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A Very Long Train Journey.

This paper began with a memory. Early in my post-adolescent involvement with Thomas Wolfe I read, somewhere, that he had once been asked by Max Perkins for a transitional passage about a train journey. Returning that night to his lodgings and the refrigerator that served as a desk, he wrote 10,000 words--all at one overnight stroke. Accurate or not, this is a variation on a standard Wolfe theme he frequently embellished and justified, an ungovernable fecundity in the throes of composition that was at once a strength and a weakness.

No one knew more of this than Perkins, whose patience as editorial midwife--not merely for Wolfe but for others, including Scott Fitzgerald as he labored on The Great Gatsby--is beyond compare. But in Wolfe's case, also a tragic liability.

But back to trains.

We of the airline and automobile age tend to forget how central trains were, only yesterday, for long-distance journeys--and their fascination for boys growing up in provincial places, and cities as well. Thomas Wolfe was the novelistic bard of that earlier generation; trains were of immense figurative and metaphorical importance for him. David Herbert Donald speaks in his biography of recurrent images of trains "snaking their way north through the Southern mountains" (xv). Wolfe valued one Manhattan bar--the Chatham Walk--because "there he could feel the vibrations from the great trains far beneath the sidewalk, as they came into or left the city" (Donald 298). Trains meant escape from what Wolfe felt to be an encirclement in the surrounding hills--which, as the root of important emotions, assumed poetic importance. No one said it better than his contemporary Jonathan Daniels in his essay, "Poet of the Boom," a memorial to his impressions as a pallbearer for his old friend. O. Henry, he says, had looked at the same hills and, for purposes of art, seen nothing:
   I remembered while we moved toward the long hole in
   the yellow clay that O. Henry was buried somewhere in
   the same cemetery and that he had looked at the mountains
   around us without getting an idea into his head.
   ... It was a magnificent day. In the late afternoon sun
   there was mist on the mountains, or perhaps it was
   smoke from the noisy trains which run down the valley
   of the French Broad. Their whistles had been forever in
   Tom's head. (233-34)

The long train journey that heralds Of Time and the River not only chronicles Eugene Gant's journey northward, it is also a personal passage to a new life--perhaps, as Daniels said, with the whistles forever in his head.

So it was natural that trains should be central to Wolfe's imagination--and that, when he was called on to write a brief transition, a dam of words and images was waiting to burst. He had once chanted, "I wrote ten thousand words today!" (qtd. in Nowell 300). One may open Wolfe's pages almost at random and find a train lovingly described--as, for instance, in the story called "The Far and the Near," in From Death to Morning :
   Every day, a few minutes after two o'clock in the afternoon,
   the limited express between two cities passed this
   spot. At that moment the great train, having halted for
   a breathing-space at the town near by, was beginning
   to lengthen evenly into its stroke.... It swung into view
   deliberately, swept past with a powerful swaying motion
   of the engine, a low smooth rumble of its heavy cars
   upon pressed steel, and then it vanished in the cut. For
   a moment the progress of the engine could be marked
   by heavy bellowing puffs of smoke that burst at spaced
   intervals above the edges of the meadow grass, and finally
   nothing could be heard but the solid clacking
   tempo of the wheels receding into the drowsy stillness
   of the afternoon. (164)

Such a passage could only have been written by one whose every sense was tuned to a passing train and for whom that inanimate machine assumes the role of a character in the story. Note especially the animating references to "breathing-space" and "bellowing" that all but humanize the machine.

As I looked more deeply into my topic, complexity began to emerge, as it tends to do. How to track down the lost source of that memory? Rereading Bernard DeVoto's piece, "Genius Is Not Enough," I came upon his random remark that Wolfe had written a hundred thousand words when far fewer were needed:
   ... works of art cannot be assembled like a carburetor--they
   must be grown like a plant, or in Mr. Wolfe's favorite
   simile, like an embryo. The artist writes a hundred thousand
   words about a train: Mr. Perkins decides that the
   train is worth only five thousand words. But such a decision
   as this ... must [properly] be made by the highly
   conscious self-criticism of the artist in relation to the
   pulse of the book itself. (4)

Could this be the lost locus classicus of my memory? Perhaps--assuming that DeVoto was addressing one crucial anecdote in The Story of a Novel--how crucial for Wolfe DeVoto could hardly have imagined. Not only does Wolfe mark it as a point of near breakdown in his collaboration with Perkins, it also continued to rankle. His Chapel Hill friend John Skally Terry, who replaced him as an instructor at NYU, recalled being phoned at 2:00 a.m. and recognizing Wolfe's "agonized voice" (54):
   ["]John ... I've written all that one could write, or need
   ever write, about a train; and it's one of the best things
   I've ever written. But, by God, they tell me I've got to cut
   it. I just don't see how I can do it. This ought to stand as
   a final piece of writing about a train.["]

      He talked to me for over two hours about the passage
   and how he felt.... I visualized him sitting alone,
   in his fourth floor walk-up apartment.... He just had to
   pour out his misery to someone. (54-55)

It clearly was a crisis in his and Perkins's struggle to winnow Of Time and the River from a massive raw manuscript and is a capital instance of overwriting, however fine. In The Story of a Novel Wolfe himself writes:
   The opening section ... describes the journey of a train
   across ... Virginia at night. Its function ... is simply to
   introduce some of the chief characters, to indicate a
   central situation, to give something of the background
   from which the book proceeds, and perhaps through
   the movement of the train across the stillness of the
   earth to establish a certain beat, evoke a certain emotion
   which is inherent to the nature of the book. [The]
   section, therefore, undoubtedly serves an important
   function, but ... its function is a secondary one.... (79)

He goes on to say that this "secondary" passage had, in the writing, assumed a stupendous and uncontrollable length, "considerably longer than the average novel." It was "really good"--perhaps his "finest piece of writing"--but it required "bloody execution" from which "[his] soul recoiled" (80). And, he continues, this was only one instance of "executions" that were needed. But this was almost certainly the tale that lodged in my memory some decades ago. Just why, I am not sure; but at that stage it was my aspiration to write like Wolfe: a dangerous ambition for an apprentice writer. I gobbled up any biographical source.

