Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"A Stone, a Leaf, a Door": The Narrative Poetics of Thomas Wolfe

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"A Stone, a Leaf, a Door": The Narrative Poetics of Thomas Wolfe

Article excerpt

From almost the beginning of Thomas Wolfe's career, readers and critics have struggled to understand and categorize the nature of his art. Although his works have most frequently been called novels and Wolfe has taken his place in the pantheon of great American novelists, scholars have wrestled with genre terminology, as his fiction seems to defy many traditional narrative expectations. Leo Gurko, in Thomas Wolfe: Beyond the Romantic Ego, mentions the frequent criticism that "His novels are not really works of art but loose explosions of verbal energy" (3). C. Hugh Holman, in a classic study of Wolfe's fiction, The Loneliness at the Core, adopts and then discards a number of terms to describe Wolfe, including anthologist, "diviner" (xvii), and epic poet. These designations do not necessarily contradict one another but do complicate our understanding of Wolfe's literary achievement.

The term epic poet, in particular, deserves further study as a way to "get at" certain basic qualities of the Wolfe texts we read and study. In a poem written in 2010 called "Untamed Wolfe," I described the novels as "gangly / flamboyant poems." Such terminology could easily be chalked up to poetic license. However, if we look more deeply into Wolfe's characteristic rhetorical posture, into the way he uses language and constructs relations between subject, narrator, and reader, we can see substantially greater reliance on lyric techniques and structures than has hitherto been supposed. So much so that Thomas Wolfe, rather than being a writer of novels imbued with lyric flourishes, seems more a narrative poet, whose worldview and approach to writing rely fundamentally on the assumptions of poetry.

It may seem strange to regard Wolfe as a poet, since his novels and stories embody virtually all the signature elements of fiction. M. M. Bahktin, in The Dialogic Imagination, identifies a major characteristic as "stylistic three-dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel" (11). The novel represents an amalgam of genres that "makes wide and substantial use of letters, diaries, confessions, the forms and methods of rhetoric ..." (33), and, we might add in Wolfe's case, anatomy, allegory, quasi-journalistic commentary, social satire, and dramatic enactment. For Bahktin, the novel "does not participate in any harmony of the genres" (4).

As compared to poetry, fiction distinguishes itself through emphasis on incidents and characters intersecting in time. J. Arthur Honeywell refers to plot as "temporal synthesis," "an organizing and unifying principle" operating through time (239). But as E. M. Forster so succinctly points out, a sequence of events is not sufficient; causality is a vital component. In his example, we have plot only if "The king died, and then the queen died of grief " (86; emphasis mine). Without connective causality, fiction falls apart. The frequent criticism of Thomas Wolfe's fiction for apparent formlessness suggests that further scholarly investigation into the workings of its causality is merited.

Narrative not only requires characters; it also feeds on their change and development delivered against the background of a temporal canvas. Henry James, in "The Art of Fiction," argues for the inseparability of incidents and characters (19). William Gass argues that "a great character has an endless interest": "Even the most careful student will admit that fiction's fruit survives its handling and continues growing off the tree" (269). Reading fiction, we revel to a greater or lesser degree in the fortunes of well-conceived characters, in particular in the protagonist and his or her nemeses. Plot and character are inseparably fused, enacted before our reading eyes in time and imagined space. In terms of conventional plot and development of character, Wolfe's fiction has frequently been found wanting, suggesting that its organizing principles lie somewhere else. …

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