Of Time and the Rhetoric
The Narrator in Wolfe's
Of Time and the River



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Daniel H. Fruit
Submitted for the Seminar in Classical American Authors
Subsequently Published in The Wolfe Journal Journal.




Of Time and the Rhetoric:
The Narrator in Wolfe's
Of Time and the River





A. Introduction: Critics and Of Time and the River


Time and critical opinion have not dealt kindly with Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River. The book's initial publication encouraged one positive reviewer to label it as 1935's "literary event of the year," (1), and most initial reviewers lauded it. Another enthusiastic critic called Wolfe's work "one of the best novels ever produced in America, one of the three or four most original books produced in the last decade or two"(2) Even skeptical reviewers spared some good words for the novel. Henry Canby, who labeled the book "an artistic failure," admitted that Wolfe’s volume packed "more material, more vitality, more originality, more gusto than any two contemporary British novelists put together." (3)

Over the years, however, critical assessments began to change. Even initial reviewers attacked Wolfe's tendency towards ultra-violet prose passages. Lack of form, a consistent charge against the novel, became, for many, its telling weakness. Many critics agreed with Louis Rubin and others that Of Time and the River contained only "so many episodes, adding up to no more than their cumulative accretion." (4)

Bernard DeVoto and Robert Penn Warren assailed a major component of the book's fictional method: Wolfe's frequent authorial intrusions. DeVoto found that these seriously harmed the fictional illusion because "you have seen the novelist manipulating the strings, and that is deplorable" (5) Warren accused Wolfe of trying both to create and to live the great American novel, and he sardonically remarked, "it may be well to recollect that Shakespeare merely wrote Hamlet; he was not Hamlet." (6)

Even Wolfe’s most ardent supports never totally answered these two major charges (1) that the novel suffers from harmful narrative intrusions and (2) "formlessness and plotlessness," (7). The book's reputation correspondingly declined. These two charges, however, require reconsideration because both stem from a basic misunderstanding of Wolfe's fictional method. Of Time and the River draws its unity from the narrative voice, and, indeed, that voice adds the very form that critics find wanting in the book. Through these intrusions the narrator explains and justifies the themes exemplified in Eugene.

Indeed, these themes, "truths" form the real subject matter of the novel, themes Wolfe considers universal. Since he considers these truths universal, Wolfe can use an individual, his hero, as an example. He can also enter the minds of other characters or even desert the narrative structure and simply address his reader in prose poems, referred to as "proems" all in pursuit of expounding what he considers universal truths.

Critics labeled the novel autobiographical, but it does not constitute an autobiographical in the usual sense of that word. Wolfe writes about his own experiences, but Eugene and his chronicler do not entirely correspond to one another. In fact, the third person omniscient narration purposely differentiates Eugene from Wolfe because the author wishes to guarantee that the reader considers Eugene as one only example of a number of universal themes. Many of the apparently meaningless character sketches and proems hold a definite connection only with the narrator’s thematic concerns and hence through the narrative voice, not with his protagonist. The Wolfean narrator ranges through the novel's fictional territory developing Wolfe's singular vision of the world and imposing order, perhaps not the sense of order some detractors might prefer but a sense of order nonetheless. Certainly, parts of Of Time and the River reek as poorly, as Wolfe's worst critics suggest, of disorder and over-writing, but other parts have an excellence few noticed in previous decades. The first several books, at least, of Of Time and the River deserve incorporation into the cannon, and a slimmer, re-edited version of the latter books might lift the whole work higher in critical estimation.

 


B. Wolfe's Method of Writing in His Work


The story of the novel's origin incorporates many of the qualities of a tragedy. It shows both why the books contains some structural weakness and why Wolfe needed to invent some kind of narrative strategy to keep the book together.

Wolfe always wrote about events end persons he encountered in his own life, a fact which has led many an over-zealous critic to consider his works almost straight autobiography. Wolfe's system allowed him, Edward Aswell states, "to write each day whatever scene he felt most like writing that day." (8) Wolfe then filed the pieces according to the chronology of the events rather than keeping them in the compositional order:

"If some fragment written six years before belonged with something he had just recently done, he would weave them into a single piece, rewriting when necessary." (9)

Writing itself involved an emotional process for Wolfe because, as Malcolm Cowley notes, "Wolfe had a passion for digesting every experience into written words." (10) He could recreate his past feeling and thoughts, and as Morris Beja finds, "like Proust's Marcel, the past relived fuses with the present and becomes contemporary." (11) Each shorter piece, correspondingly, maintains a tonal unity since Wolfe felt a single emotion when composing it. Hugh Holman, who considers Wolfe's "short novels" among his finest work, terms these short novels "that portion of the process in which the incident is remembered, isolated, organized, and understood as incident by the self." (12) Even when rewriting, Wolfe needed this type of emotional involvement with his material. Aswell relates that Wolfe "would not as a rule simply revise his draft and get it recopied. He would put it aside and rewrite it some different way from start to finish." (13)

While Wolfe's method of composition worked satisfactorily for writing shorter works, it hampered his attempts to construct novels from the sections. Wolfe instinctively reacted to his material, but he also wanted to realistically record and, indeed, re-order his past. Wolfe needed a method to somehow co-ordinate the many scenes and sketches written in different moods into an artistic, coherent whole.

He did this effectively in Look Homeward, Angel because he largely rewrote the book from beginning to end in the published order, and ever-faithful editor Maxwell Perkins aided him in organizing the work. Accordingly, the book, like the short novels, maintains a tonal unity since Wolfe never set it aside or constructed new scenes in other moods than those originally composed. The book evokes an aura of nostalgic remembrance, quite appropriate in a book that critics hailed as a Bildungsroman.

Reviewers called Look Homeward, Angel, "autobiographical," (14) but even here the novel's narrator does distance himself from Eugene, the main character. Most of the book pertains to Eugene's life, but the book also expound and explicates Wolfe's vision of human existence, which he states on the first page: "naked and alone we came into exile." The book concerns a universal quest for "a stone. a leaf, an unfound door." (15) Wolfe, despite writing almost exclusively about Eugene, often uses the word "we" because he considers Eugene's emotional struggles as representative.

While Eugene's growth holds its intrinsic importance, it also stands for those of everyone, and the narrator does not hesitate to abandon Eugene in Look Homeward Angel if other characters can help him explore his themes. Further, these other characters often holder a greater thematic significance than their direct effect on Eugene's life. Wolfe centers so much of the novel on Eugene’s father, O. W. Gant, simply because he never learns to speak the "forgotten language...that would end his isolation," nor does he find that "lost lane-end into heaven, which might have saved him." (16) In contrast, Eugene's growth parallels his gradual attainment of these very same goals which Wolfe believes all humans desire. At the end of the novel, Eugene finds one of these things; he can re-claim the lost "leaf." The past that has gone, and his fully developed imagination enables him to bring Ben back to life for an entire chapter.

As the critics note, Wolfe's first novel possesses all the qualities of the novel of growth, a bildungsroman. However, these Wolfean scholars general avoid discussing Wolfe's tendency to desert his hero, extensive comments on his character's universality, and frequent addresses to the reader, which they consider merely examples of Wolfean faulty technique as an straight-forward autobiographical novelist. Most of these "errors", however, occur because the autobiographical narrator attempts to develop these themes which he present even on the first page of the novel. As Wolfe wrote the book in basic order of publication, one can hardly any distractions caused this effect. He intended this strong narrative voice, and it forms an important stylistic aspect of Wolfe’s work, an aspect part simply more noted and criticized in the less orderly, more "untimely ripped" Of Time and the River.


 

C. The Premature Birth of Of Time and the River


Wolfe faced a number of more formidable obstacles when assembling Of Time and the River than he had in his first novel. He wasted years concocting various schemes and stratagems to pull the book together, and by 1934 he possessed only a mass of fragments that followed a basic chronological sequence, though again he’d written each piece whenever he felt the inclination to do so. With his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he decided to assemble a novel about a given interval in Eugene's life though Wolfe’s fragments covered only the earlier half of the projected time span allotted for the novel. Wolfe and Perkins began to extract pertinent sections from Wolfe's mass of manuscript even as Wolfe hurriedly wrote the remaining sections of the work.

Richard Kennedy, whose book studies Wolfe's writing career and methodology, explains the considerable amount of writing Wolfe did to finish the novel. (17). Besides revising and adapting the parts already in existence, Wolfe during these months turned out several completely new sections: the Hotel Leopold; Troy; part of the Joel Pierce sections; most of the episodes of the three friends in Europe; the description of Eugene's frenzied writing and dreams in Southern Europe; and finally the introduction. In his haste, Wolfe produced some of the most swollen narrative passages in the book.

Most of these last-written sections lack the usual Wolfean energy. Wolfe, without the time to relive and digest these past events, could not offer much more than contrived emotion and rhetorical heat. Kennedy thinks that Wolfe also "gathered prose poems and narrative incidents from various places and lumped them into the first book to be published." (18) It seems more likely, however, Wolfe hoped that by inserting these proems he could instill some dynamism into the weaker sections. This may also explain why these hurried latter sections portray "hurried, tired writing," (19) Kennedy finds these books and yet they employ "the most high-powered vocabulary." (20) Wolfe wanted so vehemently to make the reader acknowledge his own conclusions about Home Americanus that he seemingly employed any and every compositional technique at his disposal. Unfortunately, the more Wolfe raves at his reader, the less believable the book becomes.

After months of editing, finding no time to rewrite Of Time and the River as extensively as Look Homeward Angel, Wolfe relented and let Perkins print the "finished" novel after some more changes. He toyed with section titles, moved some of the prose rhapsodies from one place to another, and threatened to write whole new chapters. Still, at the ostensible conclusion of this process, Wolfe felt unsatisfied and would not let go of the proofs:

"'He sat brooding over them for weeks in the Scribner library, and not reading,' Perkins said, 'John Wheelock read them and we sent them to the printer and told Tom it had been done. I could believe that otherwise he might have clung to them to the end'" (21)

Wolfe, having with Perkins assembled the novel is this disordered manner, needed mechanisms to bring the parts together. Some of the pieces had already achieved separate publication, and many possessed a unity of tone and construction. If Wolfe and Perkins simply published these fragments in chronological order, as some have suggest (22), the work would become irretrievably episodic, a mere collection of short stories with moods and tones arranged in no meaningful order.

One of the two men, likely Perkins, elected to break-up some of the short novels; they sacrificed well-constructed segments to give the whole novel greater clarity. The chapters concerning Bascom Pentland, for example, previously published as "A Portrait of Bascom Hawke," they distributed throughout Book Two (23). If they had left the Bascon Hawke story intact, the book would contain eighty pages with the narrator observing Eugene who watches Bascom; in most of the rest of the book, Eugene plays the active role in the events.

Though Perkins started with the working hypothesis that "this book, too, got its unity and form through the senses of Eugene," (24) he often retreated because "what [Wolfe] he was doing was too good to let any rule or form interfere with him." Perkins and Wolfe took the long story "No Door," containing most of the prominent themes in Of Time and the River, and distributed it throughout the nove1. (25) Probably at this time Wolfe also inserted the repeated phrases and words such as "a stone, a leaf, a door" into the narrative. They act as constant reminders of the major themes of the novel.

