Thomas Wolfe Essay, Research Paper
Look Homeward: A Look at the Life of Thomas Wolfe
“At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being–the reward he seeks–the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity.” -Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe’s works, which are acclaimed to be among the most influential of any American writer’s, were almost literally rooted in his varied personal experiences. His early life experiences and heritage gave him an insatiable appetite for life. Although his life was short he was able to write some of the best American Literature of the twentieth century. His ability to appeal to everyone through his literally biographical novels, which contain rich imagery and deep moral resolution, has had a profound impact on American Literature.
Thomas Wolfe’s early life greatly influenced his outlook on life and his later works. He was born on October 3 1900, a mix of German, English, and Scotch-Irish (”T. Wolfe”, 726). Wolfe was the youngest among a working class family of six brothers and sisters packed into a small house on 92 Woodfin Street in Asheville, North Carolina (5). Due to the frugality of both parents, the seven brothers and sisters were forced to live in a house with only three proper bedrooms, one of which was occupied by Julia Elizabeth Westall and W.O. Wolfe, Thomas’s parents (6). Thomas was the object of exaggerated possessiveness because he was the last child. He was not weaned of milk until the age of three. Julia kept his hair curled and long until he was five when the neighborhood boys chided him about looking like a girl. Thomas even slept in the same bed as Julia until he was eight years old. This situation was only made worse by how Julia and W.O. felt about each other.
Julia and W.O. Wolfe had a marriage almost as non-existent as their love for each other (10). W.O. was a tombstone engraver, and Julia was a housewife with an interest in real estate. The parents would often fight openly in front of their children. A reoccurring reason for this fighting was W.O.’s “spree drinking”. Wolfe’s father was an alcoholic who would be able to abstain for months, often lecturing on the evils of drinking, only to go on another drinking binge. This pattern would plague W.O. for his entire life, and would be on of the many wedges driven between him and Julia (6). These marital problems took their toll on young Thomas. His parents, who would sometimes blame the stress associated with the unhappy marriage on the child, often verbally abused him because he was the last one, and almost an accidental birth (14). This left Wolfe with a sense of being unloved and therefore he always had a craving to be praised and recognized. Another pattern that developed due to his parental relationships was one of seeking a paternal or maternal figure throughout is life (Nowell, 24). This seeking constitutes almost the entire them of Wolfe’s second great novel Of Time and the River.
Julia was always finding a means of escaping her life in Asheville because of her unhappiness due to marital problems. In 1904 during the Worlds Fair, Julia moved to St. Louis and opened a boarding house, where she and the Wolfe children stayed for seven months (Nowell, 21). This business venture proved tragic, ending with the death of Grover who on of the twin brothers. The death of his brother would engrain in Thomas a fear that he would not live long enough to experience life as he wanted to, and prove to be the driving force behind his craving to see everything and experience everything. In 1906 Julia returned to Asheville and opened another boarding house where she and Thomas lived. It was in that year that Wolfe began his schooling. Against advice from teachers, who believed that Thomas should wait another year before entering school, Julia and W.O. agreed to enroll him in the Orange Street Elementary school in 1906 (Donald, 16). Wolfe was not viewed as the brightest student in school. Although he could read very well, his writing and spelling skills were always in question by his teachers. Wolfe also has a tendency to stammer when he talked, giving the impression to teachers that he was slow witted; he would never shake this stammering habit (17). The one thing that the teacher’s did notice, however, was Wolfe’s insatiable appetite for literature. By the second grade Wolfe spent almost every day in the public library, which W.O. had bought him a card to after Wolfe had read all of his father’s respectably sized book collection (18). It was in these early days that Wolfe started drawing his influence from many different writers. After completing six years of schooling at the Orange Street School, Wolfe was accepted into the North State Fitting School to prepare for college. Wolfe was accepted because of an entrance exam he had written. This exam was given to every student of Wolfe’s age by the head of the school, Mr. Roberts who was a former teacher at the Orange Street School. He read a story to each of the students and asked them to rewrite it in their own words. Margaret Roberts, his wife, was reading the paper that Thomas Wolfe had written and thought that it showed true genius, thus Thomas Wolfe was accepted into the North State Fitting School (24). Because North State was a private school, going to it severed the relationship he had with neighborhood boys. In his early days at the school Wolfe did not apply himself. That was all changed when Wolfe met the first major influence, and parental figure in his life. It was none other than Margaret Roberts, the reader of his paper whom he called the “mother of his sprit” in a later speech at Purdue University (Nowell, 24). His relationship with Mrs. Roberts saved him from a disastrous first year in school and ultimately started his passion for writing. Although his first years in school were hard, his last two proved to be more rewarding. Wolfe read several of his essays to his classes because they were written so well. It was these years in school that Wolfe would describe as some of the happiest of his life (Donald, 29).
