The Sorrowful Exuberance of Thomas Wolfe

The 2017 movie Genius about the relationship between the editor Maxwell Perkins, played by Colin Firth, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, played by Jude Law, prompted me to dive into his sprawling novels–Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River, and The Web and The Rock. In my twenties these books, purchased from a book club, were in my library. I don’t think I completed the reading of any of them, because as a young woman they were beyond my comprehension and a bit on the boring side for my taste in those days.

I stuck with my task this time, starting with the last novel The Web and the Rock published in 1937, next reading Look Homeward Angel published in 1929, and ending with Of Time and the River published in 1935, on which I mulled over the longest.  Sequentially, as a trio of bildungsroman novels, Look Homeward Angel chronicles the youth of Eugene Gant, the main character, in Altamont, North Carolina; Of Time and The River continues his college years in North Carolina and his move to New England for graduate study at Harvard where he discovers New York City and then travels to England and France. The Web and The Rock focuses on New York’s social and cultural life as Eugene struggles as a young playwright and carries on a long love affair with an older married woman.

Instantly, the flood of description and the sheer power of his verbal virtuosity overwhelm me. His monolithic attempt to grasp every sensory impression, milk every observation, and encompass the essence of everything American reverberates like the sonorous cataloguing of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Many sections of his fiction resound like prose poems, particularly in his eulogizing of the crowds and scenes of New York City, in fact, of the entire panorama of America–its rivers, its bridges, its mountains, and what he repeatedly terms its “man-swarm.”

His older brother Ben, who will die young, gives Eugene a gold watch for his twelfth birthday to keep time with “the sorrowful silence of the river.” Throughout every theme and motif of the novel Eugene’s exuberant joy in life is tinged with sorrow, the poignant realization of the inexorable passage of time, a sense of loss and loneliness, and the inevitability of death, while the river ceaselessly runs into the sea. This sentence encapsulates Wolfe’s work: “They knew that they would die and the earth would last forever.”

There is a push and a pull between Eugene’s northern and southern heritage. His father’s roots in Pennsylvania draw him to the north; his mother’s southern roots in the North Carolina hills inhabit his being. The memory of the Civil War haunts the town where he grew up, and the ghosts of all the dead soldiers roam the woods. The web metaphor recurs in all his novels and is associated with his mother’s line and his southern childhood; the rock metaphor, in contrast, is linked to his vision of New York City as the foundation stone of America and of his father who is a stonecutter. One of Wolfe’s outstanding talents as a writer is his brilliant descriptions of his characters’ physical attributes. For example, in describing the stonecutter, he writes, “as if the great strong hands had been unnaturally attached to the puny lifeless figure of a scarecrow.” From the choice of the surname Gant, the connotative significance of gauntness emerges. Similarly, in his mother’s family name Pentland, he captures the acquisitiveness that drives the family to accumulate more and more real estate and in doing so they become pent-up personalities never quite realizing their desires.

There exists as well in his characters a larger sense of the national character. Wolfe perceives Americans as always seeking, always searching, restless, on a quest for gold beyond the next mountain, perpetually a wanderer, never finding that door open. He writes of “the great colony of lost Americans”- those looking to achieve success in one form or another. Not surprisingly, then, he depicts the dissolute life of Eugene and his three companions in post-World War I in 1924, the year Eugene is twenty-four, capturing the spirit of the lost generation that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others of the era first evoked.

Somewhat frustrating in Wolfe’s style is his interesting portraits of new characters only to not carry through with them in the story, such as with Mrs. Potter and Bascom Pentland.  They become cameo roles that do not go anywhere, appearing and disappearing at times, but not adding significantly to a strong narrative line. In fact, plot development is not one of Wolfe’s strong points. However, a fair critic considers how this method lends itself to Wolfe’s purpose, which I see as a kaleidoscopic scope to the chronicle of Eugene Gant’s coming of age. Wolfe wants to record each and every impression on that journey into mature manhood so that every encounter no matter how brief leaves its indelible mark on Eugene’s consciousness. Therefore, whether a character remains for the entire journey or not is immaterial. People, sights, and sounds come and go. All form a part of the web of life and Eugene’s spiritual and intellectual make-up.  In my estimation, he does capture youth’s impetuosity and arrogance–that high-flying period of life when we believe we cannot die.

Equally well he captures the unsavory aspects of America. Drinking has been part of American culture since colonial days. The drunkenness of fathers destroyed families, explaining the rise of the temperance movement and prohibition, which Eugene directly experienced–the New York speakeasies and his father’s own alcoholism. The image of America as lost and seeking solace in alcohol is a constant motif. Francis Starwick is another alcoholic in Of Time and the River. Eugene is his binge buddy in Paris. He and the two women who accompany them in their revels typify the idle rich, a nihilistic set that Wolfe counterpoises with the wealthy Hudson River society represented by Joel Pierce’s family at whose house he is invited to stay for a weekend. In more than one regard, Wolfe touches upon the major cultural trends and historical events of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Another element that Wolfe portrays of  the early twentieth century is the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society, symbolized by the train. Its speed, brute force, and ability to cross a continent transport Eugene to Boston, enabling him to peer into the windows of houses as he passes along the way and forms a major metaphor throughout his novels. The train was Eugene’s ticket out of small-town America and everyone’s golden rail to success. Speed is a feature of the automobile. Eugene goes on a joyride with his alcoholic friends and ends up in a South Carolina jail. Wolfe describes cars as great beetles of machinery. He senses that something had changed in the face of America and also in the faces of the people; the metal and the speed had affected them. The automobile would change the scenery of the country, its architecture, and social life.

Thomas Wolfe sensed his own genius and imbued his character Eugene with that same ebullience. It was an unbridled genius that neither Maxwell Perkins nor later editors satisfactorily reigned in.  Despite their editorial efforts, the novels still are over-written and repetitious. Sometimes the repetitions are purposeful poetic refrains and other times they are overdone. More pruning is necessary to make his works masterful and totally pleasing like the well-wrought poem on the Grecian urn that John Keats immortalized. Without diminishing the power and strengths of his language and themes, I recognize his weaknesses and where his writing falls short of greatness without denying his significant place in American literature. Simply, too much fat remains for trimming. Individual words are overused or repeated in close proximity to each other for no discernible purpose. The practice of poetry could have given Wolfe a handle and a harness on his diarrheic prose. His style produces the type of weariness at hearing a great orchestra play glorious symphonies too long. The senses become overloaded. A performer needs to know when to stop, to recognize that point where the auditor is still in awe and has not become bored, overcharged, and surfeited with genius. Wolfe consistently overplays his hand. This has been said before by many critics, who also laud his genius while acknowledging its limitations. In sum, his writing is over-heated and over-cooked–a meal that some may not stomach. Those gluttons for luscious language and sumptuous sentences will gorge on Wolfe’s prose.

The qualities of sorrow and exuberance intertwine and permeate Thomas Wolfe’s ambitious vision incorporating Eugene Gant’s individual experience with the American ethos.

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One response to this post.

  1. ok. I just ordered Genius. Looking forward to watching it. Loved your overall observations, thank you.

    Reply

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