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From the Blue Ridge to the rocky mountains: Thomas Wolfe and the American West.

Edited text of an address (via Skype) to the Thomas Wolfe Society, Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting, 24 May 2013, Abraham Lincoln Auditorium, Idaho State Capitol, Boise.

Thomas Wolfe was passionate about many things. He loved to describe the sound of trains in the night and the thrill of journeys to far places. He loved to celebrate the lure of great cities and the lordly power of rivers. He delighted in catalogues of food, giant feasts, and the faces of thousands of nameless people. More than any other American novelist, he attempted to gather up in one epic catalogue the whole of life, the sum of experiences he had had and the experiences he imagined. Wolfe exhibited in all his work a particularly intense and complex interest in mountains. He was passionate about big things, colossal things, and mountains were among the biggest things he had encountered, along with oceans and great rivers and giant teeming cities.

I share at least three things with Thomas Wolfe: an October 3rd birthday, the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and a love of words and storytelling. When I was almost fifteen I discovered Look Homeward, Angel in the bookmobile that came to Green River Baptist Church every first Monday afternoon of the month. Like most fifteen-year-olds, I was intoxicated by the bravura language, the Byronic sadness of Eugene Gant. I felt I was Eugene Gant and his family was my family. I learned chunks of the novel by heart and wept when I read the section on the death of Ben. It was Look Homeward, Angel that gave me the idea that I too might write something big and intense. But where Eugene Gant dreamed of escaping Altamont (Asheville) to the great cities of the East and Europe, I dreamed of escaping from the small farm to Asheville, the shining city on a hill.

Wolfe was, after all, a city boy, and there is something sinister in his portrayals of the mountains around Asheville and the mountain people in the coves and hollows. They were his mountains and his kin, yet he feels a deep alienation from them, especially in his earlier writing. They belong to the world he was trying to escape. Near the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel he describes Oliver Gant's first sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains:
   Dusk came. The huge bulk of the hills was foggily emergent.
   Small smoky lights went up in the hillside shacks.
   The train crawled dizzily across high trestles spanning
   ghostly hawsers of water. Far up, far down, plumed with
   wisps of smoke, toy cabins stuck to bank and gulch and
   hillside. The train toiled sinuously up among gouged
   red cuts with slow labor. As darkness came, Oliver descended
   at the little town of Old Stockade where the
   rails ended. The last great wall of the hills lay stark above
   him. As he left the dreary little station and stared into
   the greasy lamplight of a country store, Oliver felt that
   he was crawling, like a great beast, into the circle of
   those enormous hills to die. (7)

In Wolfe's descriptions of the Blue Ridge Mountains there is almost always a sense of hauntedness, of lostness. More often than not his tone is elegiac. When Oliver visits his fiancee's family, the Pentlands, he feels he's entered an alien world. Greeley, the youngest, is "eleven, degenerate, weak, scrofulous," but "his white moist hands could draw from a violin music that had in it something unearthly and untaught" (15). The whole scene with the Pentlands suggests an alien, isolated people:
   And as they sat there in the hot little room with its warm
   odor of mellowing apples, the vast winds howled down
   from the hills, there was a roaring in the pines, remote
   and demented, the bare boughs clashed. And as they
   peeled, or pared, or whittled, their talk slid from its rude
   jocularity to death and burial: they drawled monotonously,
   with evil hunger, their gossip of destiny, and of
   men but newly lain in the earth. And as their talk wore
   on, and Gant heard the spectre moan of the wind, he
   was entombed in loss and darkness, and his soul
   plunged downward in the pit of night, for he saw that he
   must die a stranger--that all, all but these triumphant
   Pentlands, who banqueted on death--must die. (15)

This sense of doom, of curse, of hauntedness in the mountains, can also be found in Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River. Eugene exults that "in another hour he would be speeding world-ward, life-ward, North-ward out of the enchanted, time-far hills, out of the dark heart and mournful mystery of the South forever" (24). The train that carries him away winds through the mountain passes:
   The great shapes of the hills, embrowned and glowing
   with the molten hues of autumn, are all about him: the
   towering summits, wild and lonely, full of joy and
   strangeness and their haunting premonitions of oncoming
   winter soar above him, the gulches, gorges, gaps,
   and wild ravines, fall sheer and suddenly away with a
   dizzy terrifying steepness, and all the time the great train
   toils slowly down from the mountain summits with the
   sinuous turnings of an enormous snake. (25)

