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Louis Rubin, Thomas Wolfe, and the autobiographical impulse.

Although I hope someone else among the Wolfeans--someone more a Wolfe scholar than I am--will write an essay in the immediate future on Louis Rubin's early book, Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth (1955), and Rubin's general contribution to Wolfe scholarship, what I wanted to discuss here is a significant trait that Rubin as writer shared with Thomas Wolfe: the autobiographical impulse. Rubin, who died in November 2013 only three days short of his ninetieth birthday, is of course renowned as scholar, editor, and publisher, not as novelist or memoirist, but he wrote three novels and a number of books and essays in which he reveals a great deal about himself. Although Rubin did not write an autobiography as such--in An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press (2001) he makes a point of saying that his narrative is not that--in fact much of his nonscholarly work has been autobiographical to a great degree. This is perhaps not surprising for a writer whose early inspiration was Wolfe--and although Rubin said time and again that he later got over Wolfe, there was something about Wolfe and the romantic imagination that stuck. Two of Rubin's three novels, at least in their broad outlines, certainly seemed to be autobiographical--a version of his childhood not dissimilar to Wolfe's depiction of his own in Look Homeward, Angel. The Golden Weather (1961)--notice the title is drawn from his earlier book on Wolfe--is the story of a young Jewish boy in 1930s Charleston, living (as Rubin did) in a house overlooking the Ashley River, a boy who loves trains (something else he had in common with Wolfe) and boats and dreams of becoming a writer, although in Rubin's case a newspaperman. Surfaces of a Diamond (1981) treats that same boy, Omar Kahn, now in his teens, fascinated with newspapers and dreaming of playing first base for the Giants. Omar's father and uncle resemble Rubin's father and uncle in a number of ways; the setting is again the setting of Rubin's youth.

If Rubin's debt to Wolfe was not already clear to anyone who had read both writers, Rubin made it clear in an essay, "Thomas Wolfe: Homage Renewed," he wrote at about the time he retired from university teaching. He was nineteen years old, on an army base during World War II, when he first heard of Wolfe, and he immediately went to the post library and checked out You Can't Go Home Again. Shortly afterward he read Look Homeward, Angel "straight through" and then all of Wolfe's other novels--"I had plunged into an imaginative world that I had not even suspected could exist.... Here was my private inner experience-- not only what was, but what I hoped might someday be ..." (99). Much else in Wolfe, Rubin wrote, spoke directly to him as well:
   For one thing, like Wolfe I had been born and had grown
   up in a small southern city, as part of a middle--class
   family without college--educated parents, and although
   both of us were impatient with and even rebelling
   against many of the values and attitudes of our communities,
   we were also imbued with many of those values
   to a degree that we were not then ready to acknowledge.
   For different reasons both Thomas Wolfe and myself
   had been on the outside of the reigning social and cultural
   establishment, and ... literature and the life of the
   mind were a way of extricating oneself from a limiting
   social situation. (104)


At that time he was consumed by Wolfe: "I ... identified myself with him wholeheartedly, and yearned to make a pilgrimage to Asheville, walk its streets, and there listen at night to the outbound freight trains whistling in the distance, just as Wolfe once did" (103). Looking ahead to the end of World War II,
   ... I even applied for admission at the university [Wolfe]
   had attended at Chapel Hill, and if I hadn't been discharged
   from the army in January of 1946 so suddenly
   and unexpectedly that there was no time to make arrangements,
   I would very likely have enrolled at Eugene
   Gant's alma mater. (103)


After completing his undergraduate degree--not at Chapel Hill but at the University of Richmond--Rubin had followed Wolfe's example in another way:
   I too had gone northward after graduation from college;
   had lived for a time across the river from New York City,
   working as a newspaper reporter; had walked along the
   streets of downtown Manhattan feeling very much Outside
   and envious of all those who were Inside. (109)


Later, after a few years in Virginia, he headed back north. As he crossed the Potomac:
   ... I had felt that I was seeking fame and fortune in a
   foreign land. Just as Eugene Gant had done at Harvard
   in Of Time and the River, in graduate school [at Johns
   Hopkins] I had encountered other ambitious would-be
   litterateurs, most of them far more conversant with
   what the literary avant-garde was thinking and writing
   at the time .... And like Wolfe's, my defensive response
   had been to brand them as philistines and aesthetic poseurs,
   and to make a point of my provincial origins and
   concerns, even while secretly envying their sophistication
   and tastes. (109)


