Notes on Thomas Wolfe: For a Talk Given at New York University, February 12, 1958

Article excerpt

It isn't easy to find something to say about Thomas Wolfe that hasn't been said many times by many people. What I have to offer will seem little more than a reminiscence--nothing to do with those who played a really great part in his life, but showing a tender side seldom noticed except obscurely--obscurely because in reading any one of his books, unexpectedly, we find a phrase, a line almost hidden in the uproar, making us know that, beneath the mighty rhetoric, there was compassion--pity for all things small and unsheltered and unhappy--and other things, too--contempt, with ridicule, for what was mannered and pretentious--for what he called the Hudson River aristocrats and when he was the guest of one of them--and driving out one day his host asked him to put on his coat because they were about to pass the home of his grandfather. This is in one of his books.

I laughed at his stories and he laughed at mine--careless, silly things like my experience at Wanamaker's, with my goal a high place in the decorating department--which was a long time coming--and what I started out with--and glad to get--a saleslady job, checking in at the basement entrance, calling my number, then upstairs to the department where I joined my fellow workers in the song--"Brighten the Corner Where You Are"--the day's inspiration--Tom was fascinated with the blow-byblow descriptions of daily events--"How went the emporium today?" he'd ask--and I still remember some of the stories--the neat little cleaning woman whose shawl was kept together by a safety pin she swore had fastened her diapers when she was a baby. And one day when she appeared with a bound-up finger I said, "Oh, Mrs. Mullins, did you hurt yourself?"--and with dropped eyes and coy gestures she said, "No, but my boy friend give me a manicure last night and he hurt my critical something terrible." There were many more but that was Tom's favorite. Often he was full of laughter. But sometimes, after a long silence, he'd bring out a wrinkled scrap of paper, read it aloud, ask for comment and before I could say one word, put it back in his pocket and begin talking. How he could talk!--of life and death and time--the bitter briefness of man's days. Obsessed with the pattern of these things, they were the essence of his being. And there was always fear--fear that time would run out before he could say--write--shout all the things that stormed inside him--maybe a force that, indirectly, drove him brutally to his own death, predicted in the last words of his last book--"You Can't Go Home Again"--in a letter to one who had been his friend-Maxwell Perkins. (Read this from book--) 2 Peace was not a part of his design. There was blazing conflict, silence, pathos--but never peace. His was a search for what he never found. I like to believe that, sometimes, he may have come near to it in my scrubby little back-yard garden--an escape from the lion hunters, he called it, where he'd turn the hose on thirsty plants, and gay neighbors would lean from their windows to lift their glasses to ours. Then serious again, he'd torment himself, blasting at the critics--his sensitivity of such destructive force--destructive to himself--that many people close to the situation felt it was the major cause of his break with Maxwell Perkins and Scribner's. …