Though Wolfe changed the name of his main character and the town in The Web and the Rock, the mountains and their inhabitants remain pretty much the same. George Webber hears the distant voices and stories of his ancestors through Aunt Maw, "this dark old aunt of doom." In a "croaking monotone" in the dimly lit mountain cabin, she conjures up "lost voices in the mountains long ago, the wind-torn rawness, the desolate bleakness of lost days in March along clay-rutted roads in the bleak hills a hundred years ago." Her stories fill George with "undefined but overwhelming horror" (8), transporting the boy through time and memory to an earlier time in the mountains and his family's life:
     Someone was dead in a hill cabin long ago. It was
   night. He heard the howling of the wind about the eaves
   of March. He was within the cabin. The rude, bare
   boards creaked to the tread of feet. There was no light
   except the flickering light of pine, the soft, swift flare of
   resinous wood, the crumbling ash. Against the wall,
   upon a bed, lay a sheeted figure of someone who had

     ... from every intonation of Aunt Maw's life and
   memory, he heard lost voices in the hills long, long ago,
   saw cloud shadows passing in the wilderness, listened
   to the rude and wintry desolation of March winds that
   howl through the sere grasses of the mountain meadows
   in the month before the month when Spring is come. (8)

The dream of Wolfe's character is always escape from the sinister hills: "And the heart of the hill boy will know joy because he knows, all world-remote, lonely as he is, that some day he will meet the world and know those cities too" (13). For George Webber, life in "the great bulk of the Blue Ridge ... is near, as common as your breath, as strange as time" (16). Even in You Can't Go Home Again, the older George Webber is still haunted by the hills as he returns to his native city. But now the mountains do not seem quite as sinister:
   When he looked from the windows of the train next
   morning the hills were there. They towered immense
   and magical into the blue weather, and suddenly the
   coolness was there, the winy sparkle of the air, and the
   shining brightness. Above him loomed huge shapes, the
   dense massed green of the wilderness, the cloven cuts
   and gulches of the mountain passes, the dizzy steepness,
   with the sudden drops below. He could see the little
   huts stuck to the edge of bank and hollow, toy-small,
   far below him in the gorges. The everlasting stillness of
   the earth now met the intimate, toiling slowness of the
   train as it climbed up round the sinuous curves, and he
   had an instant sense of something refound that he had
   always known--something far, near, strange, and so familiar--and
   it seemed to him that he had never left the
   hills, and all that had passed in the years between was
   like a dream. (90)

Wolfe, as he grew older, developed a romantic fascination with the West. It was the westness of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the state of North Carolina that gave them a special aura and hinted at the world beyond. He had traveled in Europe, lived in Boston, New York, and London. He had celebrated Oktoberfest in Bavaria. But the American West held both allure and possibility for Wolfe.

In 1935, around the time he first visited Boulder, Colorado, and discovered the American West, Wolfe conceived a vast, poetic and documentary project, recording and celebrating America, the night in America, called "The Hound of Darkness." It would be a cinematic catalogue, a series of vignettes, dramatic scenes, passages of dialogue, different voices. As he worked his way across the West from Colorado to California, he collected details, quotes, descriptions, for his "book of the night," describing it in a September 1935 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, as "a great tone-symphony of night--railway yards, engines, freights, dynamos, bridges, men and women, the wilderness, plains, rivers, deserts, a clopping hoof" (489). Using the film techniques of parallel cutting, panorama, zoom-in, montage, sound bites, he would create what early film theorists called "a prodigious sense of simultaneity and omnipresence" (Donald 348). As Wolfe explained to Perkins, this work would evoke "the chemistry of darkness, the strange and magic thing it does to our lives" (489). The soundtrack would be in part the voice of the train, "the great Pacific Nine stroking the night with the pistoned velocity of its full speed" and fearlessly uttering "chucka-lucka, chucka-lucka, chucka-lucka ..." ("Prologue" 410). The train plunges through the night "like a lighted thunderbolt ... smashing westward through Nebraska" bellowing "Ho-Idaho! Holdaho! Ho-Idaho--ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!" (410) as it moves "through the planetary distance of the continent" (409).

