Skip to main content

Thomas Wolfe and the Place He Came From

ISSUE:  Spring 1976

Thomas Wolfe and the South was the subject of the first essay on Southern literature I published, almost a quarter-century ago. In that essay I went about demonstrating, or attempting to demonstrate, that Wolfe was indubitably a Southern writer, as if that were of itself a kind of badge of literary honor, and to prove it I drew up a list of characteristics customarily ascribed to Southern writers and tried to show how each applied to Wolfe’s writing. These included such things as the fondness for rhetoric, the sense of place, the storytelling quality and the sense of the family that is supposed to go along with it, the consciousness of the past and of time, the sense of evil, and so forth. I came to dislike that essay very much, and the next time I had occasion to revise and augment the set of essays on contemporary Southern literature in which it appeared I scrapped it and got my friend and Chapel Hill colleague. C. Hugh Holman to write one instead. He did so, and more to my satisfaction. My early essay, however, remains available; every so often somebody discovers it, and I am always embarrassed to see it quoted. I have not wavered at all in my conviction that Wolfe is a Southern writer, but I don’t think that lining up a set of the official characteristics of Southern literature and then trying to show that Wolfe fits them and so is eligible for the prized blue ribbon—or should I say blue-and-gray ribbon—is very helpful either in understanding Wolfe or Southern literature. It is something like trying to prove that a great batter like Ted Williams was a good baseball player because he knew how to play line drives off the left field wall in Fenway Park.

Wolfe isn’t a Southern writer because he sometimes wrote like William Faulkner or Robert Penn Warren, but because most of the time he wrote like Thomas Wolfe. And if a writer as good as Wolfe was at his best doesn’t fit the official list of characteristics of Southern writing, then what should be suspect is not Wolfe but the list. What I tried to do, I am afraid, both in that earlier essay and in part in the book I published on Wolfe several years later, was to make Wolfe into an honorary member of the Nashville Agrarians, which strikes me now as a pretty gratuitous enterprise. Wolfe did what he had to do, and they did what they had to do, and what is nice is that we have both.

On the other hand, it is instructive to recall why it seemed a good idea to try to show, back in 1953, that Thomas Wolfe was beyond question a Southern writer. This was the time when the Southern Literary Renascence that began after the first world war was just beginning to be identified as an important phenomenon in American literary history—until then it had been thought of primarily as a fortuitous assortment of good books. The book for which my essay was written was the first full-fledged examination of the overall achievement of modern Southern literature. William Faulkner, after years of toiling in something resembling critical obscurity, was only just beginning to be recognized as perhaps the premier writer of fiction of our century, and the excitement of this discovery was widespread. On the other hand, the Southern poet-critics—Ransom, Tate, Warren, Brooks—were at the height of their authority, and what they said was so about literature meant a great deal (and still does to me).

We had recently been through a depression, a new deal, and a world war. Each of these phenomena had involved a great deal of ideological paraphernalia, and as is always the way, literature had been placed in their service. In the 1930’s it was the Marxist, proletarian novel. In the 1940’s it was the novel of involvement. We had gone through a long period of trying to make out that books such as The Grapes of Wrath, U. S. A. , For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Bell for Adano, Studs Lonigan, Strange Fruit, and so on were the principal achievements of modern American literature. We were a little tired of it; we wanted to learn how to read fiction and poetry again as fiction and poetry, for their formal literary excellence, and not as ideological documents. So the novelists such as Faulkner and Warren and Porter and other Southerners, and the poets such as Tate, Ransom, and Warren, who had never lost sight of that fact and had generally refused to take part as novelists and poets in the various popular causes, were now being discovered or rediscovered with delight. These were, as a scholar-friend of mine once wrote, the Southern years, and the traditional Southern literary virtues of formal excellence and moral relevance, having been revitalized and given great imaginative energy as the literary South had moved into the modern world, now seemed very attractive indeed. There was also the additional advantage that the literary marketplace in New York had run out of ideological gimmicks, now that literary proletarianism and literary patriotism had run their course, so it couldn’t put up much of a fight against literature as literature, however unsaleable and superficially unexciting mere literary excellence might be. So until the civil rights movement got going in the late 1950’s and New York had a good excuse for dealing with literature (some of it very good literature indeed) as ideology once again, the rich formal achievement of the best Southern literature was permitted to be read and admired, as generally it wasn’t before and hasn’t been since.

