecessors. This novel chronicles protagonist George Webber’s step-by-step break with all forces in his past which have a claim on him. Albrecht Strauss writes of the idealism inherent in Wolfe’s heightened lyrical prose that, ”Just as Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, must turn his back on home, so George Webber must cast off the spell of family, romantic love, the dream of glory and fame, escape to a self-indulgent aesthetic European exile.” However, that exile is tainted in Germany with the realization of the evil behind the mask of the Nazi’s and the incompatibility of anti-Semitism and humanity. Upon returning to America, he embraces and rediscovers his home country with love, sorrow and hope. New York Times Book Review proclaimed that ”You Can’t Go Home Again will stand apart from everything else that he wrote because this is the book of a man who had come to terms with himself, who has something profoundly important to say.”
- Aswell, Edward G. In the shadow of the giant, Thomas Wolfe: correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958, edited by Mary Aswell Doll and Clara Stites. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988.
- Mauldin, Joanne Marshall. Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin?. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
- Mitchell, Ted. Ed. Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Pegasus Books, 2006.
- Young, Daniel, Floyd Watkins, and Richmond Beatty, eds. The Literature of the South. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1968, pp. 610-612, 974-1008.
- Untermeyer, Louis, ed. ”Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938).” Makers of the Modern World: The Lives of Ninety-two Writers, Artsits, Scientists, Statesmen, Inventors, Philosophers, Composers, and Other Creators Who Formed the Pattern of Our Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955, 726-735.
- Chamberlain, John. Review of Look Homeward, Angel. The Bookman (December 1929): 31-34.
- Fadiman, Cliff. Review of You Can’t Go Home Again. The New Yorker (April 1940): 89.
- Flora, Joseph M. After the New Critics: Reading Thomas Wolfe. Mississippi Quarterly (June 22, 2006).
- Raper, John Rowan. ”Inventing Modern Southern Fiction: A Postmodern View.” Look Homeward, Angel. Southern Literary Journal 22.2 (Spring 1990): 3-18.
- Strauss, Albrecht. ”You Can’t Go Home Again – Thomas Wolfe and I.” Southern Literary Journal 27.2 (Spring 1995): 107-117.
- Thomas Wolfe Web Page. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from http://library.uncwil.edu/wolfe/wolfe.html.
- Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from www.wolfememorial.com. Last updated on September 3, 2002.
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