My guess is Wolfe was inspired by Whitman's poem "The Sleepers," Hart Crane's The Bridge, as well as film technique, and perhaps Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes and his exhilarating encounter with the splendor of the Rocky Mountains. In his September 1935 letter to Perkins, Wolfe expressed his belief that "The Hound of Darkness" would be "a great and original book," (489), an experimental breakthrough. But when Wolfe returned to New York, Perkins did not encourage the project, and he resumed work on his fiction. A portion of "The Hound of Darkness" material was later published in Vogue under the title "A Prologue to America." But in his thirty-eighth year, Wolfe became more and more curious and excited again about the American West. The western mountains were big, bigger than anything he had ever known. The mountain West would be his new subject, as he returned to the earlier inspiration of "The Hound of Darkness."

In 1938 Wolfe still had the curiosity and wonder of a young man. Traveling to Portland, Oregon, in the early summer he met newspaperman Edward M. Miller of the Oregonian and Ray Conway, director of the Oregon State Motor Association. The two men were planning an automobile trip through the national parks of the Far West, and they invited Wolfe to travel with them. Though he was exhausted from just delivering a manuscript to his editor of over a million words, material that would become The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe could not resist the opportunity to see parts of the country he had never visited. It was a whirlwind trip lasting only thirteen days, from June 20 to July 2. Each day Wolfe would make notes as he rode in the backseat of the white Ford, and in his hotel room at night. The notebook of about twelve thousand words became known as A Western Journal.

Starting out from Portland, the party drove "South by East through farmlands of upper Willamette and around base of Mount Hood which was glowing in brilliant sun--Then climbed and crossed Cascades, and came down with suddenness of knife into the dry lands of the Eastern slope" (1). (1) Every day Wolfe would record the number of miles they had covered, as well as his impressions of the landscape, people, buildings, and the quality of the light. He was dazzled by the brightness of the mountain West:
   and unapproachable the great line of the Cascades with
   the snowspired sentinels Hood, Adams, Jefferson, 3 sisters,
   etc ... then down through the noble pines to the
   vast plainlike valley of the Klamath--the virgin land of
   Canaan all again--the far-off ranges--infinite ... (1-2)

Throughout the notebook Wolfe keeps referring to parts of the West as Canaan, or the Promised Land. And though he mentions in passing Indians and reservations, he seems not to see the irony of his observations. The West had been the Indians' Promised Land, too. Having driven 404 miles the first day, Wolfe fears "The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation ... 'making every national park' without seeing any of them" (3).

On June 21 Wolfe is dragged out of bed at 5:30 to start the journey south. He wakes up slowly, but, once he is awake in the car, he begins to make more detailed notes, as though he was just warming up the first day: "desert, sage brush, and bare, naked, hills, giant-molded, craterous, cupreous [one of his favorite words], glaciated, blasted--a demonic heath with reaches of great pine, and volcanic glaciation, cupreous, fiendish, desert, blasted" (3). And Wolfe is much taken with Mount Shasta looming above it all: "the naked crateric hills and the volcanic lava masses and then Mount Shasta omnipresent--Mount Shasta all the time ... towering Shasta" (3-4). Farther south he sees "the lovely timbered Siskiyous and all through the morning down and down and down the canyon, and the road snaking, snaking always with a thousand little punctual gashes ..." (4).

Wolfe and his companions drive through the wide Sacramento Valley, through "a dry land, with ... a strange hot heady fragrance and fertility" and "across the great, hot, straw light plain, and great fields mown new and scattered with infinite bundles of baled hay" (5). A gourmand, Wolfe lists the barbecue and Greek restaurants where they stop, and then "the San Joaquin Valley ... bursting with God[']s plenty--orchards--peaches--apricots--and vineyards" (6-7). They arrive late at Yosemite and find it already crowded with campers and tourists, though he is awed by the landscape, the "terrific mountain folds, close packed, precipitous ... down again along breath taking curves" (8).

