One of my favorite moments in recorded history is a scene from the movie Monterey Pop, a documentary of the legendary 1967 music festival. The camera zooms in on Cass Elliot as she watches Janis Joplin perform on stage. Cass’s mouth hangs open, her face completely serene in a portrait of awe, eyes partially obscured by stylish sunglasses.
Cass’s face in that documentary conveys the way I felt when I read author Thomas Wolfe’s work for the first time.
I watched the movie Genius, a film about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins, starring Jude Law and Colin Firth. I enjoy period pieces, especially movies set in the early 20th century, so I picked up the movie because it looked like it was from the 30’s or 40’s. I knew nothing about the subject of the film.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was perched on the edge of a life changing discovery.
Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe is obnoxious, and I can’t relate his portrayal to the character within the novels. There are certainly flashes of excess and overload in Wolfe’s writing, however, these flashes are tempered by a deeper force of calm; a steady, mature reflection and focus behind his observation of characters. It seems to me that Law granted himself a hefty dose of creative license in his portrayal of Wolfe. Law’s characterization seems more like Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Whatever the case may be, the film succeeded in its goal – to portray a compelling story that would hook people (like me) to want to discover more about the author. The scene that caught my attention shows Firth’s character, Maxwell Perkins, reading one of Wolfe’s book passages out loud. My ears perked up when I heard the passage. I sat up straight in my chair and hit rewind so I could watch the scene and listen again.
The passage was arresting, completely startling in its uniqueness. I knew I had to check this writer out.
I began reading Of Time and The River that night. Wolfe’s three major books form a biography of his life in various stages. River is his coming-of-age tale, set from his late teens into his early 20’s. Look Homeward, Angel traverses scenes of Wolfe’s childhood, and You Can’t Go Home Again tells the story of Wolfe’s becoming a man and establishing his career. He tells his story through the eyes of two protagonists, Eugene Gant and George Webber. Once you learn a bit about Wolfe’s biography, it becomes obvious that both characters are really Wolfe himself.
Wolfe had many talents as a writer, but among the most interesting are his powers of description, and his detailed characterizations of people. He delivers every angle inside of a scene or feeling with a detailed gusto that I have never witnessed in a writer. His descriptions flow across the page, driven by a life-or-death urgency, as though someone held a gun to his head and commanded him to write every inch of life from every corner, and from the perspective of everyone involved.
Here’s the first passage from Of Time and The River that arrested my attention:
“The moon blazed down upon the wilderness, it fell on sleeping woods, it dripped through moving leaves, it swarmed in weaving patterns on the earth, and it filled the cat’s still eye with blazing yellow. The moon slept over mountains and lay like silence in the desert, and it carved the shadows of great rocks like time. The moon was mixed with flowing rivers, and it was buried in the heart of lakes, and it trembled on the water like bright fish. The moon steeped all the earth in its living and unearthly substance, it had a thousand visages, it painted continental space with ghostly light; and its light was proper to the nature of all the things it touched: it came in with the sea, it flowed with the rivers, and it was still and living on clear spaces in the forest where no men watched.”
When I read that passage, I sat straight up from a laying position in bed and stirred. The entirety of Wolfe’s work flows with that much beauty and detail – whether he’s describing nature, observations of life, the urgency of youth, or a specific character, he will absolutely harness his muse with the same degree of detail contained in that paragraph. His novels are built upon a standard narrative structure, but they are frequently punctuated by transitional passages like the one above.
When I first began reading Jack Kerouac’s work, I remember reading a foreword which mentioned that Kerouac read Wolfe’s work while he was in college, layed up from a sports injury. The foreword made it clear that Kerouac was a fan; that the event influenced the direction of Kerouac’s life, however, it failed to mention that Wolfe was the greatest writer of the 20th century, or the true extent to which Wolfe influenced Kerouac. Wolfe’s Wikipedia page claims that Kerouac “idolized” Wolfe – and with good reason, I would argue.
Wolfe is a writer worth idolizing.
I have long been a fan of Kerouac, and up until this point I thought he was the greatest writer that ever lived, at least for me. Now I see that although he was a different writer and supremely talented in his own right, he drew much of his influence (and the courage to be himself) from Thomas Wolfe.
Wolfe was also gifted at portraying other people as a mirror into his own insecurities, describing vividly how his perception of other people informed how he believed they viewed him, and how that ultimately made him feel. Behold:
“He had read in their pale faces, and in their rootless and unwholesome lives, which had come to have for him the wilted yellow pallor of nameless and unuseful plants such as flourish under barrels, a kind of cold malicious triumph, a momentary gleam in pale fox-eyes, which said that they looked upon his desperate life and knew the cause of his despair, and felt a bitter triumph over it.” -Wolfe
Another interesting aspect of Wolfe’s work is the role of train rides as a vehicle representing major life transitions. Wolfe spent a lot of time on trains traveling between the north and the south. His descriptions of these train rides appear to be a metaphor for the passage of time itself, and the cultural sea change between the north and south in America, especially at that point in time.