For these reasons and others, then, the period of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was a time when merely being a good Southern writer seemed to be a gesture in the direction of literary distinction, and there was widespread and deserved appreciation of the best Southern writing of our time.

The trouble was, however, that with any such consensus of taste, no matter how good, there always goes along a kind of orthodoxy, Virtues are soon codified; the approaches and techniques that are, for good writers, the creative means for the act of discovery that is literature are made into the ends themselves. Because some Southern authors (e. g. , Faulkner and Tate) went at the art of literature in certain creative ways, and because those ways had clearly worked and filled certain genuine artistic needs, it followed that that was the Southern way to do it, and any writer who didn’t do it that way was inferior and not a true Southern literary man. Thus, because Wolfe didn’t write fiction the way Faulkner wrote fiction, Wolfe was neither as important nor as “Southern” a novelist as Faulkner.

Now I happen to believe that Wolfe isn’t as important a writer as Faulkner, but the reason he isn’t is not that he didn’t write his books the way that Faulkner wrote his; it’s because Faulkner wrote a different kind of novel better than Wolfe wrote his kind. And conversely, if Wolfe is an important novelist, as I certainly believe he is, the reasons why he is might well have nothing to do with resembling Faulkner.

Perhaps that seems obvious—certainly it is trite enough to be obvious—but it isn’t the way literary movements and schools and groups tend to approach things. We tend to erect our characteristic methods, techniques, and attitudes into orthodoxies. We make the highly creative techniques of some writers into legalisms that impede our own imaginative response to other writers. One writer’s method is another’s impoverishment; one writer’s need is another’s inhibition.

Well and good. But what if one is so struck with the imaginative achievement of one group of writers and finds so much that is good and stimulating in the way they approach their craft and at the same time one is also powerfully drawn to another and different kind of writer, whom those writers and many critics generally don’t like (and also don’t always understand)? What does one do? I expect that one attempts to do what I think I tried to do with Thomas Wolfe: to take the insights and apparatus and attitudes that fit the one group and try to demonstrate—both to oneself and to others whom one likes and admires—that the writer in question has been misread and really isn’t so different and is a good writer becauseat bottom he is really doing the same things that the others are. Thus Thomas Wolfe is an important Southern writer not because of Thomas Wolfe’s own unique version of the human experience in Southern guise, but because he resembles other important Southern writers. Which is a pretty silly business.

Now the American South is a large and complex region, with some vastly different sub-regions within it, and the literature it has produced partakes of these divisions—Hugh Hoiman has identified these as the Tidewater, the Piedmont, and the Deep South. He has selected Ellen Glasgow as exemplar of the Tidewater sensibility in literature, Wolfe for the Piedmont, and Faulkner for the Deep South. But if you are not careful, you tend to think of the South exclusively in terms of one of these sub-regions, and to say that the writing characteristic of the particular sub-region is Southern literature and anything else isn’t Southern literature.

It is also true that the sense of community was so strong throughout the South, and still in many ways remains so, that to say one is a Southerner is not merely a description but an act of community identification. “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand. . . .” To be a Southerner has meant to belong to a club, as it were, or perhaps a fraternity, a cult, a society, with some social prestige attached to the membership, In William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom!, when Quentin Compson is told by a Canadian that he can’t understand why Southerners feel the way they do, Quentin tells him, “You . can’t understand it. You would have to be born there.” I have seen that remark excoriated by some critics as snobbish, undemocratic, pretentious—but none of the critics who object to it is a Southerner. Well, there is a certain amount of cliquishness attached to it; to an extent it is not just Quentin explaining, but his creator bragging a bit. Whether he had any right to feel privileged or whether anyone has such a right, because of being a Southerner, is another matter; the fact is that many have felt that way, and still do, and that among them have been William Faulkner and also Thomas Wolfe.