Yet, despite these efforts, the novel really achieves its coherence through the narrator's imposition of order. The narrator voices the emotions Wolfe felt when observing his characters, and he tells the audience how they should interpret and respond to the scenes paraded before them.

 

[The Portion Below Appeared, sans footnotes, in The Thomas Wolfe Journal]

 

D. The Romantic Narrative Voice as the Struture of
Of Time and the River


Of Time and the River holds more structure than its detractors admit though less than Look Homeward, Angel. Novels concern characters' lives, and in most novels the narrative voice simply assists in the telling of their stories. In Wolfe's first two novels, however, the narrator serves a different function. Not only does he show and tell incidents, he also organizes them around themes and explains the significance of all that occurs.

Eugene, the main character, does not provide the subject of the novel as he illustrates the subject, the Wolfean vision of life. Other characters such as W. O. Gant, Bascom Pentland, and Helen Gant, leave the novel, often abruptly since they only appear when they aiding the narrator in supplementing Eugene's experiences. These characters present mere variations on themes embodied by Eugene. While Eugene demonstrates the possible gains men can get satisfying their "Faustian hungers," most of the other characters reveal what happens to men or women who either lose or fail to satisfy those hunger. Thus, Of Time and the River proposes to prove Wolfe's ideas about man, and the novel fails when Wolfe does not balances his assertions with their "proof," the characters' experiences. When the narrator disappears, the novel dissolves into remotely connected fictional episodes; when the characters disappear, it becomes merely a ranting impressionistic essay on man.

Eugene's importance in the novel and some knowledge of the author's own life inevitably leads some critics to call this book, as they did Look Homeward, Angel, an autobiographical' novel, despite the author's vehement denials. (26) Reviewer Henry Canby stated this view in his initial review.

"This novel is a spiritual autobiography in which the thousand incidents, many of them trivial, and the dozens of characters, many of them extraordinary, have as their excuse for being in the novel that a youth met them on his way. Plot...there is none. It is a picaresque novel with the distraught mind of a poet of the twenties as picaro, and the incidents adventures in seeking a spiritual home." (27)

If Canby reads Of Time and the River correctly, the novel contains numerous fictional errors both in selectivity and organization, and in this respect he questions not only Wolfe but, by extension, Perkins, whom many regard as one of the best editors. Many of the book’s episodes show little or no connection with Eugene's development. The short section regarding Oswald Ten Eeck, for example, wouldn't belong in the novel; Eugene only knows him slightly, but the narrator enters his mind for a full nine pages. All the sections describing Professor Hatcher's drama class would cause another problem. The narrator satirizes the dramatists at length, and he concludes that "False, trivial, glib, dishonest, empty, without substance--lacking faith--is it any wonder that among Professor Hatcher's young men few birds sang?" (p. 135) (28) Eugene, however, at that time, describes the same class as "for him the rock to which his life was anchored, the rudder of his destiny, the sole and all-sufficient reason for his being there." (p. 130) Obviously, Eugene must changed dramatically if, as narrator voice, he tells his own story. If this narrator represents an older Eugene, the reasons or parameters of this change do not occur in the novel leading to numerous further questions. Also, Eugene, obviously, could never discover his father's dying thoughts, and since W. O. never speaks during his last few moments, his dying thoughts could hardly effect Eugene's life.

Most critics concluded that Wolfe simply did not care enough about form and that his narrator's departures from Eugene show his lack of control over his own novel. Hugh Holman, for examples, observes that Wolfe originally composed the short novels in first person. Accordingly, he concludes, the whole novel should stayed in the first person (29) , and Wolfe's narrator only enters the minds of the other characters out of necessity due to the author’s rather hurried method of assembling the novel from disparate and assorted pieces. Eugene, not the narrator, Holman reasons, should derive the meaning by looking back upon his own past, making the novel become all clear and unified. Possibly, Wolfe might have done this if time allowed, but as suggested above Wolfe did not do this even in the more orderly and leisurely composed Of Time and the River.

If the critics assume the separation of Eugene and narrator in the work does not function as simply an excuse for bad writing, the work holds a unity in its present state. Wolfe, writing about past events in the short novels, is one person, and Wolfe, looking at others and himself and judging them, is another person. The former Wolfe tries to recapture his past emotions, and the latter attempts to put these emotions into a universal perspective. Wolfe looks at Eugene, his former self, with a certain objectivity that his over-excited prose and romantic view of life tend to obscure. Wolfe wanted an example of humanity, and he turned to the man whose life he knew best. Consequently, Wolfe's narrative comments are autobiographical, but his descriptions of Eugene's feeling are realistic, or at least realistic as viewed through Wolfe's romantic view of life.

Though both Eugene and Wolfe share an extreme romanticism, this doesn't make them the same person. By putting the novel into third person limited, Wolfe purposely distances himself from his protagonist. Further, as in Look Homeward, Angel, he deserts Eugene as occasion demands. The narrator explains and expands upon Eugene's wild emotionalism. In fact, the narrative voice often seems to serve mainly to amplify and universalize the themes discovered by Eugene.

Thus, Wolfe holds a rather unique place among modern authors in having created the first book incorporating its own critical explication. While Warren accuses Wolfe of merging Hamlet and Shakespeare, in fact he conscious tries to merge both Joyce's Ulysses and Gilbert's book on Ulysses or, perhaps more forcefully, The Waste Land a critical explication of the Waste Land.

 


E. The Unity of Of Time and The River:
The Universal Quest Leitmotif


Obviously Wolfe's method holds some inherent weaknesses. Like any critical analysis, Wolfe's narrative commentary must logically describe and order the fictional material under consideration. Whenever the narrator departs on a rhetorical flight with only a tenuous relationship either to characters or events, the novel suffers just as any critical thesis suffers when it fails to explain the critical material. Unlike a literary critic, however, Wolfe can alter his text to confirm his critical suppositions.

