Thomas Wolfe and Germany: Modernism and Anti-Anti-Semitism in "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time" and "I Have a Thing to Tell You"

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In memoriam Lawrence D. Stokes

Thomas Wolfe's interest in Germany was rooted in fairy tales, an early admiration of Goethe, and his father's Pennsylvania Dutch descent. It kept growing during his European trips, all of which but the first in 1924-25 took him to Germany. Of his six visits there between 1926 and 1936, it was the last one, in 1936, that opened his eyes to the evil of Nazism, ending his love affair with Germany--father's land and second fatherland--on a somber note.

In his fiction Wolfe deals with Germany in stories and parts of novels. A veritable mystique of Germany suffuses "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time," a story published in 1934. (1) The "Oktoberfest" section of The Web and the Rock (1939), Wolfe's first posthumous novel, occupies an intermediate position: George Webber, Wolfe's surrogate and protagonist (as well as focalizing fictional character), becomes immersed in the conviviality of the Munich fair, but also criticizes its brutish features, which are apt to strike the post-World War II and post-Holocaust reader as symbolically prophetic. (2) A day of reckoning with Germany is presented in "I Have a Thing to Tell You," published as a story in 1937 and--in a revised version provided with an additional opening chapter derived from Wolfe's 1936 visit to Berlin--as book 6 of his second posthumous novel, You Can't Go Home Again (1940). (3) In both "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time" and "I Have a Thing to Tell You," the focal character is a German Jew who meets his fate in Germany. Strictly speaking, each character does so still in Germany, on a train moving through and out of it. Thus, both texts feature a space moving through external space, a configuration suggestive of the outsider status of Jewish travelers whose lives are claimed by the country they fail to leave. (4) The two texts reflect the role of Germany in Wolfe's modernism. The earlier story is expressive of the rise of his modernist vision. The later text indicates a modification of Wolfe's modernism through an increasingly society- and politics-oriented outlook referable in part to his confrontation with German anti-Semitism and his own.

"To reestablish Wolfe's importance to literary modernism" (Holliday 5) seems an urgent critical task. Speaking of his and Wolfe's writing, William Faulkner laid claim to all-inclusiveness: "We tried to crowd and cram everything, all experience, into each paragraph"; he credited Wolfe with an attempt "to do the greatest of the impossible ... to reduce all human experience to literature" (Meriwether and Millgate 107, 81). Referring to Proust and Joyce, Jean-Francois Lyotard strikes a similar note. He anchors their modernism in ideas that resist representation: "We have the Idea of the world (the totality of what is), but we do not have the capacity to show an example of it" (78). The present writer considers the totality of what is--life in its totality and change--the metanarrative of modernism. But where would such a holistic impulse have come from? Unfolding the etiology of modernism, too much use has been made of post factum postmodern patterns of thought. In "The Metaphysics of Modernism," Michael Bell claims that the "recognition of the self-grounding character of the human world is the truest meaning of the modernist myth," which he defines "as an emblem of the human world as self-created" (14). In a more historical perspective, it would seem modernism grew out of the fin de siecle collapse of other-world-oriented Christian faith, which impelled writers to suggest what was left--all of life, life as such--through their art, which became their new religion or formalistic creed. With modernism, language was foregrounded not primarily because it "was now seen to form [the world]" (Bell 16), but because it had to assume the all but impossible task of conveying life as a whole. Closely considered, life, the entire existential dimension, defines itself against the mind--always a mind, single and subjective--and hence against speech, spoken or written, which is the phenomenological form language takes. …