Even in 1938, Yosemite with its "gigantic cliff walls" was teeming with visitors (9). Wolfe's account of the great national park focuses as much on the hordes of people he encounters there as it does on the natural wonders:
   hundreds of young faces and voices--the offices, buildings
   stores, the dance floor crowded with its weary hundreds
   and the hundreds of tents and cabins and the absurdity
   of life and the immensity of all--and 1200 little
   shop girls and stenogs and new-weds and schoolteachers
   and boys ... necking, dancing, kissing, feeling, and
   embracing in the great darkness of the giant redwood
   trees--all laughing and getting loved tonight--and the
   sound of the dark gigantic fall of water--so to bed!

      And 535 miles today! (9-10)

The next day Wolfe and company hurry on in the white Ford to Sequoia National Park where the writer notes, "the great view back across the vast tangle of the Sierras--then Gen. Grant and the great trees--the pretty little girls" (10). After visiting the General Sherman tree, they hurry on to Bakersfield where Wolfe is impressed: "enormous electric sign--Frosted Milk-shakes--A Drive-Inn--and girls in white sailor pantys serving drinks--I drank Frosted Lime, Miller a Coc[a]-Cola float, etc." (11).

They stay at a hotel in Mohave, and on June 23 they drive through blinding brightness and blistering heat to Barstow: "hotter and more fiendish--through fried hills--cupreous, ferrous, and denuded as slag heaps" (12). They reach Needles where it is 106[degrees] in the shade and 116[degrees] to 120[degrees] in the sun, then drive through the desert and blasted landscape toward the Grand Canyon. Wolfe's journal entry captures the dazzling fusion of land and sky:
   ... the blazing crater of the desert sky snakes on, snakes
   on its monotone of forever and of now--moveless Immediate
   and at last the rim and down and down through
   blasted slopes, volcanic "pipes" and ancient sea erosions,
   mesa table heads, columnar swathes, stratifications,
   and the fiendish wind, and below the vast pale,
   lemon-mystic plain ... (14)

Wolfe appears intoxicated by the desert as they approach the Grand Canyon: "fried blasted slopes and the enormous lemon-magic of the desert plains, fiend mountain slopes pure lemon heat mist as from magic seas arising" (14-15). And then he is taken by pine forests as they approach the canyon, which they reach after dark. For some reason, Wolfe calls the canyon "the Big Gorgooby," a name of his own invention and that he took great delight in saying. He describes the canyon in almost menacing terms: "the Big Gorgooby there immensely, darkly, almost weirdly there--a fathomless darkness peered at from the very edge of hell with abysmal starlight--almost unseen" (16).

The next day, June 24, they tour around the canyon, but Wolfe has surprisingly little to say about the splendor. Instead, people consume his attention and fill the pages of his journal. He notes a "cowgirl with broad hat, and wet red mouth, blonde locks and riding breeches filled with buttock" (18), as well as "four small Indian girls in rags and petticoats beside the road awaiting pennies (dimes they got) two upon a burro" (18-19). At the lodge that evening, the waitresses and bellhops perform "Hiawatha," and there are clog dancers, a slide show, and scotch with his companions. The next morning as visitors depart, some tearful, Wolfe returns his gaze to the landscape, writing "Into Lodge for view from terrace of the Big Gorgooby in first light--and glorious--! and glorious!" (21).

On June 25, as they head north toward Utah, Wolfe observes "quivering the aspen leaves in the bright air, and down and down and then the bottomlands spread below us over again, the fierce red earth, the tortured buttes and the Vermillion Cliffs, the Painted Desert, and on ..." (22). They visit Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. The colors seem to impress Wolfe the most. It is a landscape far different from the blue and green hues of his North Carolina mountains:
   ... and now pink rock again, strange shapes and scarings
   [sic] in the rock, and even vertices upon huge
   swathes of stone, and plunging down now in stiff canyon
   folds the sheer solid beetling soaplike block of
   salmon red again--deeper yet not so fierce and strange
   (as I thought) as the Grand Canyon earth ... (23)

As they drive toward Salt Lake City, Wolfe is impressed by the Mormon farmlands, a place that seems more familiar:
   ... a greener land, and grass in semi-desert fields, and
   stock and cattle grazing, and now timbered hills in contour
   not unlike the fields at home, and now farms and
   green incredible of fields and hay and mowing and
   things growing and green trees and Canaan pleasantness
   and a river flowing ... (25-26)

Later, he notes how the Mormon farmers tame the land through their hard work and ability to cultivate the soil: "Sickling reaping, mowing hay with reaping machines and fields strewn with cut mounds of green lemon hay, and water--the miraculousness of water in the west, the muddy viscousness of irrigation ..." (32) He spends more effort and words describing Mormon country than any other place on his journey. He can't say enough about the miracle in the desert: "hackled ridges on both sides--denuded and half barren, curiously thrilling in their nakedness--and Canaan magical, the vale irriguous below--The marvellous freshness and fecundity of the great Sevier valley" (34).

