Thomas Wolfe, A Biography
by Andrew Turnbull
Scribners, 258 pp., $7.95
The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother
edited by C. Hugh Holman, edited by Sue Fields Ross
North Carolina, 368 pp., $8.50
At about the time Andrew Turnbull’s biography of Thomas Wolfe came out, I asked the students of a graduate class in creative writing if they had read Wolfe, and I was surprised at how many of them had. I had supposed that he had been consigned—as he was in my own mind—to the annals of the Thirties in which were interred other quaint phenomena like the Dionne quintuplets and 3.2 beer. I myself read him reverently (and like most of the people who were reading him at the time regarded the one-line psalm in Look Homeward, Angel, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again,” as one of the most beautiful melodies in English) in 1934 in Boulder, Colorado, but by the summer of 1935 my heart no longer palpitated at the nacreous light of dawn upon the hills of the Tar Heel State or at Eugene Gant’s Parnassian asides; and when Wolfe came to my home town that summer to talk at the University of Colorado Writer’s Conference, I did not go to hear him even though I had a minor clerical job with the Conference and could have got in free.
I have just recently re-read Look Homeward, Angel and while it is not quite so awful as I expected it to be, there is a lot of rice pudding for the raisins. The parent Gants, though they are occasionally preposterously exaggerated, are for the most part believable; W. O. Gant, blasphemous, bibulous, raucous, comes out of a Breughel scene of Dutch low-life and he has, as well, a flesh and blood existence throughout America—he is a semi-educated cracker, a neurotically brutal pioneer, a sentimental self-styled martyr with a good deal of Huck Finn’s Pap in him. Eliza Gant, his wife, is equally familiar as an American type: Scotch-Irish, she is suspicious, canny, avaricious, possessive of her kinsmen, especially of her sons. It is the youngest, Eugene, alias Thomas Wolfe, who makes such a mess of the book; he hogs the show with his gorgeous looks, his prodigious precocity, his quivering, angelic sensibilities. There are countless passages like the following but I will subject the reader only to this one; Eugene is now fourteen and he has a paper-route which obliges him to get up at half-past three in the morning, and while he is pitching the local gazette onto front porches, a gabby disembodied voice visits him:
A voice, sleep-strange and loud, forever far-near, spoke.
Spoke, ceased, continued without speaking, to speak….
Far-forested, a horn-note wound. Sea-forested, water-far, the grotted coral sea-far horn-note… Farfaint, as he wakened, they besought him with lessening whir. Then deeper song, fiend-throated, windshod. Brother, O Brother! They shot down the brink of darkness, gone on the wind like bullets. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
Free-standing images are not the only lumber in his style: Eugene, brooding, “thought with a livid snarl”; there are at …