Thomas Wolfe, A Biography
The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother
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 least three pairs of “phthisic feet; W. O. Gant prefaces a tirade with “an infuriate scream,” and there are dozens of instances of “exultancy,” “innocency,” “resiliency,” “extravagancy.” Love, although its by-products are on display, is absent. Gusto appears in the form of lists of food consumed at the groaning board presided over by the sybaritic Gant; five lengthy paragraphs are given over to smells alone, among these titivations being “fat limp underdone bacon” and nails. Wolfe is no writer’s writer; he is a writer for the adolescent reader who will be amazed and enthralled to find that his identity, which heretofore he had thought sui generis, inhabited Wolfe decades before.
THE GRADUATE STUDENTS none of whom was currently reading Wolfe but who had read him when they were about sixteen, told me that the man, far more than his work, took the fancy of the young and that accounted for his continuing appeal. And, by the same token, I daresay, accounts for the appearance of Turnbull’s largely infatuated life thirty years after his death. But it strikes me that if these youths were to examine the man himself in Mr. Turnbull’s pages or, even more, in Wolfe’s letters to his mother, they would find him, by and large, pretty banal.
They meant, I think, that they had thought he was a romantic spirit, the schizoid Everyman who is at once Ariel and Caliban; a knight-errant in quest of a whole trophy-case of grails symbolizing Truth and Beauty and Beautiful Travail and Truthful Lust; a noble bum who could change his tune from the colloquial to the music of the spheres; an American troubadour silenced in his prime at thirty-seven. In his most recent work, published this year and called Vanity of Duluoz, Jack Kerouac, who is considerably more than sixteen, causes his hero to muse on “the immortal words of Tom Wolfe talking about the ‘weathers’ of America, the pale-green flaky look of old buildings behind warehouses, the track running west, the sound of Indians in the rail, the coonskin cap in his hills of old Nawth Caliney, the river winking, the Mississippi, the Shenandoah, the Rio Grande—no need for me to try to imitate what he said, he just woke me up to America as a Poem instead of America to struggle around and sweat in.”
WOLFE ENDURES too, for Bruce R. McElderry, Jr., who wrote an essay in 1955 which was reprinted early in 1968 in Thomas Wolfe, Three Decades of Criticism (New York University) in which he took (and presumably takes) the line that Wolfe “is one of the finest humorous writers in America since Mark Twain, perhaps even better than Twain in range and variety.” After noting in passing, with disdain, that the editors of The Subtreasury of American Humor did not include an excerpt from Look Homeward, Angel, he goes on to demote Mark Twain and fetches up with this solemn proposition, “Eugene Gant is a sensitive boy, and his journey to adulthood has point and interest. For readers today it has more point than Huck’s journey on the raft. At any rate it is a more difficult journey, for Twain took care that Huck never underwent the pangs of adolescence, in which, as Keats said, ‘the soul is in torment.’ ” Just why this elevates Eugene’s stature over Huck’s as a comic figure I cannot imagine, but there is no sense in quarreling with Mr. McElderry: risibilities are a highly idiosyncratic matter.
But I do take exception to Kerouac’s implication (by the way, the chapter from which I quoted above begins “But o that beautiful autumn, sitting at my desk with that fragrant pipe now taped like my leg was taped…” This image of Persephone sitting before a typewriter with a beat-up corn-cob between her teeth does not satisfy.) that Wolfe was an expert on or even an aficionado of America. The fact is that he did not know very much about America and the knowledge he did have was cursory. He lived, for most of his adult life, in lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn and he went more often to Europe than he did back to his native North Carolina. He made a few short trips to other parts of the country but he did so as a well-paid lecturer and celebrity rather than as an explorer; in the last months of his life, he was the caricature of a tourist when, with two other men, he visited twelve national parks in two weeks; by automobile, they covered 4,662 miles in thirteen days, beginning in Portland, going south through the Cascades and the Sierras to the Nojave Desert and the Grand Canyon, northward again to Utah and Wyoming and back west to Puget Sound. He knew place names; he was beguiled—as who has not been?—by the sound of train whistles in the night; a fleeting glimpse of hobos on the tops of freight cars inspired him to write, “and the ‘bos roll past across America silently regarding us—the pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence of it all.” But Wolfe himself was no Sinbad; he could not take time out from being a genius to be adventurous.
