January 16, 2018

Thomas Wolfe, Going Home

On this day in 1940 Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again was published, two years after his death from tubercular meningitis at the age of thirty-seven. Earlier novels in his four-book, autobiographical series included the best-selling Look Homeward Angel, and the lesser-known middle books, Of Time and the River and The Web and the Rock. Wolfe's legendary style of writing, like that of his life, was flowing and impassioned, and an editor's worst nightmare. The first two books in the series were reworked by Wolfe under advisement from Max Perkins at Scribner's; the last two (and a collection of short stores, The Hills Beyond) were culled by Harper's editor Edward Aswell from the mammoth manuscript which Wolfe left behind in jumbled piles and boxes -- some 1.5 million words, about a dozen novels of ordinary length. "I've got too much material," says the central character, writer George Webber, about halfway through You Can't Go Home Again. "It keeps backing up on me until sometimes I wonder what in the name of God I'm going to do with it all...."

Wolfe's self-chronicling and wasteland-wandering was cast as a mission from start to premature finish. "I am inevitable," he wrote in a 1923 letter home from Harvard:
    And I intend to wreak out my soul on people and express it all. This is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing and I will do it or die.... I will go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotions I am able, and I will write, write, write....
Perkins would call him "lone Wolfe," and his nomadic, lyrical howl would speak loudly to the Kerouac generation, or to anyone bound for a "discovery of life and the world" as George Webber was determined to discover it: "through error and through trial, and through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused." Even at the end of You Can't Go Home Again, as editor Aswell constructs it anyway -- this passage is from a 1937 Wolfe short story -- the calling continued:
    Something has spoken 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. Saying:

    "To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth--

    "--Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending -- a wind is rising, and the rivers flow."

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