At a ranger's entrance house to Bryce Canyon National Park, Wolfe sees "the stick-candy-whipping of the flag" (27). The image is repeated in his description of the mountain scenery, which suggests a landscape that is both magical and full of contradiction: "a million wind-blown pinnacles of salmon pink and fiery white all fused together like stick candy--all suggestive of a childs fantasy of heaven[,] and beyond the open semi-green and semi-desert plain" (27).

At the lodge, however, Wolfe is depressed by the tourist shops and the tourists: "feeling more and more desolate in this most unreal state of Utah" (28). He strikes up a conversation with a "quaint old blondined wag named Florence who imitates bird calls and dark rather attractive woman, Canadian probably French" (28) and notes the young people who seem "as if they wanted something that wasn't there and didn't know how to find it ... Americans in search of gaiety" (28-29). He observes the waitresses, maids, and bellboys who gather in front of the lodge and serenade departing guests. When their singing elicits tears from some of the female schoolteachers leaving on the bus, one of the workers brags, "We got tears out of four of 'em this morning. Oh, I love to see 'em cry; it means business" (31). The commercialism and insincerity of the workers are not lost on Wolfe.

As Wolfe and his companions drive rapidly toward Salt Lake City on June 26, he is less impressed by the little towns they drive through: "villages--blazing and blistered in that hot dry heat--and the forlorn little houses--sometimes just little cramped and warped wooden boxes, all unpainted ... the blistered little storefronts" (33). Wolfe is similarly disappointed when he finally gets to Salt Lake City, where he finds "a denuded absence of humanity" (36). The place has "an appearance of a City greater than its growth," which exudes "Sunday hotness, brightness, emptiness--the old feeling of Mormon coldness, desolation--the cruel, the devoted, the fanatic, and the warped and dead" (37). Wolfe observes "the harsh ugly temple, the temple sacrosanct, by us unvisited, unvisitable, so ugly, grim, grotesque, and blah" (38). In contrast to his enthusiasm for the Mormon farmers and their agricultural accomplishments in the Utah desert, Wolfe's rejection of their religious ways seems at odds with his earlier apprehension: "enough, enough, of all this folly, this cruelty and this superstition" (38).

Wolfe feels much better as they get beyond the city, heading north, and he sees "the orchards lusty with their fruit, their vineyards growing with their cherries, and greenery, lushness, watery fertility, the like of which was never seen before" (38-39). They pass through Ogden, Brigham, and Logan, and Wolfe is back in his element. It is the land that thrills him: "the great valley around Logan--a valley that makes all that has gone before fade to nothing--the very core and fruit of Canaan--a vast sweet plain of unimaginable riches ... a land of peace and promises of plenty" (40).

Completing their Sunday drive of 467 miles, they reach Pocatello, Idaho. The next day they follow the Snake River up toward the Tetons and then Yellowstone, and Wolfe delights in the potato farms, "the most fertile we had seen perhaps" (43). And then the climb toward Jackson Hole and the Tetons. Spectacular as the mountains are, he sees the town of Jackson as "beduded," a reference to the many dude ranches in the area (44). After spending so much effort describing Utah, it is as though Wolfe has no words for "the vastness and the sweetness" of the Tetons (45). Perhaps he was overwhelmed by their grandeur.

