Monday, 10 December 2007

An autobiography of America

If you mention the American author Thomas Wolfe to anyone in Britain, you will almost certainly have to stop two sentences later to explain that no, he isn't TOM Wolfe, the 'New Journalist' chronicler of the seismic social upheavals of the 1960s and author of 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. No, not at all; someone very different, in fact.

Born as the 20th Century got under way in 1900, Thomas Wolfe wrote during a period that many Americans regard as the 'Golden Age' of the American novel. He began as a playwright, and also wrote short stories, but it is his four long, unashamedly autobiographical novels that he is remembered for.

Packed with adjectives and adverbs, his opulent language communicates the life he saw through the shapes, textures, sounds, colours and odours around him. His writing career lasted a mere nine years, but during that time he produced a body of work quite unlike anything else in American literature.

Wolfe's books are highly lyrical, and his vast vocabulary can sometimes be overwhelming, but any effort required in reading the four volumes is more than repaid.

And the skin wrapping around the books, binding them all together neatly if not entirely coherently, is Wolfe's own life in a very light disguise.

Standing in 2007, Wolfe's books now seem like a huge autobiography of America itself in the early years of the 20th Century, during some of its darkest times. Somehow, he gets under the surface of that huge country and manages to show us what is going on there.

Sprawling is a word that is often used pejoratively, but in his case it would merely indicate how the books capture the enormous variety and diversity of American life during the Depression.

From his native North Carolina to the political excesses of 1920s and 30s Europe as seen by an American abroad, and back again, Wolfe's books present a vista of life at that precise moment, yet ever-changing. Huge, shifting, yet dependable; presented with an eye that captures detail incredibly.

Yet, despite the worst of all he sees, there is never a sense of despair in Wolfe's writing. At the end of 'You Can't Go Home Again', he sums things up honestly but with defiance: "What befalls man is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must deny it all along the way. Mankind was fashioned for eternity."

Seemingly making more of a criticism than a comment, Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner once said of Wolfe that he was "trying to put the entire history of the human heart on the head of a pin".

Ironic in a way, when you consider that the books that Faulkner read were far shorter than those Wolfe had originally written.

In a prescient foreshadowing of the current debate surrounding the 'restoration' of Raymond Carver's short stories, the books on which Wolfe's reputation rests were the result of long hours spent by editors with judiciously applied blue pencils.

His first novel 'Look Homeward, Angel' began life as a much longer work called 'O Lost' and was more experimental in nature than the work we know.

His last three novels - 'Of Time And The River', 'The Web And The Rock' and 'You Can't Go Home Again' - were all edited sections of an enormous multi-volume work called 'The October Fair'. The original was in fact of a similar length to Proust's 'A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu'. And that's a lot of pages.

The final two novels were culled from this enormous manuscript following Wolfe's death in 1938 from tuberculosis of the brain.

'O Lost' has since been 'reconstructed' and published. 'The October Fair' has gone forever, so scattered among various editors at the time that we will never learn the shape that Wolfe intended for it.

Following Wolfe's death, at the tragically young age of 38, Faulkner spoke up again. This time he praised Wolfe as his generation's best writer, placing himself a mere second.

The Great American Novel is something that has obsessed the American literary etsablishment for longer than anyone can remember. There are those who claim that that fox had already been shot by the time of Wolfe's death - that he had done it and all bets were off. Others disagreed, and the debate still continues.

But Wolfe's prose, its elegant, impressionistic grace and at times its almost uncomfortable honesty, will live on whether that particular medal is pinned on its proud breast or not.

Though his name is not so well known this side of the Atlantic, the scope and breadth of his work deserves your attention and I urge you to pick up a copy and read.

Mark Howard Jones

No comments: