12955

 

Thomas Wolfe In Asheville:
"Surely he had a thing to tell us."

Gaither Stewart

 

           At some stage of life we seem to make an unconscious choice between sticking close to our roots or becoming uprooted wanderers. Home or permanent exile? It usually comes down to one or the other. Home is sweet but in the words of Omar Khayam, "there is nothing more delightful than to be a stranger." Once land - locked, it is hard to wander. But in your dreams, in your fantasy, in your imagination, you will always wonder what it's like out on the edge. On the other hand, even if the willing exile becomes bitter at his loss—and he has lost something of himself—there is never a real return home and he is condemned to remain a stranger. A stranger in exile, a stranger at home.
           One of the most curious moments of my journalistic life was a two - day interview I did some years ago with the Russian - French writer and former KGB officer, Kirill Chenkin, at his summer home on the southeast coast of France. The Cold War was still on. Spies were everywhere. Chenkin had defected to the West and had just published a book about disinformation and the role of double and triple agents, titled in Russian, Ochotnik Vverkx Nogami, The Upside Down Hunter. Imagine my surprise when it came out that Chenkin, in his complex life of wandering through Europe, Soviet Russia and America—including fighting in the 13th International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War—had taught French literature at Asheville's Black Mountain School of Arts in 1939 - 40.
           A few moments talk about my native Asheville and we were already into Thomas Wolfe, who had died only shortly before Chenkin arrived there. Thomas Wolfe too, like Chenkin, like myself, was a wanderer and a stranger, but different from many wanderers in that his home in Asheville in the mountains of North Carolina remained forever the center of his world.

