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Thomas Wolfe: "Of Time and the River"


Part One:

A Stranger in the World


“And it is the same with all of us:  pretend, pretend, pretend. . . and never a word of truth; never a word of what we really feel, and understand and know. . . Why are we all so false, cowardly, cruel, and disloyal toward one another and toward ourselves? Why do we spend our days in doing useless things, in false-pretense and triviality? Why do we waste our lives---exhaust our energy---throw everything good away on falseness and lies and emptiness? Why do we deliberately destroy ourselves this way, when we want joy and love and beauty and it is all around us in the world if we would only take it? . . . What is it that we are always strangers in this world, and never come to know one another, and are full of fear and shame and hate, and falseness, when what we want is love?”  Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe.


The past few weeks I’ve been re-reading this novel rarely discussed anymore. But it’s one of those books that crawls inside my head like a centipede trapped in a flower pot. Published in 1935, it shows its age with offensive language/attitudes and untethered narrative even the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (who also worked with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) couldn’t bridle. Today, these flaws chafe effete English department sensibilities, but Faulkner called Thomas Wolfe the greatest writer of his generation before later qualifying his endorsement when critical opinion hardened. That reversal symbolizes the crosscurrents of Wolfe’s career. Of Time being Wolfe’s only bestseller launched to rave reception of “genius,” “greatest American novelist,” and accolades from literati and ordinary people alike. But over time, critics assessed the book would have made better short novels and depended too much on autobiographical detail requiring intensive editing, all likely true but not exactly the truth.


After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Wolfe with aspirations of becoming a playwright enrolled at Harvard. Though his effusiveness was better suited to writing novels, life in Cambridge exposed him to a broader world of ideas and authors such as Proust and Joyce. Taking a masters, he moved to New York hoping to find a publisher for his plays but found reception indifferent. To survive, he taught English at NYU while brooding over endless literary rejection further compounded by his social inadequacy, odd looks (he was massive 6’ 5” and 250 pounds with overly-large hands), shaggy long hair, and permanent dishevelment. A withdrawn, combative attitude didn’t help him establish new contacts.


But in New York, he began an affair with a much older woman connected to the New York theater, Aline Bernstein, a woman in her fifties, married, and involved in a successful career. In Aline’s sphere, Wolfe found access to the renowned editor from Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, whose influence became inestimable. Not only a friend/editor but a proxy for the loving father figure erratically present in Wolfe’s childhood, Perkins became the anchor the author needed.


Look Homeward, Angel, (1929) Wolfe’s first novel, originally titled, O Lost, left Perkins cutting 90,000 words from the manuscript almost 1,200 pages long and boasting a turgid 330 thousand word count (several critics observed that trimming wasn’t enough). But the Look Homeward challenge paled before Of Time where through years of work, travel, and debauchery Wolfe compiled a manuscript filling a four-foot-long wooden crate with loose pages running almost a million words in length and topped with a 28 page outline. Each day, Perkins and Wolfe worked tirelessly to wrestle the story into an acceptable form, but even as Perkins deleted scenes, Wolfe wrote or expanded sections with fresh copy, simply unable to let his work be condensed without pushback. A famous example is when Perkins asked the author to delete several pages, but by the time Wolfe returned to the office, he’d written an entirely new section detailing a mother’s movement from her kitchen to her car; that scene came in at 80 thousand words and 240 pages (the length of a typical novel) and encompassed a timespan of five minutes. Both Proust and Joyce undeniably influenced these pages of oftentimes experimental prose.


An effective stalemate led Perkins to distract Wolfe by sending him on a short trip to clear his mind while he cut the manuscript in half lopping off the far more edited, sections about the author’s lengthy love affair with Aline Bernstein. Scribner’s feared a lawsuit if they exposed tawdry details of Mrs. Bernstein’s love life, and Perkins realized that working directly with Wolfe to reduce the size of the book would never result in a completed book, so the risk of alienating the author seemed an inevitable choice. Surprisingly, Wolfe accepted the radical shortening, but the surviving 450 thousand words had now lost the logical ending Wolfe had written, most of its writing polish, most significantly the internal novelistic structure. Of Time now merely simply ceased delivering its narrative rather than offering readers (and critics) a satisfying conclusion.


