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Tuesday, September 20, 2022

September 20, 2022: Southern Storytelling: Thomas Wolfe

[September 25th marks William Faulkner’s 125th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Faulkner and other Southern storytellers, leading up to a special weekend tribute to a great new Faulkner website!]

On the largely, ironically forgotten author who deserves to be remembered and read.

A decade ago I wrote a weeklong series on AmericanStudies connections found in a US Airways Magazine. Just after a feature on Charlottes, the magazine included a briefer piece on various historic sites elsewhere in North Carolina. A few of them are connected to Asheville, the Western North Carolina, mountain city that has provided hotel stays and getaways for many prominent Americans (including multiple presidents at George Vanderbilt’s enormous Biltmore House) over the last century and more. Unmentioned among those references, however, is the modernist American novelist who grew up in Asheville and whose mother made her living in the city’s booming early 20th century real estate and boarding businesses: Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s absence from the article is unsurprising, as he has I would argue largely been forgotten in the 65 years since his tragically early death; but it’s also both ironic and unfortunate.

The irony of Wolfe’s elision, both from our collective memories and from an article on North Carolina, is that he was, as much as any American author, deeply concerned with the question of how and whether an artist—or anyone—can both remain part of and escape from his home and past. The original subtitle of his novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929) was A Story of the Buried Life, and the novel begins with a fragmented quote that includes the lines “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language” and “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” Throughout, Wolfe’s hugely autobiographical novel engages both backwards—into his own, his family’s, his city’s, and the national pasts—and forwards, wondering whether its protagonist can unearth those pasts, will become himself buried in the process, should instead move on into a more separate future, and so on. Five years later, Wolfe would explore those same themes again, from some of the same yet also very distinct angles, in You Can’t Go Home Again (1934). For this author to be absent from most of our national narratives of modernist writers, American literature, or even his home state is, again, powerfully ironic.

But it’s more than that: it’s a shame. Even in his own lifetime, Wolfe struggled with his editors over his sprawling and difficult style, and found limited (or at least more limited than he otherwise might have) audiences and successes as a result. Yet it seems to me that Wolfe’s style is as entirely interconnected with his content and themes as were those of his fellow modernists Hemingway and Faulkner; while it’s fair to say that Wolfe’s was not as influential as either of theirs, I would also argue that the experience of reading his can be just as rewarding and meaningful on its own terms. Moreover, while some of Hemingway’s characters and stories feel more focused on European experiences and some of Faulkner’s more specific to the South, Wolfe’s works are, to my mind, profoundly representative of shared American (and perhaps human) questions, both from that early twentieth century moment and from across all our generations and communities. Time to put him back on the map, I’d say.

Next storytelling studying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Southern storytellers you’d share?

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