Yet in certain ways Wolfe didn’t appear to belong to the club. For part of this self-conscious identification as a Southerner had, perhaps even still has, a certain amount of social overtone, as well as literary and critical assumptions, and in a kind of complex but not clearly defined way there was a relationship between the two. Most of the important Southern writers of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s were of the gentry, or perhaps the upper middle class would be a better way of describing it; in any event, “of good family” as the expression went (which as I think Ellen Glasgow once pointed out was to say something very different from they were “of good people”—i. e. , of the rural working or lower middle class, the so-called “yeomanry”). The Southern writers weren’t aristocrats, mind you, and none grew up in stately Tidewater mansions. But the “Big House” and the Southern gentlemen were involved in the Southern ideal, and almost every one of the 20th century Southern writers has at one point in his or her work (often at frequent points) presented, with more than a little approval, characters who look down disdainfully upon the “trash” and the “riff-raff” without “family”—i. e. , without approved social connections.

But Thomas Wolfe made a point of his working-class lineage. He wrote an autobiographical novel about growing up in a boarding house. He was actively hostile to and critical of Southern aristocratic pretense, and he liked to boast that his background was working class, yeomanry. Now it would have been all right if he had simply accepted the fact; but to boast of it, and furthermore to suggest, as he sometimes did, that because of his origins he was honest and open and democratic and genuine, while those who weren’t from similar origins were snobbish and defensive and aristocratic and full of pretense, was another matter entirely.

This was not merely a matter of subject matter or of authorial biography. It also, and more importantly perhaps, involved ideas about literary technique and attitude. The literary virtues of the best Southern writing—formal elegance, a reverence for tradition, restraint, self-sufficiency—were, in an important way I believe, those customarily ascribed to the aristocracy. And the two tended to get all involved with each other, in a fashion that was not logical perhaps but nonetheless pervasive.

Let me offer two quotations from the critical writings of Allen Tate (the man whom, I might add, I happen to admire most among all 20th century authors). In the one, dated 1931, Tate was writing about poetry: “. . . a mind without moral philosophy is incapable of understanding poetry. For poetry, of all the arts, demands a serenity of view and a settled temper of the mind, and most of all the power to detach one’s own needs from the experience set forth in the poem. A moral sense so organized sets limits to human nature, and is content to observe them.” In the other, dated 1936, Tate was writing about the Old South: “Ante-bellum man, insofar as he achieved a unity between his moral nature and his livelihood, was a traditional man. He dominated the means of life; he was not dominated by it. I think that the distinguishing feature of a traditional society is simply that, In order to make a livelihood men do not have to put aside their moral natures.” The terms in the two passages are almost interchangeable; the same sense of restraint, of classical wholeness, of unified personality that characterizes the gentleman of the Old South is used to characterize the writing of poetry. Tate, to be sure, wasn’t confusing the two realms, but many people did.

Such terms clearly didn’t fit the work of Thomas Wolfe. His was no serenity of view, and his temper of mind was not settled but highly volatile and excitable. The idea of a harmonious unity of personality, dominating every facet of its experience, acting unconsciously and classically out of a completely traditional and accepted set of responses to experience, was the last way one might think to describe how Wolfe went about either living his life or writing his books. He was hugely and voraciously Romantic; he wanted to storm the gates of Heaven, and never mind the consequences. Restraint? Why, he poured the language on at all times, held back not at all. And as for detaching his own needs from the experience set forth in his books, it is obvious that no more literally autobiographical and nakedly personal a writer than Thomas Wolfe ever lived.

What I am suggesting is that those literary characteristics which were most valued by most of the Southern writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and which in many ways exemplify the best features of much of their art, were also seen as socially characteristic of an aristocratic ideal—and there was the implication, though nobody ever came right out and said it, that the creator of Eugene Gant, though born in a state of the former Confederacy, was from the wrong side of the tracks and wrote like it. Mind you, the best of the other Southern writers didn’t think of it that way at all, as far as I know; but a good many lesser authorities who wrote about Southern letters suggested as much.