Although Rubin's own autobiographical novels, as I have suggested, share something with Wolfe's--though written in the first person and not evidencing the gargantuan appetites of the young Wolfe/Gant/Webber--Rubin's later writing in the autobiographical vein came in the form of essays. Here he was more directly autobiographical--which is to say, his later books and essays have often seemed to be about other subjects but the self has always been at the center. A Memory of Trains (2000) is a book about trains like Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is a book about steamboats--that is, it is indeed about trains, but it is also about so much more. It is social history, personal history, particularly--as the author says at one point--the story of a journey toward a vocation (xiii). In describing his love affair with trains from childhood through his early thirties, particularly during his newspaper days of the mid- and late 1940s, the author also reveals a great deal about himself--his experience in the army, his postwar "foray northward" (9), a broken engagement, and his return South. In his description of those lonely newspaper days in his early twenties, he sounds a great deal like Wolfe--or Eugene Gant: "I had no friends, male or female, in Staunton [Virginia], and working the hours that I did, was without the opportunity to meet anyone other than employees of the newspaper. At age 23 I lived a solitary life" (22). He read, he wrote, and, as he expressed it, he spent "a good deal of my leisure time watching and riding aboard railroad trains" (xiii).

The subject of Small Craft Advisory (1991), Rubin's most directly autobiographical book--and perhaps his finest non-scholarly work--is boats, not trains, but this book too is about far more than "the Building of a Boat," as the subtitle announces. Rubin says as much in his prologue, in which he describes the building of his first boat, as a boy in Charleston, in 1937:
   Building and using that little boat was one of the more
   satisfying accomplishments of my life.... It was, I think,
   deeply emblematical. For it was the first time I had ever
   done anything of my own accord to change my life. I
   wanted to go out on the water--leave the land, free myself
   from the restrictions of the shore and city where I
   lived--and I built a boat and did so. In its own way, it
   was a Liberating Act. (31)


In chapter 1, "Adger's Wharf," Rubin suggests a great deal about his youth in Charleston, the "two worlds" in which he lived: his own neighborhood uptown, "plebeian and middle-class and ordinary," with not another Jewish family within two miles of his home; and downtown, which he associated with history and literature, fine arts and classical music, areas to which he was also drawn at an early age (38-44).

But most of Small Craft Advisory concerns Rubin the adult, now a professor living in North Carolina, in search of the perfect boat. Here his portrait of himself is humorous, self-deprecating, and sometimes painfully honest: he is the clumsy, out-of-shape romantic (his wife is the realist: "Get a new boat that will not break down" [89])--a romantic, that is, except for his aversion to risk-taking on the water (he dreams of but never takes a long voyage to the Caribbean) and his failure of nerve where money is involved. He traces his frugality as well as his parents' early warnings about "being victimized" to his father's physical and financial breakdown when Louis was a child (366). Rubin looks back with some pain at that earlier time:
   ... my father's abrupt illness, being uprooted from our
   home and moving to Richmond, the greatly altered condition
   of my father when he returned from the hospital,
   the loss of his business, the dislocations (from ages six
   to twelve I changed schools seven times) ... the whole
   confusing and disturbing experience.... (368-69)


And more important, for the making of the writer, was "a kind of flight into my own world of the imagination, which was shaped to avoid ugliness, helplessness, and hopelessness, and in which reality was kept at arm's length."

A remarkable trait of Rubin's autobiographical writing--unlike, say, the self--writing of another of his early models, H. L. Mencken (who also inspired Wolfe)--is that he does not hesitate at all to cast himself in a bad light. I do not mean just the humorous self--deprecation, particularly when dealing with his childhood (as a boy he could not learn to swim; as a baseball player he was "slow afoot, clumsy and erratic afield"). Mencken was capable of that too when he was looking back at his youth. I mean, rather, the picture Rubin paints of himself in his early twenties, unaccomplished and lonely--and not only in sections of his newspaper memoir and his train book but also in another collection, The Mockingbird in the Gum Tree (1991), which contains several autobiographical or semi-autobiographical essays. Rubin's self--portraits in the Wolfe essay, which I've already discussed, as well as "Young Man in Search of a Vocation," are humorous in part, but they are also highly unflattering in a way Mencken almost never was:

