Thomas Wolfe

The Assassination of Thomas Wolfe

While slipping around the corner with Mack the Knife, the Yale literary critic, Harold Bloom, a man known among one of C.P. Snow’s two cultures as an eminent judge of poets, playwrights, and novelists, has said of Thomas Wolfe, “There is no possibility for critical dispute about Wolfe’s literary merits; he has none whatsoever.” Between Bernard DeVoto’s reflection in 1936 that genius is not enough and Bloom’s 1987 review of David Herbert Donald’s biography of Wolfe, even the insufficient genius seems to have disappeared. While Bloom’s influence on the Library of America in its supposed selection of significant American literature must be left to the insiders, the fact remains that he was a consultant and unlikely to have been a minor one. Wolfe has been virtually omitted from the extensive and prestigious selection, which reaches all the way to Ernie Pyle and to the essentially pulp genre of the Great Depression’s crime novels. Only the dead know Brooklyn in the iridescent pages of the Library of America. Other than that, the Wolfe is not at the door.

Beyond the charges of mawkishness, formlessness, and other presumed attributes of bad writing, we hear less often among academic critics the charges against Wolfe of anti-Semitism and an unacceptable depiction of blacks. Common sense would suggest that the destruction of Wolfe’s reputation has been kindled in part by these racial elements in the writings, not simply by Jewish or black critics but more generally by the “politically correct” movement with its tendency toward censorship and the treatment of history as therapy. Whether one likes it or not, the dominant attitude in the Asheville of the early Twentieth Century classified blacks as subhuman and Jews as odd outsiders at best and, at worst, Christ killers and hagglers with a thumb on the scale. The community fed Thomas Wolfe’s childhood and youth with such toxics. Phrases such as “Don’t try to Jew me down” and “sweating like a nigger on election day”—scores of such expressions were the common coin of daily speech. His descriptions of the Altamont citizenry in the details of their perceptions hit the target dead center concerning its matter-of-fact racism. The judgment seems to be that Wolfe himself was contaminated by what he was accurately describing. That judgment appears true. Even Aline Bernstein, who must have known if anyone did, considered him anti-Semitic. As for his Southern view of black Americans, his was the racism of his place and time.

Even so, that racism was being modified and extenuated, as clearly indicated in the remarkable novella “I have a Thing to Tell You”, which appeared shortened in The New Republic in 1937. The story so acidly depicted the brutality being visited upon Jews in Germany that clearly Wolfe was waking from his Southern adolescence. It was a story that was saying in essence that we are our brother’s keeper if a truly human civilization is not to collapse as it did in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Communist Russia. As a result of his novella, Wolfe’s books were banned in Germany as pro-Semitic. Doubtless, his naïve defense of artistic freedom as including the freedom to include ethnic slurs in his writings goes a bridge too far toward crying “fire!” in a crowded theater or throwing random trash at the passing Budweiser Clydesdales. As Wolfe remarks in a notebook,  “In Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America you are not free to say this.” It is hardly to his credit that he took so long to see that the cost of that kind of freedom in public writings outweighs its benefits. Which is not to say that one should be less than appalled at the tongue-tied Americans with regard to Israeli betrayals of the greatness in Jewish culture.

So what are we to think of Thomas Wolfe? Mark Twain uttered scathing opinions of Jane Austin. Bette Davis took a disparaging attitude toward Shakespeare. We doubtless all have literate friends (or at least acquaintances) who cannot read Henry James and others that find Conrad a bore. On that basis, any of us may be entitled to dislike Wolfe. Only a few would not be put off by his indulgence in banal and tedious scenes involving caricatures of persons he has known, who are allowed to carry on aimless conversations extended for pages. To complain of individual distaste for Thomas Wolfe’s outsized novels would be beside the point. His wordiness and warts notwithstanding, the point simply is that the name Thomas Wolfe belongs to a once and future great American writer, more sinned against than sinning. To consider an example, note the arrogance implicit in the Library of America excluding Look Homeward, Angel for such obvious political reasons as the correctness phenomenon, while including marginal PC authors and pulp fiction. Politically incorrect writers do appear in the LOA catalogue. How does that exclude the satisfaction of revenge served cold on one of the more prominent offenders?