Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"Looking for the God in Brooklyn": The Romantic Affinities of Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"Looking for the God in Brooklyn": The Romantic Affinities of Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane

Article excerpt

The affinities and points of contact between Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane, two important--though often marginalized--literary figures of American Modernism, are many and run deep. As yet, however, there has been no detailed juxtaposition of Crane, Modernist lyric poet and author of The Bridge, and Wolfe, one of the twentieth century's most lyrical novelists, so this comparison will begin with relatively superficial similarities. Unfortunately, for example, both Wolfe and Crane are haunted posthumously by the indolent specter of caricature. Doubtless, every caricature is rooted in some truth--truth is what gives caricature its effectiveness. And yet even the work of both Crane and Wolfe is sometimes dismissed as insane, alcoholic, undisciplined, solipsistic--the list goes on. This is certainly the case in John Peale Bishop's notorious (for Wolfeans) article written shortly after Wolfe's death, entitled "The Sorrows of Thomas Wolfe" (published in the first issue of the Kenyan Review, in 1939). Bishop's essay is rather ambivalent, and not quite the "mean-spirited ... diatribe" that Shawn Holliday deems it in Thomas Walfe and the Politics of Modernism (3-4); for Bishop actually makes a few insightful points about Wolfe and praises his genius. He even keenly notices certain strong thematic similarities between Wolfe and Crane. Ultimately, however, Bishop dismisses both as undisciplined wild men, writing of Crane and Wolfe that "they lacked a wilderness and constantly tried to create one as wild as their hearts" (12).

In such caricatures, both writers suffer from characterizations of their art that are overly reliant on generalizations about their turbulent and tragically short lives (Crane was dead at 32 years of age; Wolfe at 37). It is meaningless and intellectually lazy, however, to further caricature Wolfe and Crane as "splendid or magnificent failures." To do so seems condescending and a contradiction in terms, for if a work of art is splendid or magnificent, it cannot be a failure by any but unreasonable standards. Leaving, then, such unfair judgments at the door, I seek to delve more deeply into certain of the fascinating affinities that link the deeply Romantic sensibilities of Wolfe and Crane.

Before doing so, it will be beneficial to cover some basic biographical and literary-historical ground in order to bring the almost intertwined lives of these two men into focus. The correct phrase is indeed "almost intertwined" because, although the biographies of Wolfe and Crane are quite similar, eerily so at some points, there is no concrete evidence of the two writers ever having actually met. It might be said that they lived parallel lives that never quite intersected, in keeping with the mathematical postulate about parallel lines. Still, one likes to imagine that they must have encountered each other in a social setting at some point, not least because they moved in similar and often overlapping literary circles in New York City during the 1920s. Born one year apart, Crane and Wolfe both traveled to New York as staggeringly ambitious young writers; the city in turn quickly came to emanate a mythic grandeur for both of them, viewed at once as a place of awe, fear, beauty, wonder, disgust, inspiration, and so much more. But Wolfe, a working-class Southerner, and Crane, a gay man from the Midwest, always remained outsiders in New York; this lurking feeling of foreignness or "lostness," is a constant theme in both Wolfe and Crane. However, its particular biographical element is a surface manifestation that evinces a much deeper ontological anxiety with the solitude and strangeness of human existence--theirs is an unmistakably Romantic anxiety, of a kind that dated back to Wordsworth. Around the time that Wolfe and Crane were writing, their contemporary, the German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, would similarly describe the essence of the human condition as something unheimlich, meaning "strange or uncanny," but literally, "unhome-like. …

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