            "I think no one could understand Thomas Wolfe who had not seen or properly imagined the place he was born and grew up," wrote Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe's friend and editor at Scribner's Sons. "Asheville is encircled by mountains. The trains wind in and out through labyrinths of passes. A boy of Wolfe's imagination imprisoned there could think that what was beyond was all wonderful—different from what it was where there was not enough of anything for him."
           Thomas Wolfe's fictional town of Altamont, that is, Asheville, was a town of 50,000 people, at an altitude of 2,100 feet, ringed by the Blue Ridge, Pisgah and Newfoundland mountains. That Asheville, today number one on many polls of tourism and retirement sites, has always had a magic attraction. Every other house in Wolfe's time hung out a "tourist rooms for rent" shingle. Sumptuous hotels like the Grove Park Inn overlooking the city, the Biltmore Castle modeled on those of Bavaria's "Mad Ludwig," the East's highest peak of Mount Mitchell, the Cherokee Indians, trout-filled rivers and a four seasoned climate make it special. Surprisingly cosmopolitan, it is a major arts and cultural Mecca, once labeled "Little Paris."
           In Wolfe's time, that Black Mountain school became an internationally famous arts school under the direction of Josef Albers, attracting teachers like Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Kirill Chenkin. As one could imagine, local people considered teachers and students alike of this unique school as looneys.
           Yet, Wolfe's Asheville was sophisticated also. It attracted visitors from the Antebellum plantations of the Deep South, rich people from Florida, and puzzling visitors from New York. Scott Fitzgerald, then from Hollywood, visited his wife Zelda confined in the Highlands Hospital and with his drunken antics titillated guests at the plush Grove Park Inn where he lodged, while Glenn Miller played swing in the Battery Park Hotel. Asheville was a hidden "in" place.
           Wolfe's town of the 20s, 30s and 40s was divided among the rich who lived in exclusive areas along the lakes, in the forests and on the mountainsides; the middle class and poor whites who lived in wood frame houses in town; and blacks who lived segregated in wood shanties in niggertown in the downtown.
           That's the town Wolfe seemed to attack in his masterpiece, Look Homeward Angel, published in 1929 when he was 29 years old. His more than 200 characters of Asheville were hardly disguised. Ashevillians of the day were furious if they were identified or chortled about the others if they escaped notice. Wolfe anticipated their anger and never returned home again until 1937—while the book was officially banned in Asheville.
           As one of the most autobiographical writers of the 20th century, two Wolfean images remain in literary memory: trains and niggertown. Marvelous descriptions of one, racism in the other. Wonderful trains of escape out of the mountains that carried him first to Chapel Hill, then later to New York. And trains like the Carolina Special and the Asheville Express that brought him back. His niggertown, the black ghetto in the Asheville just behind the police department and the city jail, instead earned him a racist label for all the things said or left unsaid, a reputation from which he never escaped. He didn't need Nazi Germany to feed his inbred racism, the kind that was in him as a result of his place and time. As a product of his upbringing. Not a racism based on racial hatred, but a society of two separate races symbolized by the two water fountains, one for "white", one for "colored", that once stood on Pack Square near his house.
           Six feet six and 240 pounds, Wolfe ate and drank and consumed life in huge portions. He wrote the same way. There is little tranquility in his works. Life was a desperate affair. He attacked life. He shouted his art at the top of his lungs. His favorite words are "furious" and "savage." His world reeled about him. Life was a demonic dance. Of his own creative process, he wrote: "The words were wrung from him in a kind of bloody sweat, they poured out of his finger tips, spat out of his snarling throat like writhing snakes; he wrote them with his heart, his brain, his sweat, his guts; he wrote them with his blood, his spirit; they were wrenched out of the last secret source and substance of his life."
           His work has been called "a vast but incomplete saga of one man's pilgrimage on earth, a saga so formless that the term novel can be applied to its parts only with extreme caution and so monumental that it exploded the covers of four vast books in which its portions were imprisoned."
           It is true. For Wolfe the separate parts of his writing formed portions of a great whole. He wanted to put one man on record and through that person represent America. Yet, his central theme was eternally the loneliness of the individual—the stranger, the wanderer, lost in the complex currents of time. Wolfe himself said he was dealing with 150 years of time, 2000 characters of every racial and social class of America.
           In a letter of 1932 he wrote: "The book on which I have been working for the last 2 - 3 years is not a volume but a library." He was always shuffling around the parts. In 1934 he wrote two long novels, really the same book, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time And The River, and five short novels.
           In 1936 he traveled to Germany, a country he loved. But once there his eyes were opened to Nazism. His stay in a Munich pension in Amalienstrasse and the beating he took at the Oktoberfest left an imprint on him. He then wrote the truth about Hitler's Germany in his novella I Have A Thing To Tell You [Nun Will Ich Ihnen Was Sagen], written in the crisp Hemingway style that he admired.
           Between 1936 and his death in 1938 he wrote a huge manuscript from which his then editor, Edward Aswell of Harper's, assembled two novels: The Web and the Rock [the South and the North, the feminine and the masculine] and You Can't Go Home Again [published posthumously and for me at least difficult to digest today!], seven short novels and many short stories. In a way, the latter have been lost even by those who know Wolfe well, although they contradict anti-Wolfe criticism that he had no control. In these shorter works as in his letters that read like perfect short stories he showed his craftsmanship, focus and artistic control.
           His were nonetheless gigantic works. In the first scene of Of Time And The River at the Asheville railroad station he held the suspense for over 30,000 words. Yet he recognized the need for cuts and always agreed: he knew he had no time for revision.

           Wolfe's voice was less southern than it was 19th century English romantic. Of all the Southern writers Thomas Wolfe was not trying to come to terms with the South. He was a prisoner between a search for a tradition and his attempt to escape from any limitations at all. His goal was to describe all of American society. The South was only the flavor. The result of his attempt was violent and explosive just as his South was violent and explosive.
           Yet, he always retained his deep feelings for Asheville, the cradle of his world. When he tried to come home in 1937 he took a cabin in the outskirts from where he tried to renew his contacts. He saw friends and threw great parties but like the eternal stranger he never really returned home. His life that summer was dedicated to so much drinking that he had to return to New York to work.
           He saw life as a thing of "becoming." And he was always starting over.
           Time itself stood at the center of the mystery of experience. Each scene, each person had to be placed in time in order to have meaning. Isolated they had little value. In The Story of a Novel he breaks down his time into three types: present time, of people moving forward to the immediate future; past time, the accumulated impact of man's experience so that each moment of life is conditioned by all that one has experienced up to the moment; and immutable time, the time of rivers, mountains, oceans, the earth, the unchanging universe of time compared to the transience of man's life.

           One Wolfe specialist, Kenneth Brown, calls Thomas Wolfe the Tchaikowsky of writing. "Even though Tchaikowsky was a good orchestrator and Wolfe was not a good organizer, they were in the same vein. You cannot mistake anything Wolfe wrote. He has a stamp. Like also Dostoevsky who fascinated Wolfe! At a time the Russian writer was still unheralded and disreputable, he was Wolfe's model. Wolfe once wrote a dozen pages about his experience of reading Brothers Karamazov.
            "Joyce," says Brown, "was more skilled. Wolfe's writing was a great outpouring of ideas. He gave the reader the sensation of living through a continuous virtuoso performance. To read him you must accept it all in order to get to the gold his works contain. The only way to get it is to read it all."

           Bernard DeVoto initiated a great anti-Wolfe campaign in 1936 in an article in Saturday Review entitled "Genius Is Not Enough," in which he lambasted the excesses and deficiencies of Wolfe's first two novels. DeVoto argued that Wolfe lacked the maturity and discipline to achieve real art. Some critics, as if offended at his lack of restraint, spoke of the neurotic side of Wolfe's writing: "He wrote in a compulsive frenzy. He did not know how to compose." John Peale Bishop concluded that, "he achieved the utmost intensity of which incoherent writing is capable." Alfred Kazin labeled the writing "an imperial maladjustment" and his imagery "swollen and turgid." Wright Morris called Wolfe's work "a river of clichés, nouns and soaring adjectives," repeating the charge that "appetite and raw material are not enough." The English critic, Pamela Hansford Johnson, in "Thomas Wolfe and the Kicking Season," while admitting that critics sometimes gang up on writers, wrote that "Wolfe had almost all the virtues of major novelists except good taste and power of organization," and that "he was not only an adolescent like us: he was a sillier adolescent and at his worst makes us blush."
           Wolfe was hit hard by the critics. He was hurt and reacted to the mildest of criticism. His reactions appeared pettishly in later writings, like his play on words with DeVoto's name, DeVoto Blotto, to signify his contempt for despised critics. The criticism that he both needed and accepted in the form of extensive editorial assistance was allegedly the primary reason for leaving his friend and editor, Maxwell Perkins, to go to Harper's and a new editor. Yet the fact that Perkins let Wolfe convince him to retain those passionate flights in his work made of Perkins one of America's most famous editors.
           American critics however have always had precise ideas about how novels should be written, being oriented toward form, poise and orthodox sophistication that cannot tolerate the country bumpkin, which Wolfe was. Academics avoid him like the plague, unforgiving of the fact that he wrote like Thomas Wolfe. And other writers too have joined in the anti-Wolfean chorus.
           Not only the Ashevillians who peopled Look Homeward, Angel worked against Wolfe. People there who never read a book in their lives joined in the outrage against native son - traitor Thomas Wolfe and his family. I once asked the elderly father of a boyhood friend, who had a garage just behind the Wolfe house, what The Old Kentucky Home—Dixieland in the novel—was like in the 1930s and 40s. He described it as a "filthy pigsty and the whole family as pigs. The family was a bunch of drunks and nuts."
           Yet, Thomas Wolfe was much admired by many other writers. Pat Conroy, a hopeless Wolfean, writes in his introduction to the Scribner Classics edition of Of Time and the River, "that's all right, [the critics who despise Wolfe, he meant]. They are just critics, and he is Thomas Wolfe." William Faulkner rated him number one among significant modern American writers—before Dos Passos, Steinbeck and Hemingway. For Faulkner the problem was to discern quality among imperfection. "We all fail," he observed, "but Wolfe made the best failure because he tried the hardest to say the most."
           Wolfe was the chief reason for Scott Fitzgerald's attraction to Asheville. He was so closely linked to Asheville from the time he brought his wife Zelda to the Highland Hospital on the advice of H.L. Mencken that he was considered a resident until his death in 1940. (Zelda then stayed on in the hospital until she died in the hospital fire that Ashevillians believed she herself set.) Legend has it that Scotty went to the public library quite drunk one day in 1937. When he was told that because of budgetary limitations the library had no books by native son and bad boy Thomas Wolfe, he rushed to a bookstore, bought two copies of Wolfe's banned novels and slammed them down on the library table. The library's Board of Directors met and took the historic decision to put Wolfe on its shelves. So was born the story that Scott Fitzgerald rehabilitated Wolfe in Asheville and thus started the Wolfe Collection, the pride of the Pack Memorial Library today.
           Wolfe was doubtless part of the reason that many other writers were in the Asheville area in those years. Sherwood Anderson lived in the nearby countryside. There was also Hamilton Basso, who wrote a bestseller in the 1940s: The View From Pompey's Head.
           I first wrote a story about Thomas Wolfe in the middle Eighties for the cultural pages of the Italian Communist daily newspaper, L'Unitá. The cultural editor who admired Wolfe was curious about his novella, The Party At Jack's, a study of social classes in New York that was labeled Marxian. Subsequently I was surprised at the interest in Wolfe in Europe as I sold stories about the American writer to publications in various countries of East and West.