Initial reaction to the publication was overwhelmingly positive, many readers proclaiming they could barely tear themselves from reading such lyrical prose and Wolfe became an instant celebrity. But with time, the exuberant initial reception began to harden into a more sober critical reckoning. Though critics admired the author’s effulgence, they attacked his lack of discipline, his romanticized emotional rants, frequent repetitions, and dense irrelevant detail. Some of the criticism flowed from the personal enmity resulting from Wolfe’s brusque and often drunken arrogance leaving a trail of offended literary figures in its wake. The Saturday Review captured the polarity by hailing Of Time both the best and the worst novel of the year.


But observations from Southern critics most galled Wolfe, a Southerner always sensitive to criticism. Several remarked that the real talent behind the novel had been Perkins whose editorial skill and vision deserved the credit for the author’s success (Wolfe had always praised Perkins.) His lifelong cycle of emotional alienation continued its manic cycles of love/distrust, enthusiasm/depression. Lawsuits emerged from old literary agents and contacts once friends, more were threatened. He published short stories but a sequence of longer works were rejected. Look Homeward and Of Time both generated income, but Wolfe came to resent how his royalties were paid as Scribner’s recognizing Wolfe’s chaotic lifestyle knew that giving him lump sum payments would lead to financial disaster and more periods of destitution, so they set up monthly payments. As with many things in Wolfe’s life, what once was appreciated and welcomed became resentment and a schism between Wolfe and Perkins. The author came to see his royalty arrangement as disrespectful and demanded full payment. Intense stress manifested in Wolfe’s decision to leave Scribner’s for Harper’s.


Years of strife, manic behavior, a physically abusive lifestyle, and relentless conflict running the gamut of his relationships had finally taken their toll. But in true Thomas Wolfe fashion, one of his last acts (he died at 37) was to write to Perkins a letter confessing that the editor’s efforts had indeed made his writing better. He also proclaimed that in truth Perkins had been perhaps his one and only true friend.


A life of rants and reversals of passion, the love of his life, Aline Bernstein, his greatest inspiration and writing distraction just as his relationship to Perkins had been his closest professional support and later competitor for fame, Wolfe’s life spun in uncertainty. All his old friendships disappeared in similar storms of vacillation confirming a misunderstood life.


Childhood rooted his sense of isolation. His father earned steady income as a stone carver and his mother dabbled in real estate, but an inconsistent homelife nurtured his fundamental insecurity. His parents slept in separate bedrooms and often in separate houses and maintained a screech of tension as the old man drank and became abusive while the mother withdrew into an odd frugality often denying her children and husband, then just as unpredictably coming to their aid. He never fit in a school as ill-fitting hand-me-down clothing, slovenly looks (his mother curled his long hair), and withdrawn behavior left him shunned. But he found the one great teacher of his life, Margaret Roberts, who catalyzed his love of books. He read everything developing a deep knowledge of American, British, French and German literature and though perhaps not well noted, he was one of the most educated writers of his era. Knowledge-thirsty, lonely, hyper-sensitive to any slight, laser-sharp with analytical focus, Wolfe learned to recluse within himself where he catalogued in handwritten notebooks endless pages of personal memory to be used to unlock his panoramic understanding of the human experience.


Part Two: Watcher of the Night


Wolfe melds modern psychological influence with a traditional nineteenth century narrative style leaving his modern audience rooted to familiar ground yet introduced to new century trends. A loose structure permitted the emotional exuberance novelists of the previous century had skirted but which Wolfe addresses with rich autobiographical detail. Novelistic shortcomings aside, critics observed this North Carolina author demonstrated the literary potency of James Joyce in far more relatable language in which everyday readers could experience a deeper awareness their own private selves.


Literary fiction, though perhaps not a standalone genre, focuses on character, theme, and style rather than plot and roots its storytelling in character motivation. The fiction of Thomas Wolfe uses these tools to filter his interior life obsession into a portrait of universal human nature. Dead end lanes of detail sometimes swamp his voice overly packed with perception, but as the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa notes, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Wolfe rarely averts his eye, though he may have been at times myopic. An injured soul gushing, Wolfe returns repeatedly to the theme of desertion imprinted by his early life with an erratic alcoholic father, a common trait with children of alcoholics. In Of Time, Eugene Gant demonstrates in a staggering legion of words a desertion motif touching all his relationships. The death of his favorite brother, Ben, even carries over from Look Homeward Angel to reinforce persistent loss, the void filling all his personal relationships.