To organize a novel, Wolfe's method requires a coherent body of ideas for the narrator to expound and for his characters to exemplify. Unfortunately, Wolfe tried to prove far too much. He overloads his characters with thematic significance, and he uses a limited number of symbolic words in an unrestrained manner. Thus the word "river" can mean life, time, and many other things. Eugene primarily at once a representative man, the lost, lonely American, the typical Southerner it a "Dark Helen" (p. 282) haunting his blood, the country boy who can "never make the city life his own" (p. 413) (30), and the wild youth.

Still, the book possesses overriding themes, drawn from "No Door", which run through the work and provide its unity. Book One, Orestes: Flight Before Fury, introduces these themes and assigns them specific symbols that recur, like Wagnerian leitmotifs, in later sections. Thus, the first book acts as a kind of Wagnerian overture. After introducing Eugene for twenty pages, the narrator turns to his reader: "Who has known fury, how it came?" (p. 28) Fury, he asserts, stems from youthful drives for several things: "a rock" (p. 28), "a leaf" (p. 28), and "a door" (p. 35). The leaf symbolizes that past we have lost. The rock symbolizes the greater force that provides stability and "a place to build on;" (p. 35) in childhood the father provides that security. The door leads into the lives of others; lacking it we live and die in isolation. To establish contact with our past, and with others we require "a tongue that could reveal, a language that could perfectly express the wild joy swelling to a music in our thought." (p. 135) Thus we have the same three images--the stone, the leaf, and door, and the same quest for expression and experiences present in Look Homeward, Angel.

Yet Wolfe literally expands the dimensions because passing time, invoked in the title, enters as new enemy: "all things are lost and broken in the wind." (p. 52) The river of time bear us inexorably towards death while the earth "endures forever." (p. 2) While Eugene conquers the past in Look Homeward Angel by using his imagination and memory; in Of Time and the River he must defeat the future by creating something that endures, the art object. Only through art he can reclaim the lost leaf, find his door into the lives of other, express himself, and defeat time by encapsulating the moment forever.

Other characters, however, use different methods and sometimes achieve these same goals. For that reason, Wolfe needs to abandon his main character and show others. Eliza Gent, having immovable strength, remains "triumphant over the ravages of time and accident, and would be triumphant to her death." (p. 352) Her property and her own sense of destiny become the rock on which she plants her life. Old W. G. Gant, certainly no artist, successfully reclaims the fallen leaf through his memory. It so strengthens him that he temporarily communicates with the wife he mistreated for years; he even dies well. His death, in fact, makes him happy because he finds his lost childhood. The world, including notably Eugene, can only see his outward death but inwardly old Gant becomes ecstatic:

And for a moment he forgot that he was old and dying, his pride, joy, pain, triumphant ecstasy that had no tongue to utter it rose like a wordless swelling paean in his throat, because it seemed to him that this great familiar earth on which his people lived and wrought was his, that all mystery, grandeur, and beauty in the lives of men were his, and that he must find a word, a door to utter what was his, or die. (p. 82)

Most of these lesser characters, however, fail in their quests. Bascom Hawke's search for a church, a rock to support his intellect, fails, and he bears the "mark of madness." (p. 109) The Coulsons, exiled in England, their home country, by their daughter's immorality can find no door. Helen Gant, with little imagination or memory, founders when her father, the foundation of her existence, finally dies. The city-dwellers in Boston and New York become stifled by their environment; and their language becomes a travesty of true communication. The introduction of these characters follows no pattern comparable to the geographical pattern of Eugene's travels; different characters appear in any order. Yet they complete the Wolfean picture of a world of potential Fausts, present Fausts, and past Fausts. Without them, Eugene’s quest would appear particular, not universal, and indeed the novel would constitute a kunstlerroman and a failed autobiographical novel.

 


F. Eugene’s Individual Quest: The Quest of the Artist


Eugene's quest, remains the central one in the work, not because of his importance, but because he provides the key example of Faust in action. Critics complain that the novel chronicles only "an arbitrary slice of a man's life and that the episodes do not, in truth, change the Wolfean protagonist much." (32)

In contrast, John Hagan's recent article argues that Eugene's "successful growth as a writer (p. 13) (33) makes the novel a Kunstlerroman, a story of an artist's development." This critical approach makes a certain amount of sense if one considers Look Homeward, Angel as a Bildungsroman as much of Of Time and the River considers a space of time of an artist’s life: the first book makes him a man, and the second makes him an artist. This certainly describes Eugene's story in the book, yet Wolfe endeavors to do more than just follow Eugene.

It's more appropriate to say that Of Time and the River contains a Kunstlerroman, but it isn't a Kunstlerroman. Unlike books such Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wolfe's hero does not undergo any psychological development. He largely matures in Look Homeward, Angel. In the second novel his external knowledge of the world expands. Thus he experiences moments of vision throughout the book as he gradually acquires is a means to express his visions. His adventures then have an Odyssean quality: he undergoes a series of tests before he finally reaches his goal. During this long struggle he learns about the world, finds the appropriate earthy subjects for great art, and musters the strength to endure. Like Faust, he must avoid surrendering to weakness or to settling for lesser goals.

Eugene's growth as an artist provides most of the actual action in the novel. While his fight follows a geographic pattern, his tests do not seem to occur in any particular order. Thus Wolfe's novel does lack some sense of progression, but the wanderings do end at a moderately satisfying point: Eugene finds his lady and become a true artist.

Along the road he also undergoes some severe trials. Having escaped the stifling influence of his family, he must overcome the temptation of becoming one of Thatcher's escapist dramatists. When they reject his play, he nearly surrenders to despair, but New York lures him.