           The last part of the 20th century saw a gradual change in Wolfe criticism. His friend and literary agent, Elizabeth Nowell, wrote a predictably positive biography in the 1950s. Andrew Turnbull published a balanced biography in the1960s. Then rehabilitative articles and essays appeared. His name spread abroad. Meanwhile, his books have never been out of print. Beautiful new editions now stand on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Though his bombastic wordy style is even more difficult to bear today, positive treatment of Wolfe is the trend.
           Above all, Wolfe influenced generations of youth. William Styron remarked that it would be difficult to exaggerate the effect Wolfe had on youth and especially on those from small town, southerly backgrounds. Himself from Virginia, Styron said that Wolfe influenced him to become a writer. Perhaps no southern writer expressed Wolfe's total, all-consuming influence on him more than the young Pat Conroy who admitted that Thomas Wolfe took his boyhood by storm. Wolfe simply transmitted to him his fire. "Ride the trains with Thomas Wolfe in this book [Of Time and the River] and you will never look at trains the same way again," Conroy writes.
           Faulkner underlined that Wolfe wrote on a grand scale. He was audacious. A more learned and mature person would never have attempted what he did. His writings sound like bluster and bravado. But he believed it. He was the ultimate romantic. Youth loved him for that, because he was speaking for them. He still has the appeal for some young as do Carson McCullers, J.D. Salinger, and William Golding.
           Maxwell Perkins wrote: "Whatever happened, Wolfe would have been what he was. Those mountain walls, which his imagination vaulted, gave him a vision of an America with which his books are fundamentally concerned. He spoke of the artists of America—how the whole color and character of the country was completely new—never interpreted; how in England, for instance, the writer inherited a long accretion of accepted expression from which he could start. Wolfe needed a continent to range over. And his place was America. I believed he opened it up as no other writer ever did for the people of his time and for the writers and artists and poets of tomorrow. Surely he had a thing to tell us."

           Thomas Wolfe is a popular name in Asheville today. Pride in the native son replaced the bad reputation of his family and Tom's sallies against Ashevillians. A Wolfe cult has developed. Thomas Wolfe has been institutionalized. There is the Thomas Wolfe City Auditorium, the Thomas Wolfe Playhouse, The Thomas Wolfe Collection used by scholars from everywhere, and the old Wolfe house, the "Old Kentucky Home," is now a shrine.
           Last fall in Asheville I made a kind of pilgrimage to the state landmark, the Riverside Cemetery in the Montford historical district, which slopes steeply down to the banks of the muddy French Broad River. Thomas Wolfe lies there at the hilltop near the short story writer O. Henry.
           And on the tombstone you read the dates, his birthday in 1900 and death 38 years later, and you wonder what masterpieces lie in the grave with him? One forgets that his talent was cut off long before reaching maturity. He died of brain tuberculosis in Baltimore on September 15, 1938, 17 days short of his 38th birthday.

Gaither Stewart
Rome, Italy


© 2003 Gaither Stewart.

Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books

E-mail: GaitherStewart@libero.it