I have a thing to tell you:
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night; and told me I shall die, I know not where. Losing the earth we know for greater knowing, losing the life we have for greater life, and leaving friends we loved for greater loving, men find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.
Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the spirits of the nations draw, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.
- Thomas Wolfe
It was at the end of a dreary winter’s day some twelve years ago. I had not long been teaching at New York University on Washington Square, though long enough already to have lost some early unreasonable enthusiasm.
One of the instructors, a poet of sorts, seriously asked, “How do you teach appreciation?” And a huge, black-haired man at a desk nearby squirmed and looked incredulous. He had just returned from Europe, they told me, to teach in the spring term, though he’d been here before.
Then the minister’s son from the open spaces, one of the most self-assured and emancipated of our staff, started to bellow at us for the hundredth time that Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” was the best novel in English, nearest to the essential bitter truth, and so forth. I rose for rescue toward the water-cooler, just as the huge man with the wild black hair tilted his head to bellow back, “And since then, by God, nothing whatsoever has been written!” He jumped up, and with what seemed like but three giant strides, stood over me at the water-cooler, looking fierce, his whole face compressed, swaying with hands on his hips. “Look,” he said, pointing his finger into my eye, “I don’t know you but you’re new here, aren’t you? I’m Thomas Wolfe and it’s time to eat something, isn’t it? Let’s get out of here. I know a good place.” And his face relaxed as we turned to go. “Tired?” he asked, smiling suddenly.
By three of the next morning he had stopped talking, and after that we often escaped together, having found the way. Sometimes others joined us, and always Tom talked, endlessly, joyously, bitterly, humorously, lyrically, with never any compromise with what he saw as the truth, never at a loss for words or subject, and never, of course, with the slightest regard for the lesser vitality and strength of his auditors, whom he would always leave in a state of happy and dazed collapse.
But there were times when he became quiet and confidential. Then he would tell of his hopes and longings, of little amenities and pleasures, of his tastes and friends and affections. Then he would no longer be tortured by the demon of the writer in him, and he would be kind, compassionate, and just. It was this side of him that is unknown, that appears rarely in his books, and that was as much a part of him as the ruthless and driven artist in him, who never knew peace or rest.
Those were the days when he was quite poor, or at least felt himself to be, when I used often to go to see him, sometimes alone, and sometimes with Natalie, my wife, at his “hole,” as he called it, on West Eleventh Street, where he had a perfectly tremendous and very attractive three-room apartment, a part of which Aline Bernstein occasionally used as a workshop for her stage-designing. The place was in incredible disorder, as Tom’s homes usually were, with a minimum of furniture, and with manuscripts and books and hundreds of “Freshman themes” thrown everywhere.
There he would entertain his visitors, often in a bathrobe, or in blue shirtsleeves, with talk, apologies, and tea—always tea, on a big cluttered table, served in enough unmatched cups to go almost around, with lump sugar from the original package, or from the table. And he’d pace about, distressed at having been interrupted in his work, and yet very happy.
At first he was principally concerned with his teaching and with what he conceived to be the false values of many of his colleagues. Their preciosity, their limited experience, their knowing small-talk, spoken in a kind of code, and their concern with tea-cup tempests—these things, and most particularly their prejudices and bad literary judgments, he found hateful in them. “Look,” he would say, pointing to a shelf of books above his working table, “there in one small row is much of the best that has ever been written, and half of those they’ve never really read.” And there were Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” Heine, Shakespeare, Donne, Goethe, Homer, Plato, Euripides, Walt Whitman, Joyce’s “Ulysses” (freely marked-up), the Bible, Swift, Boswell’s “Johnson,” Voltaire’s “Candide,” Milton, Coleridge (including the essays), Herrick, De Quincey, Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” DeFoe’s “Moll Flanders,” Bennett’s “Old Wives’ Tale,” Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” and a few others which I have forgotten.
The actual classroom work he enjoyed hugely, but he was none the less always talking of the day when he would be freed from the economic necessity of teaching. Most of his students discouraged him profoundly, though I never heard him say an unkind word about any one of them. I believe that they thoroughly disgusted him, but he was always patient with them, gave them of his very “heart and guts,” and was conscientious in his study of their efforts at composition, to a degree which was surely appreciated by very few. Chiefly he was sorry for them, especially for the “tortured intellectuals,” which, he said, “so many Jewish students are.”
Tom was then in such difficult financial circumstances that he could not afford to do more than dream of complete freedom from his duties at the college. (He always thought of himself as being poor, for that matter, and as coming of poor parents, though his father is said to have left a very substantial fortune, which was subsequently all lost.) He had only just graduated from a room on Eighth Street, which he described as being a mere attic in a deserted house, from the ground floor of which he had nightly to chase the derelicts, of whom there were often a dozen, for fear of their leaving cigarettes that would burn him to death. Then he would barricade the house, and get to work again on themes, and on “Look Homeward, Angel,” a large part of which he wrote on those nights, with a can of beans, coffee, cigarettes, and long shadows for company.
He worked like a man literally possessed, impatient with i every petty interruption, so forgetful of time and friends that he would rarely remember an engagement for more than an hour or two, and would resent anyone’s efforts to “tie him down” to a social obligation, much though he wanted companionship. I remember his phoning me at eleven o’clock one evening, to ask if I could have some dinner with him, embarrassed and confused to discover the hour.
Work, and more work, that was his only god, and his only faith was in his work, and in himself. That was why he was so bitter against not only every critic who doubted his power, but even against people who ignored his efforts, or who held views which, if sound, would by necessary inference impugn his own convictions. His attacks were often based upon a chance remark of the victim, or upon an attitude or a look, so that his conversation and writing were packed with a most unjust destruction of character, when it was only some characteristic or mannerism that had unpredictably annoyed him. Whenever he detected affectation, dullness, sterility, duplicity, or formalism, his annihilating rhetoric slaughtered wholesale, in the names of integrity and justice.
The aesthetes who needed what they called inspiration before they could work, and who would of course never work, he despised as much as he did those who would have literature serve an irrelevant cause, such as Communism or Fascism. The “business boosters,” invariably caught in their self-made periodic crashes; lawyers, with their frustrating technicalities and machinations and delays; the gossip columnists and their readers; “the cafe-society swine, with a sense of values so distorted that, like the giraffe, you couldn’t believe it if you hadn’t seen it”; dentists and doctors; actors, for their sole interest in boring you with being either somebody else or nobody at all; “the whole damned theater crowd”; most modern painters, “painting theories because they are tool in-competent to paint man or nature”; self-styled music lovers; pedagogues, opera singers, and “men who wear pearl-gray hats”; psychoanalysts and their pathetic patients, “suffering from nothing but too much money and too little to do, without the sense to know that it is all in Plato, in understandable language not especially manufactured for the trade”; those mystics “to whom their own otherwiseness is sufficient evidence of the existence of a God, maybe even with a beard”; women, for “their inherent incapability of detached and impersonal thought,” and for “their feeling a right to possess you forever when you’ve done them a favor, especially a sexual favor”; telephone chatterers, other than himself; the women’s-club favorites; most Southerners, as distinguished from the South; all the sophisticates among the writers, except Aldous Huxley; book reviewers, on principle; creative critics, who, “having no talent themselves, annihilate beautifully those who do”; and those people of Asheville who were bitterly disappointed that they could not threaten to horsewhip him for their not being in “Of Time and the River”;—all these he castigated with a wonderful nobility of passionate invective.
Still, despite his talent in the character of a vengeful god, Tom’s lighter satire always seemed to me more truly like him. There was the picture postcard from Atlantic City, for instance, exhibiting the broad rear-ends of four monstrous bathing beauties, on which he had written, “Here for the weak-end.” He used to compare Atlantic City with Washington, D. C., to the disadvantage of the latter, as “last resorts for the amusement of ciphers.” One Fourth of July he wrote, from New York, “The free Americans have been shooting off firecrackers all day; it’s about all they can do.” From England: “I am looking forward to a real old fashioned London Christmas—that is to say fog, rain, and a sodden wet woolly stuff they call air.” Little academic notes: “Did you know they are dividing N. Y. U. up into colleges according to the Oxford plan? I’ve been appointed Master of Hoggenheimer Hall.—The year at N. Y. U. is over and gone (with my prayers) to oblivion. When I saw the boys last many had turned slightly green, yellow, and purple from stored-up poison and malice.” A suggestion to the traveler: “Why don’t you go to Italy and follow the spring north? It would be so pleasant getting cheated in Sorrento in April.” And another: “I am glad to be out of France—the people are cats: I don’t mean anything against them, they are cats. . . .”
At times like these, I think, he was his lovable self. But when a black mood was on him, induced always by some trouble or irritation that kept him from his work, and on occasion exaggerated by too much alcohol, he would descend upon even his best friends with an unforgivable ferocity absolutely unwarranted by anything they had said or done. And these tirades would be the more embarrassing because they were invariably followed by stuttering and painful contrition, and by great lengths of effort to make amends.
He did have a genuine interest in his friends, and in all they thought or did. I remember with what fascination he entered into plans for an extended European trip which my wife and I were outlining late in 1928, how he would pore over maps with us late into the night with as much enthusiasm as if this were going to be his own trip, telling of places and pictures and sights that we especially should not miss: Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Rome, Florence, Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg, Montreux, Bath, York, the English Lakes, the Trossachs, Fountains Abbey; the paintings of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Durer, Grunewald, Hals, and particularly Breughel. In February, 1929, he even wrote a spontaneous little note from the Harvard Club, on what must have been one of his few leisure evenings: “I’m working on a huge book for Henry and Nat—a Glutton’s Guide, a Sensualist’s Handbook of seven countries with all about where to eat, drink, sleep—and how to avoid Rhodes Scholars, bedbugs, Ph.D.s—and other itinerant vermin. You can call the book ‘Profiting,’ by Tom’s Mistakes.”
A month later Tom came to see us sail at midnight on the Vulcania. It was a happy time for him, for Scribner’s had accepted “Look Homeward, Angel,” after several other publishers had turned it down. His good will, toward us and toward the world, was boundless, and he had a great affection for the ship too, for when he had last been abroad he had come home on her, on her maiden voyage. We toasted one another and explored the boat from bow to stern. Tom showed me what had been his quarters, “with three miserable wops, only slightly deloused, and always seasick.” And he introduced me to his steward, to the bartender, and to a host of sailors, who seemed to remember him, and acknowledged his effusive greetings with the puzzled and frightened look of people about to be engulfed. We visited our little inside cabin, which, I thought, disappointed Tom in being not quite regal. He had somehow vaguely believed that we would be traveling in one of those private-veranda apartments reserved for “the fabulous women of the fabulously rich.” It was on these apartments and their women that he glued devouring eyes. (I always thought he looked at women as if they were juicy steaks.) As we slowly drew from the pier, we could see his huge and lonely figure towering above the others, his arm waving awkwardly until the night swallowed him.
We heard from Tom, not frequently but usually at length, for writing letters bothered him so much that when he once managed to get around to the task he filled page after page in a kind of frenzy to make quick and worthy amends for weeks of silence. From New York, July 4:
Your letters and postals have given me the greatest pleasure. I cried out for joy at your rapturous letter from Vienna: I had a great personal pride in it, as if I had discovered the place. . . . Long, long ago I wrote you . . . wrote page after page, but never finished it. . . .
My other letter was filled with news—which I’ve forgotten. I feel splendid, and am fresh and fat. My proofs are coming in, my story appears in the magazine next month (get it in England if you can—Scribner’s for August), book’s out in the fall, and Scribner thinks it a grand thing and that it will go. I hope it makes a splash—not a flop!— but that it splashes me with a few dollars. Also, writing some short stories that they have asked me to write. . . . Loaded to the decks with my new book.—Thank God I’m thirty pounds overweight, it’s going to kill me writing it.
Again from New York, August 9:
Please forgive me for not having written you more and oftener. I’ve been in Maine and Canada for several weeks. . . . Maine was lovely and cool.—I was at a wild little place on the coast. I fished, corrected proofs, and read John Donne and Proust all day long. . . . I am going to buy an island there surrounded by woods and the Atlantic Ocean.—I have already saved $1.25, and need only $2,998.75 more.
I envy you everything on your trip except the hordes of tourists who are, you say, beginning to swarm around you. I note you are going to Paris. . . . Whenever I think! of the French . . . I control myself and mutter “Vol-taire! Voltaire!” —And, after all, that is how a civilization should be judged—by its best, not by its worst, but its worst is pretty damned terrible, and unfortunately it requires superhuman fortitude and vision to see through to Ronsard when one is struggling to escape the snares of ten thousand petty rascals. Nevertheless, I have thought of France recently more than of any other country. — It is physically the most comfortable and civilized of nations, and its highest and best spiritually is magnificent. The greatest evil in the national temper, I think, is “glory”—what they call “la gloire.”—It accounts for the flag waving, “France has been betrayed,” speech making, singing the Marseillaise, going to war, et cetera.—It represents what is cheap and melodramatic in them. I could go on like this indefinitely, but you can hear the other side from any of the fourteen thousand American epic poets, novelists, dramatists, com-posers, and painters now in Paris. They all “understand” France, and will point out my treason. . . .
My story came out in the August Scribner’s—also a picture of the author in the back and a brief write-up of his romantic life—how he has a “trunkful of MSS.,” “forgets all about time when working,” and “goes out at three A. M. for his first meal of the day.” I was more madly in love with myself than ever when I read it.
I had expected convulsions of the earth, falling meteors, suspension of traffic, and a general strike when the story appeared—but nothing happened. . . . Nevertheless I am still excited about it. Proofs of the book will be finished in a day or two. The Book-of-the-Month Club heard of the book. . . . There’s not much hope of its being their selection. They have pure and high-minded j udges like William Allen White and Christopher Morley—and they may find some of the stuff too strong. Besides I am an unknown writer and they have hundreds of MSS.—but if I but if I but if! Then, of course, I should immediately accept the Abe Shalemovitch Chair in Anglo-Saxon Philology at N. Y. U. . . .
Scribner’s have been magnificent, their best people have worked like dogs on the thing—they believe in me and the book. To have found a firm and association with men like this is a miracle of good luck. . . . I tremble, now that the thing’s done.—I loathe the idea of giving pain, it never occurred to me as I wrote, it is a complete piece of fiction but made, as all fiction must be, from the stuff of human experience. Perhaps I may have to wear false whiskers and smoked glasses. Again perhaps no one will notice it. This too is a complicated thing about which I shall talk to you.
I am aching with a new one—it’s got to come out of me, I loathe the idea of not writing it, and I loathe the idea of writing it—I am lazy, and doing a book is agony—sixty cigarettes a day, twenty cups of coffee, miles of walking and flying about, nightmares, nerves, madness — there are better ways, but this, God help me, is mine.
Forgive me—I have talked only about myself. . . .
In September we returned home and we soon saw him again. He talked about our trip, about himself, and about the book which was to be off the press in a few days. There were many dinners and visits, and he seemed, on the whole, quite happy.
I remember his infectious and childlike excitement on the day when Scribner’s window first displayed “Look Homeward, Angel,” when he told of pacing back and forth in front of the piles of gay covers, admiring the colors, the arrangement, and the prominence accorded “this baby of mine.” He frightened other passers-by, and attracted the attention of the cop on the beat by his “strange weavings and ogling.” He stopped in at book stores to ask whether people were buying it, and he avidly read all the reviews he could lay his hands upon, cursing every one that did not shower it with unqualified praise. He told of riding on a bus next to a girl who held a copy of the book, which was the first time he believed that people were really reading it, and of his not quite daring to speak to her, though he never so much in his life wanted to speak to anyone. And finally he began to see, despite initial misgivings, despite neglect in some quarters, and despite some stupid vilifications, that his first child had not been stillborn, and that his faith in himself and in his work had substance in the eyes of the world.
I saw Tom often that fall, usually in his tremendous one-room “hole” on Fifteenth Street, just west of Fifth Avenue, with its long row of casement windows facing north on comparatively quiet backyards. His book was “selling”; it brought him some money and a bank account, and the chance to lay his too long deferred plans to relieve himself of the burdens of teaching. Those critics and writers whose opinions he valued were showering encomiums upon him with a liberality that should have gladdened the heart and soul of any man. But, paradoxically enough, it seemed to be this very success which distressed him most, which drove him to work ever harder upon his next book, while misgivings about its reception were already crowding themselves into his spirit. The suggestions by some of the reviewers that in “Look Homeward, Angel,” so patently autobiographical, he had possibly written himself out, maddened him with a determination to prove to others the faith he had in himself that as long as he might live he could never write himself out. He would “show them too that he could compress, maybe like Dostoevsky,” that he could write short stories to conform to “any damned acceptable pattern they wanted.” He said he would write a Gargantuan fable for them, without a recognizable person in it, with New York as setting, portraying the struggles of an artist against the attempts of literary people to cheapen and kill him: a modern “Gulliver’s Travels” that would make Swift seem all sweetness and light. And he would even scores too with those noble Southerners of the old school who were driving him insane with their scores of threatening letters, and this he would do by becoming so famous that these same people would be “building monuments to me, comparing me with O. Henry (hah!), naming their children after me, and nigger children too (hah!), and stuffing me with food, just so they can get a good look at me, and tell me of my great contribution to the great literature of the South (hah!). But I do wish,” he would say with a sudden sadness, “that they would try to understand, and that they would let me alone.”
One day he phoned me to come over to help him resist “a boy from back home” who was about to stop in to sell him some life insurance. There was a comical desperation in his plea, for the simple fact was that he could not have paid premiums, and yet he could not deny people on merely logical grounds. And another time he spoke of “the strange songs and melodies in my head, which I intend some day to set down”; strange they must have been, for he seldom spoke of or listened to music, or even hummed or whistled. He often talked about women, of those who came to see him and to stay with him, of the many he had slept with and the none he had known, of the two worlds in which men and women live, speaking different languages, never to understand each other,
But he was far from being a Don Juan. I have always felt that his wild habits were nothing more than one expression of an insatiable and overwhelming vitality. At heart he was pathetically and naively domestic. He wanted, or thought he wanted, a wife, a home, and children. “It is only through his work and children that man can achieve immortality, and even the work, no matter how good, will die, in time. You see what I mean, don’t you?” He wrote me once, “I have begun fondly to meditate a loving wife, my own—this time I—and a few little ones, but where to start searching for these simple joys is beyond me.” He profoundly envied the supposedly quiet and simple lives of the happily married. “I notice,” he said in a letter, “that people who have never been alone for five minutes in their lives cheerfully banish you to solitude, assure you there’s no life like it, how they envy you, and it is all for the best, after all, et cetera. But I’ve had thirty years of it!”
The tension and speed of his life continued unabated. He went everywhere where life was: along Fourteenth Street “one of the most horrible and hopeless streets in the world, where the faces have lost every last trace of human dignity and striving”; and into the wild wastes of “endless Brooklyn, a city so desolate as to be unbelievable”; into, through, and out of every subway in New York; to neighboring towns and cities; into Pennsylvania, where some of his ancestors had lived, unaccountably fearful of finding a Jewish name; among them, and relieved at finding none; to baseball games when Babe Ruth was playing, to enjoy his “tremendous rythmic swats”; to park benches to “stare at my navel, and feel vaguely uneasy, like all Americans, that I was not doing something”; to “lit’ry teas” when he could not help himself, to confound anemic dilettantes, and probably also to scare them nearly to death, by shouting parts of the “Iliad” at them, in Greek, to prove that he knew what he was talking about and that they didn’t; through the chasms of Wall Street during the stock market crash of 1929, expecting the bodies of suicides to fall upon him; to restaurants and speakeasies without number; and then back to his “hole” again, to reflect upon and to tell and to write about it all, and to lament the sad fact that “the artist can never freely enjoy any experience, for he is forever studying life in terms of translating it into something finer. And yet,” he would say, “the artist must have first-hand experience. That is one thing I never could quite understand about Irving Babbitt, though he was in many ways a great man. I would rather listen to Coleridge, who comes to me sometimes in dreams, shadowy in a darkened room, sitting at a piano, looking at me—and like me.”
The spring of 1930 brought the end of Tom’s last year of teaching, and he escaped to Europe from troubles at home, for what he hoped, as he always hoped, would be a rest and vacation, but which turned out to be a time of hectic adventures and heartache more terrible than any he had known before.
I first heard from him in July, from Montreux:
There is nothing to do here. I read a great deal, an English feller named Shakespeare, the poems of Heine and Gooty, Donne . . . also Racine and Pascal—both sublime and dull.
My book is minutely outlined, and I have learned so much about brevity and condensation that it will not be over 600,000 words long. I am quite serious. It will be a very good book if I live to finish it. There are four parts and each is longer than an average novel.
I am reading “War and Peace” at the repeated suggestion of Maxwell Perkins. He is quite right about it: it is a magnificent book. . . .
In September came a letter from Strasbourg:
I’ve written you three enormous letters, none of which I have been able to finish. In the first two I couldn’t say anything I wanted to say, and in the last one I said everything. . . . I have had some of the worst and also, I think, some of the best moments of my life these last four or five months. On the whole it’s been a pretty bad time for me, but I am now out of the woods. For eight weeks now I have not spoken with one person that I knew—yes, I did see for one night a man I knew. . . . It would be better if I had never seen him at all: he has played me one series of shabby tricks this summer, and also made some very pretty speeches about character, courage, honor, et cetera. . . . He . . . saw romance where it did not exist—or if it did exist, it existed in bloody and sorrowful depths that he will never fathom.
Now I am going to a place where I shall have a place of my own and there are two or three real friends (I believe) that I can trust and talk with. I need both. I have been alone long enough now, it has been bitter medicine, but it has done me good, and I am back on my feet again. . . .
In January, 1931, arrived a young book from London:
I am rapidly becoming a great authority on the subject of Work, because I . . . have done some—“and penance more will do.” By the way, that would be a good title for almost any book—“Penance More”—for that, I think, is what it takes to write one. . . . I have not only worked but I have worked with spiritual bellyache, toothache, headache—as well as with something like a virulent abscess just over my left lung, and I think now that I shall probably work under almost any kind of conditions. . . . Buy a book written by one Anthony Trollope, Esq., who wrote about ninety-seven other books in addition. It is called “An Autobiography.” . . . Brother Trollope with great good humor and some cynicism describes his methods of work, and tells how he managed to write fifty or sixty novels while riding all over Ireland and England in the Civil Service, going hunting twice a week, entertaining many friends, and in general leading a hell of an active life. . . .
I shall never write fifty books or learn to write in railways or on boats, nor do I think it is desirable, but it is certainly a damned good idea to get ideas of steady work, and I think this is a good book to read. I am able to do thirty or thirty-five hours a week—thirty-five hours is about the limit and if I do that I am pretty tired. If a man will work — really work—for four or five hours every day, he is doing his full stint. Moreover, I find very little time for anything else.— I practically spend twenty-four hours getting five hours work done: I go out very little. But it soon gets to be a habit.—I wish sometimes I were less homesick, less lonely, and sometimes less heartsick; I could certainly imagine better conditions for work, and I am firmly decided (between us!) that the “going-abroad-to-write business” is the bunk.— I went to Paris Christmas; it is one of the saddest messes in the world to see all these pathetic ******** who are beginning to get ready to commence to start. Why a man should leave his own country to write — why he should write better in Spain, France, England, or Czechoslovakia than at home is quite beyond me. . . . It seems to me that one of the most important things a writer can have is tenacity—without that I don’t see how he’ll get anything done. Someone told me a year or two ago that the pity about modern writers is that the people who have the greatest talent for writing never write, and an embittered and jealous Irishman told me that one of the people Joyce wrote about in Ulysses was a much better writer than Joyce if he wanted to write—only he didn’t want to. All this, in the phrase of my innocent childhood, “makes . . . .”
There can be no talent for any writing whatever unless a man has power to write: tenacity is one of the chief elements of talent—without it there is damned little talent, no matter what they say. Which I suppose is only another way of saying Arnold’s dogma: Genius is energy. I think I would agree that the best writers are not always the people with the greatest natural ability to write. For example, I have never felt that Joyce was a man with a great natural ability.—I don’t believe he begins to have the natural ease, fluency, and interest of, say, H. G. Wells. But he had an integrity of spirit, a will, and a power to work that far surpasses Wells.—I don’t mean mere manual and quantity work; Wells had plenty of that, he has written one hundred books.—But I mean the thing that makes a man do more than his best, to exhaust his ultimate resources. That is the power to work and that cannot be learned—it is a talent and belongs to the spirit. At any rate, the only way out . . . is work—work under all circumstances and conditions. I am sure of that!
But . . . I am not nearly so easy and certain as I sound—but I am sure what I said about working is right. I do not know whether what I am doing now is good or bad —the impulse and idea are very good—but, as always between us, I think I have been on the verge of the deep dark pit for two years, and I am just beginning to get away from it. I am tired of madness and agony. I am willing to let the young generation have a fling of it—after all, I’m an old fellow of thirty and I deserve some peace and quiet. If work will do it I’ll come through: I’ll work until my brain and the last remnant of energy go. I suppose some people would say I have never spared others, but I should say that I never spared myself, and on the whole I think other people have done pretty well by me. I have given away what I would never sell if I had it again for diamond mines—years out of the best and most vital period of my life—and I find myself today where I was ten years ago, a wanderer on the face of the earth, an exile, and a stranger, and by God, I wonder why! I can’t help it if it sounds melodramatic — it is the simple truth. . . . I am tired of . . . . Europe. . . . I know it is all wrong—but where to live on that little strip of 4000 miles of earth is the question. . . . I confess now to a low craving for companionship, the love and affection of a few simple ******** and evenings spent by the ingle nook. . . .
Most of the people I like and a great many I dislike are in New York, but I can’t go back there: it would be like walking around with perpetual neuralgia at present—the place is one vast ache to me—and I’ve offered quite enough free entertainment to the millions of people who having no capacity for feeling themselves spend their lives on the rich banquet some poor hick from the sticks (like myself) has to offer: I’ve learned a few things and the next time the ******** want to see a good show they’re going to pay up!
I am going to see the Four Marx Brothers tomorrow with my English publisher—they are here in the flesh and the swells have suddenly discovered they were funny—so I suppose I shall have to listen to the usual horrible gaff from the Moderns: “You know there’s something very grand about them—there really is, you know. I mean there’s something sort of epic about it, if you know what I mean. I mean that man who never says anything is really like Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistine Chapel, he’s a Very Grand Person, he really is, you know, they are really Very Great Clowns, they really are, you know,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. . . . The dear Moderns, you will find, are cut from the same cloth and pattern all over the world.—Un-platitudinously they utter platitudes, with complete un-originality they are original. Whenever they say something new you wonder where you heard it before, you believe you have not heard it before, you are sure you have heard it forever, you are tired of it before it is uttered, the stink of a horrible weariness is on it, it is like the smell of the subway after rush hours. . . . I am tired of these weary ********* they hate life, but they won’t die.
The literary business in America has become so horrible that it is sometimes possible to write only between fits of vomiting. If you think that is extreme I mention a few names. . . . Keep away from them: don’t talk about . . . writing to anyone, don’t tell anyone what you’re writing, and go with doctors, architects, bootleggers — but not with writers. This is not bitter advice: it is simply good advice—no one has ever written any books about America— I mean the real America—I think they bring out ten or twenty thousand books a year, but no one has ever written about America, and I do not think the “writers” will. . . .
I did not hear again from Tom, until one morning in spring he phoned from the end of Brooklyn to tell me that he had just docked. We met in Tom’s room at the Prince George Hotel, and set out to spend the day, drinking and eating. It was impossible to leave him for mere office appointments, when it was so obviously refreshing his soul to tell of his happiness to be home, with all of the bitter experiences of Europe behind him, feeling freed again, for a little while at least, from entanglements and madness and despair.
His chief anxiety was to get out of Manhattan as soon as possible, where old wounds might reopen, and to find an apartment on Brooklyn Heights, where “people would let me alone, for the mere name Brooklyn frightens them with visions of great distances.”
He soon found spacious quarters, in no less than two floors of a house with a pleasant backyard, not on the Heights, but no farther than a long walk from there. Later he moved to Columbia Heights, to a place only a few minutes from Brooklyn Bridge, across which he often walked at sundown. And from the Heights he finally came back to the city and rented an apartment on one of the upper floors of a modern First Avenue building. In 1935 he took a short trip to Europe, principally .to spend some small German royalties which could not be exchanged, and to enjoy his fame in Germany, where, he wrote, “People overwhelmed and exhausted me with friendship, et cetera. The only place I was ever famous. . . .” There he enjoyed “all the social gaiety I have missed for the last thirty-four years.” The newspapers even took pictures of him getting on and off trolleys, he as big as the trolleys, and everyone roaring delight.
When “Of Time and the River” finally appeared, it was an instant success, so that Tom was for a time financially happier, and better able to live and dine well, even extravagantly. But troubles seemed to pursue Tom Wolfe more than they did most men. There was a suit against him brought by a former agent, about which I thought he was both needlessly generous and relentlessly bitter, and a libel action which brought him more into conflict with his flabbergasted attorneys than with the plaintiff, and a suit which he had to institute for the recovery of some manuscripts which he had very unwisely given into the possession of a young boy. His disrespect for the law became almost epic, for these troubles kept him from having a free mind for his work, they cost him more money than he could afford, and they brought about several lamentable clashes which had only remotely to do with their causes. There were few occasions when I met or talked to him when he was not in a murderous rage about some recent interview with a lawyer.
But of those few occasions, one especially stands out in my mind. It was in the early summer of 1937, late in the afternoon, immediately following a brief but terrific rain and thunderstorm. As I walked down First Avenue I saw him standing at the window of his apartment, high over the city, leaning upon the open upper sash, smoking vigorously as his searching eyes took in the beauty of the sudden clearing at sunset. He spoke, when I arrived, of the “clean glory” of the scene, and I felt that it must have refreshed his very soul, for that evening he too saw and felt “cleanly,” and forgot his struggles for a few hours. At dinner he talked of his plan to go south to live for a while on a farm outside Asheville, with a good Negro servant all to himself, and with a sign at the front entrance: “Visitors welcome, without firearms.” He was apprehensive about his reception, but he hoped that time would have softened much bitterness, and that there would be few “envious and defeated people.” He spoke of his disgust at some hardhearted intellectuals for their sentimental sympathy for far-off Loyalist Spaniards about whom they knew nothing. “The miseries of home, I suppose, are not romantic enough, not noble enough, and, above jlll, oh dear yes, not ideological enough.” He talked of death, and asked if I had ever seen a man die; when I told him yes, he asked me to tell him everything I saw. “Did he give any sign of—of—anything? I suppose not. I suppose no one ever really has.”
Late that night we walked to Scribner’s, where he gathered some mail and brought down a copy of “The Story of a Novel,” which he autographed under a street lamp on Fifth Avenue. I never saw him again.
He phoned me once after that, to say that he had just changed publishers. He seemed pained and confused and elated about it, and he sought to justify his action by telling of advice he’d had from some writers’ organization, of the folly of mixing business and friendship, and of his hope that he had lost no friends who mattered. He felt unwell, he said, and very tired.
Some months later he went west to Washington, where he’d always wanted to go, and there he contracted the pneumonia which ultimately led to his death after a brain operation in Baltimore, in the same hospital in which his father had died.
His last conscious words were characteristic of the faith and hope that he always had. When Tom was almost gone, in the hospital, and his brother Fred sought to encourage him with assurances that he’d come through all right, Tom answered, from the subconscious depths of approaching death, “I hope so, I hope so.”
His faith might have faltered at times, when things seemed against him, and his spirits were sometimes low-but never for long. And hope he always had, no matter how many and terrible the doubts. This is what he wrote in my presentation copy of “From Death to Morning”:
I’m a little sad as I write you this. I’ve just read the first review of this book—in next Saturday’s Herald-Tribune—which pans it and sees little in it except a man six foot six creating monstrous figures in a world of five feet eight.—I do not think this is true, but now I have a hunch the well known “reaction” has set in against me, and that I will take a pounding in this book.—Well, I am writing you this because I believe that as good writing as I have ever done is in this book—and because my faith has always been that a good thing is indestructible and that if there is good here—as I hope and believe there is—it will somehow survive.—That is a faith I want to have, and that I think we need in life—and that is why I am writing you this—not in defense against attacks I may receive—but just to put this on record in advance with you, who are a friend of mine.—So won’t you put this away—what I have written—and keep it—and if someday it turns out I am right—won’t you take it out and read it to me?