Academic journal article Southern Cultures

A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe

Article excerpt

I have needed to write the American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, a love letter since I first encountered him in Eugene Norris's high school English class at the end of 1961. Though I had no way of knowing it then, I had recently entered into the geography and home territory of what would become my literary terrain. For three months I had been native to the county of Beaufort in the state of South Carolina. It was the year I believe I came alive to myself as a human being, the year I felt the fretful, uneasy awakening of something rising within me that I could distinguish as belonging to me and me alone. It marked the first time I could look into the mirror, where I thought I alone was standing, and see that something was in there staring back at me.

Gene Norris gave me a copy of Look Homeward, Angel as a Christmas present that December and his generous gift was a permanent and life-changing one indeed. "I think you are now ready for the many pleasures of Thomas Wolfe," he wrote in the book, the first ever inscribed to me by another human being. The book's impact on me was so viscerally powerful that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life. It starts off with the single greatest, knock-your-socks-off first page I have ever come across in my careful reading of world literature, and I consider myself a small-time aficionado of wonderful first and last pages. The book itself took full possession of me in a way no book has before or since. I read it from cover to cover three straight times, transfigured by the mesmerizing, dazzling hold of the narrator's voice as I took in and fed on the awesome power of the long line for the first time in my life. It was the first time I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other, as I stepped into the bracing streams of Thomas Wolfe and could already hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. I kept catching myself holding my breath as I read Look Homeward, Angel. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure--did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.

During the Christmas break of 1961, I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him. The rhythms of his prose style, oceanic and brimming with strange life, infected the way I wrote and thought with an immovable virus I have never been able to shake. It is a well-known fact that I will carefully select four silvery, difficult-to-digest adjectives when one lean, Anglo-Saxon adjective will suffice just as wen. Once I entered into the country of Thomas Wolfe without visa or passport, I signed up at the immigration office for my right to become a card-carrying citizen of his tormented and mountainous realm. I never went back to the boy I was before Look Homeward, Angel occupied my sixteen-year-old heart. Nor do I know who the boy was or how he sounded or how he managed to survive the world he was born into before the voice of Eugene Gant sounded the anthems of liberation that would set him free. Most flaws I have as a man and a writer I can trace directly to the early influence of Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe's lunar sway over my writing so polluted the efforts of my high school and college years that they border on self-parody. I absorbed every bit of Wolfe's flatulence and windiness and none of his specialness, his ecstatic singularity. I threw words all over the place and none of them landed right. …

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