Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe, a Mountain Writer

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe, a Mountain Writer

Article excerpt

As members of a tribe that has met every year for thirty-one years, gathering in nearly that many places where Wolfe lived and wrote or visited and wrote or passed through on a train and wrote, you know that there are as many Thomas Wolfes as there are members of our tribe, as there are other readers of Wolfe, living and dead. And we know full well that we do well to continue to speak of the Wolfe of the mountains, the Wolfe of Chapel Hill, the Wolfe of Cambridge and Boston, the Wolfe of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Wolfe of London, Paris, Berlin, and Munich, the Wolfe who was in each of those places, still simultaneously the Wolfe of all the other places, among all those people who populate his vast fictional world.

Although over the years we have met in all or most of the places in this world that were relevant to Wolfe's life and fiction, so that we know more than most the great reach and scope of his fiction, we seem to regard Asheville and Chapel Hill as the most vital places for meeting and keeping the spirit of Wolfe lively, and so we have regarded him as a southern writer. His reading public, smaller though than we wish it to be, feels that way even more strongly, cherishing "look homeward, angel" and "you can't go home again," as phrases most memorable, regarding even "of time and the river" as referring mainly to time and rivers in the south, "the web and the rock," as referring to the web of southern relationships and the rock of southern history.

And so we meet here in Greenville, South Carolina, where I wish to speak to you as a novelist, after a Wolfean meal, about Thomas Wolfe and the South in this most southern-minded of southern states.

Perhaps we will meet someday in my mountain hometown of Knoxville, where Wolfe once set foot, in fact or only in my imagination. Well, certainly in spirit, because it was there, as I recount in my novel Bijou, which ends in Wolfe's childhood home, that I at 14 walked finally into the drugstore on Broadway where I had worshipped Wolfe at the altar of the paperback book rack, yearning to be a writer like him, where to show Wolfe's ghost how much I revered him, I risked joining my younger and older brothers in the reform school by stealing a 1947 paperback copy of Wolfe's short stories--because I had plunged into that great sea of words, "Death the Proud Brother": "They come: My great dark horses come! With soft rushing thunder of their hooves they come, and the horses of Sleep are galloping, galloping over the land. ... The tides of Sleep are moving through the nation ..." (69). (I am as short as George Webber, but reading Wolfe aloud, I feel as tall as Eugene Gant.) That year I wrote a poem (unpublished) in memory of Wolfe:

   Stand at your icebox in Heaven, writing still,

   Child of the wombs' dark mysteries,

   And sing your song to the angels

   About earth's foul folly.

   The Angels will listen,

   Few here care,

   For few understand.

   You in Heaven have your admirers,

   Who admire the dead and perished.

It was in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the early 1980s that I first spoke about Wolfe, about his influence as a demigod on my first published short story, "Imprisoned Light," intoning its opening rhapsodic sentence:

   Draped in the tattered flag of the vagabond which had met with the
   fury and the chemistry of time and unrecorded distance, from
   sun-blasted and moon-swollen travel, he for the unrecounted
   instance had emerged from darkness into another strange prison of
   stone and imprisoned light. (22)

With every good reason, I titled that talk "The Reed of Demonic Ecstasy." And over the years of abiding obsession with Wolfe, I have spoken to Wolfeans in Chapel Hill (about I don't remember what), and in Gettysburg about Wolfe's Civil War, and in Asheville about "Four Lost Men," and in Paris where, having spoken of him in Boston the day before, comparing him with Balzac, I gave the same talk the very next day. …

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