Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"The Story of a Tall Man": Thomas Wolfe and the Problems of Literary Iconography

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"The Story of a Tall Man": Thomas Wolfe and the Problems of Literary Iconography

Article excerpt

What a tragedy that a man who was so shy and would so much rather have been allowed to have his moods had to be given a body that made him a curiosity even to people who did recognize him as an artist.

--Havis Choate, in a letter to John Skally Terry, November 3, 1943

On November 14, 1935, Scribner's published Thomas Wolfe's first book of short fiction, From Death to Morning. Midway through the volume appears "Gulliver" in which Wolfe expresses the hope that "Some day some one will write a book about a man who was too tall--who lived forever in a dimension that he did not fit, and for whom the proportions of everything--chairs, beds, doors, rooms, shoes, clothes, shirts and socks ...--were too small" (134). Even though "Gulliver" is autobiographical, with Wolfe referring to his own height of "six feet six" (134) and depicting the baffled reactions of Brooklynites toward his towering stature, he flouts two thousand years of literary tradition by showing sympathy for Polyphemus, Homer's Cyclops, whose one eye is blinded by the "cunning" of Odysseus and his crew of "pygmy men." He sympathizes also with the eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, whose body is not only bound and pillaged by the imp-like Lilliputians but is also sacrificed to Swift's narrative scheme to allegorize the "folly, baseness, and corruption in the lives of men" (135). That Wolfe condemns the authorial handling of Lemuel Gulliver is not as odd as it seems because Swift's allegory does not expose the daily suffering of tall men like Wolfe but instead relies upon the belittling caricatures and negative discourses that Swift helped establish as formulaic. In his version of "Gulliver," Wolfe revises Swift to defend the "nine-foot Titans" against the "idiot monotony" of prejudicial language thrown at them by the more normal-sized populace (136, 141).

By the time Wolfe composed "Gulliver" in early 1933 (Kennedy 262), his stature as a large man was becoming well known to the public. While the autobiographical basis of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), established through Eugene Gant the prejudice Wolfe encountered because of his size--from his sister's mimicking his "bounding kangaroo walk" to his being nicknamed "Legs" as a college undergraduate (238, 406)--Robert Disraeli and other photographers helped to solidify this image by posing Wolfe to accentuate his height. In 1934 Disraeli shot a series of photographs in Wolfe's Brooklyn apartment at 5 Montague Terrace. As Wolfe notes in "Gulliver" that "a tall man never thinks of being tall, never realizes indeed, that he is tall until other people remind him of his height" (137-38), it appears that Disraeli consciously constructed a frame of reference in Wolfe's barren apartment to reinforce the caricatured image of the author's size. One of Disraeli's photographs shows Wolfe crammed uncomfortably into a sofa chair holding a crossed leg while a dining room chair sits in the background with a missing crosspiece that Wolfe had removed in order for his shoulders to fit its frame. A second shows Wolfe touching his living room's ceiling light, which hangs eight feet from the floor, a picture Disraeli shot off the cuff as Wolfe discussed his discomfort at visitors who commented on his tallness. (1) Another photograph Disraeli took that day, the one now most popularly associated with the author, shows Wolfe flipping through several pages of manuscript while his foot rests on a packing crate overflowing with bundles of papers, his storage space for what finally appeared in published form as Of Time and the River (Donald, illustrations). Whether intentionally or not, Disraeli's images reinforce a vision--derided by Wolfe in "Gulliver"--of the disorderly tall man. The legendary giant's use of "a shelf of mountain as a table, a foothill as a stool, and the carcasses of whole roast oxen as the dainty morsels of his feast" (135) corresponds intertextually with the photographs' emphasis on Wolfe's broken living room furniture, his low nine-foot ceilings, and his notorious, million-word, "October Fair" manuscript, of which his second novel was a part. …

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