Rites of Passage Part II: My Endless Summer of Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe (photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1937)

Thomas Wolfe (photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1937)

A naïve and sheltered twenty-year-old baby boomer from a copper-mining town in Arizona who asked her revered teacher/guru for a list of books to teach her how to think, I probably didn’t expect the internal cataclysm that ensued. But I was ready. I devoured the five books on the list and learned a number of lessons that all those who lived an extended adolescence can relate to:

  • I was not alone in the quest to know who I was and where I came from and where I was going;
  • Not only had other people shared the same journey, but they had articulated its joys and pangs and sudden epiphanies and given me a language to do the same; and
  • The history of the United States can best be explained as the enactment of a general consensus regarding the values of classical liberalism/laissez-faire capitalism. [I realize that this lesson has little to do with extended adolescence or even life in general, but it certainly has informed my own world view to the present day.]

One of those five books, however, entered my soul and in many ways determined the arc of the ensuing 40-plus years.

I seem to have binge-read Look Homeward, Angel in a few huge gulps. A daughter of the Arizona desert, I learned from Thomas Wolfe the meaning of October. His description of a tomato slathered with mayonnaise became for me the quintessential Southern gastronomy. Memorable turns of phrase stuck in my head. Wolfe called the newborn Eugene “this chosen incandescence” and later described his “extraordinary love of incandescence.” He called the campus in Pulpit Hill “a green oven,” a metaphor I experienced first hand when I moved to that same campus in Chapel Hill two summers hence. He gave voice to, for me, heretofore unvoiced longings and desires. And oh, the breathtaking beauty of those well remembered purple passages:

We can believe in the nothingness of life, we can believe in the nothingness of death and of life after death—but who can believe in the nothingness of Ben?

Remembering speechlessly, we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

I shared the discovery of Wolfe with my childhood friend Emily, the only one with whom I had come close to articulating our mutual angst, and together we spent the summer reading everything Thomas Wolfe wrote. I may be exaggerating; indeed, it seems impossible that one could read those thousands upon thousands of pages in one calendar summer. We fixed in our minds an image of the angel W. O. Gant could not carve despite his large and powerful stonecutter’s hands. We dreamed of travel accompanied by the sights and sounds of train rides. We insisted against the sage adult perspective of Emily’s mother that we would always be seekers of truth and meaning, that we should never become the thrill-seeking, lost, and purposeless men Eugene found in the bars and concert halls of Berlin between the wars. We understood ourselves for the first time because Eugene Gant gave us the words in the wildly overblown language that we were uniquely primed to understand.

The summer of 1973 became the spring of 1975, and I was applying to graduate schools. My mentor, Dr. Mering—who had provided the original recommendation of Look Homeward, Angel to our intermediary—recommended also the six schools where I would apply, and on the third tier was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Morehead Foundation, part of E. I. Dupont de Nemours and Company, which based its academic awards on the principle of the Rhodes Scholarships, sent me an airplane ticket and invited me to Chapel Hill to interview for its fellowship for graduate study. The buildings on the old campus quadrangle, the ancient poplar trees, and the riot of pink spring blossoms gave substance to the idea of university that I had glimpsed in the fictional world of Pulpit Hill in Old Catawba. I found the buildings where Wolfe studied and the theater with its Corinthian columns topped with wheat and Indian corn where Wolfe was one of the founding members of the Carolina Playmakers. And it wasn’t easy, but I finally found the weathered bronze of the small memorial to UNC’s favorite son with its stylized angel and the “O lost” quote.

I received the Morehead Fellowship, and I turned down smaller pecuniary awards from much larger names—Yale, Stanford, and Duke—to accept it. The decision made no logical sense, but the opportunity to attend the university of Thomas Wolfe proved irresistible.

My first semester in Chapel Hill, I spent hours poring over the documents and photographs in the Thomas Wolfe Collection and even pilfered a tiny picture of Thomas Wolfe—my first thievery since I stole a box of stars from the desk of my first-grade teacher and one that I regret far less. The stellar reputation with which the Morehead allowed me to stroll into the history department at UNC was somewhat tarnished by my fascination with Wolfe, who by 1975 was something of a black sheep in the Tarheel family for the crop of budding intellectuals at Wolfe’s alma mater. However, that didn’t stop me from finding a companion to accompany me to Asheville in October for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Wolfe’s birth. If reading about October had been my first brief glimpse of it, that trip to the Old Kentucky Home displayed for me October in the North Carolina mountains in all its riotous colors and crisp temperatures and pungent apples bought from stalls on the side of the road. I saw the room where Ben died and visited the cemetery where all the Wolfes lie buried. Back in Chapel Hill, I met Fred Wolfe, the last surviving brother of my literary hero, the stammering Luke of the novels.

Time minimized my passion for Thomas Wolfe. With the coming of our thirties, Emily and I understood that her mother had been right. We were no longer the seekers we had been when we could listen with rapture to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and wax poetic about the cloying scent of orange blossoms. Since our lives had been pared down to size, our admiration for Wolfe’s endless adolescence—his unchecked verbal diarrhea, his footlockers full of manuscripts that caused Ernest Hemingway to dub him “the Primo Carnera of writers”—had become an little embarrassing.

The embarrassment became even more acute when I returned to graduate school at the age of 36 to get a master’s degree in English. My first semester back in Chapel Hill, I took a class in Southern literature, where most of my younger classmates were unfamiliar with Wolfe’s books even if they recognized his name. The girl who sat next to me had never read any of his books, even though she grew up in Asheville, the eponymous home to which he could not go again. Grumbles greeted the assignment to read the 600-plus-page Look Homeward, Angel, and the discussion in class was predictable, comprising in equal measure cynical sniggering and supercilious ennui after being forced to read an entire book full of Wolfe’s undisciplined and swaggering prose.

I had expected to have the same reaction but was delightfully surprised when I rediscovered the novel that I had first swooned over half a life ago. Yes, he was undisciplined, but I was 38, an age that the brief flame of Thomas Wolfe never reached, and I knew that discipline and responsibility, balanced checkbooks and timeclocks punched at 8:00 were highly overrated as raisons d’être. I found great beauty in Wolfe’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I even wrote my semester paper on Wolfe, arguing that he was not a Southern writer; the professor was not persuaded, but he recognized a good argument when he saw one and gave me an A.

And now, after two-plus decades more?

I assign “The Lost Boy” whenever I teach a class in American literature. I hosted a workshop about the life and works of Thomas Wolfe as part of our “Students’ Guide to the Universe” series. And I had read and admired Max Perkins, Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg when it came out in 1978. I am not a fan of biography, but this book was the story of practically the entire Lost Generation and the editor who shepherded their works into publication. And now I am eagerly awaiting the release in less than two weeks of Genius, an unlikely Hollywood film about that editor and his most daring feat of genius, turning the outpourings of the intractable Thomas Wolfe into masterpieces of American literature.

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One Response to Rites of Passage Part II: My Endless Summer of Thomas Wolfe

  1. Boz says:

    While writing this post, I was reflecting on the number of famous and not-so-famous people I am aware of who were influenced in their youth by reading Thomas Wolfe. They include my mentor and friend, John V. Mering; my former professor and acclaimed historian of the South, George B. Tindall; and William Styron and Pat Conroy, who have both given me hours of pleasure chewing and digesting their fat and delicious novels. I preparation for this piece, I located Conroy’s “Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe.” This moving paean to the author who meant so much in my formative years is not widely available. However, if you have access to Project Muse, this is a wonderful read:

    Conroy, Pat.”A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe.” Southern Cultures 5.3 (1999): 7-30.

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