As they drive on to Yellowstone, he begins to write more descriptively again, about "the Paint Pots and the boiling waters, sinister, grotesque, curved like a rhinoceros imbedded moving through hot oatmeal" (45). Like everyone else, Wolfe is much taken by Old Faithful, "the hot boiling overslopping of the pot, and then the vast hot plume of steam and water--and the people watching ... the tons of water falling and the hot plume dipping" (46). There is partying in the lodge that evening. Before leaving the next morning they witness Old Faithful again and drive on to Sapphire Pool and other wonders: "enchanted country, and green meadows, and pine--hemlock--spruce--aspen forests--bears upon the road ... and the Elk feasting" (48). Wolfe elaborates on the majesty of the landscape as they continue on toward Mammoth Hot Springs: "enchanted mountain country now and great peaks to the west, and the climb, the patched dirty snow beneath the trees and then the rising eminence of Mount Washburn" (48-49).

Wolfe then spends several pages describing the Yellowstone country, including the Northern Pacific station, and "the waitress with the tired face, and yet with charm, sedateness, and intelligence" (51). At Bozeman, they encounter the Lewis and Clark Trail. Wolfe also goes barhopping before writing in his journal, making note of the daunting landscapes he has viewed: "the Great American Plain opening with infinite lift and rise and vastness to the fore--so towards the Rockies and the lift and rise and heaving of the Earth Mass--so the Blackfoot reservation turn and Browning--all confused disorderly and Indian" (53).

On June 29 they reach Glacier National Park: "the shining and bright austerity of the mountains and through the big barks and into the canyons" (53-54). Wolfe notes the "cabins along the Going to the Sun Pass and the stupendous hackled peaks now--the sheer basaltic walls of glaciation, the steep scoopings down below, the dense vertices of glacial valley slopes and forest" (54).

On the morning of June 30, Wolfe observes the intersections between human and natural worlds. He watches "women feeding deer and laughing before hotel" and talks to a "waitress sitting in grass with deer nestling to her" (55). As they drive on to Flathead Lake, Wolfe observes the "lumber mills and trains of logs" (56) and, at Thompson's Falls, "three little girls dancing in front of the place where we eat" (57)--the grandness of the landscape contrasting with the ordinariness of the human activity.

In Spokane Wolfe settles his accounts for the trip ("less than $50.00") and enjoys a bottle of scotch (59). On July 1 they drive through "the Grand Coulee down, down, down and the tremendous size and glacial greenness of the Columbia River sweeping round the bend and the basal ramparts of the terrific dam, and the crews with red helmets working" (59). After the drive down the spectacular Columbia River gorge, Wolfe and his companions make one final stop in the mountains through the Chinook Pass before traveling on to Mount Rainier:
   mist blowing in in floods of spume and up and up to timber
   line and to the Sunrise Lodge and light playing marvellously,
   and blue cerulean, struggling to break through,
   and the glaciers level to the eye and visible but the great
   mountain massif and the peak obscured ... (62)

The next day, when the 14,000-foot mountain is visible, Wolfe is overwhelmed by the sight: "it was immense and terrific and near ... the great mass faced up squarely and all its perilous overwhelming majesty, and with its tremendous shoulders, the long terrific sweeps of its hackling ridges ..." (63-64).

The whirlwind journey ends in Olympia, an urban scene that contrasts mightily with the vast western landscapes he has seen. He turns his focus once again toward human activity and enterprise, noting the "strings of market stores, hot dog stands, filling stations, taverns ... so down into the crowded streets of Olympia choked with giant tides of traffic for the Fourth, the sidewalks crowded with throngs of people--farmers, seamen, lumberjacks ..." (66-67).

After a hearty lunch at "Crane[']s famous seafood Restaurant," Wolfe says goodbye to his traveling companions. They give him "the map and old Tour Book" as souvenirs, write their names in the book, and are gone--"a curiously hollow feeling in me," Wolfe writes, "as I stand there in the streets of Olympia and watch the white Ford flash away" (67). He catches the bus to Seattle, collects his mail and gets money from a bank, buys a bottle of scotch, and the trip is over.

I believe that in 1938 Wolfe was about to take a new direction that would have surprised many of his readers. Frustrated by the expectations of critics and reviewers, perhaps dissatisfied with the whole idea of a novel, of fiction, he seemed to be ready to return to something like "The Hound of Darkness," working toward another genre in his journals and notebooks, perhaps toward some epic documentary kind of book, a Walt Whitman kind of work. Wolfe's passion for detail, documentation, for witness and testimony and candor, would have lent itself to such a bold new work. A giant of a man himself, Wolfe had hankered for a literary form adequate to his vision of America. So far he had not found it. But in the West he found a landscape commensurate with the scale of his passion and vision, his love of both wonder and the real. In his notes from the western journey we begin to see the hint and outline of that future kind of writing.

