Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

Conversion in Germany: The Redirection of
Thomas Wolfe’s Late Fiction

James D. Boyer

SOUTHERN NOVELIST THOMAS WOLFE BEGAN HIS FICTION-WRITING CAREER in the 1920s not as a social reformer but as a romantic writer, focusing his attention in his first two novels, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935), on the young protagonist Eugene Gant’s growing up in and then separating from his family, his hometown of Altamont (or Asheville) and the South, experiencing the different and confusing worlds of Pulpit Hill (University of North Carolina) and Boston (Harvard University), where he studied; New York City (New York University), where he taught; and then Europe, where he traveled first to find a place of refuge in order to do his writing. Eugene’s story, of course, parallels Tom’s. Wolfe himself had grown up the child of a working class family in Asheville, son of a stonecutter, culturally poor, with the many strong prejudices (toward Jews, blacks, and other minorities) that were common to America in these early decades of the twentieth century. Like his autobiographical hero Eugene, the young Wolfe in 1920 moved away from the rural South to attend Harvard, outward to this more populous world of the Northeast—to people more urban than rural, more diverse in race and ethnicity, more varied in appearance, speech, and behavior. After Wolfe moved to New York City in 1924, we can follow in his fiction, especially in stories published in the early 1930s, his shifting attitude toward these city people, including his many Jewish students at New York University and later his working-class neighbors in Brooklyn. In those stories we can trace his responses from a disturbing phobic reaction toward them in the 1920s to a growing sympathy during the 1930s. Twelve years of living in New York City, especially the years in Brooklyn from 1931 to 1935, began to produce profound changes in his thinking about the people surrounding him.

And then dramatically, through his trips to Nazi Germany in 1935

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