Here’s a beautiful train passage from Look Homeward, Angel which appears to hint at the role of a train in representing time and memory:
“And it was this that awed him – the weird combination of fixity and change, the terrible moment of immobility stamped with eternity in which, passing life at great speed, both the observer and the observed seemed frozen in time.”
He’s expert at communicating on two levels. A good writer can do that. Unless they are writing about something in a literal and quite straightforward manner, they are likely to communicate on two levels at once. A good writer can construct a passage that deals with a theme such as “urban versus nature”, but will avoid explicitly using either term. They can write about electricity without using the word “electricity”. They can construct a scene with a theme behind it that you will understand as a reader, consciously or unconsciously. He’s very good at this.
The characters in Wolfe’s books are instantly recognizable. Among the more interesting lessons of his literature (and of classic literature in general) is the lesson about how little people have changed.
Wolfe demonstrates that while technology has changed the way we live, class struggle and certain other dark things within our culture have not changed. The psychology of people remains the same as it was in 1920. Every character is familiar, from the townspeople to his own family members. If you’ve been alive long enough to have gathered various life experiences, you will recognize nearly all these characters in someone you have known or been acquainted with.
One of the most interesting descriptions focuses on one of Wolfe’s peers at a school he attended, from The Web and The Root:
“He was a creature who, first and foremost, above all other things, hated trouble and abhorred pain – as what decent man does not? – except that here, in this great belly of a man, his hatred and abhorrence were so great that he would never face the things he hated. Thus, from an early age, he had learned to wear rose-colored blinders against life, and it was only natural that his own stubborn and unyielding hostility should be turned against anything- any person, any conflict, any situation, any evidence, or any idea, that would tend to take those blinders off… gradually, he began to rationalize in a phrase that he called the “morbid and distorted view of life” in contradistinction to the works of those writers of whom he approved, and who, correspondingly of course, represented, ‘the more wholesome and well-rounded point of view.’”
Who among us has not encountered the unrelenting people who wear “rose colored blinders”? More importantly, Wolfe brings up a relevant point: these people are rarely one-dimensional in their optimism; they tend to have a thorny underside of denial wrapped in quiet rebellion. They will expose their thorny underside, without hesitation, to those who threaten their willfully naive viewpoint.
All the characters in his books are as true to life as this character.
Thomas Wolfe’s life was short, and he seemed to be another tragic figure who somehow sensed his life would end before his time. Like singer Jeff Buckley, Wolfe didn’t spare any of his talent or energy. He strove to write to a level beyond himself, did so consistently, and reached for the stars to milk the light they possessed out of them, so that he could convey their energy in the written word.
Like all good artists, Wolfe was perfectly aware that he was a dynamo. A certain passage from You Can’t Go Home Again delights and amuses me endlessly. In this passage, Wolfe accuses Shakespeare of being a lazy sellout:
“Rather, as if Shakespeare himself had recognized the hopelessness of ever putting down the millionth part of what he had seen and known about this earth, or of ever giving wholly and magnificently the full content of one moment in man’s life, it now seemed that his will had finally surrendered to a genius which he knew was so soaring, so far beyond the range of any other man, that it could overwhelm men with its power and magic even when its owner knew he had shirked the desperate labor of mining from his entrails the huge substance of all life he really had within him.”
Who would be brazen enough to accuse Shakespeare of taking the easy way out, but Thomas Wolfe? Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer of all time, but Wolfe thought Shakespeare could have mined a great deal more from “his entrails”.
At some point during my reading of River, I picked up a notepad and started doing some writing of my own. The discovery of Wolfe is a personal miracle for me, because although I had made a few attempts to write and polish some old stuff last summer, his discovery has prompted my own floodgates of creativity to swing open. Staying motivated in any area of life can be challenging at times, but I feel fortunate that various art forms interweave with each other to find their ideal audience. If some director and scriptwriter hadn’t paired up to create a movie about Wolfe, I may not have ever discovered him.
My connection to this fantastic force of literary history – this unbelievable talent – is strong enough that I almost feel that I was meant to discover his work, if only to keep me charging forward within the world of art. It certainly feels like fate; I feel “saved” artistically, so to speak, because of Thomas Wolfe.
His work is something to believe in when you’re standing at life’s crossroads, wondering how the hell you’re going to get through all this dreaded monotony, straining to find a better way of life.
“It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity. This is the reason that the artist lives and works and has his being: that from life’s clay and his own nature, and from his father’s common earth of toil and sweat and violence and error and bitter anguish, he may distill the beauty of an everlasting form, enslave and conquer man by his enchantment, cast his spell across the generations, beat death down upon his knees, and fix eternity with the grappling hooks of his own art.”
– Thomas Wolfe
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