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Thomas Wolfe's journey from Chartres to Orleans: a train trilogy.

When he awoke in Chartres he was filled with a numb excitement. It was a gray wintry day with snow in the air, and he expected something to happen. He had this feeling often in the country, in France: it was a strange, mixed feeling of desolation and homelessness, of wondering with a ghostly emptiness why he was there--and of joy, and hope, and expectancy, without knowing what it was he was going to find.

--Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River (797)

In the fall of 1924, Thomas Wolfe began his leave of absence as an English instructor at the Washington Square College of New York University. His teaching responsibilities had made it difficult to focus on his creative work (Mitchell 42). On 25 October, he boarded the Lancastria for the first of seven crossings to Europe and discovered that conditions aboard the ship offered him uninterrupted time to write. He used the eleven-day crossing to record in ledgers his impressions of the ship and its passengers. This manuscript was published by the Thomas Wolfe Society under the title Passage to England: A Selection (1998). Editors Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol Jr. posited that Wolfe had created "a kind of autobiographical fiction enabling him to transform present and past, time and memory, actual event and imagined occurrence into a fictional reality, a process calling upon the powers of imagination and will and language" (xv). During his time abroad, Wolfe applied these ideas to write three vignettes suggested by a train journey he took between the cities of Chartres and Orleans. Paradoxically, his observations of the French landscape and his co-travelers stirred up memories of home.

In hindsight, it seems predictable that trains and train journeys would stimulate Wolfe's literary imagination. Since childhood, he had been fascinated with the drama of trains entering and departing his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and his early experiences as a passenger had whetted his fascination with travel by rail. Throughout his literary work, Wolfe incorporated trains as both objects and settings. Jennifer Kolb has explored Wolfe's personal and literary romance with trains and his evocative use of the railroad as a way out of the South to the world beyond. According to Kolb, Wolfe
   wrote many of the passages in his notebooks while waiting
   for the train or while riding the train, and many of
   the entries contain sketches, outlines, and drafts of train
   passages that Wolfe ultimately reworked for inclusion in
   his novels and short stories. (78)

In such a manner, trains, travel, and creativity became intricately and intimately linked for Wolfe.

In The Story of a Novel (1936), Wolfe acknowledges that, as a young man abroad, he frequently asked himself, "why have I come?" (7). This questioning suggests that his decision to cross the Atlantic was based on more than seeking escape from his numerous problems or courting the joys he associated with travel. Neither was his travel-lust inspired by the influence of the expatriate American writers of his generation. The folk-drama philosophy at the University of North Carolina, where Wolfe wrote plays under the direction of Frederick Koch, encouraged Wolfe to write using materials composed of "the local, the regional, the familiar" (Adams 34). His work for George Pierce Baker at Harvard continued to push him in that direction. For Wolfe, writing what he knew was fundamental in shaping "the line and purpose" of his work (Story 35). Leslie Field sums up the trajectory of Wolfe's career: "Like Whitman, Wolfe was a romantic who moved from a preoccupation with himself to an interest in his family, his friends, his town, his America, and finally the larger, external world" (vii).

Wolfe's first journey to Europe marked a significant turning point in his life. He discovered there were important literary possibilities to be found abroad; at the same time, his creative consciousness was flooded with memories of home. The competing impulses resulted in rich material that would later appear throughout his writings. In a letter to his mother dated 24 February 1925, Wolfe wrote, "Here at Chartres is perhaps the finest Cathedral in France--perhaps in the whole world" (88). After visiting the cathedral as a tourist, he continued by train to Orleans, where he made good use of his newly acquired literary skills. He fictionalized this journey in Of Time and the River (1935) by structuring it into three contiguous vignettes seen through the eyes of his alter ego, Eugene Gant. The first vignette, illustrated with two pencil drawings, was originally published in Scribner's Magazine in May 1934 under the title, "The Sun and the Rain." One drawing introduces the old Frenchman, his wife, and their irascible daughter (358), while the second drawing depicts a rainy winter scene of the French landscape viewed from inside the train's compartment (359). The first vignette subsequently appeared in the novel and, years later, was included in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe (1987).

In Of Time and the River, the first vignette of the train trilogy opens with an ambiguous phrase: "When he awoke in Chartres he was filled with a numb excitement." The train upon which Eugene travels is described as having cars that carry a mixture of both "goods and passenger compartments." In a single sentence, Wolfe captures the special quality of the train: "Then the shrill little whistle blew, and the train rattled out of Chartres into the countryside, in the abrupt and casual way a little French train has, and which was disquieting to him" (797). The use of the word disquieting adds to the mystery and allure of the piece. Wolfe does not see all trains as the same, but unique to their country of origin. In another example that illustrates Wolfe's keen observance of French trains, George Webber remembers with pleasure "the shrill, sharp whistle--the thin, piping noise--of a French train" in The Web and the Rock (631).

Eugene randomly enters one of the compartments, takes his seat, and looks through the window to observe that "the whole earth seemed to smoke and steam." He notes that the French countryside does not "look like America," an observation that may suggest that he is missing home. This vignette features only four characters, whom Wolfe describes with deft strokes: Eugene, the traveler; an old man described as a peasant; the old man's wife, whose face is likened to "an old brown bowl"; and the couple's daughter, whose words express anger and shame toward her parents, especially her father (797).

Eugene is excited to be traveling in France on a third-class ticket, smoking expensive American cigarettes, and carrying a genuine leather valise. He speaks some French, but with a noticeable American accent. The old man is curious about his fellow traveler and asks, "What region are you from?" His assumption that Eugene is French implies that the old man has lived within the confines of his native region. The daughter explains, "The gentleman is not French! ... He is a foreigner." The old man then says to his wife, "He is a stranger" (799). Their language echoes one of Wolfe's fundamental questions: "Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?" (Look 2). The old man's "sprouting mustaches, ... seamed weather-beaten face, and small rheumy-looking eyes" connote a close connection to the earth. His wife's brownish face and the "fine webs of wrinkles around her eyes" reflect an intimate connection with the sun. The daughter's "dark sullen face," tense body language, and shouted sulky words suggest conflict with her father (797). In fact, she openly refers to him as "stupid" (800, 801), and the narrator tells us that she speaks to her father in "a furious and exasperated tone" (802). Wolfe does not provide a detailed exposition about the animosity between father and daughter, but their conflict suggests his consistent interest in family relationships, which play an important role in all his novels. In Look Homeward, Angel, for example, the narrator asks, "Which of us has looked into his father's heart?" (2). Wolfe was no stranger to family conflict, and his portrayal of antagonism between the old Frenchman and his daughter may have been influenced by his own contentious family history.

Wolfe recorded some of his personal thoughts about the French family on the train in his Notebooks: "I smoked cigarettes all the time to kill the flat sharp rancid smell of their bodies--I gave them cigarettes" (48). In Of Time and the River, Eugene's gift of a cigarette plays an important role in breaking down the barriers between the old man and himself. From his coat, the peasant retrieves "a package of the cheap, powerful tobacco--the 'bleu--which the French government provides for a few cents for the poor" and prepares to fill his pipe. Eugene offers him a popular American cigarette, which he pronounces phonetically for the old man as "Licky Streek" (798). Despite differences in their age, economic status, language, and nationality, they manage to communicate with each other. The Frenchman, who has difficulty understanding Eugene, is surprised to learn that his young traveling companion is on his way to Orleans not for any practical reason, but simply out of curiosity (798). The old man makes a wide gesture with his hands, demonstrating that he has some concept of America's size (800). It is an action that shows geographic understanding and, symbolically, bridges the cultural gulf between Eugene and himself.

Much to his daughter's chagrin, the man also attempts to teach Eugene a few French words. Speaking "very slowly and distinctly, as one might instruct a child," he provides a lesson consisting of three words: "Le so-leil.... La pluie.... La terre" (800-01). His choice of words, which reflect the changing weather of the French countryside outside the train, serves as a means to draw Eugene into his world and represents another attempt to forge connections between the two men. Nonetheless, the old man's daughter scolds him: "I tell you ... he knows all these words. He speaks French very well. You are too stupid to understand him--that's all" (801). Despite her interference, the lessons continue:

The old man made no reply to her, but sat looking at the young man with a kind, approving face. Then, more rapidly than before, and in succession, he pointed to the sun, the rain, the earth, saying:

"Le soleil ... la pluie ... la terre."

The young man repeated the words after him, and the peasant nodded vigorously with satisfaction. Then, for a long time, no one spoke, there was no sound except for the uneven rackety-clack of the little train, and the girl continued to look sullenly out the window. Outside, the rain fell across the fertile fields in long slanting lines. (801; ellipses in orig.)

Later, as the traveling companions part ways at a small country station, the old man points Eugene to another track for his connecting train to Orleans. In appreciation, he gives his remaining cigarettes to the old man as a farewell gift (801). As the train departs the station, Eugene looks out the window and sees "the peasant and his wife ... standing on the platform looking towards him with kind and eager looks on their old faces." When the old man catches Eugene's eye, he points "his great finger at the sun again" and calls out "Le so-leil" (802). The gift of cigarettes and the language lesson prove to be small but meaningful gestures of cross-cultural diplomacy.

This vignette touches on Wolfe's major literary themes of aloneness and loneliness and relates, in part, to an earlier scene in Of Time and the River when Eugene encounters Starwick, a character based on Wolfe's Harvard friend Kenneth Raisbeck. At first, the brief travels that the two friends share together in France with two American women seem to mute Eugene's malaise. However, the reunion ends badly, and Eugene continues his travels alone. In Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth, Louis D. Rubin Jr. proposes that the turbulence of the Raisbeck episode was followed by a period of aloneness that allowed Wolfe a respite to delve into "the memories of his childhood in America" (20). While both aloneness and loneliness are descriptive of his mood at the start of his Chartres-to-Orleans journey, Wolfe distinguished between these mental states and relished aloneness as necessary for his creativity.

The second vignette in the train trilogy in Of Time and the River commences as Eugene continues his journey to Orleans on a train described as an "omnibus, one of those dingy little locals that are made up of third-class compartments that stop at every country station." At each stop, noisy passengers arrive and depart. They are described as having "the look of the country," with loud actions to match (802). The passengers come "stamping in and out with muddy shoes, with a great banging of compartment doors, with a great tumult of voices, with the vigorous excitement of robust and talkative people" (802-03). He does not individualize the passengers; the dim lighting that casts shadows on their faces contributes to a sense of anonymity. They play a role similar to that of the chorus in Greek drama, anonymous figures speaking, chanting, and moving in unison.

A notable exception to the anonymous passengers involves a character who is referred to more than a dozen times simply as the "Frenchman" (803-07), but who is identified once as "the jester" (806). He is seated in another compartment, where he engages in his self-assigned roles of comic and commentator. The rich quality of the man's voice, which expresses "the high, sanguinary vitality of the Frenchman," captures Eugene's attention. The jester shouts out "good-natured but derisive comments on the customs, the appearance, and the inhabitants of every little town at which they stopped...." Wolfe describes the jester's voice as "packed with the juice of life," and as having "the full rich qualities of a good wine" (803). He speaks with accents that at the same time seem both "so strange and so familiar" (805). His language is lewd, ribald, even vulgar, as he skillfully plays his audience. It is not until the jester exits the train that Eugene catches a glimpse of him and sees that he is "a strong, stocky figure of a man, wearing leggings, with blue eyes, a brown mustache, and a solid face full of dark, rich color" (807). Wolfe writes adroitly and with close attention to detail in describing the jester and the other passengers--country people who were evocative of home. The knowledge that he was only one generation removed from being a country type himself may have caused Wolfe to write as he did, seeing a familiar humanity in the passengers he encounters.

Eugene takes an active role in the first vignette--interacting with the old man--but in the second, he remains in the role of observer. As his journey continues, his mood becomes retrospective. He sees many parallels between the people observed on the train and those back home. The jester, the noisy passengers, and the onlookers at each of the station platforms propel his imagination homeward, prompting him to remember "a little country town in the South at which, on his way to and from college, he had stopped a dozen times at just this hour." Eugene recognizes that "in spite of all the local differences, the same essential quality that had characterized the halts at the little town set there upon the vast, raw Piedmont of the South" is present on the train in France as well. Just as the jester's voice "brought the ancient past of Europe, and of France, to life, as the pages of history could never do," Eugene remembers "that a single tone or shading in his mother's or his father's voice could touch the lost past of America" (804). This vignette proclaims the universality of people regardless of nationality and the common human experiences they share.

The third vignette in the trilogy begins at a little station near Orleans when a girl enters the train and by chance chooses the crowded compartment in which Eugene is seated. The country people welcome her and make room for her to share their wooden bench. She sits next to a window opposite Eugene and holds a basket on her lap. These details reflect the simplicity of the train and suggest that the girl is returning from a trip to the market. She is described as "cleanly but plainly dressed, a very lovely and seductive girl with a slender figure which seemed, however, already to have attained a languorous and sensual maturity." She appears to look directly at Eugene, and her face projects "a tender, enigmatic smile." He is certain that, if he spoke to her, he would not be rebuffed. His emotions are aroused, resulting in "some vague and unutterable happiness that was impending for him in this strange and unknown town" (807). However, despite his "hot desire pounding slow and thick in pulse and blood" and the girl's sensuous, inviting stride, he does not follow her when they reach their mutual destination. As the girl disappears into the "crowds of people streaming through the station," Eugene is left once again with a sense of loss and regret (808). The fictionalized version of Eugene's encounter with the young girl differs from an account Wolfe included in an unmailed letter fragment. In early March 1925, he wrote, "The girl kept looking at me under her shaded hat, and shivering, and smiling in a strange drowsy fashion: I could stand it no longer, and I put my arm around her--we said nothing--and came to Orleans" (91). Wolfe added that she waited for him outside the train, but he entered a hotel and did not speak to her again.

Eugene's encounter with the girl in this vignette touches on Wolfe's ambivalence toward women as romantic or sexual objects. In his Wolfe biography, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987), David Herbert Donald addresses the writer's difficult relationships with women and concludes that Wolfe found the outlet for his sexual drive with promiscuous women and prostitutes (126-27). Trying to satisfy his emotional needs was more problematic. The third vignette ends with Eugene being aware that he was left "with a memory of another of those brief and final meetings, so poignant with their wordless ache of loss and of regret" (808). This particular encounter is reminiscent of Eugene's teenage infatuation for Laura James, a boarder at his mother's boardinghouse in Look Homeward, Angel, and his plea to her: "Let's never get married. I want you to wait for me and to love me forever" (436). The concluding vignette suggests that Wolfe's pattern of having difficult relationships with women was deeply entrenched, whether at home or in another country.

Although scholars and readers have tended to focus on Wolfe's longer narratives, his vignettes and shorter pieces have much to offer. Wolfe acknowledged his conviction that "all serious creative work must be at bottom autobiographical," and he emphasized that if one "is to create anything that has substantial value," one "must use the material and experience of his own life" (Story 21). The Chartres-to-Orleans vignettes are drawn from Wolfe's experiences abroad and are structured around a cast of characters who initially are strangers traveling together within a confined space and who, for various reasons, are challenged to take note of and even engage with each other. Some of Wolfe's best-known vignettes are set within the compartments of trains or in cabins of ocean-crossing ships. His alter egos, Eugene Gant and George Webber, are portrayed as observers, who, in spite of their introverted tendencies, emerge from their experiences no longer strangers, but transformed in profound ways. Joseph Bentz, in "More than a Means to an End: The Train as the Locus of Human Interaction in the Fiction of Thomas Wolfe," theorizes that Wolfe chose the passenger compartment of a train as the setting for many of his brief literary pieces because he considered the train compartment to be an ideal social space that provided a balance between the extremes of loneliness and intimacy. Indeed, many of Wolfe's memorable short scenes are set within confined spaces of trains. In The Lost Boy, Simpson Featherstone's determination to complete the trip to St. Louis seated within the train's non-segregated compartment represents a powerful expression of the human drive for equality (40-43). Another unforgettable shorter piece set largely in a train compartment--this one headed west away from Nazi Germany--is "I Have a Thing to Tell You," first published serially in the New Republic in March 1937. This story of a Jewish man's failed attempt to escape is considered to be a turning point in Wolfe's social consciousness. Later appearing as the concluding chapters of book 6 in You Can't Go Home Again (1940) this piece features George Webber's realization that he and his fellow train travelers are "saying farewell, not to a man, but to humanity; not to some pathetic stranger, some chance acquaintance of the voyage, but to mankind; not to some nameless cipher out of life, but to the fading image of a brother's face" (699).

Finally, the train trilogy depicting Eugene's journey from Chartres to Orleans reveals that Thomas Wolfe was both a storyteller and a poet. Poetic language resonates throughout the first vignette with "Le so-leil ... la pluie ... la terre," a refrain that unifies the rhythms of nature and the cadence of the train ride. The winter landscape, described in the vignette as "a light mask of snow on the fields," engulfing smoke and steam, and "the wet earth and the striped, cultivated pattern of the fields" leaves a stunning imprint on Eugene. It also further alienates him, reminding him that this foreign land "did not look like America" (797). The old man, in turn, intuits Eugene's reaction of strangeness and responds with a refrain intended to convey universal qualities that are intrinsic to the sun, rain, and earth (800-02). In the second vignette, the theme of reconciliation continues as Eugene recognizes that the French country people who are entering and exiting the train are reminiscent of the people "who crowded the platform of the station" at "a little country town in the South" (804). The character of the jester is especially striking in this regard. Eugene finds the voice of the jester to be unforgettable and reflexive of "all of the faces, voices, lives of these people--as no other single thing could do" (807). The third vignette conveys Eugene's sense of loss and regret related to his often inept intimate relationships. The narrator's lament about "man's bitter destiny of days, his fatal brevity" (808) points to a prediction of George Webber's truncated future in You Can't Go Home Again (743). These vignettes, individually and as a whole, with their blend of time (past-current-future), actual and imagined events, and provocative memories of home, reinforce Wolfe's elegant and paradoxical manifesto in Of Time and the River: "so strange and so familiar" (805).

Klaus Lanzinger, in his essay "Jason's Voyage: The International Theme of Thomas Wolfe," concludes that Wolfe's seven European voyages served to bring his memories about America into sharper focus (35). While he was often homesick in the broader sense of missing America, he discovered that the best way to know his America was to visit other cultures. In The Story of a Novel, Wolfe writes, "I think I may say that I discovered America during these years abroad out of my very need of her. The huge gain of this discovery seemed to come directly from my sense of loss" (30-31). He confirms that it had never been his intention not to return home. He "found out during these years ... that the way to find America was to find it in one's heart, one's memory, and one's spirit, and in a foreign land" (30). In a 1935 letter to Belinda Jelliffe, Wolfe expresses the sentiment that "... I think there is joy and peace and love on earth for us, but we needn't go across the sea to find it ..." (433). One of Eugene Gant's observations in his Paris notebooks in Of Time and the River is that "a great many Americans make their homes in Paris because they are sure it is the centre of the world's intellectual and cultural reputations" (672). While Wolfe's need to wander was connected to a nexus of reasons and was energized by a conviction that the world was full of wonderful things to seek and possibly to find, he never considered becoming an expatriate. Although brief, the train trilogy depicting Eugene's journey from Chartres to Orleans illustrates the wonderment that Wolfe experienced through his travels and that permeated his writings. Paradoxically, as the vignettes show, wandering also entails a need for connection, and, inevitably, for home.

Works Cited

Adams, Agatha Boyd. Thomas Wolfe: Carolina Student: A Brief Biography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Library, 1950. Print.

Bentz, Joseph. "More than a Means to an End: The Train as the Locus of Human Interaction in the Fiction of Thomas Wolfe." Thomas Wolfe Review 36.1-2 (2012): 7-22. Print.

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

Field, Leslie. Preface. The Autobiography of an American Novelist. By Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Field. Cambridge: Harvard UP! 1983. Print.

Kolb, Jennifer. "Bright Engines of Life: Trains and the Railroad in Thomas Wolfe's The Web and the Rock." Thomas Wolfe Review 34.1-2 (2010): 77-86. Print.

Lanzinger, Klaus. "Jason's Voyage: The International Theme of Thomas Wolfe." Thomas Wolfe Review 16.2 (1992): 34-43. Print.

Mitchell, Ted. Thomas Wolfe: A Writer's Life. Asheville: Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, 1997. Print.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1955. Print.

Stutman, Suzanne, and John L. Idol Jr. Introduction. Wolfe, Passage. xi-xv.

Wolfe, Thomas. "I Have a Thing to Tell You (Nun Will Ich Ihnen 'Was Sageri)." New Republic 10, 17, 24 Mar. 1937: 132+. Print.

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

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

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

--. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves. Vol. 1. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970. Print.

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

--. Passage to England: A Selection. Ed. Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol Jr. N.p.: Thomas Wolfe Society, 1998. Print.

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

--. "The Sun and the Rain." Scribner's Magazine May 1934: 358-60. Print.

--. "The Sun and the Rain." 1934. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 142-46. Print.

--. "To Belinda Jelliffe." 6 Mar. 1935. Wolfe, Letters 432-33.

--. "To Julia E. Wolfe." 24 Feb. 1925. Letter 52 of The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother. Ed. C. Hugh Holman and Sue Fields Ross. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968. 88. Print.

--. "To [Unknown]." Letter fragment. Early Mar. 1925. Wolfe, Letters 91.

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

--. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940. Print.
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Author:Ware, Ruth Winchester
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Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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