DURING HIS own lifetime Wolfe's novels were praised for their imaginative power, their brilliant characterization, and their ability to translate human emotion into words. But at the same time they were damned for their imaginative confusion, their obsession with autobiography and their apparent lack of all artistic form and discipline. John Chamberlain searched them in vain for any "controlling idea, or frame of reference." And Bernard DeVoto disposed of them with the phrase: "Genius is not enough."
After Wolfe's untimely death, this criticism continued. The publication of his last novel modified it a little. Clearly the author and his autobiographical hero had been striving toward some "controlling idea" greater than their individual selves. And the last three hundred pages of You Can't Go Home Again sought consciously to define this idea. Joseph Warten Beach suggested that the theme of Wolfe's earlier novels had been "The Search for a Father," while this last novel described "The Discovery of Brotherhood."1 Others interpreted Wolfe's idea in other ways. But to most critics the idealism remained obscure.
It can now be proved that a single idea dominated all of Thomas Wolfe's life and writing. And even in his own time, it was possible to recognize it in his first novels.2 His earliest play, Mannerhouse,3 had already formulated the idea before he had begun to write novels at all. In the perspective of twenty years, Thomas Wolfe's idea may be defined and its development traced. Far from being the novelist of mere autobiographical emotion, Thomas Wolfe was the novelist of an idea. His whole life was dedicated to the living and describing of that idea. And when finally he had realized that idea, both in his life and in his writings, he died.
Briefly, the idea which controlled Wolfe's life and writing was the American dream of freedom and democracy. Like Walt Whitman,