Consider the following passages. W.  O. Gant, (Wolfe’s father was W. O. Wolfe) whom you’ll remember as the patriarch in Look Homeward Angel, has suffered a long, grueling battle with cancer and is now on his deathbed (one of the most gruesome and horrific accounts of dying ever written, though Wolfe in reality did not directly witness his father’s actual death moment). Gant’s daughter, Helen, has cared for him meticulously and for years has been the only person who could handle the gruff, hard-drinking old man. Now in the umbra of his death, she reviews her own mortality as cascading memories revive the pain of teenage body shaming and the emptiness of not being able to bear a child. From Of Time and the River:


“A thousand scenes from this past life flashed through her mind now, as she lay there in the darkness, and all of them seemed grotesque, accidental and mistaken, as reasonless as everything in life.


. . .And suddenly, with a feeling of terrible revelation, she saw the strangeness and mystery of man’s life; she felt about her in the darkness the presence of ten thousand people, each lying in his [her father’s] bed, naked and alone, united at the heart of night and darkness, and listening, as she, to the sounds of silence and of sleep. And suddenly it seemed to her that she knew all these lonely, strange, and unknown watchers of the night, that she was speaking to them, and they to her, across the fields of sleep, as they had never spoken before, that she knew men now in all their dark and naked loneliness, without falseness and pretense as she had never known them. And it seemed to her that if men would only listen in the darkness and send the language of their naked lonely spirits across the silence of the night, they would no longer be strangers, and each would find the life he sought and never yet had found.”


Helen peers into the heart of human misgiving and though hardly the main character of the book (Wolfe called his work “books” rather than novels), she embodies the alienation that so consumed Wolfe after growing up in a loveless home with a drunken father and a repressed mother. “Send the language of naked lonely spirits across the silence of night,” Helen laments, in an emotional authenticity of loneliness Wolfe could never escape.


A Freudian interpretation tempts us; Wolfe and Freud were contemporaries. The barren young woman competing with her mother for her father’s admiration, the repeated use of the word “naked” and “darkness” with all its coverings of “falseness and pretense,” signal unlighted avenues of emotional bewilderment emerging in the early twentieth century. Wolfe’s own troubled life might tempt us further as he breastfed until three, slept with his mother until eight, and witnessed the abuse and anemic emotional bond between mother and father, but the brilliance of Thomas Wolfe is not merely in calling forth his own past but rather to the universal experience of what it means to be human and alone.


In the quiet night of sleep, Helen drifts into the familiarity of her father’s strange aloofness, that dominating presence so intimidating that only three characters in the book call him by his first name and instead address him as “Mr. Gant.” Even his wife uses the formal honorific to address him as does Helen. She ponders the darkness, the loneliness of self, and yearns for “the language of their naked lonely spirits” to bridge the silence. Unsteadied by the separateness between her father and her deep longing to stay connected to him, she senses the essential duality of her own human oneness and separateness.


Helen clutches the intangible hope that the abstraction of life after death can somehow speak across the void, and it is easy to hear the echo of, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” written by Thoreau a hundred years earlier, that theme of desperation an axiom of literary fiction. She pleas to share bonds with the ten thousand souls, to speak the language of naked lonely spirits, yet human oneness stands incapable of being tethered to the vessel of syllable. And can’t we hear tones of early Anais Nin, Proust (whose work was so popular at Harvard), D.H. Lawrence, and Faulkner in the early twentieth century unleashed by the free-range prose of James Joyce’s Ulysses thirteen years earlier. Words ripping against the boundaries of structure, unfettered stream of conscious sound striking sparks of comprehension against the blackness of human doubt. Wolfe’s writing may not have been as generation changing as Joyce’s, but his language cut through the contortions of human emptiness as a pathos shared by ordinary people.


I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who talked about each author having an internal movie, and that private experience becomes the fictional story she tells. Maybe what drives artists are those flickering images of what is real but which cannot be seen directly, the dance of shadows viewed as creative imagination on Plato’s cave wall. I simply don’t know. But as a fellow (if much less gifted writer), I’m drawn to Thomas Wolfe’s surges of descriptive insight and am willing to forgive his flaws. His influence makes me want to return to my own literary Southern fiction to coax a few words in search of their own truth about what it means to be alive. So, here in my quietness I’ll pour myself another coffee and mosie back to the borderline of the real and unreal. Maybe there I’ll hear, “naked lonely spirits across the silence of the night,” and if I’m lucky, they might hear me, too.   ab


NOTE:  The Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, David Herbert Donald has written the definitive scholarship on Wolfe’s life and art: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Brilliant, entertaining, and thoroughly engaging. Highly recommended.

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