I recall, for example, approaching an American literature scholar of some reputation, who liked very much to think of himself as a Southern gentleman, and asking him to direct a dissertation I wanted to write on Thomas Wolfe as a Southern writer. His response was that he didn’t think of Wolfe as being a Southern writer; he thought that in spirit Wolfe belonged among the Midwestern writers. So I had to look elsewhere (and finally found a Frenchman who was willing to help me). Ostensibly the man was making a literary distinction—i. e. , that Wolfe’s work could be best understood when viewed alongside such writers as Dreiser, Lewis, Anderson, Sandburg, and so forth, rather than alongside Faulkner and Warren and the other Southerners. But he was also expressing, conscious of it or not, a social judgment; he was telling me that as a writer Wolfe was not a gentleman.

For like many other readers, this scholar had formed his notion of what a Southern author should be from the local color and genteel literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and when the newer writers came along, once the shock of their being different was blunted, he had somehow managed to fit them into the same social milieu. The perspective from which the literature was ostensibly to be viewed and supposedly had been written was that of the gentleman. Since Thomas Wolfe wasn’t a Southern gentleman and had few of the virtues, either literary or social, customarily ascribed to Southern gentlemen, it was quite clear that Wolfe wasn’t a Southern writer!

Consider another illustration of the same kind of bias, this time from, of all persons, Herbert Marshall McLuhan. (Few people recall that back in the old days, before Marshall McLuhan discovered mediums and messages, he was a mere literary critic.) Here are several sentences from his essay on “The Southern Quality”:

The impersonal formal code which permits a formal expression of inward emotion makes it pointless for people to interpret one another constantly, as they do in most “realistic” novels. There is thus in the Southern novel a vacuum where we might expect introspection. (It is quite pronounced even in Huck Finn. ) The stress falls entirely on slight human gestures, external events which are obliquely slanted to flash light or shade on character.

The image—and McLuhan was quite aware of it—is of the gentleman, reserved, formal, punctilious, who is never so vulgar as to attempt to penetrate beyond the formal, arm’s-length social ambience. McLuhan then goes on to point out that Thomas Wolfe partook of this impulse, too, but in his case the result was to leave him “locked up in his own passionate solitude.” Wolfe, he continues, “has all the passion without any of the formal means of constraint and communication which make it tolerable. He was a Southerner by attitude but not by tradition.”

The implied social judgment is obvious. Wolfe was not a gentleman, so didn’t know the inherited rules of gentlemanly conduct, but since he was a Southerner by birth, he couldn’t help but have absorbed the proper attitude from his betters! Now what bosh and balderdash, as they say. The idea of the Southern novel not permitting characters to interpret each other leaves out such episodes as Thomas Sutpen talking to General Compson and Miss Rosa Coldfield talking to Quentin Compson and Quentin Compson talking to Shreve McCannon in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! It leaves out Lacy Buchan’s whole method of narration in Tate’s The Fathers.It leaves out Jack Burden on the subject of Willie Stark in All The King’s Men. It leaves out Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. It leaves out—but a better way to get at the appropriateness of that particular pronouncement might be to say what it includes. It includes, so far as I can tell, Stark Young and Thomas Nelson Page, and not a great deal else.

Why such a pronouncement from a critic with as much intelligence as Marshall McLuhan? It was simply that McLuhan confused the subject matter of some Southern fiction with its techniques—captivated with what Allen Tate, John Ransom, and others have written, often admiringly, about the Southern gentleman, he moved insensibly to assuming that Tate, for example, wrote as a Southern gentleman, which is precisely what Tate often went to demonstrate was quite impossible to do if one was a modern writer with anything important to say. That, Tate said, was why Poe had once been more or less driven out of Richmond, and why the good writers of his own generation had extreme difficulty in making a living while resident in the South. But such is the thematic pervasiveness of the gentlemanly ideal that it also hooked Marshall McLuhan into making numerous absurd statements, such as: “Even the characters of Erskine Caldwell are free at least from self-pity.” And that statement is made about Jeeter Lester!

