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Teaching Thomas Wolfe in the twenty-first century: a roundtable.

At the 2015 meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society in Albany, New York, a panel consisting of university professors who regularly teach Wolfe's works and of recent graduates who first encountered texts by Wolfe in a college classroom convened to recount their experiences--and to exchange ideas on how best to introduce Wolfe to a new generation. The Thomas Wolfe Review is pleased to share with readers these varying perspectives on teaching Thomas Wolfe in the twenty-first century.

The Albany panel included the following scholar-teachers: Joseph Bentz, Azusa Pacific University; Mark Canada, Indiana University Kokomo; Paula Gallant Eckard, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and George Hovis, State University of New York, Oneonta. Representing those who recently encountered Wolfe in the classroom were Sarah W. Cummings (SUNYOneonta), Michael Curtis Houck (UNC Pembroke), and Dylan Nealis (SUNY Oneonta).

These accounts convey different ways in which Wolfe has been and will continue to be read; they recall many of our own evolving experiences in reading and rereading Wolfe. Introducing Wolfe to contemporary students, George Hovis and Joe Bentz locate the author and his works within both the unfolding story of American literature and the context of modernism. Working with techniques of reader response, Paula Eckard facilitates her students' emotional connections with situations and characters, prompting them to use understanding gained from Wolfe to achieve greater insight into their own lives and families. As Eckard uses digital resources to locate Wolfe within the society and literary tradition of North Carolina, Mark Canada emphasizes the physicality of place, arranging opportunities for his students to experience surroundings that inspired and formed Wolfe as writer. Sarah Cummings, who came upon Wolfe as an undergraduate, makes a case for reading Wolfe's fiction in its entirety and within the context of biography, glorying in, rather than chafing at his lack of restraint. Michael Houck, self-professed "fan of memoirs and documentary film," also embraces the autobiographical element even as he celebrates the poetic character of

Wolfe's prose. Finally, Dylan Nealis dons a prophetic mantle to warn that literary studies can survive the "egotism and ennui" of postmodern society only by rejecting the amorality of theory and admitting once again literature's capacity to "offer a vision of the world as it should be and not merely as it is."

--Anne R. Zahlan



Teaching Wolfe, Making Connections



I have had the great joy of reading the works of Thomas Wolfe with students in a variety of courses, including an American literature survey, courses focused on modern American fiction and on Appalachian literature, a graduate course in southern literature, and my favorite, a single-author seminar devoted solely to the works of Thomas Wolfe. The ways that I present Wolfe's writing vary depending on the course, but the starting place is invariably the same: Which Tom Wolfe are we talking about? On the first day, I flash two images on the screen and explain to them that we will not be reading the cane-clutching dandy in the starched white suit, who in the 1960s helped create New Journalism and chronicled astronauts and counterculture hippies and later Wall Street shysters and college paramours. No, we will be studying the guy in the crumpled, cigarette-ash-gray suit, whose baggy, manic eyes, are the sign of a sleepless night spent scratching out lines on top of a refrigerator, the brooding young genius of the 1920s and '30s who fled his mountain home and, driven by wanderlust, tried with only sporadic success to feel any more at home in Boston, in New York, and in the cultural capitals of Europe.

Beyond that introduction, our route depends on the work we're studying and the level of the students. In addition to two novels, I have taught a wide range of shorter works, most often The Lost Boy. Based on anecdotal evidence from our annual Thomas Wolfe Society conferences, I would conjecture that The Lost Boy reigns now as the most frequently taught text of Thomas Wolfe--perhaps partly because, as C. Hugh Holman and others have argued, Wolfe was so accomplished a practitioner of the novella, and partly because this story combines the fullness of long fiction with the practicality of a shorter work.

I find that The Lost Boy works particularly well in the American literature survey to introduce students to the form and content of modernism. Like Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Wolfe's four-part novella embraces modernism's unease with omniscience and explores how any truth is composed of fragmentary and often competing points of view. The Lost Boy also offers a way to introduce students to the Freudian psychology so important to the era. In part 2 of the novella we examine how Grover's mother is not able to travel any further than the train ride toward St. Louis, having apparently repressed all of the trauma she still associates with the "old raw sore" that opens up whenever she even hears spoken the name of the "accursed" city where her boy died (39).

I use this same episode to introduce students to the concept of ambivalence so fundamental to modernist fiction. I ask them to examine the complex of emotions they feel while reading Eliza's account of Grover standing up in the whites-only train car and ordering the African American family servant, Simpson Featherstone, back to the Jim Crow section. Students will variously report that they feel outraged by the boy's words and treatment of Featherstone but that they understand Grover is only channeling the white supremacist ideology he has learned from his mother. They will say that they are disappointed in Eliza at the same time that they are sad for her and may even pity her that this memory is the last one she proudly clings to regarding her lost boy. At this point I may play a bit of some dissonant, atonal composition by Schoenberg or Berg and ask them how the music resembles the scene they just read. I hope to lead them to understand that modernist writers of Wolfe's generation sought to present just this sort of complex of competing emotions--some light, some very dark--as an accurate representation of the human psyche, that perhaps more than anything else, such a rendering of consciousness is the legacy of modernism that most endures.

I have taught The Lost Boy in the 1937 Redbook edition heavily cut down to magazine length by Elizabeth Nowell and preserved in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Francis E. Skipp. Much more often I have used the restored version edited by James W. Clark Jr. and published in a single elegant volume by the University of North Carolina Press (1992). This latter edition has many advantages, including inclusion of the Featherstone episode, which was excised by Nowell from the Redbook edition, as Clark notes, to satisfy "popular taste" of the period (xiii). I believe students also enjoy the satisfaction of reading an entire book and one with wonderful illustrations by Ed Lindlof, which help them to experience more fully the way the novella is presented in four separate points of view.

The one great disadvantage of the restored edition--at least for young readers new to Wolfe--is that it restores to part 1 the Wolfean catalogue of Grover's experience while wandering around Pack Square before coming to the dramatic episode in Crocker's candy shop. If I have heard any single complaint from students about Wolfe's writing, it is one that echoes Bernard DeVoto's impatience with Wolfean rhetoric, as well as the long lists of stuff in Wolfe's pages, the stacks of noun clauses, the seemingly endless records of sensory input. One might argue with the student, stammering like Luke Gant, "B-b-b-but, don't you understand how the fullness of Grover's experience is meant to prepare us for his loss--how the abundance of this Edenic world, briefly threatened by the stingy Crocker whose shop tempts the boy with candy only to overwhelm him with guilt and shame, is restored by the God-like father? Don't you see how we need to examine carefully all the tools in the hardware store's window, how we must smell not only the grocer's cheese but the coffee and the tea and the dill in the pickle barrel, the bacon, the milk, and the country ham, in order to appreciate how paltry the mother's and sister's subsequent memories are by comparison?" Go ahead, make your best case for authorial intent. The student, unconvinced, will politely cover a yawn with the back of her hand and surreptitiously stare down at the phone she believes she has successfully hidden in her lap.