Although he could thrill to the smell of dandelions in the spring and could, to his mother, declare that “there is nothing so commonplace, so dull, that it is not touched with nobility and dignity,” he could also be struck blind to everything but knavery, pettifoggery, and national venality; of New York, he complained, “This great town roars around me in a never-ending pageant of glitter, show, false-front, and vulgar wealth. Women—cheap, vulgar women—the parvenu wives of soap-manufacturers, usurers, grafters, politicians, hog-butchers, and God knows what else, put thousands on their backs, while the artist, the poet, the man with a mind sensitive to beauty and nobility, longs in vain for a few of the wonderful books displayed in the windows.” In the same letter, he said, “…yearly we are bringing hundreds of thousands of inferior people—the Latin races, undeveloped physically, dwarfed mentally, into this country…. How can anything good come from it? I am no pessimist, but why try to side-step the facts?”
A GERMANOPHILE, with his father’s German blood commingled with his mother’s Scotch-Irish, he was profoundly moved during his several trips to Germany where, translated by Hermann Hesse, he was lionized. (He had numerous echt Deutsch experiences, including, once, a beerhall brawl in Munich in which he was badly roughed up, and, in another year, a brief idyl in the Tyrol with a big Blonde Berlinerin.) Eventually he was repelled by Naziism and never went back again although he never lost his admiration for the people and the landscape, and his indictment of anti-Semitism was ambivalent for, although his mistress for many years, Aline Bernstein, was Jewish, he did not, and admitted he did not, like Jews. His prose very often combined German lyricism at its most operatic and German rhetoric at its most disorderly. If he let his Sturm und Drang simmer down for a minute, it was to go into Weltschmerzlich jeremiads; he was Werther all over the place and Mrs. Bernstein was his Lotte, except that he was simultaneously a Prussian martinet, at one time drawing up a questionnaire for her which ended with, “Why did you tell me the name of George Bellows but not the name of any other lovers? Was it because he was the most celebrated man who had been your lover?” At times, his praise of her was fulsome, but he was not above the most barbarous scurrilities against her for being Jewish.
Wolfe was three-and-a-half years old before he was weaned; he was nine before his Lord Fauntleroy curls were cut and before he stopped sleeping in the same bed with his mother. These remarkable and informative data prompt the editors of The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother to speak of “the tension created by his strong will to freedom and self assertion and his deep and enduring affection for her,” a tension with its opposing stresses that they feel manifests itself in the letters. For twenty years—from the time when, at sixteen, he left Asheville to go to the University of North Carolina until his last weeks when he was sending her scenic postal cards as he galloped through the parks—he wrote to her often, often voluminously, nearly always without inhibition and nearly always without any but the flimsiest display of affection or concern. His epistolary style, by turns purple and pallid, stagnant and foaming, did not change at all throughout that time. His subject, as in his fiction and, one gathers, as in his conversation, was himself. If something importunately impinged upon his personal territory (such as the proximity of those parvenu women and Mediterranean hoi polloi in New York) he contrived to relate it to his genius or his loneliness or the persecutions he suffered at the hands of most of the people whose paths he innocently crossed.
CONSEQUENTLY, the character and the personality of his mother are, in the letters, nebulous, although in the fiction she is as plain as a pikestaff, costive and caustic. She was not a correspondent, not an interlocutor, she was, with few exceptions, an addressee only: at some point when he had gone to live in New York, he expressed the wish that she come to visit him, saying that he believed she had not been to New York for several years; a little later on we learn that she had, at that time, never been to New York in her life. Usually he closed his letters with a perfunctory enjoinder to her to keep warm and to eat properly and not to work too hard, or with the tossed-off hope that her business affairs were flourishing—she ran a boarding house for valetudinarians in Asheville and, as well, she trafficked in Florida real estate that sometimes involved her in spirited litigation.
Once in a while he told her that she alone could understand him, that only to her could he confess his hopes and fears. But equally often, he remonstrated, “You never write. You never think of me. If I should die here you’d forget me in two months… I’m not bitter. Only I know you’ve for the most part forgotten me. Life teaches us. Nothing endures. Nothing lasts except beauty—and I shall create that. You don’t know me, mama. I’m not important to you—I’ve become a man and you will never realize I’m older than I was when you took me around with you—when I was eight. I shall never forget or be lacking in gratitude for what you have done for me—but I shall repay that some day. I shall be great—if I do not die too soon—and you will be known as my mother.” (The italics are mine.)
