Malcolm Sharps Considers Thomas Wolfe

Thanks to our regular contributor Stephen O’Connor for bringing us another essay by Malcolm Sharps, who was born in England and has lived in Hungary many years. About this commentary on Thomas Wolfe’s iconic novel Of Time and the River, Steve tells us, “I’m glad that I got something of the essence of the novel from Malcolm along with the clarity of his own unique spotlight on some of the major themes, representative passages and the narrative and philosophical underpinnings of the work. Wolfe (1900-1938) has often it seems to me been presented as a traditionalist writer who influenced Jack Kerouac’s early work until JK broke free and discovered his own spontaneous prose. My impression after reading Sharps’ essay is that Kerouac remained heavily influenced by Wolfe throughout his writing career.

Swept on by the River

An Assessment of a Forgotten American Masterpiece

By Malcolm Sharps

An artist must love and be loved. He must be swept by the Flow of Things, he must be a constantly expanding atom in the rhythmic surges of the Life Force.

Thomas Wolfe

I started out with a copy of Of Time and the River which I picked up from one of the book carts that are dotted around Budapest, they look like old Irish travellers’ caravans and are stacked head-high with second-hand books. There are great selections if you want Hungarian Literature – in the original Magyar. But I never approach the Foreign Language section of such places with much hope. At best, you might find a much thumbed and creased Terry Pratchett or a Douglas Adams, perhaps part of the Dune Trilogy; more likely something to do with Hollywood wives which has men and women as faultless as Mattel dolls on the cover. Of Time and the River was a real find. A classic rarity by a name that had always been around, Thomas Wolfe, an influence on many later writers, vaunted as an indispensable work of American Literature, though I’d never met anyone who had actually read it. I took my bounty home with wonder and gratitude and then disappointment struck. It turned out the volume I’d bought contained only Book II and Book III of a much longer work. I knew nothing of its structure and contents then; I learnt a little more later. Of Time and the River is an autobiographical novel 912 pages long spread over eight integrated sections or books which form one volume. My God, 912 pages, I’d bargained on a short walk in the Hindu Kush and instead here I was faced with the sheer wall of a K2 up ahead of me. With only one third of the work in my hands I began reading it anyway and it was passages like the following that blew me off my feet like I really was scaling a peak on the remote edge of civilization:

Who has seen fury riding in the mountains? Who has known fury striding in the storm? Who has been mad with fury in his youth, given no rest or peace or certitude by fury, driven on across the earth by fury, until the great vine of the heart was broke, the sinews wrenched, the little tenement of bone, blood, marrow, brain, and feeling in which great fury raged, was twisted, wrung, depleted, worn out, and exhausted by the fury which it could not lose or put away? Who has known fury, how it came?

The cadences of the sermonising southern preacher are present in that, as they are in so many other passages. The language had a compulsive, visionary, messianic quality for me. I was an immediate believer. I had to read the whole book.

Who has known fury?, indeed, it is a permanently attendant emotion for Wolfe, ready to offer service any time; the word appears 111 times and furious/furiously a 104 times in the book, surely a record? Fury is a given whose uncertain origins perhaps lie in Wolfe’s thirst for life and his awareness of the limits of his power to possess it fully. This was a man whose craving for the knowledge contained in books led him to aspire to reading 20,000 books in ten years, an impossible task.

There are two distinct strands to Of Time and the River, one is the narrative of a character Eugene Gant, who we can take it is in all important respects Thomas Wolfe himself. We are guided over the period of his life from his departure from his family in a small town in North Carolina, through his years of study at Harvard and his enlisting on a dramatic writing course, the hopeful gateway towards achieving the greatest ambition of his life. In this time, he also witnesses the horrible final days of his father’s long illness. He suffers rejection by publishers as a playwright, then lives and teaches for a time in New York. In the later parts of the book, he travels to England and France and there gets the overwhelming urge to write about his life back home. Inter-leaved with this series of experiences are the themes of the great forces working their influence on his life, the flow of time, time which is like a river, giving us the journey of life as well as all movement and change. He speaks of the night, its emptiness, his isolation and loneliness, which are terrifying yet at the same time give rise to numberless exciting insights. But these forces are not influences on his life alone, for there are really two heroes in Of Time and the River. One is Eugene, the focus of the autobiography, the other is the United States itself, a country uniting the southern states of Eugene’s birth with the almost foreign land of the great northern cities of his ambitions, Boston and New York. And linking them as no other means of travel has done before is the locomotive.

It was the wild and secret joy that has no tongue, the impossible hope that has no explanation, the savage, silent, and sweet exultancy of night, the wild and lonely visage of the earth, the imperturbable stroke and calmness of the everlasting earth, from which we have been derived, wherein again we shall be compacted, on which all of us have lived alone as strangers, and across which, in the loneliness of night, we have been hurled onward in the projectile flight of mighty trains — America.