If as a student I had been no great shakes, as a foot-soldier I was a disaster. I was just over six feet tall, weighed about 135 pounds, with all the muscular coordination and endurance of a piece of limp spaghetti; I couldn't even walk a straight line; I had no stamina whatever. Plunged abruptly into a demanding training regimen, I was incapable of doing what was expected of me. I tried to do my best, which was very poor indeed. It was a baffling and humiliating experience, the more so because I took both it and myself very seriously. No doubt if I had been willing to accept my limitations and understand that an inept physical performance didn't constitute a moral flaw on my part, it might have been less traumatic; but intellectually and emotionally I was immature, naive, lacking any insight whatever into either my capabilities or my shortcomings. ("Thomas" 98)

Five or six years later, as a graduate student, a successful instructor at Johns Hopkins, and editor-to-be of the Hopkins Review--seemingly on the verge of making it--he is equally pessimistic. Although he has written a novel and has fallen in love he admits: "... I felt a secret uneasiness, an apprehension that it could not last ... that I was due for a tumble" ("Young" 258). He was right: the novel was rejected and the love affair ended:
   ... there was now gloom, depression, and guilt--guilt
   for being, at the very late age of twenty-five, no more
   embarked upon a vocation, no further along on the road
   to being able to use my talents, no closer to emotional,
   social, financial, or sexual fulfillment than ever. If only
   I could be someone else other than myself, someone
   who was free of all the harassing and crippling limitations
   of personality that afflicted me and made my life
   so miserable! (258)


Mencken could never have written that, or at least not for publication; Wolfe, of course, could have and did (although in the third person); and in the realm of pure autobiography Henry Adams and William Alexander Percy went far beyond that. And Rubin's story, of course, has a successful ending: within a year--after another sterile job as a newspaper copy editor, after another unsuccessful attempt at fiction--writing, after more periods of solitary train-watching--he finds his vocation and along with it a greater confidence in all areas. This time "... I was going to stay with my writing and teaching all the way, for however long it might take" (260). He discovers the fiction of William Faulkner, begins to consider the contemporary fiction of the American South as a subject of scholarly inquiry, and at some point during the winter of 1949-50 sits down to write a review essay on several southern novels that had recently appeared. As Rubin later wrote, "... at the age of twenty--six I was off and running at last" (262).

Any student of southern literature and culture knows where that road led--to the publication of Southern Renascence (a work that, because of its groundbreaking value, holds in southern literary scholarship nearly the place C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South holds in southern historical scholarship); to book-length studies of (among other subjects) Wolfe, George W. Cable, the Fugitive-Agrarians, and the literature of the Old South; to any number of collections of essays, touching nearly every major southern literary figure; to The History of Southern Literature and numerous other works; and to a position as the most prominent and influential figure in the long course of southern literary studies.

That road began with Thomas Wolfe--a figure Rubin seemed to have nearly left behind at the end of his career--and it began with the autobiographical impulse. Such a personal bent might seem unlikely in the case of a scholar, particularly one who is often associated with the southern New Critics--John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren--who are known for refining the autobiographical out of literary study. But, of course, Rubin, although the key figure in southern literary study for half a century, was never the pure scholar: although he respected the New Critics (particularly their poetry and fiction), he was never a wholesale advocate of the New Criticism. The messy, untidy--and fascinating--world intruded too much on his imagination, and at the time of his imaginative awakening he was shaped not by the New Criticism but by that most autobiographical of writers (and one who had been scorned by the New Critics): Thomas Wolfe.

Works Cited

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. The Golden Weather. New York: Atheneum, 1961. Print.

--. An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 2001. Print.

--. A Memory of Trains: The Boll Weevil and Others. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2000. Print.

--. The Mockingbird in the Gum Tree: A Literary Gallimaufry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 1991. Print

--. Small Craft Advisory: A Book about the Building of a Boat. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1991. Print.

--. ed. Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1953. Print.

--. Surfaces of a Diamond. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981. Print.

--. "Thomas Wolfe: Homage Renewed." Sewanee Review 97.2 (1989): 261-76. Rpt. in Rubin, Mockingbird 95-113.

--. Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 1955. Print.

--. "Young Man in Search of a Vocation." Rubin, Mockingbird 243-62.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr., et al., eds. The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985. Print.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South: 1877-1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 1951. Print. A History of the South 9.

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

--. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940.
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Author:Hobson, Fred
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:2680
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