Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe's Expressionism and the Party at Jack's

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe's Expressionism and the Party at Jack's

Article excerpt

In the last years of his tragically foreshortened life, Thomas Wolfe created a number of stories and short novels striking for their subtlety, reach, and mastery of literary form. The Party at Jack's, compiled in his last year, stands among and yet apart from these as a work of remarkable power and social critique. An extravagant party attended by wealthy Americans at the height of the Roaring '20s lies at the heart of the novel; it collapses in disarray as a fire sweeps the grandiose building and guests are scattered in a ghostly, candlelit procession into the streets. So pointed is the social critique that "Wolfe feared that readers would think this short novel to be Marxist" (Holman 66). The Party at Jack's is not Marxist. But in its skillful use of caricature, distortion, and sardonic commentary, it is at heart a decidedly expressionistic work, arguably the most expressionist he ever wrote.

Anyone familiar with the vogue of expressionism at its zenith in the 1920s, particularly in its German manifestations, can easily conjure up visual associations with The Party at Jack's. The central action of the novella, a lavish gathering at the main characters' Manhattan apartment, calls to mind iconic German paintings of the 1920s and '30s, especially those of Otto Dix (1891-1969) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). We have no evidence that Wolfe was familiar with the paintings of Dix, but he did know Kirchner and listed his Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) among the works he saw at the Modern Gallery in Frankfurt in September 1928 (Notebooks 1: 174). To an almost haunting degree, Dix's triptych called Grossstadt ("Big City") and Kirchner's Potsdamer Platz ("Potsdam Place," in Berlin) seem like made-for-advertising illustrations for The Party at Jack's.

Yet the connection between Wolfe and expressionism is much deeper and broader, though it may reach its most compelling manifestation in The Party at Jack's. In fact, a kind of expressionism was present in Wolfe's writing almost from the beginning. And although expressionism is not Wolfe's predominant mode, it does thread consistently through his works in varying guises. Look Homeward, Angel, certainly not an expressionistic text when considered as a whole, nonetheless reveals a kind of proto-expressionism, particularly near the end. So important is this stylistic strand in Wolfe's sensibility and language that we simply cannot understand his writing without taking it into account.

A working definition and brief history of expressionism may be useful here: William Harmon describes this movement in the visual and literary arts as a "revolt against realism" in which external objects are used "not as representational but as transmitters of the internal impressions and moods" (208). It began just prior to World War I in Europe and reached its apogee in "late" or "high" expressionism in Germany in the 1920s and '30s, although it was also a popular form in other countries, including the United States. Expressionism can be seen to encompass four main features: (1) deliberate, non-realistic distortions of events and situations to intensify emotional effects; (2) garish, even strident, tones and colors; (3) satiric, often sardonic, social commentary; and (4) dehumanization of character through caricature and often through mechanization. In the realm of art, intense expressionistic effects are created through garish colors like chartreuse and orange and human figures with deliberately elongated bodies and overly made-up faces in mask-like exaggeration. Heavy black outlines and edgy, angular positioning emphasize a deep sense of anxiety with an undertow of desperation and despair, despite the glittering surface gaiety.

The social outlook of German expressionism is world-weary, cynical, decadent, and almost if not quite maniacal. The artist or author views contemporary life through a satiric lens, but more often sardonically, where the social criticism has a mordant edge. …

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