In 1916 Wolfe left the North State Fitting School and Asheville for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This move again surprised his teachers, who thought that Wolfe should wait another year before going to college. Wolfe’s original intentions were to attend Princeton University, however W.O. Wolfe would not hear of going to and out of state institution. Wolfe in turn settled for the University of North Carolina with the reasoning that it was not a bad school. His schooling at college proved to follow much of the same pattern as his earlier years. He has a very hard time during his freshman year with pressure of classes and living alone. In a speech he gave at Purdue University, Wolfe would describe himself as the “greenest” of the freshmen (Nowell, 34). The summer of Wolfe’s freshman year proved to be almost as miserable as the school year itself. Wolfe met and fell in love with Clara Paul, who made it clear that she was engaged, because this was Wolfe’s first love, he was greatly devastated. Later in the summer, Wolfe’s brother Ben, who was Grover’s twin, caught influenza, developed pneumonia, and died. The events of Ben’s death are described almost literally in Wolfe’s fictional novel Of Time and the River. Wolfe described this event as the one that forever shattered his family (44). At the end of summer Wolfe again tried to convince his father to let him go to Princeton, but W.O. would hear nothing of it. Wolfe then returned to college, deeply disturbed, only to find out later that his father was dying of cancer. Again he was struggling through his courses during his second year, which was probably due to his troubling summer. Wolfe overcame his struggles in his Junior and senior years. In 1918 Wolfe became assistant editor of the campus newspaper, the “Tar Heel”. It was in this newspaper and in the University of North Carolina Magazine that his first fictional works appeared (Donald, 42). Wolfe made many allusions in his earlier works. He was often known to reference Greek myths and Renaissance literature. At this time many of Wolfe’s poems were being published. Because of the war, all of them were very patriotic in nature. One poem in particular called “The Challenge” gained statewide attention and was published in the Asheville newspaper (43). In Wolfe’s senior year he was even more successful. Wolfe became chief editor of the “Tar Heel”, and was elected to Golden Fleece, which was vaguely modeled after Yale’s “skull and bones”. It was the highest honor for any college man at the University of North Carolina (52).
After Wolfe left the University of North Carolina, he spent a restless summer deciding what to do with his life. Since he had already written some plays at the University of North Carolina, Wolfe convinced his parents to let him go to Harvard to become a playwright (Nowell, 51). For the next three years Wolfe would try and fail repeatedly to become a successful playwright. Wolfe rented a room from Professor N.A. Walker of the University of North Carolina, who had come to Harvard that year to study. Wolfe also found that William Polk and Albert Coates, two of his friends from the University of North Carolina, were also at Harvard. Despite these old friends, he felt lost and lonely in his years at Harvard (51). It was this loneliness that prompted Wolfe to see much of his Uncle Henry A. Westall. The main reason Wolfe went to Harvard was to take English 47; a course often called the 37 Workshop, which was taught by Professor George Pierce Baker. Professor Baker was the second great “parental” figure in Thomas Wolfe’s life. Wolfe’s first play was The Mountains, a story set in the mountains of North Carolina involving the mountain people who lived there (”T. Wolfe”, 726). Even though this play was a failure, Wolfe spent much of his second year at Harvard expanding it into a three-act play. Also during Wolfe’s second year, he wrote the first version ofWelcome to Our City. It was about a town run by racism and greed, and was his most successful play. Wolfe spent the summer of 1921 at Harvard, it was then that he wrote the preliminary outline for his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (Nowell, 60). Wolfe also wrote the outlines for six plays which he presented to Professor Baker at the beginning of the year (Donald, 57). One of these plays was The Heirs. Professor Baker thought that Wolfe showed much promise as a writer, and encouraged him greatly. Wolfe spent his third year at Harvard writing and revising plays. He was very moody during the productions of these plays, and would explode in a fit of rage if anyone adversely criticized his work (Nowell, 62). After his third year, Wolfe started tying to submit his plays to be produced in New York, even though several attempts in college left him nothing but failure. After his work was reviewed by the Theatre Guild in New York, he agreed to revise the play Welcome To Our City to make it shorter so it would be produced. Professor Baker was very displeased at this and said that Wolfe “prostituting his art” Wolfe only succeeded in making the play longer, and was therefore rejected (80). While submitting Welcome To Our City to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, Wolfe met the next great influence on his life, Aline Bernstein, who was a very successful stage designer (80). All of his attempts to get his plays produced were unsuccessful. Because of his financial situation, Wolfe was forced to get a job as a teacher at New York University. He would spend 6 “miserable” years teaching, but still has his hopes set on becoming a successful playwright. Teaching at New York University only increased his incredible sense of failure. Despite all of this, Wolfe continued to struggle with writing plays, even though teaching at New York University would not allow him enough time to write as much as he wanted to (83). Finally in the summer of 1926 it became obvious to Wolfe that he would never become a successful dramatist. In turn, Wolfe decided to travel abroad (102). This ended his schooling and began the next great chapter in his life.