But I digress. What I have been attempting to do is to show what some of the problems are in discussing the question of Thomas Wolfe and the South. We all have our Souths, to which in varying degree we are drawn. We also have the example of some very powerful and very persuasive authors and critics who had definite ideas of what the South was and should be, and who can have a very formative and even controlling influence upon our own ways of thinking about the South and its writers, and some of their ideas are very much intertwined with their social attitudes, Yet no matter how much we may admire and value such insights, we must finally judge for ourselves in matters that concern us.

Very well, what of Thomas Wolfe and the South? Is Wolfe a Southern writer, or merely a writer born in the South but not of it, so far as his imagination and way of writing go?

I want now to quote a fairly well-known passage from Look Homeward, Angel, describing Eugene Gant in his eleventh or twelfth year:

His feeling for the South was not so much historic as it was of the core and desire of dark romanticism—that unlimited and inexplicable drunkenness, the magnetism of some men’s blood that takes them into the heart of the heat, and beyond that, into the polar and emerald cold of the South as swiftly as it took the heart of the incomparable romanticist who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, beyond which there is nothing. Ana this desire of his was unquestionably enhanced by all he had read and visioned, by the romantic halo that his school history cast over the section, by the whole fantastic distortion of that period where people were said to live in “mansions,” and slavery was a benevolent institution, conducted to a constant banjo-strumming, the strewn largesses of the colonel and the shuffle-dance of his happy dependents, where all women were pure, gentle, and beautiful, all men chivalrous and brave, and the Rebel horde a company of swaggering, death-mocking cavaliers. Years later, when he could no longer think of the barren spiritual wilderness, the hostile and murderous intrenchment against all new life;— when their cheap mythology, their legend of the charm of their manner, the aristocratic culture of their lives, the quaint sweetness of their drawl, made him writhe—when he could think of no return to their life and its swarming superstition without weariness and horror, so great was his fear of their antagonism, that he still pretended the most fanatic devotion to them, excusing his Northern residence on grounds of necessity rather than desire.

Finally, it occurred to him that these people had given him nothing, that neither their love nor their hatred could injure him, that he owed them nothing, and he determined that he would say so, and repay their insolence with a curse. And he did.

This passage has been cited to illustrate Wolfe’s lack of relationship to the South. It is certainly a passage of repudiation. It rejects Southern history, Southern aristocratic pretense, Southern manners, Southern speech, Southern womanhood, Southern clannishness, Southern notions of chivalry, Southern culture; it describes Southern life as a “barren spiritual wilderness,” and it asserts that Eugene Gant eventually learned to recognize his superiority to what he had been taught to revere as Southern, so that he had vowed to “repay their insolence with a curse,” which, of course, was not only the passage itself but Look Homeward, Angel as a whole. The passage thus makes the direct autobiographical association between Thomas Wolfe’s protagonist and the author himself, and is clearly intended to so do.

Now there is a passage somewhat reminiscent of that in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! After Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon have unravelled the long story of Thomas Sutpen and his descendents, Shreve asks Quentin why he hates the South, and Quentin replies “at once, immediately” that he doesn’t hate it, repeating the statement a half-dozen times or so, Beyond doubt we are meant to see that Quentin does hate the South, and also loves it, and that love-hate relationship is the South for him—is Quentin.

But in Eugene Gant’s instance there is no equivocation. He does hate it, all of it, and he wants to make it perfectly clear. He hates it because of what it did to him, and because of the hold it had for so long kept on him, and now he has told it off for good, repaid its “insolence with a curse.”

Well, is that what he did? Not if Look Homeward, Angel is any indication. Along with considerable satire and savaging, there is also tremendous affection and admiration, passages of great delight with the people and places he knew in Asheville and elsewhere, passionate affirmations of its beauty, episode after episode infused with the creative joy of recollected memory, recreated experience. If one were to take all of the passages in the Wolfe fiction which attack the South and put them against all the passages which portray it, and his relation to it, in generally admiring fashion, I think they would just about balance out. In other words, there is every bit as much a love-hate relationship involved with Eugene Gant and Thomas Wolfe as with Quentin Compson and William Faulkner.