Wolfe knows no halfway points with his loves and hates; they all tend towards the obsessive. He has as much love for the locomotive, with its almost demonic power, as any Futurist. He loves it as something alive, a “great cat” with an “acrid and exciting smell.” He loves it for the ease with which it brings him into contact with the land, “the immense and lonely visage of America.” Through it, the disparities of countryside, the small towns and the great cities are linked to form a single nation. For Wolfe, America’s cities are more than assemblies of buildings or agglomerations of people and peoples, they possess their own power as if some Bergsonian Lifeforce drives them. But he has no starry-eyed notions about them; cities are places of brutal indifference, harsh, aggressive, competitive and violent.

. . . the city’s deep canyons, the giant explosions of her thousand towers, the swarming millions of her tortured and uneasy life forever waging their desperate, ugly and unprofitable strife in all her hot and tangled mazes.

One obvious difference between a standard novel and an autobiographical one is that in the former function determines the characters and the action; the notion that we just lose contact with people hardly exists for characters in pure fiction; they remain in focus as long as they are useful to the narrative. In the latter, if the writer remains faithful to his subject, characters and action are determined by life itself. But real life is largely shapeless and fails to conform to our shaping, there is a coming and going of personalities that defies organisation.

We see this shapelessness to an extent in Of Time and the River, with characters who pass in and out. One is Abe Jones, “dreary, tortured, melancholy, dully intellectual and joylessly poetic,” the promising Jewish student Eugene teaches in New York and forms an unlikely friendship with. Initially they are hostile to each other but after a showdown where Abe recants over his openly displayed dissatisfaction with Eugene’s teaching, telling him this is the best class he has and begging Eugene to continue with his instruction, Eugene grows to like him. He is able to shed the prejudices he feels towards Abe and what he represents; Abe becomes “the first man-swarm atom he had come to know in all the desolation of the million-footed city.” He shows him an aspect of New York life which has been hidden from small southern town Eugene, the life of a large, city Jewish family, “close, complex and passionate, torn by fierce dislikes and dissentions, menaced by division among some of its members, held together by equally fierce loyalties and loves among others.” Eugene finds the harsh, competitive banter between family members disturbing, but he discerns beneath the jibing a strange kind of affection.

The family is a curious mixture of the commercial, artistic and scholarly Eugene has never met with before. Members are cultured and exhibit a knowledge of music which Eugene himself lacks, but still his reaction to their lives is patrician and superior; for all their culture, he finds them futile and desolate. Wolfe tells us: At this time Abe was in a state of indefinable evolution: it was impossible to say what he would become, or what form his life would take, nor could he have told, himself.  It might have been interesting to know about him five years on, his progress in life, his discoveries in love and his gains from literature, but he disappears from the narrative to be replaced by another figure and the further reality we are presented doesn’t permit us to know.

As an Englishman, I take particular note of what an American has to say about England. The section isn’t long. London (in spite of his being there several months) hardly registers; while Oxford is in eternal autumn gloom, which seems to be reflected in the character of the people; and he shows no real delight in the quaintness of historic Oxford, as I would best appreciate it myself. Eugene “went by all the age-encrusted walls of Gothic time and wondered what in the name of God he had to do with all their towers and walls . . . and why he was there, why he had come.” The English are all without true hope but with a fatalism that makes them unaware of their misfortunes. Life may be dull, but they are not, as he contrasts them with the French, permanently bored.

The most interesting aspect of the Oxford section is a monologue given to a Rhodes scholar, one from a very basic, unscholarly background in “Noo Yoyik” [my characterisation]. He states that all the Americans at Oxford University are just pretending, it’s an alien culture, they don’t fit in and never will and they try to pass the experience off as valuable. All he wants is to get back home to a place he understands and where he is understood. I have a great deal of sympathy with that. Coming myself as a boy from the North (of England), I found so many aspects of the culture and ritual-bound ancient Universities exclusive and alienating. But I imagine if you fit into Harvard or Yale, you’ll feel right at home in Oxford and Cambridge.

There are no great peaks or lows in England; it isn’t until Eugene goes to Paris, and then only when his American friends join him, that life takes off. Eugene, Frank Starwick his friend from Harvard, two young women — daughters of “old Boston families” — Elinor who is boisterous, confident, fluent in French, and quieter, slower Ann who Eugene later in a fit of sour grapes cruelly says never “speaks a word a child of ten could not have spoken,” together live the, for the most part, nightlife of young bon viveurs.

Paris . . . was a toy which had been created for the enjoyment of brilliant, knowing and sophisticated Americans like Elinor and himself. It was a toy which could instantly be understood, preserved and enjoyed, a toy they could play with to their hearts’ content . . .

But after six excessive weeks they reach burn out, the toy no longer seems like the fun it was, and cracks start to occur in the relationships. Feelings of sexual jealousy and class inferiority emerge. Here the narrative side of the writing truly approaches the level of the reflective and the philosophical parts of the book, the emotions tying the characters to each other are revealed along with their incompatibilities. The French section contains both some of Wolfe’s best writing and his most self-indulgent. A sort of Boulevardier’s Diary containing social events, observations, but less promising, private jokes and schoolboy inanities forms a collage that sounds like F. Scott meets the Wasteland. This might have been left out at no loss to the narrative and with some gain to coherence and stylistic uniformity. If this is a stab at cutting- edge Modernism, which Wolfe greatly admired, he pulls it off better in many other sections, like the meditations on the Hudson River.

