American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

PART VI

17. THOMAS WOLFE: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN IDEA

I

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,

-155-

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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