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Nonfiction mentions.

Pat Conroy, in his memoir The Death of Santini (Doubleday, 2013), recalls a long journey back to the Citadel after the holidays: "During the train trip, I entertained extravagant fantasies of becoming a writer. I pretended I was the young Thomas Wolfe gorging on the images of small towns and cornfields as I returned to the South" (26). When his mother expressed anger over her character in The Great Santini, Conroy was shocked:

"Mom," I said, "do you remember when we read Thomas Wolfe's biography, and what you said to me after his family and town went nuts about Look Homeward, Angel? You said you'd be proud if one of your children ever wrote about your family."

"You know I didn't mean it," she said. "I hate your portrait of me." (69-70)

In the mid-1990s, while work was being done on his house in South Carolina, Conroy moved to Asheville for a time and "took a place at Longchamps Apartment House with a superb view of the city below." His thoughts naturally turned to Wolfe:

... The ghosts of Thomas Wolfe and F Scott Fitzgerald still lingered in the mountain-circled town that was in the rapid process of becoming one of the most enchanting cities in the country.... Dad was with me when I laid a rose on Thomas Wolfe's grave, as I tried to do every time I visited the town on my own.

"I love this man for making me want to be a writer," I said.

"You'll never be in his league, son," Dad said. "As far as I can tell, you're eating his jock."

"I don't care. He brought me to the dance, Dad," I said, happy that I had led him to this sacred ground to see the fountainhead of my career.

"I bet nobody builds a museum in a house you lived in," Dad said.

"You're right, Dad. I lived in twenty houses before I got to Beaufort." (280)

The words or Eliza Pentland during her first meeting with Oliver Gant in chapter 1 of Look Homeward, Angel are used by Paul Martin in The Healing Mind: The Vital Links between Brain and Behavior, Immunity and Disease (St. Martin's, 1998). The passage appears as an epigraph to Martin's first chapter (it is not known why Martin chose to silently add a comma):
   Most of the time we think we're sick, it's all in the mind. Thomas
   Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) (1)


That sentence--and Wolfe's name--are also featured prominently in large all-capital letters on the back cover of the 1999 paperback edition, above this text:
   In The Healing Mind, Dr. Paul Martin, a renowned professor of
   behavioral biology, asserts that Wolfe's words are closer to the
   truth than we might imagine. Long the stuff of poetry and folklore,
   there is increasing scientific evidence that the brain and the
   immune system are inextricably linked.


Roy Blount Jr., who received the 2009 Thomas Wolfe Prize and delivered that year's Thomas Wolfe Lecture at UNC, is a big fan of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933). In his delightful book Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made (HarperCollins/It Books, 2010), Blount writes:
   I don't want to oversell [the movie]. In London in 1931, Thomas
   Wolfe wrote to a friend in the States that he dreaded going with
   his swellegant English publishers to see the Marxes onstage. "I
   suppose I shall have to listen to the usual horrible guff ...
   'You know there's Something Very Grand about them--there really is,
   you know, I mean there's Something Sort of Epic about it ... I
   mean that man who never says anything is really like Michael
   Angelo's Adam ... you know they are really Very Great Clowns,
   they really are, you know,' etc. etc. etc. ad vomitatum." (4-5)


The letter from which Blount quotes was written to Henry Volkening on 14 January 1931. For Wolfe's full comments about the people he called the "dear moderns" and "the swells," see The Letters of Thomas Wolfe (edited by Elizabeth Nowell; Scribner's, 1956) or Thomas Wolfe's Friendship with Henry Volkening: The Documents (edited by Arlyn Bruccoli and Matthew J. Bruccoli; Thomas Wolfe Society, 2005). Wolfe seems to have enjoyed the Marx Brothers himself, without attaching any deep philosophical significance to their antics. Of the platitudes and pretentious blather uttered by the "dear moderns," Wolfe tells Volkening that "the best answer to it is Groucho's famous remark: 'Even if this was good I wouldn't like it.'" And he writes, "I am tired of these weary bastards: they hate life, but they won't die" (Letters 292).