She had staked him to four years at Chapel Hill and two more at Harvard and now he was in New York, trying unsuccessfully to peddle the plays he had written under the aegis of Frederick Koch and George Pierce Baker. Presently he would begin to teach at New York University, but for some time to come (until the epiphany of rich Aline Bernstein) he would still need his mother’s handouts for shoes and over-coats; periodically she sent him parcels of socks and handkerchiefs. And cookies. He would repeatedly fret that teaching clogged the well-spring of his creativity, though he was pleased to write that “a boy told me Saturday that everyone was trying to get in my class,—but you must take this cum grano salis.” Whether or not he ever did repay his mother is not clear, but the subject of money was seldom dropped. After he began to be published, his brothers and sisters, who had not been suckled so long as he, besieged him with requests for money and with hysterical telephone calls pleading with him to come to the bedside of someone critically ill, and he lost his temper when he wrote his mother who, I assume, was to shut everybody up, “I’m not kicking about the money, as I have told you. I will help any of you who need help to the extent of my capacity, but since I am not rich, and every penny of this money—contrary to what anyone may think about how easy it is to write books and how lucky I have been—every penny, I say, has been earned with blood and sweat and anguish—and I should like to know it’s doing some good and not being thrown down the gutter in useless telegrams, long distance calls, railway journeys and wasted time.”
When he had finished with money matters and the low-down cold of New England winters or the odious heat of New York summers, he stated the text for the day which, with slight variations, was “one Tom Wolfe, a queer looking person, some six and a half feet high—by which I mean he does not look like the average good Presbyterian, Rotarian, Kiwanian, Booster, or Realtor—that is to say, he is not commonplace” and who, by his own profession, was “inevitable.” Like most romantics, he believed himself to be unique, and he believed, moreover, that the Philistines were after him, personally, in full cry. From Cambridge, prognosticating his career as a playwright, he declared, “The plays I am going to write may not be suited to the tender bellies of old maids, sweet young girls, or Baptist Ministers but they will be true and honest and courageous…. If my play goes on I want you to be prepared for execrations upon my head. I have stepped on toes right and left—I spared Boston with its nigger-sentimentalists no more than the South which I love, but which I am nevertheless pounding…[Life] is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid, ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous,—it is all these, and more, and all these I want to know and, by God, I shall though they crucify me for it.” And again, “by God, I have genius—I know it too well to blush behind it—and I shall yet force the inescapable fact down the throats of the rats and vermin who wait the proof. Well, they shall have it, and may they choke upon it.”
BESIDES DECIMATING the Protestant clergy and the real estate brokers (the mission Sinclair Lewis had been engaged in when Wolfe was still at his mother’s breast; the two men, when they met in London, got on like a house afire, kicking up shindies reminiscent of those Elmer Gantry and Jim Lefferts perpetrated on Saturday nights in Cato) he also intended to “go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotions I am able, and I will write, write, write.” In his spare time, he meant to read everything that had ever been written; he came forth once with the whopper that he had read 20,000 books in ten years. If he did not fulfill his prodigious aims, the excesses in his prose made up for his failure; Bernard De Voto wrote, “When Mr. Gant died (of enough cancer to have exterminated an army corps), the reader accepted the accompanying frenzy as proper to the death of a man’s father…. But when the same frenzy accompanied…a ride on a railroad train, a literary-tea fight, a midnight lunch in the kitchen…a walk at night…an automobile trip…—one could only decide that something was dreadfully wrong. If the death of one’s father comes out emotionally even with a hamon-rye, then the art of fiction is cockeyed.”
Although Turnbull’s Biography is exhaustive and there is no reason to dispute his facts, he is so much in agreement with his subject about his subject’s towering genius that for the most part he sounds as if he is writing flap copy for “The Collected Works of Thomas Wolfe.” The Letters are infinitely more revealing; the man therein revealed is infuriating and pathetic, so deformed by self-absorption and self-indulgence, so macerated by his warm bath of self-pity, so worshipful of the physical appetites he deified that he was incapable of deep friendship or of deep love or of any but Mother’s Day filial piety.
Mr. Turnbull, hooking up Wolfe to history, begins his book, “On October 18, 1929, six days before ‘Black Thursday’ when the bottom fell out of the market, a portentous first novel was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.” And the doxology at the end also alludes to world events which shrink in importance as the final lamentation rings out, “It was a shining day. Across the globe, Neville Chamberlain had just landed at the Munich airport for his peace meeting with Hitler and Berchtesgaden that afternoon. But in Baltimore something had gone out of the universe. There was a rent in nature, a hole against the sky.” One is reminded of the intonations of Jimmy Breslin.