After the publication of Look Homeward Angel, it wasn't unusual to see critics speak in all sincerity of Wolfe as the Great American Novelist.
|I still have this book, one of the first I bought for myself when I began to earn money.|
But it didn't quite turn out that way. His contemporaries, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner may have have had their moments of disfavor, but they've ever come near falling out of the pantheon of great American novelists. But for Wolfe, both popular and academic interest evaporated. There was never a course that included Wolfe while I was in under or grad school. His contemporaries, as famous as he was when alive, remain in the American literary canon, and where there are still liberal arts and English departments, they are on the syllabus, with courses devoted to their work. Wolfe isn't even in the anthologies.
Yet he's at least as classically in the American vein as these this trinity of 20th century great literary novelists.
The title and subjects of Thomas Wolfe's first published novel, Look Homeward Angel (published 1929, only days before the stock market crashed, yet sold very well) is in perfect contrasting literary parallelism with his final and posthumous publication (1940), You Can't Go Home Again. This last work takes an overtly historical view of the United States and Europe, that, among many other subjects includes a jaundiced view of capitalism.
This sense of looking back on the nation may be why Wolfe fell out of the American literary canon's favor so quickly in the years of WWII and after. First, he wrote very large, never using a single word when he could come up with a dozen, and that over-abundant rhetorical exuberance was falling thoroughly out of favor even before 1940 as undisciplined and sentimental. And it was no longer the Great Depression, it was WWII, and there was no room to look backwards, or for criticisms of America's wartime economic juggernaut bringing back the good times in terms of employment and wages -- even after Stalin became a wartime ally. Yet here was a novelist overtly thinking through American history, which included the national conundrum of race. This didn't hurt Faulkner's reputation. However, Wolfe's historical expression was as baggy as his prose -- though, in my opinion, neither his historical thinking nor his text, were necessarily, if ever, saggy, and don't contain the petty, small-minded sneering at Jews or other others, or the constant anxiety about manhood, that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald's fiction exhibit.
When I look at Wolfe's novels today, they provide more than any of our other great writers do, even Faulkner, the sense that I am looking backward at a world that is so long ago that it hardly exists now, except in his prose.
It feels that way despite for so long I have lived and walked in streets of the city where he spent most of his short adult life. The excitement with which wrote about life in New York City penetrated my imagination that summer of my adolescence when I discovered his novels in the public library and never went away. That he wasn't a part of the American literary canon by then shows because he wasn't on the shelves of my high school library, where all the other writers were. I found them in the public library by poking about, which I did often, drawn particularly to volumes that obviously hadn't been checked out for years. O, he lived New York very, very large, a literary legend's life, worthy of the literary center of the nation, in an age when literature had pride of place in the realms of art, entertainment and politics.
I have come to think of him again, after a long period of forgetting, especially when in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A sensitive reader can see there, how these mountains and these people would have made a Thomas Wolfe. They should be proud of their native son as much now as in his days of fame, nearly seventy years ago.
These are some of the things that roll through my mind on nights I wake and cannot get back to sleep.
Not many have read Thomas Wolfe in these last decades. From the comfort of their homes, with their devices, readers can get a sense of Look Homeward Angel on these sites:
Look Homeward Angel can be downloaded in various formats here for no fee.
It can also be accessed here. And here too, if your library participates.