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Thomas Wolfe's Passage to England : A Ghostly Account of a Real Voyage.

I recently received my MA from Sapienza University of Rome. My thesis was a translation into Italian and a critical commentary of Thomas Wolfe's Passage to England. That was not my first encounter with that text, however, as I had read it during the second year of my BA, and since then I had been fascinated with it. When considering ideas for my MA thesis, I thought that because I wanted to make a translation, it had to be Passage to England. A series of sketches written in 1924 during an ocean crossing from New York to Tilbury, the book was published by the Thomas Wolfe Society in 1998 and is hardly Wolfe's most popular or most accomplished work. Nonetheless I always felt that Passage to England had something unique and idiosyncratic and that, despite a certain amount of editing, it was arguably more genuinely Wolfean than later and more renowned works such as Look Homeward, Angel, which was heavily modified by Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins, or the posthumous The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, which Harper editor Edward C. Aswell rearranged from a single manuscript.

As a matter of fact, while Passage to England possesses such characteristic traits as a fragmented narrative form, an interweave of reality and fiction, and the lack of a definite plot, it also tackles and anticipates a whole series of ideas and issues that Wolfe would deal with, albeit to a lesser extent, in subsequent books. First of all and most importantly, the recurrence and the polysemic usage of the word ghost in Passage to England seem to anticipate the pivotal role of that term in Look Homeward, Angel, where it points to a sense of estrangement, irretrievable loss, and eternal vain search for one's place in the world (see, for instance, the final line of the novel's evocative proem: "O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again" (2). Second, if we consider how important autobiographical details are in Wolfe's works, the discourse of "the young man ... who is too tall" in the sixth installment of Passage to England seems to tell us something fundamental and honest about the writer and is relevant to understanding how Wolfe's height (6'6") may have affected his everyday life and resulted in a constant sense of estrangement from the world (76-82). Other typically Wolfean ideas also come up here for the first time. In later times Wolfe would have said that a writer, similarly to a stonecutter, is "a working man ... a man who does actual hard physical labor" ("Writing" 26). In an interview he would have further developed the analogy: "My father got calluses on his hands from his occupation of stone cutting, and I get calluses on my hand from writing with a pencil" (qtd. in Magi and Walser 101). The idea, however, is clearly expressed for the first time in Passage to England by "the Cat," a writer of "cheap fiction," when he says, "Don't work with my mind.... Work with my hands" (74-75).

From a historical perspective, Passage to England is also extremely representative of the spirit of the times, drenched as it is with talks about "race" and the alleged friendship of the two Anglo-Saxon races (the Americans and the British), overt and covert references to politicians (Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding), and mentions of other historical figures such as William Jennings Bryan, best-known for leading the prosecution in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Even the narrator's patronizing attitude toward his Jewish student and the statement that "we should persecute [the Jew] a little more than we have recently" (39)--however disturbing and yet in tune with the widespread anti-Semitism of the time--provide insight into the twenty-four-year-old Wolfe's psyche and should be taken into account when investigating the later ambiguous and contradictory relations between Wolfe and Nazi Germany.

From its very beginning, Passage to England interweaves reality and fiction to a dizzying extent. The narrator-protagonist goes to the pier to sail for England on the appointed day and finds out that the ship, the Cambodia, has already sailed. Feeling seasick on dry land as if he were at sea, he begins writing about his first day off, apparently making up everything. Never have Kafka's words on what writing feels like been more adequate: "I have experience, ... and I am not joking when I say that it is a seasickness on dry land" (qtd. in Benjamin 130; emphasis added). (1) After reading his jottings to his friend George, the narrator tries to convince him with a long and passionate disquisition mentioning--among many others--Defoe, Coleridge, Cooper, Butler, De Quincey, the Greek classics, and all kinds of people in the academic world, that reality is nothing else but a "dull, senseless carnival of blundering mischance which defeats time-tables, and which is always arriving in retard or advance" (14). Consequently, "The perfect experiences are ... those which occur in the quiet eternity of thought ..." (17)--that is to say, in the realm of imagination. Not only is reality anarchic, unforeseeable, and disappointing, it also prevents the individual from fulfilling oneself. The writer himself often has to admit that his emotional baggage does not measure up to the narrative, as it were, "dramatic" aspect of one's existence. Conversely, the inventions of the great masters of fiction "have a conviction, a logic, a lack of the banality and maladroitness which vitiates most of what we see and hear" (13). But the narrator's account of the crossing, fictionalized though it be and interrupted by various essayistic passages and mini-stories, appears to be based on reality--so much so that the vessel is twice called the Lancastria, which was the name of the ship Wolfe really sailed on (106-07). (2) At the end of the first installment, the protagonist agrees to leave on a different ship but suggests that this cruise took place after he had written his journal and that it somehow only helped give his fiction a sense of verisimilitude. After pretending to sail for so long, "the best and shortest way with madness such as this is, to give it the semblance of agreement" (30); that is, sailing for real. This is all much more complex than it seems at first sight, as the voyage narrated actually took place in reality, but it is depicted as if it were fictional in the narrative, while a subsequent voyage is the one that happened for real. At the same time, the failed departure is really fictional, but "real" in the narrative framework. In a March 1925 letter from Avignon, Wolfe revealed to his former teacher Margaret Roberts that he had used the stratagem of the frame narrative only to avoid being sued for libel (95), but such a bizarre start bears witness to Wolfe's ability to work with, and profit from, paradoxes.

