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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

[7266] Marion Post Walcott, Farmhouse and Barns near Asheville, North Carolina (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-052386-D DLC].

Known for his ability to produce lyrical torrents of largely autobiographical prose, Thomas Wolfe earned critical and commercial success with his first novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929), but struggled to live up to his own reputation for the rest of his short life.

Born Thomas Clayton Wolfe in Asheville, North Carolina, Wolfe was the youngest of eight children. He attended a private school in Asheville before going on to the University of North Carolina when he was just shy of his sixteenth birthday. It was at UNC that Wolfe began writing in earnest–first as a reporter for the school paper (of which he eventually became editor), and then as a budding playwright. After graduation, Wolfe went to Harvard to study playwriting at the 47 Workshop with George Pierce Baker. There, Wolfe produced two notable plays, Mannerhouse and Welcome to Our City, both of which featured a satirical style inspired by that of the most infamous critic of the South’s cultural and intellectual sterility, H. L. Mencken. However, the sheer length of his plays (Welcome to Our City was nearly four hours from curtain to curtain) and his intensely personal narrative style were poorly suited to drama, and Wolfe soon became frustrated by his lack of success as a playwright.

In August 1925, as he was returning to New York from Europe, Wolfe met and fell in love with Aline Bernstein. Almost twenty years Wolfe’s senior and an accomplished scene designer in the New York theater, Bernstein encouraged Wolfe to pursue prose fiction instead of drama. With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel four years later, Wolfe’s literary reputation finally seemed secure. A largely autobiographical story of a young Southerner coming of age, the novel was hailed by some as an American answer to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and made such an impression that in 1947 even William Faulkner ranked Wolfe ahead of himself as the most important American writer of the 1920s and 1930s.

The success of Look Homeward, Angel allowed Wolfe to continue traveling and gathering material for his writing. Wolfe’s experiences during these years–as well as his continued association with Bernstein–encouraged him to explore the Jewish themes with which some of his later writing was concerned. According to biographer Hugh Holman, “In 1936, leaving Berlin on a train, an incident with a Jew trying to escape Germany forced [Wolfe] to recognize the cruel nature of the Nazi state, and on returning home he wrote one of his most powerful short novels, I Have a Thing To Tell You, a strong indictment of Germany, which was serialized in the New Republic. Like many of his short novels, it was later incorporated in expanded form in one of his novels, in this case You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Yet, despite having plenty of new material, Wolfe struggled to produce a followup to Look Homeward, Angel, and eventually was forced to rely heavily on the talents of his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins (who also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway), to help him pare down and shape the unwieldy manuscript that eventually became Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River (1935). The effort was a popular success, but critics charged that Wolfe’s passionate but personal style was becoming tiresome and overindulgent; they also questioned whether Wolfe depended too heavily on Perkins to structure his work. In an effort to prove his ability as a writer, Wolfe changed publishers and worked furiously to produce a third novel. Mere months before his untimely death from tuberculosis, Wolfe delivered his final manuscript (thousands of pages) to his new editor, Edward Aswell at Harper’s. After Wolfe’s death, Aswell shaped the manuscript into two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Both books continued the story of Wolfe’s own life, but included a larger social vision that answered at least some of his critics’ complaints.

Teaching Tips

  • As in As I Lay Dying, the narrative changes in the “The Lost Boy” can be confusing to students. Ask students to chart the narrative changes in the story by listing the different narrators, the page on which the narration changes, and the specific textual devices Wolfe uses to indicate the change. Use your students’ charts to talk about the importance of the different narrators to the overall effect of the story.
  • Wolfe’s career raises questions about what an “author” is or does. Can we call Wolfe the author of Of Time and the River if the book was largely “shaped” by his editor? What is authorship? To help students think about such questions, ask them to write a definition of authorship, then have them discuss their definitions. How important is it that the reader be able to define what an author is or does?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why is Robert so concerned with “Time” in the first third of “The Lost Boy”? Notice how time seems to stop for Robert in certain places. How does his concern with the passage of time relate to the later sections of the story?
  2. Context: Compare “The Lost Boy” to Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” Like Wright, Wolfe was at least partially inspired by H. L. Mencken’s sharp critiques of the South and its people. In what ways do both Wright and Wolfe seem concerned with “lost boys”? How are their lost boys similar? In what ways do they seem different?
  3. Context: During Wolfe’s life, new technologies of mass media–primarily radio and motion pictures–sparked the growth of a mass culture that brought many changes to the small southern communities Wolfe writes about. With this in mind, how might we read “The Lost Boy” as a story about Wolfe’s life and literary career? In what ways was Wolfe himself “lost”? In what ways might we think of it as the story of “the South” more generally?
  4. Exploration: Much of the fiction produced after World War II can be read as responding in some way to the horrific events of that conflict, including the Jewish Holocaust and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As you can see from Unit 15, “Poetry of Liberation,” many writers in the second half of the twentieth century attempted to confront the question of what it means to be human after witnessing the extent of the cruelty humans can inflict on one another. Compare Thomas Wolfe to a few of the writers in Unit 15. In what ways are Wolfe’s concerns similar to those of later writers? In what ways are they different?
  5. Exploration: What is the role of critical taste in determining a work’s value? Literary taste changed during the interval between the publication of Wolfe’s first two books (1929-35). During that time, Marxist critics began demanding socially conscious fiction, while New Critics were looking for structurally unified works. Neither critical perspective was pleased by the lack of structure and the personal style that characterized Wolfe’s books. How does the rise and fall of Wolfe’s literary reputation compare with that of Zora Neale Hurston? What might the critical reception of these authors tell us about what makes “great” American literature?

Selected Archive Items

[7266] Marion Post Walcott, Farmhouse and Barns near Asheville, North Carolina (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-052386-D DLC].
Photograph of farmhouse, barns, rolling hills, trees, and fields. An example of the agricultural life that the Agrarian writers extolled, this town was Thomas Wolfe’s birthplace.

[7274] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Thomas Wolfe
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42508 DLC].
Posed portrait of author Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was known for his autobiographical fiction, particularly the novel Look Homeward, Angel, a southern coming-of- age story.

[7728] Don Doyle, Interview: “Mencken’s Ridicule of the South and the Agrarians’ Response” (2002), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Doyle discusses H. L. Mencken’s dismissal of southern artistry. Mencken was well known for his acerbic wit, and Southern Agrarian writers defended the South against his attacks. Doyle is the Nelson Tyrone Jr. Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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