Tuesday, 17 July 2012

THOMAS WOLFE Of Time and the River (1935)

Penguin Modern Classics UK, 1984
Charles Scribner's Sons first US edition, 1935

Eugene did not know if their way was a good way, but he knew it was not his…And suddenly the naked empty desolation filled his life again, and he was walking on beneath the timeless sky, and had no wall at which to hurl his strength, no door to enter by, and no purpose for the furious employment of his soulHe felt the slow interminable waste and wear of grey time all about him and his life was passing in the darkness, and all the time a voice kept saying: ‘Why?  Why am I here now?  And where shall I go?'
The Novel: Of Time and the River is a novel I first read twenty-one years ago.  It’s so episodic, so packed with rhetoric, lavish description and the kind of sweeping Whitmanesque prose-poetry which Wolfe excelled at writing that I’m not fully certain it qualifies to be called a novel in the way we generally understand and apply the term at all.  It might be more accurate to call it –– and the same description could easily be applied to nearly all of Wolfe’s work –– a uniquely North American form of fictionalized autobiography, one writer's attempt to make sense of the world by viewing it through the prism of his own intensely-felt experiences and sometimes punishing emotions.  

Eugene Gant, who was also the central character of Wolfe's debut novel Look Homeward, Angel, is a largely undisguised portrait of the novelist himself –– a young southerner struggling to find his way as a Harvard student and then as a college graduate, teacher and fledgling writer in the teeming ‘man-swarms’ of Boston and New York City.  Wolfe’s passionate, heartfelt style captures all the loneliness, self-obsessiveness and uncertainty of Eugene’s quest to discover some kind of higher purpose to his life, beginning with the death of his father from prostate cancer and ending with him meeting the woman –– Esther Jack –– who’s destined to become the great love of it (as well as being the bane of it in many ways) in the tumultuous years ahead.  (Eugene/Wolfe's story continues, with his alter-ego now renamed George Webber, in his final two novels, The Web and the Rock and the prophetically titled You Can't Go Home Again.)  The book is personal, confessional and, at a whopping 1035 pages (in my Penguin edition anyway), often verbose and, at times, maddeningly self-indulgent.  But throughout it all Eugene/Wolfe never ceases to ask himself, and the reader, the same three vitally important questions –– ‘Who am I?’, ‘What do I really feel about my life?’ and ‘What should I really be doing with myself?’ 

Although Of Time and the River is written from a young man’s perspective, it’s still capable, seventy-seven years after it was published, of stirring the emotions of anyone who can recall asking the same kinds of questions of life in their own vanished youth.  Eugene embodies the in-born urge so many young people seem to have (and generally seem to lose by the time they reach their thirties) to devour everything they feel life owes them in one tremendous, all-consuming gulp.  He wants to experience and possess everything and he wants to experience and possess it now, before the river of time sweeps him and the possibility of him ever finding the happiness and glory he feels is his natural birthright away with it forever.  Of Time and the River is really the story of a young, enthusiastic, sometimes easily overwrought man learning to come to terms with the idea that 'home' is a place he'll never actually find, that there’s truly no place on earth –– the narrow-minded resort town he was originally so desperate to flee, the teeming cities of Boston and New York, foreign countries like England and France –– that can ever match the idealized vision of 'home' he carries round inside his head.  

Like many American novelists of the early to mid-twentieth century, Wolfe was incapable of writing about anything that wasn't somehow connected to or at least partially based on his own experiences.  He had little to no concept of narrative and almost every character he created was a portrait of someone he was  personally acquainted with –– a habit which often landed him in trouble and made him so unpopular in Asheville, his home town, that he felt uncomfortable about returning there after becoming famous and scrupulously avoided doing so until 1937, the year before his death.  

Nor was Wolfe interested, as his more marketable contemporary Ernest Hemingway was, in reducing life to its minimalist, cause-and-effect essence.  His aim as a writer was not to offer the reader neatly packaged slices of life but rather to present them with a picture of life in its entirety –– excluding nothing that made it interesting or difficult and including everything that, in his view, did.  His work isn't often read these days and that's a great pity.  His was and is an important voice in American literature, a reminder of a time when people turned to great novels, and the great novelists who wrote them, to help them understand not only how to live their lives but also what they should be living for.


WOLFE's childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina

The Writer:  Thomas Clayton Wolfe, the youngest of eight children, was born in the North Carolina resort town of Asheville in 1900.  His father was the local stonecutter, carving tombstones and funeral monuments between bouts of excessive drinking, while his mother kept the family going by running a successful boarding house and shrewdly buying up much of the town's most valuable real estate as it gradually became available.  

Wolfe lived in his mother's boarding house as a boy, where he was exposed to many different types of people from many walks of life, while the rest of the family shared the original family home with his father.  Wolfe was to have a lifelong love/hate relationship with Asheville, which he would rename 'Altamont' in his fiction and whose citizens he would often lampoon and criticize without taking too much trouble to conceal or even partially obscure their identities.  Not that anyone in town would have been rushing to pick a fight with him.  He was so tall and physically imposing by the time he reached puberty that he had trouble fitting through doorways and was forced to do all his writing standing up, the top of a refrigerator serving as his makeshift desk. 