The Lancastria

Another issue touched upon in the narrator's discourse is our relationship with the past and our depiction of it. "Can we do no more," he wonders, "when we go beyond the little limits of our years, than to people life with ghosts ?" (20; emphasis added); that is, figments about how a city looked and what it felt like in the past centuries. Such superficial gouache-like representations often follow a prepackaged literary pattern based, for example, on the notion of a "past greatness" (20) and provide very little information about how a city really used to be and the extent to which it has been transformed by man's work and presence. Sometimes these cliches are so widespread and so convincingly sustained in the tourist propaganda that it becomes almost impossible to shrug them off and see the many historic realities behind one cliche. On the other hand, "in a city such as Paris, one gets the continuity of the city's life, past and present" (19), and the visitor is able to perceive "a timeless and inclusive progression in which the centuries march side by side with even and imperturbable step" (19-20). In all those cities in which the past has not been reduced to a single stereotypical image, the present time can integrate with all remnants of the old days and cohere into a harmonic picture.

As the ship goes out to sea, a sense of unreality dominates everything. New York seems "to swim insubstantially in smoke," and the passengers perceive "an almost complete detachment from such reality as [they] had known" (32). The absence of visible boundaries may breed estrangement and disorientation. On one occasion the narrator has the impression that time and space do not exist any longer: "I feel that ... I have been transplanted ... from the limited to the unlimited; from finite to infinite; from the measures of time and space to infinite and eternal timelessness and spacelessness" (51). The new environment also causes other passengers to feel less inhibited. Shortly before disembarking at Cherbourg, the Man from Dayton, who had always criticized his countrymen for their lack of moderation and constant state of drunkenness, steals some bottles from the ship's bar and drinks himself into a stupor (98-100).

In Look Homeward, Angel, young Eugene Gant dreams of an actor's life while at the movies with his father: "The boy's mind flamed with bright streaming images.... His life was the shadow of a shadow, a play within a play. He became the hero-actor-star, the lord of the cinema.... He was the Ghost ... the cause that minted legend into fact" (274; emphasis added). In Passage to England Wolfe already seems to think of how he might construe an engaging myth upon the term. In the eighth installment, the narrator is given the notes of a young man on the events of the past night. While walking on the deck alone, the young man's mind is stimulated by the contemplation of the choppy sea and the roaring wind. The irrational forces of nature soon rekindle his unrealistic child's dream to be an almighty elusive ghost:
   It was the dream--the blessed dream again--which often
   had come to him as a child....

      ... you were pursued by malign and evil forces, and
   you knew the ecstasy of the unattainable swiftness; you
   were triumphant over sin and death and any danger;
   loneliness and isolation dwelt in you, and you possessed
   them joyously.

      You were a ghost with the strength to move mountains....

      He believed it all again, as he went up the decks into
   the whistling gale: his throat was filled in little animal
   cries which sped the wind like bullets. (97; emphasis

In Passage to England the "ghost" is not only Wolfe himself and the expression of his desires, be they impersonated by the narrator or other characters, but the ship herself as well as her several forms and the apparitions she is studded with. The ship also stands for what Wolfe calls "Truth," or the "Absolute"; namely, "a member of the great trinity which also includes Goodness and Beauty," and, "with the assistance of Hegel, ... that which absorbs its moments of negation. Or, to be yet more explicit, it is unity in the midst of everlasting change" (114; emphasis added). This means that the Lancastria embodies the wildest dreams and simultaneously contains in the unfathomable depths of her hull the most terrible and uncanny truths. Seldom shall we find as clear an example in other works of Wolfe of that principle that C. Hugh Holman describes as "a form of Hegelian dialectic that made [Wolfe] see all life in terms of opposites and gave his work the fundamental structure of thesis and antithesis ..." (19).

