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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2000

Thomas Wolfe: 20th-century America's warped looking glass


Special to The Japan Times

"No one has ever written any books about America -- I mean the real America," he wrote to a friend in 1931.

Thomas Wolfe, who would have turned 100 on Oct. 3, 2000, intertwined the weave of America in his fiction so tightly with his own experience that, in the end, there was no telling one from the other. Do not attempt to unravel Wolfe from America, a voice tells us now. Rather, step far back and take in his immense tapestry.

He wrote of himself as he wished to see himself, each petty experience and each trivial encounter taking on the proportion of monuments. No one aches like I do. No one regrets like I do. And no one can see it all so clearly as I do. Some writers -- a very few -- never leave childhood. Thomas Wolfe never left adolescence. The hurt just below the skin is in every line. It is no wonder that his editor and mentor, Maxwell Perkins, said, "Every good thing that comes (with Wolfe) is accompanied by trouble."

The trouble comes from the intensity and the absolute sincerity that brooks neither complaint nor compromise. Thomas Wolfe was constantly challenging the devotion of others to his cause.

He left us with four novels, several plays and numerous short stories. The novels are "Look Homeward, Angel," "Of Time and the River," "You Can't Go Home Again" and "The Web and the Rock."

These are hefty narratives. My paperback copy of "Of Time and the River" ends on page 912. Wolfe was not exaggerating when he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937 that he was a "putter-inner," not a "taker-outer." But these four novels could just as easily have been eight or 10 -- or one. It is all one story, the story of a young man's discovery of America. In his four novels he follows his young hero, who changes name but not character or motivation, from home in the South to Harvard, New York, Europe and then back home again.

Wolfe's books are not in the sharp-outline tradition of American realism. He is a blood relation in motive and approach of Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Fiction, to Wolfe, is a twisting of the truth, a warping of the looking glass so that people will see themselves as entities in a grotesque of his imagining. Pocks become craters; scabs, the lids of disfigurement. He himself is overjoyed in this to the point of distraction, unable to see that the real people who appear disguised on his pages would naturally be offended; unable to accept any other view of what is transpiring than his own. Again, the adolescent is saying things unaware of the injury caused by his words. Wolfe is distortion and magnification, yet he controls the rhythm and harmony (if not the volume) with an astounding degree of lyricism and craft.

Thomas Wolfe was born 100 years ago in Asheville, North Carolina. Though he left his home state to go to Harvard Graduate School in 1920, the rest of his adult life may be seen as a desperate, if circuitous, escape from the tender pains of childhood.

He made seven trips to Europe in his lifetime. These journeys intensified his self-consciousness as an American. Yet he was not a part of the Lost Generation, those American writers who in the 1920s and '30s took refuge in Europe, leaving behind what they saw as dry, provincial America. Certainly Wolfe was sufficiently lost. "Lost," like "pity" and "the web" (of time and memory), is an iconic word in his prose. But to give him his due, he was lost not only in Europe but wherever he went, striving all the while to re-establish a link with "home."

To Wolfe, small-town America is not the vacuous, dusty and stifling place that it was to most writers of his generation. His hometown invariably draws him. He is passionate about its every detail for the very reason that only in the context of that place and that time could he relive early relationships. And reliving those relationships -- and those that followed, even while they were still in progress -- was his prime obsession.

Wolfe caught cold on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. This caused a tubercular lesion in his lung to migrate to his brain. After weeks of fever and crushing headaches, he died, having been transferred to a hospital in Baltimore, on Sept. 15, 1938, just weeks before his 38th birthday.

Thomas Wolfe was recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest forces in American culture. Some, like Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis, expected him to become the voice of American literature. (Fitzgerald, who loved Asheville, was so shocked to see that the local library did not stock Wolfe's books that he bought copies for it. Incidentally, his wife, Zelda, spent her last days in an Asheville hospital, dying in a fire there.)

Wolfe's themes are those that still preoccupy the American psyche: devouring city vs. declining country; hyperconscious individual lost in the swarm of the crowd; an unceasing longing pitted against an ever-vanishing memory that implores, "Let it go."

The subtext of his work is unquestionably time itself. He is pulled simultaneously in time's two ways -- the then and the now -- as if he himself were two magnets moving around each other, attracting and repelling in an endless cycle.

The tragedy implicit in the subtext is that its creator, a man who "couldn't miss a moment of time," died long before his own time was due.

He was constantly on the move, yet he was never able to see where he was going. In "Look Homeward, Angel," he writes of his hero, his alter ego:

"He thought of his life as something that had happened long ago. He had found, at last, his gateway to the lost world. But did it lie before or behind him? Was he leaving or entering it. . .?"

Roger Pulvers is an author, playwright and theater director living in Kyoto. His latest novel is "The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn," published in Japanese by Kodansha.


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