Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

You Can't Go Home Again: Does Nazism Really Transform Wolfe's Romanticism?

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

You Can't Go Home Again: Does Nazism Really Transform Wolfe's Romanticism?

Article excerpt

Perhaps no southern writer was influenced as deeply as Thomas Wolfe by the rise of Nazi Germany," Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. contends in The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930-1950 (2009). Wolfe's passionate attachment to Germany made his final awakening to the Nazi regime's devastation of the country he loved especially disconcerting. In his chapter "You Can't Go to Germany, Again: Thomas Wolfe," Brinkmeyer argues that Wolfe's recognition of his own racial prejudice and of the anti-Semitism in the Nazis' corrupt system provoked his reevaluation of his art. He agrees with most critics that the developing social consciousness evident in You Can't Go Home Again (1940) marks Wolfe's movement away from "fierce Romantic individualism" (166). Brinkmeyer asserts, however, that despite becoming more concerned with political movements and human community after these last trips to Germany, Wolfe was "never able to free himself entirely from his emotionally charged nativism" (160), his feeling that the white race, particularly its Nordic strand, was superior to other groups. (1) If Wolfe moved ambivalently toward social consciousness after confronting the evils of Nazism, he also moved inexactly away from his earlier romanticism. He moderated his focus on self but did not overcome his deep-seated romantic spirit, as his persona George Webber shows in the posthumously published You Can't Go Home Again.

The opening chapter of You Can't Go Home Again clarifies that romanticism forms the core of George Webber's consciousness. Early pages reveal George's inner conflict as he contends with the reason/emotion dichotomy that frames Romanticism's break from the Age of Reason. Wishing to rein in his feelings, he determines to "try to give his head command" to "get his reason and his emotions pulling together" (6). But he realizes that his heart overcomes his reasoned decision to end his affair with Esther Jack, the fictional counterpart of Wolfe's mistress Aline Bernstein. George cannot end his relationship with Esther because his emotional tie to her remains too strong. Rationalizing that "there are sometimes reasons of which the reason knows nothing, and that the emotional pattern of one's life, formed and set by years of living, is not to be discarded quite as easily as one may throw away a battered hat or worn-out shoe," the text invokes an American Romantic to excuse the protagonist's failure of purpose: "'A foolish consistency,' Emerson had said, 'is the hobgoblin of little minds'" (7). Indeed, a certain inconsistency as well as a return to set emotional patterns defines George's journey in You Can't Go Home Again, as the chapters shift from scenes of social critique narrated rather objectively to passages focusing on George's--presumably Wolfe's--personal feelings and philosophy, often delivered in lyrical language typical of Wolfe's earlier work.

Wolfe's romanticism, of course, has long been noted by critics. His lack of restraint and intensely emotional outpouring of language may be his most prominent quality as a writer, one that makes him, in the words of Louis D. Rubin Jr., "highly and voraciously romantic" ("Thomas" 67), and his subjectivity indeed corresponds to romanticism's focus on the individual as the center of all experience and therefore, potentially, of art. His debt to the English Romantics is apparent--for example, Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ... emotion recollected in tranquillity" (2) parallels Wolfe's practice of recollecting his past powerful emotions when he recorded his memories, albeit with more angst than tranquility. Rubin, in his early work Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth, argues that George Webber's "squeal" in The Web and the Rock is equivalent to Wordsworth's "intimations of immortality," a sudden sense of freedom from finite time and space, a release from human confinement, a gestalt usually triggered by scenes of nature or intense sensory impressions (69-71). …

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