But the hundred-thousand-word train ride is, of course, one aspect of the overarching issue that ultimately prompted Wolfe to leave Perkins and Scribner's for Aswell and Harper. It was a tragedy for both Wolfe and Perkins. Had Wolfe not died, at 37, after turning over another mammoth manuscript to Aswell and setting off on a cross-country jaunt, who can say what further developments might have followed? Wolfe had already named Perkins his literary executor, and the breach with him had not--or not yet--prompted him to reconsider.

But in any case, an ordeal of adaptation and maturation still lay before Thomas Wolfe. If he was to write the further masterpieces for which he had the potential, he needed to control his defensive indignation and would have been well advised to take to heart certain valid points of literary craftsmanship urged by DeVoto, Fitzgerald, and, in his diplomatic way, Perkins. As Fitzgerald said, he who has such delicacy of touch has no right to glut his readers with caviar. Would he, could he, have refined and disciplined his volcanic temper? Discipline would have come hard in any case: The Story of a Novel glories in the undisciplined habits and impulses that others, even his admirers, deplore; and some critics even attribute to an adolescence not yet outgrown.

We tend, moreover, to overlook the conciliatory concluding paragraphs of the DeVoto piece, for instance:
   One can only respect Mr. Wolfe for his determination to
   realize himself on the highest level and to be satisfied
   with nothing short of greatness. But, however useful genius
   may be in the writing of novels, it is not enough in
   itself--it never has been enough ... and it never will be.
   ... it must be supported by an ability to impart shape to
   material, simple competence in the use of tools.... In
   order to be a great novelist he must also mature his
   emotions till he can see more profoundly into character
   ... and he must learn to put a corset on his prose.
   ... his own smithy is the only possible place for these
   developments.... (15)

Good advice--unfortunately clothed in otherwise scornful words.

It was one of the supreme strokes of luck in American literary history that after many rejection slips Wolfe and Perkins discovered each other and formed their immortal partnership. In Perkins's unique patience and sympathy, Wolfe's fecundity found its balancing corrective. And the editors who had previously rejected the unrefined manuscript of O Lost may well have agreed with DeVoto's corrective sentiments.

I don't mean to slight Aswell's role. But he appeared after two gigantic novels--by common consent significantly superior to the last two--and after Wolfe had been fostered by Perkins and had created a sensation. From his own words, and in the nature of the circumstances, Aswell would have assumed a less masterly role than Perkins. The careful scholarly scrutiny of Aswell's handling of the Wolfe manuscripts reported in David Herbert Donald's biography, as well as research by Richard Kennedy, has yielded a mixed judgment on Aswell's role as editor--compiler, really--of the last two novels and especially of the liberties he took in constructing You Can't Go Home Again, the better of the two. Donald concluded his examination with the view that there was, broadly speaking, no other practical strategy than the one Aswell pursued.

I have strayed from my topic; but perhaps we can accept that Thomas Wolfe's fascination with trains stands supremely symbolic of the struggle for articulation of which William Faulkner observed, when queried in 1953 by Richard Walser about the praise of Wolfe that had been attributed to him. After complaining, as most subjects do, about the inaccuracies of the press, Faulkner commented:

I said ... that among his and my contemporaries, I rated Wolfe first because we had all failed but Wolfe had made the greatest failure because he had tried hardest to say the most____My admiration for Wolfe is that he tried his best to get it all said; he was willing to throw away style, coherence, all the rules of preciseness, to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin. ... (qtd. in Walser vii)


Works Cited

Daniels, Jonathan. "Poet of the Boom." Tar Heels: A Portrait of North Carolina, Dodd, Mead, 1941, pp. 218-35.

DeVoto, Bernard. "Genius Is Not Enough." The Saturday Review of Literature, vol. 13, no. 26, 25 Apr. 1936, pp. 3+.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Little, Brown, 1987.

Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Doubleday 1960.

Terry, John Skally. "Wolfe and Perkins." 1948. Walser, Enigma, pp. 51-56.

Walser, Richard, editor. The Enigma of Thomas Wolfe: Biographical and Critical Selections, Harvard UP, 1953.

--. Preface. Enigma, pp. vii-xi. Wolfe, Thomas. "The Far and the Near." From Death to Morning, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935, pp. 164-68.

--. Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935.

--. The Story of a Novel. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936.

--. You Can't Go Home Again. Harper & Brothers, 1940

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and was a professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University. Among his books are Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit (2004), Joe Alsop's Cold War (1995), and the novel Lions at Lamb House (2007). He and his wife, Jane, live in Chapel Hill.
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Author:Yoder, Edwin M., Jr.
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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