Wolfe in the passage quoted castigates the distortion of the Southern plantation myth, the phony glamour of the legend of the Confederacy. He also wrote the story entitled “Chickamauga,” however, and those descriptions of Lee’s army en route to Gettysburg; and more importantly, he took his own particular family’s history, the Westalls and Pattons who settled in the mountains of North Carolina, and the history of his father’s people as well, and he did what almost every Southern author of his generation did: portrayed his protagonists as the inheritors of a specific and tangible history, deeply marked and shaped by the past, and very much the creature of the forces that placed them where they were and at the time in which they found themselves living.

Not only does the author of that passage concern himself with history and take it seriously enough to want to rectify it, but there is an important sense in which that passage isSouthern history. For what it exemplifies is the process of dislodgment, of the breaking up of the old closely-knit Southern pre-modern community before the forces of change. Wolfe describes Eugene Gant as having been born into and still very much molded by the older community, with its own history and mythology and its clearly-defined social stratifications. He points out that even after he left it, he was for a long while so influenced by its pieties and its imaginative hold upon him that he pretended to a continuing allegiance. Then he says that finally he realized he was free, no longer bound and obligated, and his response was “to repay their insolence with a curse.” Obviously he isn’t nearly as free as he imagines, for if he were, there would be no need for so impassioned a denunciation. Wolfe is really in the position, as that paragraph amply demonstrates, of the two Quentin Compsons in Absalom, Absalom!—the Quentin who would live in the 20th century and the Quentin who because he was of his time and place was still bound to the old ghost times, as Faulkner puts it. And just as Miss Rosa Coldfield suggested that Quentin might someday want to do, Wolfe has written a book about it. Surely this is precisely the cultural situation of the 20th century Southern writer as elucidated by Allen Tate and many others: “With the war of 1914—1918, the South reentered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border; that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present.”

But there is something more basically Southern involved in the passage, even. To see it fully, we must put the episode in context. It occurs as Wolfe is describing Eliza Gant’s yearly winter journeys into the South, to such places as Florida and Arkansas, for reasons of health and business. Wolfe tells how Eliza went South because of her innate suspicion of Northerners—a feeling, he says, involving “fear, distrust, alienation”—and how Eugene was always taken along, “into the South, the South that burned like Dark Helen in Eugene’s blood. . .” He then proceeds to inform us of the “core and desire of dark romanticism—that unlimited and inexplicable drunkenness, the magnetism of some men’s blood . . .” that characterizes his feeling for the South.

Does this feeling evaporate when he grows older and learns to regard its mythology and its society as cheap, tawdry, oppressive? I would say that it does not, and not merely because of the evidence of so much of his work, but also because of the quality of the passage of explanation and repudiation itself. For clearly Wolfe is not describing merely a geographical section, or a set of objective environmental factors. When he depicts the South as “burning” like “Dark Helen” in his protagonist’s blood he is talking about a state of consciousness, a passionate emotional response, an entity of the spirit not to be discussed merely as quantity or as economic or sociological data. He portrays it in feminine terms, and though the South may not be “the proud Lady with the heart of fire” described in John Ransom’s poem, she is a prideful woman even so; and if he has ultimately fallen out of love with her as he says, she still makes his blood run hot and he feels it necessary to tell her off in quite passionate terms. “And he did.” To me, that dimension alone is enough to counter any arguments about the alleged absence of a “Southern” relationship in Wolfe’s work.