In the big city it seems that all his creativity fails, and art holds no use. Still, he discovers individuals such as Abe Jones and his family who manage both to survive and to keep art in their lives amid desolation, which "seemed so natural both to him and to them that Eugene never found it strange or wonderful until years later." (p. 497) If New York offers the artist constrained sustenance, the rich Pierce's home seems an art work in and of itself. Soon, however, he discovers that these fashionable New Yorkers, posing as patrons of art, actually attempt to exploit and imprison it. The Pierce's well-stocked, ignored library symbolizes their attempt to prostitute the products of inspiration: "all the great works were there, unopened, unread, and forgotten, and were, somehow, terribly, the mute small symbols of a rich man's power." (p. 589) Even amid this desecrated environment art does not disappear; Joel and his sister's enthusiastic enjoyment of his play shows again the legitimacy of his quest and the reason for the artist’s labor:

"that from life's clay and his own nature, and from his father's common earth of toil and sweat and violence and error and bitter anguish, he may distill the beauty of an everlasting form, enslave and conquer man by his enchantment, cast his spell across the generations, beat down death down upon his knees, kill death utterly, and fix eternity with the grappling-hooks of his own art. (p. 550-551)

These moments of revelation replenish Eugene even as they spur him onwards. He travels to Europe and hopes the new environment will help him write. In Paris, he temporarily abandons his work when he falls under the spell of Francis Starwick. Starwick, a burned-out artist, having lost his drive, tries to persuade Eugene to devote his life to pleasure, but Eugene eventually leaves him, despite his infatuation with the latter's traveling companion.

Suddenly, at a spot in France, Eugene begins to write. Several chapters later he meets a woman, his Helen, and she becomes his "heart's center and the target of his life." (p. 912) While she becomes his "rock", writing becomes his door into the past, means of defeating death, and means of entering into life:

"In those wild and broken phrases was packed the whole bitter burden of his famished, driven, over-laden spirit, all the longing of the wanderer, all the impossible and unutterable homesickness that the American, or any man on earth, can know. They were all there--without coherence, scheme, or reason--flung down upon paper like figures blasted by the spirit's lightning stroke, and in them was the huge chronicle of the billion forms, the million names, the huge, single, and incomparable substance of America. (p. 859)

Eugene's adventures give the novel a sense of movement, an Odyssean journey, yet the novel requires the other characters Wolfe introduces more chaotically to complete his picture of the world. For one thing Wolfe's protagonist's quest does not have an orderly sense of progress; switching Eugene's visit to the Pierce's home to the third book from the fourth, for example, would not particularly change the novel. If Wolfe consistently choose to parallel a single legend as Joyce did in Ulysses, another of Joyce’s influences, the book might possess greater structural soundness. Still, however, Eugene's story holds a beginning, a middle, and an end. With the narrator's commentary, Eugene's story helps construct a vision of a world in which all men have romantic longings and embark on heroic, driven quests. Still, the novel contains more than just Eugene and his quest, no matter how importance the narrator assigns them, and Eugene's experience do not form the totality of Of Time and the River. The narrator himself serves to make this point.

 


G. The Wolfean Narrative When Under Control
in Of Time and the River


The narrator in Of Time and the River alternates between realistic presentation of Eugene's observations, dreams, and thoughts and satiric sketches, addresses to the reader, and "proems," prose resembling poetic intention. These latter Wolfean interjections Bernard DeVoto terms "placental" (33), and maintains Eugene’s thoughts should project these visions and opinions, and most critics agree. A closer examination shows that, on the contrary, the novel tends to fail not due to the presence of this voice but rather when Wolfe loses control of it. In other words, the novel falters when either Wolfe totally abandons realism for these prose flights or, oddly enough, when he becomes too realistic and abandons the narrative voice.

When Wolfe confines his writing to realistic narration, the novel tends to become tedious. This occurs because the novelistic technique Wolfe chooses requires maintaining a careful balance between the narrative voice and fictional events. The narrator constantly gives shape and meaning to the events and a sense of direction to Eugene's and the others stories. Whenever the narrator disappears for a long period, the work devolves into fictional autobiography. This leaves the reader to accept an autobiographical main character whose personality diverges far from the norm and whose story often appears to have no direction whatsoever.

The narrator, however, can intrude too often, and this destroys the fictional illusion. Then the novel becomes an impressionistic collection of essays on various topics. Of Time and the River succeeds only when Wolfe balances his authorial interjections and realistic narrative.

The earlier books of the novel generally better balance these two elements while the latter books tend to switch from one element over-dominating to the other and offer the best opportunity of showing how this technique can work. Book Two probably contains the best scenes in the novel. Book I, Orestes: Flight Before Fury, however, exhibits a better sense of form and illustrates how well the Wolfean narrator can enhance the text, and it justifies a more detailed examination.

The novel and Book I begin with the narrator describing the Gants from an external perspective: "Four people were standing together on the platform of the railway station of a town in the hills of western Catawba." (p. 3). Gradually their conversation introduces them to the reader. These discussions reveal much of their history and places Eugene in his native context. The train arrives; Eugene sees it as both a means of escape and as a symbol of how totally he must leave his past life. As a Southerner he will endure inevitable isolation in the North. The train journey occupies the bulk of Book I. Eugene looks at the scenery, and the small towns and countryside evokes a "memory of it will haunt one forever after." (p. 31) Again, the narrator briefly turns Eugene's vision into a common vision. Eugene's feelings of loss become a demonstration of lost America, and the prose moves imperceptibly from the third person limited to first person plural, while the scenery changes from the particular to the general:

"Therefore we hurtle onward in the dark across Virginia, we hurtle onward in the darkness down a million roads, we hurtle onward driven by our hunger down the blind and brutal tunnel of ten thousand furious and kaleidoscopic days, the victims of the cruel impulse of a million changes and fleeting moments, without a wall at which to thrust the shoulder of our strength, a roof to hide us in our nakedness, a place to build on, or a door." (p. 34-35)

