I’ve been working my way through Thomas Wolfe’s last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, for the past few weeks, reserving it for flights to and from North Carolina as a way to while away the time. I just finished it and feel a sadness for having done so, somethingI haven’t felt for some time from a piece of literature.
The old cliché of the “Great American Novel” comes to mind; Wolfe avidly pursued it, as no one has before or since, and in places, actually quite a few places, he manages to write it. His descriptions of New York City during the Great Depression rival, and outrank Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. His Whitmanesque elegies to the vastness of America, the rawness of the countryside, the power of the cities, the perspective an expatriate has of the nation looking homeward from a Europe poised on the brink of war, is a very fine thing indeed.
Time has not treated Wolfe well. Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway held their own through the decades following this Golden Age of American Literature, but Wolfe fell by the wayside, his reputation perhaps diminished by the perception that he was highly edited (by the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner, then Edward Aswell at Harper), unstructured, and completely autobiographical. The balls of the man, who threw his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina to the world, naming names as it were, in his first novel, Look Homeward Angel, is amazing, the quintessential proof that a novelist makes no friends in mining the stuff of his or her own life and relations in building their masterpieces.
There are so many great passages, so many great lines, it is staggering to consider that Aswell assembled You Can’t Go Home Again from an eight foot packing case of notes and 35 notebooks. The sadness of the conclusion and the foreknowledge of Wolfe in the conclusion, in predicting his own death, is wrenching:
“Something has spoke to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year, something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where.”
And so he died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis.
0 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Home Again – Thomas Wolfe”
Oh Absalom, how i love your interst in Thomas Wolfe, the elder. Great stuff but vastly different than his conemporaries.
One of the first celeb interviews i did as kid back in the days of typeweriters, hot lead and smoke-filled newsrooms was with Steinbeck who was roaring drunk. I later came to know his son, John Steinbeck Jr. and discovered that his dad had emotionally abandoned him as a kid. It was very sad.
I am in awe of anyone who had the privilege of meeting Steinbeck. Why don’t any contemporary authors swing for the cliche of the Great American Novel any more? It’s such a Quixotic dream, sure to ruin the writer who tries, but still — in our age of Da Vinci Code — where is the writer will to take it all on?
I interviewed Jorge Luis Borges two months before his death. I was the only person in the newsroom of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune who had ever heard of him, and got to spend two hours talking to him. I didn’t bother writing the story. The copy desk would have cut it to a bus plunge inch of: “Argentinian Writer Speaks at Local School”
Apparently Wolfe was an utter maniac and mess. Anyone with an interest in the Beat authors needs to read him. Another recommendation is the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos — that is another maddening but very relevant book.
Dos Passos was often part of the SoCal author’s circuit–Bradbury (who had to be driven everywhere), Wm Goldman (thoughtful and very helpful o young authors),Sam Fuller (film Noir director and one of my heros) Wm Saroyan (collected pieces of paper and had OCD) and Leon Uris. My copy desk wanted o turn the back of the sport section into literary crtique, until I turned three of them into fisherpersons and then they got an “out doors” section
My son Eliot, the film student, is a big Fuller fan.
I’m clearly not of the caliber of yourself or Senior deFuca (damn, to have met Steinbeck!) … but I literally grew up with Kerouac in my heart (who himself through Lowell to the world) … have read most everything he has written … and even ran amuck myself of his influence … dropping out of school and spending several years in Bisbee, AZ and many more in NYC and Toronto … writing crazy drunken and drug-addled, type-written scrolls on my crappy old Smith-Cornoa to my brother back East. But Kerouac had this wonderful vision not only of the great American novel … but of America itself. He wrote in Bebop–one of the the most brilliant of American innovations … ran on in jazz-like riffs … jammed in prose with that rythmn and soul … illustrated in words the shimmering electricity of New York City in its hincty, falaheen nights… and thrilled me the way seeing Miles for the first time changed my life … Damn, where are these cats?
My sad absense, because I am a musician and not a writer, is where is Coltrane, Mingus, Ellington? That beauty now is substitued with a cheapened American marketspace, a syrupy slot on XM or Sirius. No Great American Album on the horizon.
I contend that Gilbert Sorentino has written some of the great American novels; Robert Coover too.
One of my fav beat memories, and I am almost too young to have them, was Ginsburg reading Howl at UMASS FAC circa 1994–the caption on the poster I’ll always remember “I am going to say reckless things, and I want you to listen recklessly.” He played harmonium and read, more sang. A soul shouted “Allen, how’s your spirit?” Ginsberg stopped playing and reading and said “spiritus latin for breath and i have congestive heart failure” then he went into Howl. I went places and the only thing that brought me back was Molloch Molloch Molloch. And then 3 years later he was gone.
But Chris, the great american jazz albums are being recorded here: http://www.screwgunrecords.com and the best american album of my lifetime could be “american water by the silver jews.” david berman, singer songwriter, also has a good book of poetry on Open City Press called Actual Air. Very James Tate-y.
Any chance Thomas Wolfe can be considered the greatest American novelist? I’d cast my vote for him as such.
Hardy Parkerson, Atty.
Lake Charles, LA
Wolfe was a great writer, but Henry Miller is the greatest American writer who ever lived.
Um. No he wasn’t.
Driving Semis – that’s for me. Driving smoky big rigs down the highways (deus ex machina), talking trash on the CB, playing both types of music (country and western) on the old reliable Blaupunkt, a dirty red bandana covering my red sunburned neck, sweat pouring into my eyes from the glaring sun. Flexing old sinewy muscles to keep awake. Health insurance, shit no. With high diesel costs and no company help, ain’t got money for no stinkin health insurance. Anyway, tough men work through the pain. No arrogant bosses on this job except the ICC to worry about. Keeping two logs, one for me, one for the man. Tonight, pull over to a rest area early and read Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again”, recommended by David C. and just happens to be in my ragged stash in the sleeper. Ahhh yes, Driving Semis – real books, real life, real men.