Wolfe was also a talented scholar, able to absorb enough Greek and Latin by the age of fifteen to win a scholarship to the University of North Carolina.  He edited the college newspaper and decided to become a playwright after taking a drama course which resulted in two of his plays being performed by the college's student theater company.  This encouraged him to apply for a post-graduate course in play writing being taught at Harvard by Professor George Pierce Baker.  (Eugene O'Neill, who was at this time virtually inventing modern American theater all by himself with cutting edge dramas like The Emperor Jones and Anna Christie, was a former pupil of Baker's.)  Wolfe was admitted to the course and left for Boston in 1920, where he stayed for the next three years, writing plays that failed to attract the interest of even one Broadway producer.  In 1924, realizing that he could better express what he wanted to say about life on the page than the stage, he quit his part-time job as an English instructor at New York University and sailed for Europe with the aim of transforming himself into a novelist.

He remained in Europe for most of 1925, visiting England, France, Switzerland and Germany while frantically compiling material for what, four years later, would become his first published novel.  (Wolfe loved Germany and was very disturbed, on his second visit there in 1936, to see what Hitler and his SA brownshirts were doing to it.)  During the voyage back to America, he met and fell in love with Aline Bernstein, a married Jewish woman eighteen years his senior.  (She appears, virtually undisguised, as 'Esther Jack' in Of Time and the River.)  They had a passionate but stormy affair –– Wolfe, like his father before him, was by this time a routinely heavy drinker –– which lasted five years, during which time Aline supported her young lover financially and did everything possible to encourage and promote his writing.  Wolfe returned to Europe in 1926, where he began working steadily on the novel he'd now decided to call O Lost.  It was this huge unwieldy manuscript which eventually found its way to the publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons in New York and to the desk of its most astute editor, Maxwell Perkins – the man who had discovered F Scott Fitzgerald and had also been responsible for publishing Ernest Hemingway's groundbreaking first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Perkins soon realized that O Lost was a work of genius but one that would never be commercially successful because it was far too long to appeal to the so-called 'average' reader.  He asked Wolfe to cut the novel, which Wolfe reluctantly did, and went on to publish it in October 1929 under the new, more evocative title of Look Homeward, Angel. 

Following his final break with Aline Bernstein, Wolfe spent the next four years traveling, drinking and writing an even longer multi-volume novel he  intended to call The October Fair.  Perkins liked the novel but, worried again that it was too long to sell in a market so badly affected by the Depression, again urged Wolfe to pare down his manuscript, which Scribners subsequently published in 1935 as Of Time and the River.  Although the book became Wolfe's only American bestseller, it was something of an empty victory for the novelist, who felt that much of his best writing had been needlessly deleted or unnecessarily tampered with by Perkins.  This effectively ended their working relationship and saw the novelist leave the house of Scribner to sign a new contract with the rival firm of Harper and Row.

Sadly, Wolfe didn't live long enough to see his third and fourth novels through the presses.  (The Web and the Rock appeared in 1939, with You Can't Go Home Again following it into bookstores one year later.)  In 1938 he left New York to make his first trip west, giving his manuscripts to his new editor at Harper and Row for safekeeping while he was gone.  He caught what was originally diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia in Seattle and spent three weeks in hospital, where his condition was eventually re-diagnosed –– correctly this time –– as tuberculosis of the brain.  Although he was operated on by the best neurosurgeon in the United States it was too late.  The disease had spread too far and he died several weeks later without regaining consciousness, although not before Max Perkins received a final heartfelt letter from him in which he acknowledged the vital contributions the editor had made to both his life and his career. 

Wolfe was a major influence on many of the writers who followed him even though his reputation had begun to fall into serious decline by the mid-1940s as the vogue for lyricism gave way to a new, post-war demand for 'unpoetic' realism.  All the same, it's doubtful that Jack Kerouac would have written his first novel The Town and The City (1950) or that James Jones would have written his first unpublished novel They Shall Inherit The Laughter (1944-1947) or gone on to publish his bestselling masterpiece From Here To Eternity (1951) had they not had the example of Thomas Wolfe and Look Homeward, Angel to learn from and inspire them.  (Jones and Wolfe even shared an editor in Max Perkins before the latter's own untimely death in June 1947.)  Wolfe also influenced writers as different from him, and from each other, as Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Robert Cormier and Betty Smith, author of the popular 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  

Click HERE to visit the homepage of THE THOMAS WOLFE SOCIETY.  You can also click HERE to read Of Time and the River in its entirety as a free online eBook.  A biography by DAVID HERBERT DONALD titled Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe was published by Little, Brown in 1987 and remains widely available, as does Thomas Wolfe: A Writer's Life by TED MITCHELL which appeared in 1997.

You might also enjoy:
JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)
JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934)
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)

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