The Hudson River drinks from out the inland slowly, it is like vats that well with purple and rich wine. The Hudson River is like purple depths of evening; it is like the flames of color on the Palisades, elves’ echoes and Old Dutch and Hallowe’en. It is like the Phantom Horseman, the tossed boughs, and the demented winds, it is like the headed cider and great fires of the Dutchmen in the winter time.

The Hudson River is like old October and tawny Indians in their camping places long ago; it is like long pipes and old tobacco; it is like cool depths and opulence; it is like the shimmer of liquid green on summer days. 

Some may regard the cascades of language as mere verbiage. Do his flights of unimpeded consciousness more closely resemble the precisely rich observations of Le Clézio or the unrelenting accretion of detail in Lawrence Norfolk? For me, Thomas Wolfe contains too much precious meaning, and creates too many resonant images to be compared with the latter. But not surprisingly, in a book on such a scale and with such colossal ambitions, there are lapses. In the Book titled Chronos and Rhea, we begin with another attempt at cutting-edge Modernist collage, it is as if many voices are speaking, the erudite, the poetic, the personal, the academic, the mystical, the visionary, and the demotic. There are varied fragments, references to previous times, the great rivers of the world, quotes from literature, lists, scraps of remembered speech. Mixed in with all of this is the emerging, driving compulsion to write — how else but furiously? — the need to write about America experienced through the familiar and beloved means, aboard the lonely, night trains crossing the vast, empty land. The assembly is ambitious, there are compelling flashes, but it is artistically ill-conceived and comes across as obscure and pretentious or merely inane:

Time, please, time . . . What time is it? … Gentlemen, it’s closing time….Time, gentlemen… that time of the year thou mayst in me behold … In the good old summer-time.…I keep thinking of you all the time… all the time … and all the time …. A long time ago the world began …. There goes the last bell, run, boy, run: you’ll just have time .… there are times that make you ha-a-ap-py, there are times that make you sa-a-d . . . .

There are times like this when Chronos appears altogether chronic and Rhea is simply dire.

Critics speculated on the possibilities for Wolfe’s prose if he moved beyond autobiography. At times we get flashes of another type of novel that he may have gone on to write but was unable to because of his tragically early death at the age of thirty-seven. We glimpse it in one of the most vividly described sections, a scene in which Eugene and two other boys drive their car on a crazy drinking spree and are arrested by the police in a small town in North Carolina. They are dragged off to the downtown lockup and held there. His writing here invokes the same menace that other writers have witnessed in their fellow countrymen in small southern towns: a mixture of good humour and casualness beneath which there is a reservoir of resentment, hatred and potential violence. We may not wonder that Thomas Wolfe was the writer who originally gave to the world the phrase “fear and loathing.”

With the exception of the two previously mentioned sections, the book stands well in its entirety; despite being exceptionally long, not seeming excessively so, nor artificially extended by the inclusion of spurious incidents, but nevertheless, too much space is given to reflections of a similar kind. Though cutting and preserving the best would have been difficult and painful, where the worst is often wonderful in itself, it would have paid off by preventing the reader from too frequently experiencing the feeling of having been here before.

Of Time and the River is a unique link in the chain of 20th century American Literature; its influence is felt in so many later writers: Betty Smith, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac and the Beats, James Agee, Philip Roth, though none can be said to have done better than Wolfe himself in projecting a panoramic view of the land called the United States. You cannot claim to really know American Literature if you haven’t read at least one of his major works.

Malcolm Sharps

Postscript

After decades of neglect, some fame returned to the name of Thomas Wolfe in 2016 when the film Genius was released. Wolfe’s original manuscripts for all his novels were considerably longer than the final printed works; an heroic act of editorship was required to shape and tame them. The film focuses on the relationship between Wolfe and legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who worked on his first novel, published as Look Homeward, Angel. This present writer has not seen the whole film but was rather put off by a sensationalising trailer. One extra curiosity: both lead parts are played by English actors, Colin Firth (Perkins) and Jude Law (Wolfe). The film crashed at the box office.

One Response to Malcolm Sharps Considers Thomas Wolfe

  1. David Daniel says:

    Malcom Sharps’ insights into OTR (which, interestingly, is the abbreviation for Kerouac’s masterwork, too) are keen. The version, as most commonly presented in the Scribner’s paperback edition, doesn’t (as he says) give us the full scope of the complete work, but the observations he makes about Modernism, etc., are borne out.

    My recommendation for anyone ready to approach (or reapproach, since many a reader took him on in our early years) Wolfe is to tackle Look Homeward, Angel, first. It begins the Eugene Gant saga and is a heartbreakingly beautiful (but not always politically correct) introduction to Wolfe’s one-of-a-kind richly detailed, stream-of-conscious lyricism.

    From there, if possible, go to the 900+ page edition Of Time and the River (and many public libraries do have the full book). It’s a long hike–Sharps’ K2 metaphor works–but worth the climb.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.