Eugene, feeling himself a part of this vision suddenly decides that his life holds an important destiny. He enters a smoking car with an almost uncontrollable impulse to yell into the faces of the men with "a demonic glee." (p. 36) He watches a group of Babbitt-like Catawban businessmen. The narrator paints a satiric picture of these men discussing politics and baseball, for them "twin sports." (p. 37) After listening passively to these men, Eugene suddenly realizes the unimportance of the subjects they so heatedly discuss: "All that he knew was that these men, these words, this moment would vanish, be forgotten--and that great wheels would hurtle on forever." (p. 43) One of the men turns to Eugene and asks him about his family. A Mr. Flood mentions Ben, and Eugene's memory temporarily overcomes death, "and suddenly Ben is standing there before his vision." (p. 50) He remembers Ben giving him a watch "to keep time with." (p. 52) The narrator then addresses the reader, and he suggests that time itself may be only an illusion:

"It not be that some day from this dream of time, this chronicle of smoke, this strange and bitter miracle of life in which we are moving and phantasmal figures, we shall wake." (p. 52)

The narrator then reverses the outward progression from the universal back to Eugene. From universal speculation, the voice passes to Eugene's vision to Eugene's actual sight; from the dream of time, the narration logically regresses to "one minute after twelve o’clock, Sunday morning, October the third, 1920." (p. 53) Then Wolfe unites all three of these levels of perception in a single concluding sentence: "He was hurtling across Virginia, and this world, this life, this time were stranger than a dream." (p. 53)

The men on the train begin talking about O. W. Gant, and Eugene's imagination again awakens the past. He remembers old Gant's younger, more vigorous self, an image of "constant and unresting fury." (p. 59) In contrast, Gant must visit a "wretched, feeble, whining, old man infected with a loathsome disease." (p. 60)

Eugene meets two young men, and the three men consume massive amounts of alcohol. Suddenly and rudely, the narrator shoves Eugene into a different perspective; he and his companions constitute merely "three atoms on the huge breast of the indifferent earth," (p. 68) with "fury pounding in their veins." (p.69) Then, the reader enters Eugene's drunken mind as "Virginia lay dreaming in the moon." (p. 72) Again the narrator abruptly leaves Eugene to describe the moon blazing down "upon the vast desolation of the American coasts." (p. 72) The other young men quarrel with Eugene, but they eventually persuade him to retire. He dreams, and through his dreams sees "two horsemen, riding, riding, riding in the night." (p. 75). He dreams, however, of all those men, who know that those horsemen are "Death and Pity, and we know their face." (p. 75) This vision gradually dissolves into individual, nonsensical dream patterns. Yet even awake Eugene can experience a sense of escastic brotherhood that the narrator considers universal. The sun, rising in the east, becomes a symbol of common experience:

"And against the borders of the East, pure, radiant, for the first time seen in the unbelievable wonder of its new discovery, bringing to all of us, as it had always done. the first life that was ever known on this earth, the golden banner of the day appeared. (p. 77)

This chapter illustrates Wolfe at his best as well as laying out the scene for succeeding chapters. It transition from individual to eternity almost in midsentence and from Eugene to humanity seamlessly. It forms an artistic whole that exists to expound a vision about life itself. Though readers might disagree with that vision, they can easily understand it.

Book II succeeds almost as well. The narrative voices abandons Eugene and reaches W. O. Gant before the boy does. First, it describes this "old dying specter of a man" (p. 77) and then, because Wolfe uses third person limited point of view, it penetrates into Gent's mind and uncovers a man trying to "get some meaning out of that black, senseless fusion of pain and joy and agony" that constitutes, for the narrator, his life. Gant’s memory recalls Gettysburg, his travels to the Catawba, and many other events in his past. Though the future will defeat him, the past falls under his control, and "all, all, all of it was his!" (p. 83) The narrator, moving Gant into a larger perspective, sees his death as a symbol of time's power:

"This was the end of man, then, end of life, of fury, hope, passion, glory, all the strange and bitter miracle of chance, history, fate, and destiny which even a stonecutter's life could include." (p. 83)

When Eugene himself sees his father, he can feel little more than pity. From the hospital itself, the narrator suggests, "one got an image of his own death in such a place as this of all death had come to be and the image of that was somehow shameful." (p. 84). Again, the choice of third person narration allows us to see Gant’s inner life even as it Eugene fails to do so. Eugene himself see in his father little more than a momentary "flash of the old power and life." (p. 85) After his visit he turns away from this image of death and turns toward the city. He knows he has lost his father, but he must move on towards "all the new lands, morning, and the shining city." (p. 86)

Book II, like the first, demonstrates how Wolfe's narrative techniques can achieve poignant, moving results if kept under control. Usually, the narrator shifts from style to style, narration to explication, universal to particular, in a logical manner. Eugene becomes "everyman," and his story becomes a common one in lonely, lost America as does Gant’s.

 


H. The Wolfean Narrative Technique When Out of Control


At other places in the book, however, Wolfe loses this sense of balance. Book V, Jason's Voyage, contains an almost totally realistic account of Eugene and three other expatriates traveling across Europe on an apparently unending spree. They run threw a seemingly endless series of meaningless adventures. Eugene's own ruminations replace the narrator's exact exactly as some critics suggest they should in the whole novel. They reveal Eugene as a distinct and rather peculiar character with whom few can identify.

He appears as a grotesque capable of uttering these odd love lines: "Oh, Ann.'...You lovely, bitch!...You big, dark, dumb, lovely, sullen Boston bitch." (p. 792). In a realistic novel anyone with a personality like Eugene's naturally seems a bit out-of-place. In a romantic novel Eugene fits in, and without the narrator's consistent interjections Of Time and the River tends to become simply another moderately interesting, realistic autobiographical novel about a rather peculiar artistic young man.