I recall something that Robert Penn Warren wrote in connection with Faulkner, “It is clear that Faulkner, though he gives a scrupulously faithful report of the real world, is ‘mythic’ . . .he is dramatizing clashes of value in a root way.” Wolfe’s South—more importantly, Wolfe’s relationship to it—may involve a great deal of realistic description, but the affair goes beyond reportage or realistic experience, because it is powerfully caught up in feeling and emotion and in values of truth and goodness. When Auden wrote of Yeats that “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry” he was saying something that could as readily be declared of Wolfe and, for that matter, of all his Southern contemporaries. And like that of his contemporaries, Wolfe’s response was not only to a set of specific acts and topical problems; it was to a moral entity, one that had to be dealt with accordingly. Not only was there no room for neutrality, but the involvement involved the constant and often agonizing need to define his own moral identity in terms of the relationship to the time and place. Wolfe saw places as suffused with moral qualities, and he saw his South, above all other regions, in terms of place. “And suddenly Eugene was back in space and color and in Time,” he writes in describing his own return to North Carolina, “the weather of his youth was round him, he was home again.” This is not only a description of his feelings about reality; it is an accurate judgment of his fiction, which most often is surest, most firm, most vivid and least empty and forced, when it is grounded in “the South that burned like Dark Helen” in Eugene Gant’s blood. It is exemplary of what Eudora Welty has written, that “it seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly, and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood. It is through place that we put out roots, wherever birth, chance, fate, or our traveling selves set us down. . .” And that place, for Wolfe, was his South—North Carolina, not merely as locale but as passionate realm of moral decision.

It is such imaginative dimensions as these and not the little descriptive motifs that I once used to “prove” a point that, presented in that way, was not worth proving, that constitute Wolfe’s Southern sensibility. Of course he has the addiction to rhetoric, and he uses time thematically, and he has the famous regional storytelling sense, and he is concerned with evil, and he has much to say about death, and he has the passion for detail and not much skill at abstraction. But these are only the trappings of his art, and do not of themselves help account for its distinctiveness; they would apply equally well to the fiction of, say, Edna Ferber or the late Harry Stillwell Edwards. It is the passionate moral involvement in a time and place that lies beneath these, and gives them character and form, that constitutes Thomas Wolfe’s relationship with the South.

We confront the fact, however, that there does exist an important element in Wolfe’s fiction which is notably different from almost every other Southern author of Wolfe’s day. The passage about Eugene Gant and the South certainly exemplifies it. In that passage, Wolfe is not simply telling about a character named Eugene Gant and how his feelings toward the South changed; he is Eugene Gant, or more properly Eugene is Thomas Wolfe, and he wants the reader to know it. In that passage he comes very close to telling us that Eugene wrote the book we are reading, and what was at least part of his motivation for so doing. This is “autobiographical fiction”—which is a way of saying that not only does the material come pretty closely and directly out of the author’s experience, but that we are compelled to read it that way, and, if it is done well, cannot otherwise properly appreciate the story.

This is a kind of storytelling, one we do not often find in Southern fiction. Faulkner, for example, uses a great deal of his own personal experience in his fiction, but nobody reads, say, “The Bear” with the feeling that the author is asking us to watch him in the woods as a boy. It isn’t told that way. Faulkner the writer usually keeps out of his fiction, in the sense of requiring us to keep in mind at all times a personal relationship between what is being described and the biographical author writing the description,

Wolfe, by contrast, wants us to do just that, and he tells his story so that we will do so. There is thus little or no “objectivity,” and the deliberate and intense assertion of the writer’s personality, with a view toward making us think and feel emotion about him and what he has done and thought, is very uncharacteristic of other Southern authors. It is this, I think, that more than any other aspect of Wolfe’s art accounts for the dislike that many good Southern critics have felt toward him. Robert Penn Warren (who later became quite friendly with Wolfe) declared of Of Time and the River that it “illustrates once more the limitations, perhaps the necessary limitations, of an attempt to exploit directly and naively the personal experience and the self-defined personality in art.” And he ended by pointing out that Shakespeare “merely wrote Hamlet; he was not Hamlet.”

