Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

By the Wind Grieved, Ghosts, Come Back Again: Thomas Wolfe and Arthur Miller

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

By the Wind Grieved, Ghosts, Come Back Again: Thomas Wolfe and Arthur Miller

Article excerpt

Address to the Thomas Wolfe Society, Thirty-Seventh Annual Meeting, 23 May 2015, Albany New York.

Ghosts are intimately connected with place. We know what terrain Bronte's Heathcliff and Cathy roam, know where Hawthorne's Judge Pyncheon hides, know where Wolfe's Ben Gant walks at night. Readers often visit locales connected with writers important to them. Literary sites evoke that writer, create new insights. Author societies know this well, including the Thomas Wolfe Society. Hence this year's meeting along the Hudson River, surely the river that most impacted Wolfe's imagination. But we scarcely need a society to encounter literary ghosts. We can find them unaided.

I have been fortunate to live the majority of my adult years in one of the destinations important to the life and work of Thomas Wolfe. The first time I drove toward the village of Chapel Hill, June 1962, Highway 86 from Hillsborough, the road was bordered by scrub pine and only a few houses. The experience evoked Eugene Gant's arrival in Pulpit Hill a half century earlier. Wolfe wrote: "the wilderness crept up to it like a beast" (Look 396). When he began his college career, UNC enrollment stood near one thousand. In 2015, UNC enrolls some thirty thousand students. Wolfe's ghost in 2015 might easily get lost, but he could still find his way to Franklin Street and a campus that he could recognize. The Old Well he would find modernized a bit, but unmistakably itself. The interiors of Old East and Old West have been significantly upgraded, but the exteriors look the same. And there's South Building watching over the historic heart of the campus.

The most beautiful part of the campus remains its founding quadrangle: Davie Poplar and other great trees, the Well, Old East, Old West, Person Hall, Alumni Hall. Vance-Battle-Pettigrew, just across from the Post Office remembering that Wolfe once had a room there. It is on this section of the campus that I most often meet Wolfe's ghost. He prefers to beckon to me when I walk through this historic quad on an early summer morning when few others share the paths. I am reminded of Eugene's reluctance to leave following his graduation and his final evening run across the quad.

I can meet Wolfe's ghost off campus, too. On those occasions that I have walked up Strowd Hill (a steep climb, not recommended for the heat of summer), I imagine Tom trudging upward late at night, returning from Durham after taking the Daily Tar Heel to the printer. I often walk past the house that Professor Horace Williams built and imagine Eugene/Tom making a final visit to this very house to say goodbye to his favorite professor. Oh, Wolfe can easily be found if you know where to look.

And on the campus of the University of Michigan, where I studied for a decade, you can easily find reminders of Michigan's most famous writer--Arthur Miller.

I was in high school when Death of a Salesman premiered in New York and won the Pulitzer Prize. At Michigan I'd soon discover the power of that play. I chose a scene from it for a performance assignment. I listened more than once to the sound recording of Thomas Mitchell, Mildred Dunnock, and Arthur Kennedy in the key roles. And I learned about Arthur Miller, who at Michigan had won two Hopwood Awards for his plays. I visited the Hopwood Room, where tea is served and writers and writing are honored. I sometimes passed by the Student Publications Building, where he sat as night editor of the Michigan Daily. I knew his terrain, encountered some of his professors. When I walked across the stage in Yost Field House at Commencement in June 1956 to receive my BA, Arthur Miller was on the platform, where he had just received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

In subsequent years, I naturally followed Miller's career with keen interest. In Chapel Hill I frequently taught Death of a Salesman and other Miller plays. I seized opportunities to see his work performed live or on the screen or on television. …

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