Did you ever want to read a great book of rich, lyrical writing? A novel that would transport you onto another place and another time? OF TIME AND THE RIVER, 1935 by Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is such a novel. Wolfe was a man from North Carolina who followed the American — or universal Western — pattern of leaving home for the big city to become an artist. During the 1930s, he was as popular and widely read as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, although John Marquand and John O’Hara were even more popular, and for a while, William Faulkner was hardly read at all.
Names you’ve missed somehow? Well, not even many graduate students read Wolfe, Marquand or O’Hara any more. Wolfe in particular is simply not “modern” as most readers understand the term from 1965 or so on. His writing is lush, and not economical. He never wrote “compactly”, or “tightly”. His tradition owed more to Homer and the oral tradition of story-telling. His most famous novel is LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL.
And Wolfe was a character. He stood six feet five and lived in a voracious, hyperbolic way. His appetites for women, food, talk and drink were prodigal. When he lived in Brooklyn — in Red Hook, then and now a tough waterfront district — he would write and walk the city in the early morning, miles at a time, without regard for his own safety.
His manner of writing was colorful, too. He’d get excited and work all night, using an old fashioned ice-box as a desk, toiling so furiously that he’d scribble a few words on foolscap, toss each page over his shoulder, and write the next one. Someone would collect these pages and deliver them to Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who helped Hemingway and Fitzgerald, too. (Those were the days when editors considered it part of their job to work page by page with their authors.)
One of Wolfe’s charming qualities was his indiscretion, and we don’t know if he was naive or deliberate about it. He often wrote about his own times and people he met, just a few years later, and drew his characters visibly from real people. One of his most unforgettable characters was Mrs. Esther Jacks, a middle aged Broadway costume designer in Manhattan, and he depicted her inimitably as having “melon heavy breasts”. [Forgive me.] Esther Jacks was created after a real woman, Aline Bernstein (shown bottom right), one with whom Wolfe had a protracted affair. Scandalous.
One of Wolfe’s novels was YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, and we’ve all heard that sentiment as an aphorism. It’s about a young novelist like Wolfe who has a bestselling novel, becomes famous like Wolfe, and then returns to his home town in North Carolina. There he finds out people don’t treat him the same, he’s no longer able to live and get along as he previously did, ergo You can’t go home again.
Wolfe’s life flashed and burned out like a flame, if you’ll forgive me the seedy simile. He drank, smoked, stayed up, womanized and went without sleep .. to excess, and died of tuberculosis in 1938.
He left a literary body of Americana. He wrote and lived in the great Southern tradition. His novels are powerful and undertake sweeping themes. I hope you’ll take a look at one or another. You just won’t find anyone else writing like Wolfe today.
We don’t just write “compact” and ”tight” for excellence, you know. It’s also because the 20th Century began with “The Age of Anxiety”. Proust was out and suddenly Hemingway was in. Tight, breathless, spare, laconic prose fits human lives whipped ever forward at a breathless pace, exponentially accelerating and leading us .. where?