I rather doubt that the Warren who wrote the poetry he has been writing for the past two decades would have put the matter quite in that fashion if he were reviewing Wolfe’s novel today. But the point is well taken, and I think it is an objective way of recording a reaction that was—perhaps not for Warren so much as for some of his contemporaries—not merely literary but personal. They didn’t like Wolfe’s personality; they were less than charmed by his continual assertions of uniqueness and sensibility and thought him more than a little boorish and egotistical. The professional writer, they felt (and with considerable justification), didn’t place himself on exhibition as a person, but let his art speak for him. Furthermore, that person on exhibition was hugely and passionately Romantic and fascinated by the intensity of his own emotional responses. As Warren wrote, “The hero [of Of Time and the River] is really that nameless fury that drives Eugene. The book is an effort to name that fury, and perhaps by naming it, to tame it. But the fury goes unnamed and untamed.” Warren and his contemporaries had no objection to the presence of fury in fiction. But they felt emphatically that the fury should take the form of fiction, not the author’s feelings about himself and his personal experience.

I once attempted to account for the presence of this subjective, autobiographical assertion of personality in the Wolfe novels by noting the difference between Wolfe’s background and early life and that of almost all his Southern contemporaries. He came from a family that, as he portrays them, had little sympathy with intellectual interests and a tradition of literary sensibilities. The result was that he was led to turn his deepest feelings inward, to erect a barrier between the outside world and himself and to develop a stern defensiveness about his literary and intellectual interests. With no public outlet for his feelings, the result was pent-up emotions and a fierce self-preoccupation that ultimately erupted in an intense fictional assertion of his own uniqueness and of the justification for it. If I may quote myself, “when the qualities of mind that made Thomas Wolfe into a novelist instead of a stone mason or a real-estate salesman did come fully into light, there was not surprisingly an explosive force to their emergence, a furious emotional subjectivity that could be disciplined only with great difficulty and always imperfectly.”

I still believe there is considerable logic to that, so far as it goes, but upon reflection it seems too simple and too literal. The nature of artistic creativity, and the forms that it takes, are too complex and intricate to be ascribed to any such easy social formulation. I suspect that if there is an explanation of why Wolfe’s artistic sensibilities sought the kind of expression they did, it would involve as much depth psychology as social studies, but the few attempts that have been made along that line have seemed less than impressive to me. Genius, Bernard DeVoto declared of Thomas Wolfe, is not enough, which may be true, but without it there would be no such interest as now exists in the novels and the man who wrote them, and because the genius was present, there are limits to logical explanation.

So perhaps it is best simply to accept, with considerable gratitude, that the man wrote as he did, and to note that there is little warrant for contending that the particular form that Wolfe’s art took, with its passionate and direct assertion of personality, is somehow alien to his Southern background. For while it is quite true that his Southern literary contemporaries do not exhibit it, but on the contrary share with each other a marked formal objectivity, it is equally true that in other fields of activity there has been plenty of personal assertion on the Southern scene. No one has ever suggested, for example, that Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell were backward in writing quite personally and openly about themselves in their non-fictional writing, yet there is hardly much in the way of working-class experience in the background of those two Virginia patricians. Or consider more recent works such as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or Willie Morris’s North Towards Home, or such 19th century productions as Mrs. Chesnut’s Diary, first edited for publication by that lady herself, or the spate of memoirs of the Civil War period, some of them quite choleric, that were published during the late years of the last century and the early years of this. My point is not that they are comparable to Wolfe’s writings, and still less that they are all equally works of art, but only that they are evidence that it has been by no means without precedent for a Southerner to write directly and assertively about his own experience. Where Wolfe differs is that he did it in the form of autobiographical fiction—an important difference, but hardly a justification for considering him and his work as somehow not an outgrowth of Southern experience.

I think it is wise, in considering the problem of Thomas Wolfe and the South, to adopt Hugh Holman’s insight: that Wolfe’s subject is “the American self,” that “this pattern of development is grounded in the South, but it is grounded in a South which is steadily expanding outward . . .” that Wolfe’s “fiction was determined by the Piedmont middle-class world which he knew,” and that “when he moved from it, he moved outward to embrace the nation and to attempt to realize the promise of America.” This is an old Southern custom, you know: it began at least as early as Thomas Jefferson, and among its distinguished literary practitioners have been Mark Twain and the author of Look Homeward, Angel. So all in all, we would probably do well to take Thomas Wolfe as he comes; and the place he came from is Asheville, North Carolina.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading