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Touching the Web of Southern Novelists.

Touching the Web of Southern Novelists

By David Madden

Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. xii + 260 pp. ISBN 1572334630 (hardcover), $37.00.

The world of academic literary criticism is full of--well, critics--so it is always a pleasure to read a writer who writes about writing. "Oh, what tangled webs we weave," declares David Madden, warming the old phrase by adding, "when we practice fiction, the writing and the reading of it" (4).

Madden is nothing if not practiced, and it must be admitted that the conceit connecting the strands of this book might be a difficult one to sustain in the hands of a less capable writer. Yet he carries it off with a voice that is both winsome and personable. His Whitmanesque vision of the interconnectedness of people and places is at once generous in spirit and a fitting tribute to Thomas Wolfe. Madden's on-the-scene presence in a variety of tangled webs permits him to tell the stories that lie beneath stories--and that, I would suggest, is the measure of meaningful criticism.

Anyone reading this variegated commentary will be struck by the ways in which Wolfe and Madden share a great appetite for life and for getting the story right. And Madden seems no more mindful of the constraints of literary convention than his brother-in-spirit Thomas Wolfe, who has been a central inspirational figure in Madden's work. Members of the Thomas Wolfe Society and readers of this journal likely are acquainted with the passion that turns a Madden critical commentary into a "performance lecture." They will be pleased to have one such reprinted here ("Thomas Wolfe: A Reed of Demonic Ecstasy") and a second chapter devoted to his powerfully argued observations on the centrality of the Civil War in Wolfe's work ("Thomas Wolfe's Lost Men: From Gettysburg to Chickamauga"). In the latter instance, Madden shows how Wolfe's Civil War stories were--to put a phrase to better use--like history written with lightning.

Here is a writer whose own story crosses genres, who writes genre-crossing criticism, and whose subject--when he writes about Wolfe--was famously and infamously indifferent to the constrictions of genre. Readers will be piqued by Madden's ability, as a writer, to seize whatever is on hand--drama, monologue, autobiography, mock-biography, and even the short story--and convert it to critical purpose. The effect is something like encountering a mechanical wizard out for a spin in his latest unlikely jaunting car. Reading Madden, one thinks: if only more critics had this sort of energy!

Apart from this vitality, Madden is such a skillful persuader that one not only gets past the initial shock of his admittedly sweeping claim that "Everything a southern writer writes derives from the Civil War experience" (91) but comes to see its innate plausibility, especially when applied to the sense of loss that drives so much of Wolfe's work. Because Madden and Wolfe in many respects share the same worldview (both are sons of southern Appalachian cities, both felt acutely the constraints of provincialism on artistic potential, both have a penchant for wanderlust and drama), Madden knows precisely how Wolfe plays his cards. Writing from the inside, he explains the legerdemain of Wolfe's shifts in point of view, and fully appreciates Wolfe's Appalachian stagecraft.

Madden's tongue-in-cheek essay, "Thomas Wolfe: A Reed of Demonic Ecstasy," recaptures the terribly pent-up voice of a young writer whose reach far exceeds his grasp and who has not acquired experience. It recalls the terrible intensity of an adolescent's desire for a muse/mentor, and includes a letter (real? imagined?) that Madden wrote to Wolfe's sister Mabel, asking, with aching sincerity, that he be appointed caretaker of the "Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home." At age fifteen. Essentially, though, the piece shows how a young writer's first encounter with Wolfe's work can be electrifying. In an appreciation that Wolfe himself almost certainly would have relished, Madden writes of a visit to "Tom's monument" (86). But the best tribute here comes from Madden's careful charting of Wolfe's influence on his work and life.

There is much in these pages to interest lovers of southern literature, but students and readers of Thomas Wolfe will want to take particular note of Touching the Web of Southern Novelists--a Wolfean title from a genuinely Wolfean writer.
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Author:Giemza, Bryan
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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