Of course, we will never know what Wolfe might have done with his fascination and passion for the grandeur of the West. Within days of his return to Seattle, he became ill. Thinking he could throw off the cold, he took a ferry to Victoria. But instead of throwing it off, he got worse and worse. Pneumonia was diagnosed, then tuberculosis. His brother Fred came out to stay with him. Instead of getting well, he grew weaker, suffering thundering headaches. On 12 August, Wolfe was just strong enough to write a last letter to Maxwell Perkins, saying he had a "hunch":
   I've made a long voyage and been to a strange country,
   and I've seen the dark man very close; and I don't think
   I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality
   still clings to me--I wanted most desperately to live and
   still do, and I thought about you all a thousand times,
   and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible
   anguish and regret of all the work I had not
   done, of all the work I had to do--and I know now I'm
   just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has
   been opened on life I did not know about before--and
   if I come through this, I hope to God I am a better man,
   and in some strange way I can't explain, I know I am a
   deeper and a wiser one. (777)

Wolfe did not improve. His sister Mabel came to Seattle to be with him. It was decided to take him across the country to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Wolfe was admitted on 10 September, and his skull was trephined to release the fluid under pressure on his brain. Exploratory brain surgery two days later revealed extensive meningitis and inoperable tuberculosis of the brain. He died on 15 September 1938, less than three weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday. Wolfe was buried in Asheville's Riverside Cemetery, which also held the remains of other family members, including his older brothers Ben and Grover.

Thomas Wolfe was one of the most influential and imitated writers of his time. The verve and vision, the passion of his style, inspired many writers of his generation and the next. James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men clearly owes a debt to Wolfe's detailed, intense, poetic, often photographic, narratives. More than any other American author, Wolfe inspired the young Jack Kerouac. For that matter, there are passages in The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, that echo Wolfe's vivid cinematic prose. The same is true for certain passages in Warren's All the King's Men.

All my life, I have felt the influence of Thomas Wolfe, especially in the voices of his narratives, in particular "The Web of Earth," inspired by his mother's monologue. The way Wolfe lets the old woman tell her story to the son was a revelation to me when I began to work on fiction again in the 1980s. Letting the character Sharon tell her own story in the novella The Mountains Won't Remember Us was my greatest breakthrough as a fiction writer. It was Wolfe more than anyone else who showed me how that was done.


(1.) In the University of Pittsburgh Press edition (1951), the text of A Western Journal is presented in italics. All quotations from that edition will be in roman type in this article.

Works Cited

Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families. Boston: Houghton, 1941. Print.

Crane, Hart. The Bridge. New York: Black Sun, 1930. Print.

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

Morgan, Robert. "The Mountains Won't Remember Us." The Mountains Won't Remember Us: And Other Stories. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1992. 177-250. Print.

Sandburg, Carl. The People, Yes. New York: Harcourt, 1936. Print. Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939. Print.

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King's Men. New York: Harcourt, 1946. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner's, 1956. Print.

--. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. New York: Scribner's, 1929. Print.

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

--. "A Prologue to America." 1938. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 409-19. Print.

--. "To Maxwell E. Perkins." 12 Sept. 1935. Wolfe, Letters 489-90.

--. "To Maxwell E. Perkins." 12 Aug. 1938. Wolfe, Letters 777-78.

--. The Web and the Rock. New York: Harper, 1939. Print.

--. "The Web of Earth." From Death to Morning. New York: Scribner's, 1935. 212-304. Print.

--. A Western Journal: A Daily Log of the Great Parks Trip:

June 20-July 2, 1938. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P 1951. Print.

--. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940. Print.

Editors' Note: Gorgooby (see page 103) is a best-guess transcripton of Wolfe's horrid handwriting by editors who first published his journal--excerpts in the Virginia Quarterly Review (1939); full text by the University of Pittsburgh Press. In The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe (vol. 2; Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1970), Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves spell it Gagoochy (970-72)--which is closer to Edward M. Miller's description of Wolfe's pronunciation of the word (Kennedy and Reeves 970n7).
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Author:Morgan, Robert
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U800
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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