Sometimes Wolfe, though, errs in the opposite direction. BookVI, Kronos and Rhea: The Dream of Time, falls apart because it maintains so little contact with Wolfe's characters. Wolfe starts with a long invocation to Time lasting four pages. Abruptly, the narrator switches to the lost father theme: "Father, I know you live, though I never found you." (p. 856) Finally, the narrator returns to Eugene, who begins writing.

The next chapter opens with a short proem about Americans abroad, shifts into a typical dialogue meant to show the type of things Americans overseas say, and returns to the theme of wandering: "Of wandering, forever, and the earth. Brother, for what?" (p. 866) Then the narrator recites another long catalogue of American names, which includes Indian tribes, battles, railroads, rivers, etc. Like Whitman, another of Wolfe’s favorite influences, he often lacks a sense of epic restraint. Eventually the narrator returns to the theme of the lost father: "we are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever."(p.870) This long chapter ends without making a single reference to Eugene or trying to link his experience with the thematic concerns of the narrator.

The rest of the book considers many of the same topics, but invariably Eugene thinks of all of these ideas himself, and the narrator simply observes. Thus the book breaks down into its components. The earlier part of the book merely offers poetic essay, the latter part realistic novel. Wolfe's basic skills remain sound, but the balance fails.

 


I. The Wolfean Narrator: Omnipresent Romanticism


Some critics find Wolfe's omniscient narrator oppressive. Wolfe identifies too thoroughly with Eugene's views, they contend, and the powers he possesses as narrator allow him to defend those views. Louis Rubin explains Wolfe's powers as narrator:

"We have to accept completely and without reservation the character's version of 'real life' or else the characters appear ridiculous, and to do this we have to identify ourselves with the characters. And the characters view of himself and his life is very romantic. Wolfe believed the romantic view of the world is the true one. (34)

Rubin concludes that Wolfe's narrates undermines the fictional suspension of disbelief.

"When the author says that Eugene did or thought such and such we accept that; but when he insists what Eugene did or thought signifies this or that about human experience, and we believe that it does not so signify, he is in trouble." (P 12) (35)

Many critics agree with Rubin. Edward Wagenknecht remarks: "when eating one's breakfast is as intense a business as watching one's father die, one soon finds it impossible to be moved by either event." (36)

These critics do not really attack Wolfe's work so much as they attack his personal vision of life. On the one hand, one might condemn Eugene as unrealistic. In fact, Wolfe’s most authentic chapters portray Eugene as realistically unusual and individual. In distinct contrast, the Wolfean narrator attempts to create a world of elemental desires in which men of vision, such as Eugene, either death or a chicken sandwich can inspire a man. This narrator tries to prove the universality of these desires, not of Eugene.

Whether this type of world could, does, or did actually exist does not really matter for our critical evaluation. Condemning the novelist’s skills due to the author’s personal philosophy of life holds as much relevance as condemning a romantic novel as not being a romantic novel or a realistic novel as not romantic enough. The critic has to judge a work on its own terms, and Of Time and the River is probably one of the most romantic novels ever written. Eugene only becomes believable within this extremely romantic setting. The reader that wishes to enjoy Wolfe and the critic who wishes to rate Wolfe properly must accept both the tenets of the novel's world and spend their disbelief while they read the novel. Wolfe’s narrator imposes a structure on Of Time and the River, and the narrator expounds a Wolfean, romantic view of life.

This makes the book both better and worse than its detractors contend. Both conclusions pertain to the novel's components. Certainly, the early books deserve a higher place in critical estimation as they contain powerful scenes and show Wolfe at his full powers. Conversely, by Book V, the novel begins to decline as the narrator loses the power to impose order over the novel's scenes and components. Wolfe might have improved these latter books by simply taking out whole scenes to relieve some of the tedium and cutting some overlong narrative digressions. Finally, many of the later books repeat scenes from the earlier books to little purpose. Too many of the scenes describing Eugene's fury, for example, do not enhance the book. Still Of Time and the River is a rather good book possessing many powerful passages and scenes.

On the other hands, the critics need to rate the novel as a whole more highly. The negative criticism of Of Time and the River derives largely from objections to its lack of structure and its narrative voice. In fact, the narrator voice imposes the very structure that the critics find so wanting.

A related objection relates 5o the tone of the rhetorical voice. Here the critics err as they judge that voice largely in terms of their own tastes and unwillingness to "suspend their disbelief" and enter into overwhelmingly romantic, universal world of desired expounded by Wolfe and exemplified most fully by his protagonist. If they do not believe in this romanticism, they need not read the book, but they cannot use this as a means of calling it poor book. We much just an artistic work on its own terms, and Of Time and River, judged within these terms, represents a less than totally successful epic romance but certainly a formidable one. Judged within these terms, Of Time and the River rates as a rather good novel if certainly not a perfect one.

 


Endnotes


Due to the scanning process, some of these may not exactly align with the notes above.