This is the same philosophical concept we shall read about in Look Homeward, Angel--"A stick ... is not only wood but the negation of wood" (594)--but in Passage to England Wolfe elaborates on this idea and manages to better fit it into the text. Only when the protagonist is already on the Cunard tender boat in the Thames that will take him to the mainland is he able to see the third-class passengers, those "poor, harassed, badgered looking men and women who for lack of a few dollars extra passage were detained on the slightest irregularity" (107). Another more subtly disquieting surprise follows: "faces--strange wild savage faces" appear at the lower ports (108). They are the stokers. They should have been "victorious, exultant, physical--the force which drove the ship" (115). Instead, they are "white-faced rascals" with "small evil eyes" (108) and one must fear them because if, all of a sudden, they revolted, nobody could appease their rage: "the gentleman from Cleveland will have his smooth white throat slit from ear to ear" (109). Though "All ships are spectral" (111), the damned spirits of legendary phantom ships as well as the spectral sailormen possessed by the seraphs in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are only fantastical, harmless myths, while it is "the ghosts who are alive, below in that great imprisoned well, who awaken terror" (115; emphasis added). Only by ignoring these "ghosts" or locking them up in a remote region of the mind do the privileged manage to solve the instinctive uneasiness they feel in their presence. After all, "there are always doors which are never opened" (112), but this does not apply only to the ship. Apparently aware of the tragic divide between the wealthiest passengers and the stokers, a steward invites the passengers to look away: "There's nothing to see" (116). What one can see on a ship casts a merciless light on society and on the economic and social imbalances within it:
   Here, the terrible fabric, the tragic interweft of human
   existence, is more closely woven ... no fat soft man from
   Cleveland may have his broth of salt twice daily, but by
   the tortured labor of a lean hard man from the seven
   ends of the earth ... no lady lies in silks but the tragic
   balance must be held where another lies in rags. (108)

Perhaps these phantoms are only emanations of the primary unseen monster, the huge and terrible "Machine" that reigns unopposed on the bottom, which is simply too big in comparison with all the rest and further intensifies "the ghostly illusion" (111; emphasis added). This modern Titan is the symbol of all the machines and devices that already in 1924 subjugated man, who, Charlie Chaplin-like, only has to carry out a single repeated action until he is exhausted. This slave's only hope is the capacity to go mad, which is proper of a fallible human being, while a machine only wears out: "it is only when the capacity for madness is lost to him, and when he wears out, instead, that the ultimate in desperation is attained" (112; emphasis added).

The only sign of the existence of the mammoth Machine, otherwise almost sunken in another dimension, is "a distant pleasant hum, a faint vibration" (32) that one soon gets used to and hears only every now and then. This faint buzz mingles with the sound of the surge and the notes of an orchestra mysteriously disappearing and returning, thus creating a magic concert of inexpressible sounds evoking the ghosts of an entire lifetime. Images associated with sounds resonating in the void come to the narrator's mind:
   ... the walled dark streets of lower Manhattan; ... the
   theatre district at eleven o'clock; ... the clutter of heavy
   plates in an all night lunch room; ... a heavy cart across
   a cobbled pavement at three in the morning; ... the slow
   clop-clop-clop of a truck horse in a silent street; ... the
   faint lonely whistle of a train far off at night in summer
   in a valley in the South.... (111)

In another passage the narrator lists some people he personally knows and creates a small portrayal of American life:
   I know a man who worked for thirty years upon a chart
   to prove that the world would come to an end in 1914.
   ... I know an old man in the mountains who has never
   been ten miles from home; a Swiss jeweler who did his
   work for years in a tomb-stone shop and read The
   World's Almanac; a Negro woman named Molly Earle
   who was a cook throughout the week, and who delivered
   two-hour sermons in the public square on Sunday
   afternoon.... I know an undertaker who wept with joy
   when he revealed the body of my brother, declaring,
   with the pride of an artist, that "it was the finest job he
   had ever done"; a lawyer who has one of the greatest
   collections of phonographic records in the world; an old
   man in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who runs a lodging
   house, and has a library of several thousand volumes all
   relating to Napoleon, and a Jew in the East Side of New
   York who wants to be like Charles Lamb. (72-73)

Both passages represent Wolfe's first efforts to build up a kind of literature as inclusive as possible. By grafting wraiths of memory in the spectral and interconnected voices of the monstrous Machine and the unlimited ocean, Wolfe is able to save in his writing several situations experienced firsthand that otherwise would be lost. Furthermore, the episode of the undertaker boasting about his "work" on the narrator's brother, which will be fully deployed in Look Homeward, Angel, is told here for the first time.

In the sixth installment, the "young man on this ship who is too tall" (76), a clear reference to Wolfe himself, envies "those poor stunted giants of our own times, who find their way ultimately into circuses and travelling carnivals" because "all beyond the lights are phantom. They see the world vaguely as audience, which makes a stir and a noise beyond, and which pays its fee to look at them" (77; emphasis added). In other words, despite their unnatural height, they soon learn what their roles in the world are and play their parts almost lightheartedly, all the more so because they know no reality beyond that of the circus. The tall man's own ghosts--namely, the earlier versions of himself--are far more problematic and vaguely haunting:
   It is the men who are too tall, I believe, who think most
   about their childhood, who see and feel most poignantly
   those crowding phantoms of themselves which follow at
   their heels like spectral hounds. Already, before I have
   come to twenty-five, I am the father of ... a child no
   higher than my knee, of another youngster whose head
   comes half way up my belly, and of a boy of sixteen
   years, all legs and hands and awkwardness, who is just
   on six feet, and in whose eyes may be read the secret terror
   of his heart: he reaches just above my shoulder, and
   he has sprouted a good three inches in a year. (78)

In a few years the man grows so tall that he no longer perceives the furthest ends of his body as belonging to himself: "[I] stare with awe and horror across my angled shanks to where my distant toes sprawl on the footboard.--I do not believe they are mine: they seem detached, remote ..." (79). The simple notion of growing up fails to make sense of such a constant monstrous metamorphosis:
   The biologist seems to think it is all comprehensible
   enough, and the philosopher once explained it to me in
   a way which apparently was satisfactory to him, but so
   far from having a sense of evolution and possession in
   the boy of six years back who came to my shoulder, or
   the boy before me who came to my belly, these are
   ghosts, ghosts, incredible now, remote and lost to me,
   and no part of me. (79; emphasis added)

In the eleventh and last installment, as Igina Tattoni points out, Wolfe seems to associate Pontius Pilate with the character of the court jester, the only one who was allowed to say the truth in the king's presence because he was held to be crazy. Not entirely unlike a jester, the artist and the writer must always take into account the issue of truth in their work (149). Perhaps the reason why "jesting Pilate would not stay for an answer after asking [Jesus] what truth was" (Wolfe, Passage 114) is that truth contains both splendid and vile elements, so that even if "Any sophomore in Logic I could have told him" (114), the problem does not lie in defining what truth is, but rather in being able to tolerate its full implications. This notion may shed light on the enigmatic conclusion of the book:
   (Oh Jesting Pilate, Jesting Pilate! What weariness and
   horror was in your jest and in your flight! Could you give
   us now the answer, if you could speak beyond the iron
   doors of secrecy and death? Perhaps, Jester, you gave it
   then: your answer was your flight?) (116)

What Wolfe here seems to hint at is the impossibility of truth, both on the epistemological level and in terms of full acceptance of its darker implications. Only the jester and the artist, like Wolfe does in Passage to England, allow themselves for a moment to give a voice to that faint albeit terrible background noise disturbing the dominant narrative.

In reality, too, the Lancastria would become a sort of phantom ship, as in 1940 her tragic end was covered up. Writer and historian William H. Miller informs us that the ship's original name was Tyrrhenia, but many disliked it and found it difficult to pronounce, so the vessel was renamed in 1924 (two years after her maiden voyage). The most superstitious sailors think that naming a ship is a bit like baptizing her and that giving her a new name is inauspicious. Initially the Lancastria shuttled between Liverpool and New York; after the Great Depression, she was used as a cruise ship for tourist resorts in the Mediterranean. As Miller reports, "she was fitted out to carry up to 1,846 passengers--235 in First Class, 355 Second and 1,256 Third." The figures clearly demonstrate that what in Passage to England is shown as the reality of the ship was actually the experience of a limited number of passengers compared to their totality. Beginning in autumn 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, the Lancastria was used as a troopship. On 17 June 1940 it moored off the French port of Saint-Nazaire in order to evacuate soldiers and civilians. At 3:48 p.m. the vessel was attacked by a Junkers Ju 88 German bomber. It was hit three times, and a fourth bomb hit the water on the port side causing severe underwater damage. The bombs ruptured the ship's fuel-oil tanks, spreading more than a thousand tons of oil in the sea, a further hindrance for the survivors under German gunfire who tried to save themselves by swimming ("General"). Scottish journalist Graham Fraser writes that the tragedy of the Lancastria was the worst maritime disaster in British history and that about 4,000 "men, women and children" died--more than those killed in the Titanic shipwreck and the sinking of the far better-known Lusitania combined (other sources estimate the number of victims of the sinking of the Lancastria as ranging from 2,000 to 6,000).

As reported by Miller, at first the event was blacked out because it coincided with the surrender of France, and many--including Winston Churchill himself--thought that news of it would further weaken the morale of the population. Although in July The Scotsman in the UK and The New York Times in the United States made the event public, little space was given to the news, and the survivors were forbidden to talk about the sinking. To this day, the area of the sinking is not designated a British war memorial site, apparently because it lies in French territorial waters. However, an international petition launched on the Lancastria Archive website quotes passages of an e-mail between the Royal Navy and the British Ministry of Defence that seem to indicate that the area's being outside of territorial jurisdiction of the UK does not constitute an obstacle. Furthermore, according to Fraser, others believe that not all documents regarding the disaster have been made public. It is then legitimate to wonder if this ghost ship will ever be able to free herself from her curse and if someday the victims and their families will be given proper recognition.

While generally considered a minor text, Passage to England is extremely significant, not only for those Wolfe scholars who will be able to grasp all the lexical, thematic, and biographical references, but also for those readers who want to get to know Wolfe's more genuine, less watered-down voice. Whereas most of Wolfe's better-known long narratives are the product of a heavy editing process, Passage to England, however imperfect, is the unfiltered testimony of the author's first steps in novel writing, and, as such, it opens a window into Wolfe's psyche. The text also refers to and capitalizes on a whole series of key words, ideas, and themes that would have found their way in Wolfe's later writing, with special reference to the term ghost. In view of these considerations it is hard to deny that Passage to England is a pivotal text and arguably Wolfe's most authentic work by virtue of its very unadulterated form.


(1.) Benjamin quotes from an early Kafka work, Description of a Struggle [Beschreibung eines Kampfes]. The same metaphor resurfaces in Kafka's novel The Trial [Der Prozess].

(2.) The narrator's use of the name Lancastria occurs late in the text, when the ship has reached the Thames. Early in the second installment he refers to it once as the Cambodia, which is the name he consistently uses (ten times) in the first installment. (Note that the Lancastria's sister ship, which also regularly crossed the Atlantic from New York in the early 1920s, was the Cameronia. Perhaps that was Wolfe's inspiration for the name Cambodia.)

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death." 1934. Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hanna Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968, pp. 111-40.

Fraser, Graham. "Lancastria: The Forgotten Tragedy of World War Two." BBC News, 13 June 2015, /uk-scotland-33092351. "General Information." Lancastria Archive, .uk/general-information/.

Holman, C. Hugh, "'The Dark Ruined Helen of His Blood': Thomas Wolfe and the South." 1961. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, New York UP, 1968, pp. 117-36.

"Lancastria International Petition Launched." Lancastria Archive, 1 Aug. 2006, -international-petition-launched.

Magi, Aldo P., and Richard Walser, editors. Thomas Wolfe Interviewed 1929-1938. Louisiana State UP, 1985.

Miller, William H. Cunard-White Star Liners of the 1930s. Amberley Publishing, 2015. Google Books, /books?id=wuogCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=one page&q=tyrrhenia&f=false.

Tattoni, Igina. "'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?'" Look Homeward and Forward: Thomas Wolfe, an American Voice across Modern and Contemporary Culture, edited by Agostino Lombardo et al., Casa Editrice Universita degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza, 2003, pp. 141-49.

Wolfe, Thomas. Letter to Margaret Roberts. 21 Mar. 1925. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Elizabeth Nowell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956, pp. 94-96.

--. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.

--. Passage to England: A Selection. Edited by Suzanne Stut man and John L. Idol Jr., The Thomas Wolfe Society, 1998.

--. "Writing and Living." Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech: "Writing and Living," edited by William Braswell and Leslie A. Field, Purdue U Studies, 1964, pp. 25-78.

Maurizio Brancaleoni is a recent graduate of Sapienza University of Rome with an MA in Language and Translation Studies, but he has been translating from English to Italian at least since 2012. His MA thesis aimed at providing an extended commentary and a translation into his native language of Thomas Wolfe's posthumous Passage to England: A Selection. In recent years his translation of poems by Adrian C. Louis, Jean Toomer, Dylan Thomas, and Ab Visser have appeared in the Italian journals Soglie, Rivistaiunaspecie, and Fischi di carta. He has also published several pieces of poetry and fiction in various collections and journals and has won a couple of literary prizes.

Caption: This plaque, one of several memorials in the UK and France commemorating the Lancastria, was unveiled at Liverpool's Pier Head on 27 September 2013.
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Author:Brancaleoni, Maurizio
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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