Over the next 11 years Wolfe resided mainly in New York, and took several trips out of the country. His travels abroad took him to Europe seven times (56). At this time Wolfe had a very close relationship with Aline Bernstien. It was the last great love affair of his life. Mrs. Bernstien, who was married, ultimately helped Wolfe become a man. She helped greatly in his writing too. In the six years that their relationship lasted, Wolfe completed his greatest work, including the final version of the novel Look Homeward, Angel. Along with this Wolfe wrote what was to become Of Time and the River and some of his manuscripts that were to be put into novel form posthumously. The release of Look Homeward, Angel in 1929 was finally a success for Wolfe. The novel was given excellent reviews from critics. Hugh Walpole described the novel as “near perfect as a novel can be”.
Look Homeward, Angel can best be described as a novel of growth in the tradition of Great Expectations. It follows the life of a young boy named Eugene Gant through the many stages of growing up in his town, Altamont. The main plot of the story is Eugene’s struggle to free himself from an oppressive environment and a possessive mother. The conflict is that this is the only life Eugene has known. This book is very autobiographical. Wolfe did not even bother to change the first names of some of the characters. For example Eugene’s father in the book is W.O. Gant, his mother is Eliza Gant, and one of his older brothers is Ben. The great impact of his parents’ relationship on Wolfe’s life is very prominent in Wolfe’s novels. The main theme of Look Homeward, Angel is the search for a home and a paternal figure. Ultimately, Eugene reaches an interpretation of life and finds a way of life he can follow (Field, 197). Wolfe often sacrifices the motion of the plot for his intense need to pour out his emotions in writing. Because of this, Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel becomes very diffusive (Mulller, 27). In spite of these drawbacks, Wolfe has become a famous author. His novels are full of dynamic emotional experiences and a lush background for his protagonist characters (Field, 198). Because of his amazing memory, Wolfe could recall scenes from his life and write about each of them in great detail. His novels appear greatly to everyone because almost everyone is searching for something, and always maturing along the way (195).
Wolfe’s second novel was Of Time and the River. This follows the now older Eugene through his struggles trying to be a playwright after leaving college. In this novel Eugene struggles with his past yet again. He sees his hometown Altamont as a place of death. This also was true of Wolfe in his real life. By the time Wolfe was writing Of Time and the River, he had lost three brothers, a sister, and his father. It was at this time that he met another parental figure in his life. Maxwell Perkins was Wolfe’s editor in the last years of Wolfe’s life. Wolfe saw Perkins as a fatherly figure. Wolfe’s relationship with Perkins is described in the book The Story of a Novel (”Wolfe, T.”).
Thomas Wolfe was one of the only authors to use his history so literally in the form of a fictional novel. He was also one of the only authors to accomplish so much in such a short time. On September 15, 1938 Wolfe died of tubercular meningitis. His unsatisfied appetite to experience everything so fast had proved tragically true. Wolfe, after his death, left many unfinished manuscripts behind. The editor Edward Aswell turned these manuscripts into Wolfe’s last two novels The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again (”Wolfe, T.”). Thomas Wolfe was praised as the first to idealize the American dream (Muller, 11). Wolfe has also been put on the same level as Balzaac, Dickens, Melville and Dostoyevsky by some critics (Muller, 3). Although he made no original contribution to the methods and materials in fiction, his writing has been read and has influenced many. Jack Kerouac described him as one of his main influences. Kerouac’s first novel The Town and Country was an emulation of Wolfe’s style.
Though Thomas Wolfe’s life was short, his literary achievements were, indeed, immense. His words are explosions of adjectives and adverbs, but through the magic of his words, he breathed life into his vision of the world around him. The lyrical quality of his writing, his vast vocabulary, and his expansive eloquence are found no where else in American literature. He communicates his experiences through the shapes, sounds, colors, odors, and textures of life, and he proclaims his impressions of the world with total mastery.
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Field, Leslie A. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades Of Criticism.
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“Wolfe, Thomas.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 5.