If Nowell did a terrible injury to the work by eliding the Featherstone episode, she did The Lost Boy a service by cutting most of the catalogue of Grover's sensory experience (a little bit of this is sufficient to suggest abundance) and moving the story more quickly to the candy store conflict that precipitates the dramatic action of part 1. The candy store scenes establish the critical relationship between two family members--father and son--which sustains the boy's sense of self, in stark contrast to the fragmented and wounded psyches of the volume's three subsequent narrators. Without moving swiftly to the candy store scene, The Lost Boy lacks a narrative hook, and many students are likely to put the story down and never read another word of Wolfe. In the future I will likely ask students to skip several pages of part 1--the pages filled with smells and tools. Gentle reader, before you reach into that paper sack for rotten vegetables to hurl my way, let me propose that, like Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell, every teacher of Wolfe bears the editorial responsibility of presenting Wolfe to a new readership, that even the act of selection is itself an editorial function.

Another short work I have frequently taught is "The Company." And, here again, I am tempted by its original serial form, rather than the version included in You Can't Go Home Again. A quick interlibrary loan order will provide you with the original version as it appeared in the communist publication New Masses. If, instead, students read the version featuring George Webber from the novel, the experience is not quite the same as holding in their hands the text arranged in magazine columns in the font favored by communist editors, with the story's concluding lines appearing directly above a paean to Garcia Lorca. Students enjoy looking at sample covers of New Masses and talking about secret blacklists. Using the 1938 New Masses version introduces students to the question of how audience affects artistic production. And pairing The Lost Boy with "The Company" allows us in a survey course to explore how the same writer worked in both the high modernist style of the former and the proletarian style of the latter.

Proletarian fiction was an important mode during the early twentieth century, one I regularly have skipped in my American literature survey, because I could not find room for The Grapes of Wrath. "The Company" fits this need perfectly, exemplifying how the era of the Great Depression forced not only Wolfe but a whole generation of writers to reconsider the aesthetic commitments of high modernism and the "lost generation." Another advantage of the New Masses version of "The Company" is that, because it is published here as a short story, Wolfe has taken pains to provide a more complete narrative arc, focusing on the relationship of two brothers, Joe and Jim Doaks--a relationship threatened by Jim's boss, the smiling, back-slapping, cigar-gifting capitalist Bob Merrit. "The Company" ends with Joe overhearing his brother being violently castigated, behind closed office doors, by Merrit. Afterward, Joe has an epiphany, one somewhat expanded beyond its length as presented in You Can't Go Home Again. Speechless, Joe "had just found out something about life he hadn't known before. And it was all so strange, so different from what he thought it would be" (38).

This sort of epiphany is an essential part of proletarian fiction, as Barbara Foley points out in "Writing Up the Working Class." The US proletarian novel typically concludes with a protagonist attaining class consciousness, which Joe Doaks so clearly begins to do here. With its wicked satire of the exploitative pyramid scheme employed by the "Federal Weight, Scale & Computing Co."--or simply, "the Company"--this story offers a textbook example of proletarian fiction's critique of capitalism and more specifically exemplifies, in short form, the genre Foley identifies as "proletarian bildungsroman." Often I have students also read The Communist Manifesto and trace its themes as expressed in Wolfe's story. We discuss how Marx is to proletarian fiction what Freud is to modernism.

Just as the pairing of The Lost Boy and "The Company" offers students insights into the competing historical forces and literary trends working within a single writer and throughout the literary world of the early twentieth century, pairing two of Wolfe's novels--Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again--accomplishes the same goal on a much more expansive scale. In the Wolfe seminar, we begin the semester reading the one-act version of The Mountains, followed immediately by Look Homeward, Angel. The story of geographic and cultural entrapment presented so graphically in the play prepares students to recognize the subtler and much richer presentation of the same theme in the novel. As Laura Hope-Gill has observed, a successful strategy for presenting the big sprawling novel that is Look Homeward, Angel involves exploring the multiple narratives it tells: stories of illness and death, of race, of familial dysfunction, of sexual maturation, et cetera. Students are invited to write papers that explore any one of these narratives.

Another fruitful approach to the novel is to discuss the many literary traditions with which it engages: the revolt from the village; the bildungsroman and kunstlerroman; primitivism; the campus novel; and the various strands of romanticism that inform Eugene's tale: the dark romanticism of Byron; the dark but transcendent romanticism of Goethe's Faust; and the transcendental expansiveness of Whitman. In the Wolfe seminar, we read excerpts from works by other authors--for example, Whitman's "Song of Myself," in which students find a precursor to Wolfe's love of cataloguing experience. In a survey, which begins with Whitman and includes Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, these connections are easy to anticipate, and building upon them helps to generate the course's narrative arc.

When teaching You Can't Go Home Again, I focus more on historical contexts. We study the Great Depression, the "lost generation," and the expatriate movement; as well as dadaism and other forms of avant-garde art, represented by such figures as Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder. Students watch a wonderful YouTube video of Calder's "Circus" (mercifully edited for brevity), which helps them to visualize Piggy Logan's performance and understand George Webber's contempt for what he considers its decadent aesthetics.

This overview provides only a few of the opportunities available when teaching the works of Thomas Wolfe. Anyone who reads very far into his writings quickly feels the many influences and the wide range of connections Wolfe is making. One of the teacher's jobs is to help the student see those connections more clearly. Just as Wolfe, in writing, is bringing order to the chaos of experience, the reader and the teacher of Wolfe are participating in that effort.

Works Cited

Clark, James W., Jr. Introduction. Wolfe, The Lost Boy ix-xvi. Foley, Barbara. "Writing Up the Working Class: The Proletarian Novel in the U.S." SAMAR 11 (1999): 26-30. Angelfire. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Holman, C. Hugh. Introduction. The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Holman. NewYork: Scribner's, 1961. vii-xx. Print. Hope-Gill, Laura. "Thomas Wolfe's Asheville." Thirty-Sixth Annual Conference of the Thomas Wolfe Society. Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill, NC. 24 May 2014. Address.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. 1888. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." 1855/1892. Poetry Foundation. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Wolfe, Thomas. "The Company." New Masses 11 Jan. 1938: 3338. Print.

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

--. "The Lost Boy." 1937. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 359-80. Print.

--. The Lost Boy. Ed. James W. Clark Jr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1992. Print.

--. The Mountains: A Play in One Act. 1921. The Mountains. Ed Pat M. Ryan. U of North Carolina P, 1970. 51-84. Print.

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

George Hovis

State University of New York, Oneonta


Thomas Wolfe in the American Literature Survey



When most students, including many English majors, enroll in my college literature courses, they have never read anything by Thomas Wolfe, and many have never even heard of him. However, most students who read his fiction enjoy and appreciate his work, and some even become fans.

I have had the opportunity to teach Wolfe in three different college courses. I have included Look Homeward, Angel in an upper-division "American Novel" course. I have also taught a selection of his short stories in a freshman-level "Introduction to Literature" course. Every semester I teach "The Lost Boy" in a junior-level survey course called "American Literature Since 1865." It is this third course that I want to focus on here.

The reason I teach "The Lost Boy" in my American literature survey course is that it happens to be the Wolfe story that is included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which is the textbook I use for that course. Unfortunately, some American literature anthologies have stopped including Wolfe altogether. But I will continue to use The Norton Anthology as long as it includes a Wolfe selection. Students love this story, which delves into issues of memory, identity, family relationships, and other themes. Over the years, two of my students, Carlton Morse and Sara Flores, have won the top student prizes from the Thomas Wolfe Society after reading "The Lost Boy" and then writing about it. Neither of them had ever read Wolfe before.

There are several versions of "The Lost Boy," but the one in the anthology is the version originally published in Redbook magazine in 1937. Because my course covers such a wide range of authors, I have only one hour to devote to Wolfe, so I have to make good use of the time. The approach that I have found works best with that story is to invite the students to analyze it as a story about memory and the ways the story illustrates how memory works.

"The Lost Boy" is told in three main sections, with three different types of narration. The first section, narrated in a traditional third-person limited omniscient point of view, tells the story of Robert, the "lost boy" of the title, who died during the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The story narrated in that section is set in a fictionalized version of Asheville, where Robert is humiliated by the stingy Crockers in their candy store when he tries to pay for his candy using stamps. They steal three of his stamps and kick him out of the store. Robert's stonecutter father comes to his defense, storming into the store and demanding the stamps. It is an important coming-of-age moment for Robert, and when he goes back onto the square, he is a different boy: "He could not say, he did not know through what transforming shadows life had passed within that quarter-hour. He only knew that something had been gained forever--something lost" (851).

The second section of the story is a series of fragmented memories of Robert told in first person by Robert's mother and sister. The memories are full of ellipses and digressions. Robert is presented in an exalted way--the smartest of the children, clever and resourceful. As his mother says, "Child, child, I've seen you all grow up, and all of you were bright enough, but for all-round intelligence, judgment, and general ability, Robert surpassed the whole crowd.... I've never seen his equal, and everyone who knew him as a child will say the same" (852-53; ellipsis in orig.). The memories of him get mixed up with other details of the women's own lives. As Robert's sister narrates memories of him, she also slides into reminiscences of her own early years:
   My Lord, when I think sometimes of the way I used to
   be--the dreams I used to have.... Taking singing lessons
   from Aunt Nell because I felt that someday I was
   going to have a great career in opera.... Can you beat
   it now? ... Can you imagine it? ... Me! In grand opera!
   ... Now I want to ask you.... I'd like to know...."
   (854-55; ellipses in orig.)

The final section is narrated by Robert's brother, who returns as an adult to the boardinghouse in St. Louis where Robert died. The narrator was only four years old when his brother died, and he has not been back to the house since. The woman who now lives there allows him to walk through the house, and as he does so, the memory of his brother starts to come to life. The place itself eventually sparks, for the first time, the narrator's own personal memory of Robert. As the narrator describes that moment of memory, "The years dropped off like fallen leaves: the face came back again--the soft dark oval, the dark eyes, the soft brown berry on the neck, the raven hair, all bending down, approaching--the whole ghost-wise, intent and instant, like faces from a haunted wood" (863). What follows is a short scene in which Robert tries to get the young narrator to pronounce his name correctly, but the brother can only say "Wobbut."

In small groups, my students look at Wolfe's storytelling method and what it reveals about memory. The first section is memory all cleaned up and constructed into a traditional story, complete with plot, dialogue, and neatly constructed details. When students consider how this section relates to memory in ways that are different from the other two sections, they often talk about how families construct stories that get told and retold throughout the years. These stories, perhaps a funny incident or tragic incident in the life of a family member, attain a recognizable structure so that they are told almost exactly the same way every time, even if the telling bends reality to some degree. The stories acquire a formal structure that listeners expect, especially when they have heard the story multiple times. Like a good joke, the structure matters in giving the story its full effect. Sometimes students give examples of stories about themselves that have followed them around since early childhood. The first section of "The Lost Boy" is an example of such a formal, carefully wrought structure.

The middle section, however, shows a different way we often remember people long dead. We don't remember entire neat stories. Instead, we have fragments, little moments that burst out, and it's often hard to recall them fully or articulate them clearly, just as it is for the women in "The Lost Boy." Our tendency is to exalt the person who has died, even if the slim evidence of the fragmented memories does not fully justify that elevated view of the person. Because these memories are so fragmentary, the little moments we can recall get mixed up with all kinds of other unrelated things we remember. Although this kind of memory does not produce a coherent story, the combination of fragments can still bring the memory of the person to life.

The final section shows the importance of place in memory. Going to a place we associate with the person who has died can bring the person back to life in our minds. Students describe, for example, going back to their elementary schools and experiencing how the smells and floor tiles and whiteboards bring back memories in ways that nothing else can. They remember grandparents' homes and other places connected to memory. Wolfe illustrates the ways that the power of place unlocks the past.

Wolfe combines all these methods of memory into a single story, and thus is able to "find" the lost boy. Students love it, and for some of them, it becomes their favorite story of the semester. "The Lost Boy" highlights Wolfe's modernist experimentation as a short story writer. He breaks from traditional storytelling methods and chooses a technique that illustrates the very theme about which he is writing. The story is not only about memory, it also enacts memory in the various ways it is told.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to teach Wolfe's works in various courses throughout my career. One idea I would like to try in the years ahead is to teach a Significant Authors course on Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald--three great American authors who were influenced by their shared Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins. In addition to the major works by those authors, I would have the students read A. Scott Berg's book Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. I would also use the upcoming film that is based on that book. Even though Wolfe has been neglected in many American literature college classrooms in recent years, students enjoy his work when it is presented to them, and I am hopeful that those of us who teach Wolfe will help spark a new appreciation of this author.

Work Cited

Wolfe, Thomas. "The Lost Boy." 1937. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. Ed. Nina Baym et al. New York: Norton, 2012. 843-63. Print.


Thomas Wolfe in Context: North Carolina Cuture and the Digital World



At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have incorporated the fiction of Thomas Wolfe into several English and American Studies courses at undergraduate and graduate levels. Survey courses include "North Carolina Writers," "Appalachian Literature," "The Twentieth-Century Southern Novel," "Modern American Literature," and "Growing Up Southern." I have found that teaching Wolfe works especially well in the digital age, as biographical information, family photos, and scholarly articles are available through various websites and library databases. These materials are easily incorporated into both face-to-face and online courses and provide useful supplements in studying Wolfe's life and works. Thomas Wolfe also has a presence on social media, including Facebook, which makes him all the more relevant and accessible to today's tech-savvy students.

I most often teach "The Child by Tiger," Look Homeward, Angel, and The Lost Boy, selections that introduce students to North Carolina's greatest literary son and that expand their knowledge of the state's literary culture. For many students, Wolfe's small-town connections, his tumultuous family life, and his ability to capture the desires, longings, and turmoil of youth resonate with their own experiences. Themes of home, family, community, alienation, love, and loss, as well as issues of race, class, and gender, surface in Wolfe's fiction and give students much to contemplate and discuss. "The Child by Tiger," for example, shows the intersections between childhood and racial violence, a subject that is more pertinent than ever. Look Homeward, Angel, with its rich portrayal of Altamont and Eugene's coming of age, has inspired pilgrimages to Asheville, North Carolina, and created new Wolfe devotees among my students. My favorite work, The Lost Boy, has exceptional narrative and aesthetic qualities that make it a compelling, teachable text. With its multiple points of view, exquisite language and imagery, and crushing sense of loss, the novella works well in teaching modernism and critical approaches to literature.

On a reader-response level, Wolfe's story of family tragedy helps students understand childhood lostness in ways that bridge the writer's generation with theirs. The Lost Boy enables them to explore complex dimensions of grief, including its physical and emotional effects, its recursive nature, and the role of time and memory in mourning lost loved ones. Wolfe's haunting portrayal of Grover embodies the archetypal lost child and lost loved ones in families everywhere, a connection my students apprehend in their reading of the novella. For young adults not far removed from childhood, The Lost Boy offers validation for their own experiences. It provides a touchstone for understanding the losses that come with time and with living.

During a class discussion of The Lost Boy, a student told about the loss of an older brother who, like Grover, became an idealized, absent figure at the core of her family. She explained that reading Wolfe's novella helped her to understand the terrible grief surrounding her brother's death, including her parents' sustained feelings of loss and their desire to hold onto his memory.

For another student, The Lost Boy opened a door long closed and gave her the opportunity to discuss past trauma. I noticed that the student, who was older than her classmates, seemed quiet and, at times, sad. My efforts to draw her out during the semester fell short, but that changed when we met to discuss her paper on The Lost Boy. During our meeting, the student disclosed that, at age twelve, she had witnessed her father murder her mother. The student had received counseling at the time but had not spoken about the event again until her meeting with me more than fifteen years later. Her essay topic--Wolfe's depiction of the role of time and memory in mourning--hinted at a deeper struggle to understand the workings of these elements in her own life. I thought about her similarities with Grover and how, at the same age as the lost boy, she must have experienced a death of self when her mother was killed. During our conversation, I suggested that she might want to explore her loss more fully. I told her that it was never too late to deal with the past, adding that her adult perspective, along with a therapist in the counseling center, could be very useful in the process. Because the semester soon ended, I do not know if the student sought further help, but I am certain that The Lost Boy opened the door to that possibility and to telling her difficult story.

In a somewhat different encounter, another student tearfully described the grief he felt after reading The Lost Boy. He said the novella caused him to think about his grandmother and how much she had meant to him over his lifetime. Thinking this was a recent loss, I responded, "I am so sorry. When did you lose your grandmother?" The student replied, "Oh, she's not dead ... she's fine. I was just thinking about how much I'll miss her when she is gone." As these responses indicate, my students were able to consider the past, present, and future implications of loss in their lives, a feat that few books I have taught have accomplished so profoundly.

Works Cited

Wolfe, Thomas. "The Child by Tiger." Saturday Evening Post 11 Sept. 1937. 10+. Print.

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

--. The Lost Boy. Ed. James W Clark Jr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1992. Print.

Suggested Websites:

The Thomas Wolfe Society:

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial:

"A Wolfe Family Album" (North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources):

"The 1904 World's Fair" (Missouri Historical Society):


Putting Wolfe in His Place (and Teaching Him in Yours)



If any single trait stands out in Thomas Wolfe's complex personality, it is the voracious appetite for experience. Recalling a visit to a train station in Rutherford, New Jersey, with Wolfe in the wee hours of an August morning, Kathleen (Kitty) Hoagland perfectly captured the writer's exuberance for life and sensation:
   So we got down to where it wasn't built up very much and there in
   front of us was this little station--a little wooden shack, one
   room. Behind it, silhouetted in the moonlight, was this great big
   tree, and the rails were like silver ribbons, and the insects were
   going up-and-down (you know how they go in that chorus), and there
   was a freight car--two freight cars, one red, I remember, and one
   brown (one was the Virginia Railroad), and Tom looked, and you'd
   think he was sniffing fire like a Dalmatian or something, when he
   saw a freight car because he got all excited and his eyes came to
   light, everything came to light, and he threw his arms out and he
   looked at me and he said, "K-K-Kitty!" (you know he always spoke
   with a kind of stutter when he got excited and rapt in something)
   "K-K-Kitty! Look! This is America. All over the country there are
   little stations like this, with a tree, there's a siding, with a
   factory, for loading freight cars. Look at the rails. Here," he
   said. "Come." And he made us kneel down and feel the vibrations on
   the tracks of a train that might be coming. Then he said, "Come
   along. I want to show you how you should write. See these walls.
   Feel them. You can't write except you feel them. Look at the color.
   They are yellow. They're a faded yellow. Feel those." We all had to
   feel the wall. He said, "Feel the ground. Put your hand on the
   ground," he said, "listen to the insects. Look. This moon is
   shining over all this eastern part of America. It will be shining,"
   he said. "This is America, Kitty." Well, I came home and I sat down
   and I thought, "Well, now I know why he writes like he does. He's
   in love with America." (11-12)

The same enthusiasm for experience pervades one of Maxwell Perkins's memories of his friend:
   What would he want to do, for instance, after a night of work when
   he was in New York, was to visit the markets way down off West
   Street in the early morning when the drays pulled by big horses,
   like percherons, were bringing in the produce, and the blue-green
   cabbages, the piled-up fruit, the purple eggplant, crowded the
   stalls under the glaring lights; and there was the clatter of
   hooves and the rattle of wheels, and the shouts of the boisterous
   drivers and grocers' boys. Tom loved to walk through all that and
   smell the vegetables, walking in his slow, swinging, countryman's
   stride, in the swaying raincoat he always wore, and the shabby
   black felt hat. (4)

When teaching Wolfe--to others or ourselves--we would do well to remember and honor this dominant aspect of his personality, a trait that had a powerful effect on his writing, as Hoagland noted. Wolfe was, indeed, "in love with America." What better way to know Wolfe than to experience this America firsthand and to attempt to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste it as Wolfe did?

Thanks to Wolfe's passion for travel, teachers and readers in many parts of the country can experience places he experienced without traveling long distances. The accompanying sidebar (pages 55-58) features a representative--but by no means comprehensive--list of sites worth considering, along with relevant selected readings by Wolfe and others. While immersing oneself in exactly the same locales that Wolfe visited and inhabited is the ideal, it is not hard to simulate many of his experiences. If New York is too far, choose the closest big city and lead students down a major street (preferably one with fruit stalls). If you don't teach in the West, you still have any number of national and state parks from which to choose. Finally, no matter where you are, you probably are not far from railroads, stations, rivers, farmland, fairs, and scores of other feasts for the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers.

In my own teaching and mentoring, I have met students at several of the locales on this list. In a class I taught on the American novel many years ago, students and I traveled from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where I was working at the time, to Asheville, where we visited the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. More recently, in a graduate seminar focusing on Wolfe, I planned trips to both Asheville, where we visited the Wolfe Memorial and toured Pack Square, and Chapel Hill, where a staff member at Wilson Library had prepared a sumptuous display of artifacts from the Thomas Wolfe Collection and allowed us to pore over them in the library's spectacular Grand Reading Room. Later, two of the students from this graduate seminar joined me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we conducted research on Wolfe at the William B. Wisdom Collection in Harvard's Houghton Library. Each of these same students, on separate occasions, also has joined me to conduct research at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. These research experiences provided these students with hands-on experience working with archival materials. Both went on to prepare presentations, which they delivered at the 2014 annual meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society in Chapel Hill, and one (Michael Houck) has published his work in the Thomas Wolfe Review. (1)

Travel is, by its very nature, a form of experiential education. When our students--and we ourselves--see what the author saw and hear what the author heard, we begin to understand this writer's world, outlook, personality, and writing in a unique way. The next time I teach Wolfe, I plan to engage my students' senses deliberately and explicitly--to play Wolfe, as it were, asking them, as Wolfe asked Kitty Hoagland, to engage sensuously with the world. We will bring along some relevant passages from the novels and short stories we have been reading and relive them through Wolfe's senses and our own. The latter half of this formula is crucial, for having our own experience is at least as important as trying to re-create Wolfe's experience. Seeing and smelling the vegetables, hearing the insects, feeling the rails, and tasting the food firsthand is what Wolfe did and, I think, what he would want us to do. Indeed, having our own personal experience with the world may be the best way to know Wolfe.



Asheville, North Carolina: Wolfe's hometown has the Old Kentucky Home, his mother's boardinghouse (now part of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial), as well as Pack Square and other locales important to Wolfe's childhood. (Reading: Look Homeward, Angel; "The Child by Tiger")

Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Wolfe spent four years here while he was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. Many of the buildings that Wolfe knew, including Old West and Battle Hall, still stand, so visitors can get a sense of the campus that Wolfe experienced as a teenager. The Thomas Wolfe Collection, part of the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library, has countless manuscripts, typescripts, photos, and other items. Some are on display in the Thomas Wolfe Room; others are available for viewing with advance notice to library staff. (Reading: Look Homeward, Angel; "Eugene Returns to Pulpit Hill: Reminiscences of a 'Wolverine,'" by George Stoney)

Greenville, South Carolina: Wolfe spent the night in jail here after a run-in with police in the 1920s. (Reading: Of Time and the River)

New Orleans: During a visit here in 1937, Wolfe met William B. Wisdom, who would become a great collector of Wolfeana, and journalist William Fitzpatrick. Both wrote about their time with Wolfe in the city. Visitors can tour the French Quarter and Audubon Park, both of which Wolfe visited, and eat at Antoine's, the world-famous restaurant where Wolfe dined. (Reading: "Thomas Wolfe in New Orleans: Letters of William H. Fitzpatrick to Andrew Turnbull"; The Table Talk of Thomas Wolfe, by William Wisdom)

Newport News, Virginia: Wolfe worked in the shipyards here one summer during his college years. (Reading: Look Homeward, Angel)


Austin, Texas: Wolfe never visited this city, but the Harry Ransom Center is home to a collection of Wolfe materials, including notes he took while traveling in the West in 1938.

Boulder, Colorado: Wolfe gave a talk (which became The Story of a Novel) and met with other writers here during a conference in 1935. (Reading: The Story of a Novel; "Studying under Thomas Wolfe," by Dorothy Heiderstadt)

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah: During his whirlwind tour of numerous national parks in the West with Ray Conway and Edward Miller in the summer of 1938, Wolfe stopped here. (Reading: A Western Journal)

Denver: Wolfe spent several days here eating and reveling with friends during his western travels in 1938. (Reading: Out of the West: Notes from Thomas Wolfe's Final Western Journey)

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: Wolfe came here during his national parks tour, and described the view as "glorious ... glorious!" (21). (Reading: A Western Journal)

Portland, Oregon: In June 1938, Wolfe stayed at the Multnomah Hotel, now the Embassy Suites Portland-Downtown, and at the University Club of Portland. He also attended a festival and visited the J. K. Gill Company, a bookseller and stationery store. (Reading: Out of the West: Notes from Thomas Wolfe's Final Western Journey)

Seattle: During his final western journey in 1938, Wolfe saw James Stevens, author of Paul Bunyan stories, and visited a sawmill on Puget Sound. (Reading: Out of the West: Notes from Thomas Wolfe's Final Western Journey; "Reminiscences of Thomas Wolfe: The KOAC Interviews," by Jerry W. Cotten)

Yosemite National Park, California: Wolfe came here during his national parks tour. (Reading: A Western Journal)


Chicago: After delivering a lecture called "Writing and Living" at Purdue University in May 1938, Wolfe invited others to help him spend his lecture earnings in the big city. During his brief time here, he visited the Brookfield Zoo and other sites before catching the Burlington Zephyr for Denver. (Reading: "Thomas Wolfe Lectures and Takes a Holiday," by William Braswell)

West Lafayette, Indiana: In 1938 Wolfe took a train from New York to this city, home of Purdue University, where he delivered a lecture, which he called "Writing and Living." The lecture hall where he spoke still stands. Wolfe also traveled through Indiana as a boy when his mother took him and other children to the World's Fair in St. Louis, and he wrote of the land he saw from the train. (Reading: "Writing and Living"; "The Lost Boy"; "Thomas Wolfe Lectures and Takes a Holiday," by William Braswell)


Cambridge, Massachusetts: After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1920, Wolfe studied drama at Harvard under famed teacher George Pierce Baker at his 47 Workshop. Harvard's Massachusetts Hall, where the class was taught, and Radcliffe College's Agassiz Theatre, where Wolfe's play Welcome to Our City was staged, are still standing. (Reading: Of Time and the River)

New York City: For several years before the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe taught English at New York University (he resigned at the end of the term in January 1930). He lived in the city, ate at its restaurants, walked countless miles through the streets, and met frequently with Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's. (Reading: Of Time and the River; "Thomas Wolfe: A Writer for the People of His Time and Tomorrow," by Maxwell Perkins)

Rhinebeck, New York: At various times during his time in New York City, Wolfe took short trips to visit his friend Olin Dows, a painter whose wealthy family lived on an impressive estate near Rhinebeck. The Dows estate is now in private hands, but some of Dows's murals can be seen at post offices in Rhinebeck and nearby Hyde Park. (Reading: Of Time and the River)

Vermont: In 1933 Wolfe took a road trip through the state with friend and fellow writer Robert Raynolds. (Reading: Thomas Wolfe: Memoir of a Friendship; "'That's the Way to Live': Thomas Wolfe Visits Vermont," by Steven B. Rogers)

Works Cited

Braswell, William. "Thomas Wolfe Lectures and Takes a Holiday." 1939. Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech 117-29.

Cotten, Jerry W. "Reminiscences of Thomas Wolfe: The KOAC Interviews." Thomas Wolfe Review 6.2 (1982): 39-47. Print.

Fitzpatrick, William H. "Thomas Wolfe in New Orleans: Letters of William H. Fitzpatrick to Andrew Turnbull." Ed. Caroline North. Thomas Wolfe Newsletter 4.1 (1980): 17-21. Print.

Heiderstadt, Dorothy. "Studying under Thomas Wolfe." Mark Twain Quarterly8.4 (1950): 7-8. Print.

Perkins, Maxwell. "Thomas Wolfe: A Writer for the People of His Time and Tomorrow." 1939. Thomas Wolfe Review 21.2 (1997): 2-5. Print.

Raynolds, Robert. Thomas Wolfe: Memoir of a Friendship. Austin: U of Texas P, 1965. Print.

Rogers, Steven B. "'That's the Way to Live': Thomas Wolfe Visits Vermont." Pembroke Magazine 32 (2000): 381-87. Print. Stoney, George. "Eugene Returns to Pulpit Hill: Reminiscences of a 'Wolverine.'" 1938. Stoney & Wolfe: A Brief Encounter. Ed. Jan G. Hensley. Greensboro: Jan C. Hensley, 2010. 1-8. Print. "Thomas Wolfe: Biography in Sound: NBC Radio Broadcast." 1955. Carolina Quarterly9.1 (1956): 5-19. ProQuest. Web. 1 June 2015.

Wisdom, William B. The Table Talk of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. John S. Phillipson. N.p.: Thomas Wolfe Society, 1988. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas. "The Child by Tiger." 1937. Wolfe, Complete 332-48.

--. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987. Print.

--. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. 1929. New York: Scribner, 2006. Print.

--. "The Lost Boy." 1937. Wolfe, Complete 359-80.

--. Out of the West: Notes from Thomas Wolfe's Final Western Journey. Ed. Mark Canada. N.p.: Thomas Wolfe Society, 2014. Print.

--. Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. 1935. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.

--. The Story of a Novel. New York: Scribner's, 1936. Print.

--. Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech: "Writing and Living." Ed.

William Braswell and Leslie A. Field. West Lafayette: Purdue U Studies, 1964. Print.

--. A Western Journal: A Daily Log of the Great Parks Trip: June 20-July 2, 1938. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P 1951. Print.

--. "Writing and Living." 1938. Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech 25-78.


(1.) Michael Houck also was a recipient of an Aldo P. Magi Grant from the Thomas Wolfe Society, which supported his travel to the Ransom Center.


Immersion in the Wolfe Canon



While my experience of Wolfe in the classroom was limited to one semester, it was certainly filled with a whirlwind of information. The fall 2014 special topics class with Dr. George Hovis at SUNY Oneonta covered what seems to be an extensive amount of Wolfe's work: Look Homeward, Angel, The Mountains, The Lost Boy, You Can't Go Home Again, and various short stories.

In addition to reading Wolfe's literary work, we explored his personal life through the use of David Herbert Donald's 1987 biography, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe.

Because Wolfe's writing was so informed by his actual life experience, it seems not only helpful but necessary to read biographical information alongside the text. While certainly a direct comparison between Wolfe's actual life and writing would seem insulting to Wolfe's abilities as a creative writer, reading the biography alongside the fictional text provides the reader insight that would have been impossible otherwise.

Comparatively, Wolfe's novels are much longer than those of other authors. I am speaking here of You Can't Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe's quantity of words, often accompanied by an exasperated tone (what Bernard DeVoto called "apocalyptic delirium" [4]) is certainly tedious at times, and in the university or teaching setting, may appear difficult or even unenjoyable to a student reader. I would argue against this view. Wolfe's "apocalyptic" tendency and other excesses--such as his inability to restrain himself from making extensive lists-become, over time (and the reader has plenty of time to develop this relationship over the course of the novels), memorable and even endearing traits of his authorship. The apocalyptic delirium--while certainly frustrating at times--builds upon itself and culminates in a grief-stricken portrait of the human condition; its repetitive and unsatisfactory nature is convincing. The reader easily empathizes with Wolfe through his characters. What is writing if not the ultimate call for empathy?

By all of this, I mean to say that it is absolutely worth diving, eyes first, into Wolfe's novels--in their entirety. The longer we stay with Wolfe in his stories, the more we are rewarded, be the reward small or large in nature. Wolfe's biographical information is essential if one is studying Wolfe and his writing, particularly in the classroom setting.

It is also meaningful to observe Wolfe perhaps not in his natural habitat of the novel but also in other areas, like his plays and short stories. Seeing an author so clearly used to having the vast, expansive, and seemingly unlimited territory that is the novel condensed into the microcosm of a short story or play is interesting--in the most basic way--in a scientific sense. What does the now caged beast that is Wolfe do within a closed, and in some ways confining, space? Such limitation, accompanied by his biographical information, provides greater insight into Wolfe not only as a writer but also as a fellow sufferer of the human condition.

Works Cited

DeVoto, Bernard. "Genius Is Not Enough." Saturday Review of Literature 25 Apr. 1936: 3+. Print.

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

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

--. The Lost Boy. Ed. James W Clark Jr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1992. Print.

--. The Mountains: A Play in One Act. 1921. The Mountains. Ed Pat M. Ryan. U of North Carolina P 1970. 51-84. Print.

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


"Combing through the Text": My Experience with Wolfe in the Classroom



I first encountered Thomas Wolfe two years ago. A peer and friend of mine, Nami Montgomery, whom many of you had the pleasure of meeting last summer, approached me one day before a class to ask me what I was reading. I had in my hand a copy of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. As our department's graduate assistant, Nami had been working with Mark Canada on some research related to Thomas Wolfe, and she quickly responded in words something like these: "There's a course being taught by Mark Canada this summer that you should take. It's on North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was an Anderson fan. You'd like that class, and you'll love Mark." My only reason for signing up for the class was Nami's recommendation of subject and professor.

My academic background, at that point, was almost exclusively in film and theater studies, and my career was and still is in professional theater. I had entered a graduate English program to challenge myself, having previously taken only required literature classes during my undergraduate years. My graduate program was not a master's in English literature but in English education. Most of my peers were established middle or high school teachers, and all but three courses I took were on methods and theories of teaching literature and composition. Wolfe was a step away from the normal course of study to which I was committed; I almost felt that I had to take an elective.

For our five-and-a-half-week summer course, our syllabus included Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River, and The Web and the Rock as its main texts, with some other essays and letters incorporated throughout. The Web and the Rock was ultimately switched out for a selection of short works due to our campus bookstore's inability to stock the novel for our entire class, which had only seven students. I am not quite sure that would have stopped anyone in our class from obtaining a copy--I later found my copy at a used bookstore in an airport in Vermont--but I am glad that the situation allowed us extra time on Of Time and the River.

The class met twice a week for three hours each session. Dr. Canada assigned 150 or so pages before each meeting. In class, he rarely lectured after the first evening when he framed for us Wolfe's life. Each meeting, as a whole class, we would move through the chunks of text we all had read and have a roundtable discussion. As a student, I think this was the most effective way I could have studied Wolfe's works. I am not exactly a weak reader, but Wolfe's works to me are fairly convoluted, and being able to comb through the texts, sometimes line-by-line, was a very rewarding experience.

After each novel, students in the class were tasked with writing a short essay. When we finished Look Homeward, Angel, I chose for my topic Professor Frederick Koch's influence on Wolfe as a writer, and I expanded the paper in lieu of taking on a new subject after reading Of Time and the River. I chose this topic because, first, I am invested in the theater community and I wanted to know more about Koch, and, second, discovering where artists get their inspiration is a major interest of mine. Later, I decided to expand this paper and look at the subject more in depth, as I found what Wolfe had to say about other young playwrights and about George Pierce Baker to be among the best parts of Of Time and the River.

I am a huge fan of memoirs and documentary film. When I first encountered Wolfe, what I enjoyed most was the autobiographical element, and I knew this to be true for several of my peers in our class. For me, the biographical content makes the act of reading a more personal experience than with the average piece of creative writing. Wolfe's works are each great reads, but I think I would have been less interested when first introduced to his work if I had thought them entirely fictional. Reading his fiction did not and still does not feel like reading just another story. To me, reading Wolfe is a process of getting to know a writer in depth, and that makes the work a lot more fascinating.

As a reader, I also enjoy how poetic Wolfe's prose is. I have spent more time in my life reading poetry and drama than fiction, and at times, paragraphs from Wolfe's works can be extracted from context and read as pieces of poetry. Lovely pieces of poetry. I discovered this through our class discussions as we would conduct close readings. So many passages from Wolfe's works stand alone beautifully. This to me is a fine example of a way to hook new readers and produce a younger generation of Wolfeans. Start small. In my experience, short stories are an effective way to grab new readers. "The Train and the City," "An Angel on the Porch," "The Child by Tiger," are all fantastic short pieces written by Wolfe that comprise Wolfe's autobiographical and poetic style as well as any novel.

I will conclude with another suggestion to any future instructor of Wolfe who has interest in enticing a new generation of Wolfe readers, particularly in an undergraduate course: recognize that in some of Wolfe's works, there are parts that can be skipped and discussed in brief. During my course on Wolfe, I had more than one conversation with my peers about being lost in a sea of unnecessary verbiage. Of Time and the River, which I am currently combing through for a project of my own, can be read, understood, enjoyed, and absorbed while avoiding some sections. Keep your purpose for selecting Wolfe for your course in mind, and construct the reading selections to achieve your course goal. I have read Of Time and the River nearly twice in the last two years, and as it goes, I do not care one way or another about Uncle Bascom.

Works Cited

Wolfe, Thomas. "An Angel on the Porch." 1929. Wolfe, Complete 3-9.

--. "The Child by Tiger." 1937. Wolfe, Complete 332-48.

--. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 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.

--. "The Train and the City." 1933. Wolfe, Complete 10-29.


Thomas Wolfe, the Millennial Generation, and the Future of Literary Studies



Good morning, members of the Thomas Wolfe Society, and thank you for this opportunity to once more address this amazing gathering of scholars. I believe that the subject of this panel holds vast importance not only for the study of the work of Thomas Wolfe but also for the entire discipline of literature. For although it appears that every generation of artists and critics has been keenly aware that their field was underappreciated, if not downright threatened, by the whims of the general population, the crisis that now faces the academic study of literature is without parallel. With the exponential development of technology, the average citizen of the Western world is so surrounded and inundated by sources of information and entertainment-once the prerogatives of books alone--that there is increasingly less and less room in people's lives for literature; a fact that is especially true for members of the millennial generation. Further, in order to evaluate our field's future, even we true admirers of the power of the written word must acknowledge that, in terms of pure entertainment value, literature is utterly deficient when compared to the instantaneous gratification of television or the Internet--all of which appears to bode ill for the discussion we undertake today. And yet, it is my belief that an acknowledgement of these realities does not necessitate a dire conclusion.

Rather, it is a call for us to re-evaluate our aims, to accept the limitations of our chosen media form, and to re-embrace its essential and eternal strength: thematic message. As odd as it seems, this emphasis on theme will demand a concrete shift in how we present our academic pursuit to the millennial generation. With the rise of postmodernity and its unceasing assertion of the subjectivity of all truths, literature has more or less lost its reputation as a means to aid the individual in examining the self and the world that surrounds it. Instead, many members of my generation merely see competing schools of literary theory that filled the void that was left by the now passe idea of theme. For, the argument followed, since truth is a subjective construction unique to each individual, we could no longer follow in the vein of Matthew Arnold's famous dictum concerning our engagement with culture, which, by extension, includes literature. In the preface to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold defines "culture" as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world ..." (5). The very idea that we could label any thoughts as "best" was rejected as the ostentation of the privileged. And so we turned to levels upon levels of theory so we could at least study how artists communicated since we no longer trusted in what they were saying. The consequence has been that literature is seriously read by fewer and fewer millennials, and the whole academic field appears--to those looking from the outside in--to be little more than a hobby, an antiquated, esoteric exercise propagated by a few and which holds little societal importance. In short, for many members of the younger generations, literary academics are cast in the image of the critic in Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again:
   To speak of [Piggy Logan and his art] correctly one must know a
   language whose subtle nuances were becoming more highly specialized
   month by month, as each succeeding critic outdid his predecessor
   and delved deeper into the bewildering complexities, the infinite
   shadings and associations....

      The highest intelligences of the time ... were bored by many
   things. They tilled the waste land, and erosion had grown
   fashionable. (221-24)

If literary studies are perceived as such by the millennial generation, can we be surprised that we find a diminishing audience among them; can we be shocked that the Common Core relegates English classes as training grounds for the "higher" disciplines of the sciences, as a place to learn reading comprehension skills and nothing else? And, truthfully, the field perhaps shares some blame for fostering this perception. Postmodern literary theory itself questioned the higher ideals that had previously guided the discipline, and now society has taken our own argument to its logical conclusion. If this perception persists, the continued decline of literature appears, to me at least, as inevitable. However, there are competing narratives that perhaps hold the remedy. After all, it was not even two centuries ago that Shelley confidently declared that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (377). If we desire our field to be acknowledged as such and for it to find a new audience in the twenty-first century, artists and critics and scholars must first once again proclaim the transformative power of literature; we cannot so overemphasize theory that we forget to assert that in the tomes of literature there is as much wisdom and solace to be found as in any work of philosophy; that literature is uniquely capable of making the world better through aiding individuals in examining their lives and their prejudices and thereby facilitating their maturation into greater citizens of the world. We must not shy away from the conviction that we as a community can in fact identify if not truth per se, at least parcels of knowledge that have proven beneficial to humankind and that can prove transformative for the world once more. There is no danger of being classist or imperialistic or prejudicial in championing compassion, empathy, understanding, and unity; in fact, the danger resides in a failure to do precisely this.

And it is here that Thomas Wolfe makes his triumphant appearance onto the scene. In many ways, the overarching narrative structure of the kunstlerroman that unites Wolfe's four novels creates a mimetic representation of the maturation that the books aim to inspire in the reader. In tracking the personal and artistic development of Eugene Gant and George Webber, Wolfe demands that readers likewise examine their own racial and ethnic prejudices, their own resentments and memories from their childhood, their own overinflated egos, and finally their society at large. Wolfe artistically charts the slow psycho logical progression of an ego escaping its own bounds and redirecting its internal gaze toward the world at large. In the process, Wolfe, his protagonists, and his readers arrive at an almost Whitmanesque, all-encompassing vision of American society-a vision of a cohesive, interdependent society that can be forged through the collective awakening of its citizens; an awakening to the essential heroism and beauty that unites each and every citizen of the world, an awakening to our shared destiny. In addressing the social malaise that created the catastrophe of the Great Depression, Wolfe recognizes that a society can prosper and succeed only if every one of its constituents prospers and succeeds; that it is only through an escape from self-absorption that we as a whole can chart a future path. This is a message that still rings true and one that our contemporary world still so desperately needs. The millennial generation confronts a society built upon acquiescence to gross economic inequality, as well as an impending environmental catastrophe that threatens the very fabric of civilization; there is indeed no time to lose in combating these destructive realities. And yet, as always, humanity remains its own greatest adversary. Our society and particularly the millennial generation is so thoroughly rooted in a postmodern stasis of egotism and ennui that our impending doom is met only with superficial acknowledgements and inaction. Our society needs to hear Wolfe's call more than ever, needs to rouse itself from its slumber. And it is here that we discover the legacy of literature and of Thomas Wolfe in particular for the twenty-first century. They speak to our better natures, awaken our convictions and spur us to action. They offer a vision of the world as it should be and not merely as it is. As Wolfe articulates at the close of You Can't Go Home Again, "I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found" (741).

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Preface. Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. 2nd ed. By Arnold. 1875. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 3-29. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry." 1821. English Essays: From Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay. New York: Collier, 1910. 345-77. Harvard Classics 27. Google Books. Web 1 Oct. 2015.

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940. Print.
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Author:Zahlan, Anne R.
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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