(1) Richard S. Kennedy, The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe (Chapel Hill, NC; University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 273.
(2) Hillary Colum, "rev. of Of Time and the River, by Thomas Wolfe," Forum, April 1935, ed. Paschal 218-219; rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception, Reeves (New York: David Lewis, 1974, p. 58.
(3) Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River, (New York: Scribner’s 1935), rpt version, pp. 529-530.
(4) Henry Seidel Canby, "The River of Youth," rev. of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, Saturday Review of Literature, 9 March 1935, -530; rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception, ed. Paschal David (Lewis, 1973), p. 43.
(5) Louis D. Rubin, "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South," in his The Faraway Countries: Writers of the Modern South (Washington: University of Washington Press, 1963), pp. 72-104; rpt. in ThomasWolfe: Decades of Criticism, ed. Leslie A. Field (New York: New York Press, 1968), p. 67.
(6) Bernard DeVoto, "Genius Is Not Enough," rev, of ‘The Story of a Novel,’ by Thomas Wolfe, Saturday Review of Literature, 25 April 1936, pp. 3-4, 14-15; rpt. in The World of Thomas Wolfs, ed. C. Hugh Holman (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,1962), p.4.
(7) Robert Penn Warren, "A Note on the Hamlet of Thomas Wolfe,"' rev. of Of Time and the River, by Thomas Wolfe, American Review, 5 (May 1935), pp. 191-208; rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. Leslie A. Field (New York: New York University Press, 1968), p. 216.
(8) C Hugh Holman, "The Loneliness at the Core," in his The Loneliness at the Core: Studies in Thomas Studies (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1975), p. 3.
(9) Edward C. Aswell, "A Note on Thomas." introd. to The Hills Beyond, by Thomas Wolfe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941), pp. 349-386; rpt. in The World of Thomas Wolfe, ed. C. Hugh Holman (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), p. 56.
(10) Malcolm Cowley, "Wolfe: Homo Scribens," in his Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (New York: Viking, 1956), pp. 142-166.
(11) Ibid, p. 156.
(12) Beja, Morris, "You Can't Go Home Again: Thomas Wolfe and the 'Escapades of Time and Memory.'" in Modern Critical Studies, 11. No. 3 (Autumn 1965), pp. 297-314; Rpt. in ThomasWolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Louis D. Rubin, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973, p 137.
(13) G. Hugh Holman, "Introduction," The Short Novels of Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Louis D. Rubin (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), pp. vii-xx; rpt. Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 176.
(14) Aswell, p. 46.
(15) Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (New York: Scribner and Sons) , p. 1.
(16) Ibid, p. 1.
(17) Richard S. Kennedy, The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 258.
(18) Ibid, p. 268.
(19) Ibid, p. 270.
(20) Ibid, p. 271.
(21) Ibid, p. 272.
(22) Ibid, pp. 268-269.
(23) C. Hugh Holman, ed. The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), p. 3.
(24) Maxwell Perkins, "Thomas Wolfe," Harvard Library Bulletin, 1 (Autumn 1947), pp. 269-277; rpt. in Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Louis D. Rubin (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1973), p. 84.
(25) Ibid, p. 41.
(26) Canby, p. 41.
(27) Ibid, p. 42
(28) Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935). p. 135; when Scribners re-issued this novel as a two volume paperback set, they inexplicably omitted the first book. Oddly, the second volume, starting with Book IV, resumes the original pagination. I will use the pagination from the hard-cover edition. The page numbers will coincide for any page after 407; to translate lower page numbers from the hard-cover to the paperback edition the paperback holder must subtract eight-six pages. All future references to this book will occur in the body of the paper.
(29) C. Hugh Holman, "The Problem of Point of View," in his The Loneliness at the Core: Studies in Thomas Wolfe (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1975), p. 82.
(30) Herbert H. Muller, Thomas Wolfe (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1947), p. 55.
(31) Rubin, "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South," p. 66.
(32) John Hagan, "Thomas Wolfe's: Of Time and the River: The Quest for Transcendence," in Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, ed. Richard S. Kennedy (Athens, OH: Crescent and Co., 1983), p. 13.
(33) DeVoto, p. 4.
(34) Warren, p. 273.
(34) Rubin, "Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South," pp. 76-77.
(35) Louis D. Rubin, "The Sense of Being Young," in Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 12.
(36) Edward Wagenknecht, "Thomas Wolfe," in his Cavalcade of the American Novel from the Birth of the Nation to the Middle of the Twentieth Century (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1952), p. 413.


 

Bibliography

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Beck, Rima Drell. "Celine and Wolfe: Toward a Theory of the Autobiographical Novel." Mississippi Quarterly, 22, No. 1 (Winter 1968-1969), pp. 19-27.

Beja, Moris. "You Can't Go Home Again: Thomas Wolfe and the 'Escapades of Time and Memory.'" Modern Critical Studies, 11. No. 3 (Autumn 1965), pp. 297-314. Rpt. ThomasWolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Louis D. Rubin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 128-147.

Boynton, Percy H. "Thomas Wolfe." In his America in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963, pp. 204-224.

Canby, Henry Seidel. "The River of Youth." rev. of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe. Saturday Review of Literature, 9 March 1935, pp. 529-530. Rpt. Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception. Ed. Paschal Reeves. New York: David Lewis, 1974, pp. 40-43.

Colum, Mary. Rev. of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe. Forum, April 1935, pp. 218-219. Rpt. Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception. Ed. Paschal Reeves. New York: David Lewis, 1974, pp. 57-58.

Cowley, Malcolm. "Thomas Wolfe: Homo Scribens." In his Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking: 1956, pp. 156-190.

DeVoto, Bernard. "Genius Is Not Enough." rev. of The Story of a Novel, by Thomas Wolfe. Saturday Review of Literature, 25 April, 1936, pp. 3-4, 14-15. Rpt. The World of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. C. Hugh Holman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962, pp. 86-90.

Gatlin, Jesse C., Jr. "Thomas Wolfe: The Question of Value." Wolfe Newsletter, 4, No. 1 (1980), pp. 7-14.

Gurko, Lee. "The Laying of Wind-Grieved Ghosts," In his The Angry Decade. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1947, pp. 148-170,

Hagan, John. "Thomas Wolfe's: Of Time and the River: The Quest for Transcendence." In Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, ed. Richard S. Kennedy. Athens, OH: Crescent and Co., 1983, pp. 3-20.

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