Blount understands Wolfe's reaction, but he notes--in response to Wolfe's "ad vomitatum" comment--"There is no vomiting in Duck Soup. There are no poop jokes. (An outhouse joke in the script was replaced by a doghouse joke.) The Marxes violate personal boundaries without resorting to naked wrestling or talking penises" (5).

In her memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker (Algonquin, 2012), Janet Groth writes of her self-doubt as a teenager. She recalls being assured by her mother that, at age fourteen, she was actually doing well and was just fine:
   Mother was right. Still, I spent the next three years in an
   armchair with a book. I read Thomas Wolfe, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,
   Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Mother let slip one day, unaware that it
   could hurt my feelings, her opinion that reading books was "pretty
   much a waste of time." (196)


Earlier in the memoir, Groth discusses the literary struggles of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, and in so doing, she makes a significant error:
   By tackling the work in journalistic terms, leaving himself out, he
   was depriving himself of a literary character in whom he would
   invest authority, the authorial point of view, a literary persona
   to be the teller of his tale. It was as though Joe were trying to
   write War and Peace without Pierre, The Great Gatsby without Nick
   Carraway, Great Expectations without Pip, You Can't Go Home Again
   without Eugene Gant. (38-39)


Eugene Gant is the central character in Look Homeward, Angel (and Of Time and the River), not You Can't Go Home Again--that's George Webber. It is surprising that nobody at Groth's publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, caught that mistake in 2012 or in the 2013 paperback.

A 115-word passage from Wolfe's 1937 essay "Return," serves as an epigraph for an interesting book by Jeff Biggers: The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America (Shoemaker & Hoard/Avalon, 2006). Although Wolfe's punctuation has been fiddled with a bit, his words from "Return" are quoted accurately. Later, using the example of the "contrasting works" of Wolfe and James Still, Biggers points out that the "legacy of Appalachia's literary community ... is as varied and complex as the region" (201). In fact, he writes, "a number of twentieth-century Appalachian writers lost their mountaineer and hill folk status altogether, either by joining national literary movements or by moving away," often to be labeled by critics simply as "Southern writers." Here Biggers mentions James Agee as one who "is--like Wolfe--rarely associated with Appalachia ..." (202). Biggers, however, clearly places Wolfe in the category of Appalachian writer. For example, after noting the publication of Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Biggers writes:
   A few years earlier, the arrival of another Appalachian writer,
   Thomas Wolfe, triggered a literary upheaval as dramatic as the
   stock market crash. His coming-of-age novel, Look Homeward, Angel,
   revealed the scandalous backroom scenes in the fictional mountain
   town of Altamont. It was published only days before Black Tuesday
   in 1929. Based [on] his native Asheville, North Carolina, the novel
   devastated any dull facade that had masked small-town America and
   essentially launched a new vogue for the autobiographical expose.
   Compared variably to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Fyodor
   Dostoyevsky, the towering Wolfe became an overnight sensation in
   New York and abroad. It took seven years before he managed to
   return to his outraged hometown in Appalachia. (199-200)


And when reminding us that Still's River of Earth shared the 1940 Southern Authors Award with You Can't Go Home Again, Biggers says the latter was written by Still's "fellow Appalachian Thomas Wolfe, who had died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight [sic], in 1938" (200-01). He then says that
   ... Wolfe's novel continues the journey of his alter ego George,
   who has written a novel, Home to Our Mountain [sic ]. Returning to
   Appalachia for the first time in years, George finds that "a spirit
   of drunken waste and wild destructiveness was everywhere apparent."
   He is soon on the road again, traversing the seas for other
   countries. The words of a local woman haunt him: "There's no better
   or more beautiful place on earth than in these mountains--and
   someday [sic] you'll come home again to stay." Wolfe, in fact, was
   buried in Asheville. (201)


In a section about rapid changes that took place in nineteenth-century Appalachia, Biggers writes, "'A huge compulsive greed had been at work,' North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe declared. 'Something had come into the wilderness, and [had] left the barren land'" (128). No source is cited, but this passage is from "The Hills Beyond" in the 1941 book of the same title--where, in addition to including had (silently jettisoned by Biggers), these two sentences aren't consecutive; the first one is a fragment from a longer sentence (236), and the second appears a couple of hundred words later (237).

Finally, Biggers claims there's a Wolfean connection to William Demby's first novel, Beetlecreek (1950). Biggers describes Demby (who died in May 2013 at age 90) as "one of the celebrated writers in the Harlem Renaissance," and Beetlecreek as a "groundbreaking coming-of-age novel, ... which has left a great legacy in African American literature" (202). He also says of Beetlecreek that Demby "took its title from a Thomas Wolfe story" (202). Biggers provides no further details, and we are not aware of a Wolfe story title that would seem to be an inspiration for the title of Demby's novel.

Wolfe was, on the other hand, inordinately fond of the word beetle, particularly in relation to cars, trucks, and other machines. It's used at least ten times in that sense (for example, "beetles of machinery") in Of Time and the River and a couple of times in other works. He also used beetle several times to mean "overhanging" (usually referring to eyebrows). In fact, Wolfe's use of the word as a verb in chapter 75 of Of Time and the River ("while the heavy busses beetle past") is cited by the online Webster's Unabridged Dictionary as an example of beetle used as an intransitive verb (even though the editors at Merriam-Webster chose to silently update Wolfe's spelling to "buses").

David Grambs selected six passages from Look Homeward, Angel for inclusion in The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms and Literary Quotations (Norton, 1993). He used portions of Wolfe's descriptions of Josie--niece of Mrs. Bowden--in chapter 26; Hugh Barton's mother in chapter 27; Ben Gant in chapter 8; Eugene's schoolmate Otto Krause in chapter 8; four members of the Pentland clan in chapter 1; and the unnamed "grass widow" in chapter 21. The only error in these passages is that Wolfe's word mottled (describing the widow's arms) appears as mottle in the Grambs book. A second edition of The Describer's Dictionary is scheduled for publication in late 2014.

The fifth edition of an influential book first published in 1967, Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frazier Nash, was recently released by Yale University Press (officially published in January 2014). Wolfe's views of wilderness are on display in this classic work via a passage quoted from his short story "The Men of Old Catawba" in From Death to Morning:
   In 1935 Thomas Wolfe wrote that America's roots run "back through
   poverty[,] and hardship, through solitude and loneliness and death
   and unspeakable courage[,] into the wilderness." The wild, he went
   on, is the nation's "mother" because "it was in the wilderness that
   the strange and lonely people who have not yet spoken ... first
   knew themselves." For Wolfe the real history of America was "a
   history of solitude, of the wilderness, and of the eternal earth."
   ... Wolfe and [Gertrude] Stein were one in thinking that if there
   exists a national character, the wilderness explained America's.
   (260-61)


In addition to two silently omitted commas, Nash errs in saying that Wolfe was referring to the "real history of America." The story's narrator, while describing "America" in previous paragraphs (203), is specifically referring to the "real history of Old Catawba" in the final sentences (204). The same is true in the first published version of the story--titled "Old Catawba"--in the April 1935 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. More important, Nash misattributes the quotation to Of Time and the River. In a footnote, he writes "Wolfe, Of Time and the River (New York, 1935), as quoted in Roderick Nash, 'American Space' in Smithsonian Exposition Books, The American Land (New York, 1979), p. 48." This misattribution also appears in the previous (fourth) edition of Wilderness and the American Mind (2001).
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Title Annotation:Notes; Pat Conroy
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:2189
Previous Article:Wolfe in novels and stories.
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