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Authors: Thomas Wolfe

The Web and The Root

BOOK: The Web and The Root
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The Web and the Root

A Selection from
The Web and the Rock

Thomas Wolfe

Could I make tongue say more than tongue could utter!

Could I make brain grasp more than brain could think!

Could I weave into immortal denseness some small brede of words,

pluck out of sunken depths the roots of living,

some hundred thousand magic words that were as great as all my hunger,

and hurl the sum of all my living out upon three hundred pages—

then death could take my life, for I had lived it ere he took it:

I had slain hunger, beaten death!


Book I.
    The Web and the Root

    The Child Caliban

    Three O’Clock

    Two Worlds Discrete

    The Golden City

Book II.
    The Hound of Darkness

    Aunt Mag and Uncle Mark

    The Street of the Day

    The Butcher

    The Child by Tiger

    Home from the Mountain

Book III.
    The Web and the World

    Olympus in Catawba

    The Priestly One

    The Torch

    The Rock

    The City Patriots




The Web and the Root

The first three chapters of
The Web and the Rock
return to familiar, if slightly disguised, Wolfe territory, Asheville, now called Libya Hill; the Blue Ridge Mountains; and some familiar characters, now sporting new names or relationships to the central figure of the novel. That new figure, grotesque in body but potentially beautiful in spirit, supplants Eugene Gant as a surrogate character. He is called George Webber and must accept, willy-nilly, the nickname “Monk” because of his simian features. The territory may be familiar and the characters readily identifiable with ones Wolfe created for
Look Homeward, Angel
Of Time and the River,
but the subject matter, tone, and literary traditions differ significantly from the earlier novels.

Launching a frontal attack on the warped values of the Blue Ridge area, especially among Baptist members of the Joyner side of George’s forebears, Wolfe dwells sarcastically on the hypocrisy of Bible-quoting but scripture-disobeying members of that flock, Aunt Mag Joyner being the chief offender. She shares the opinion that drinking whiskey is a greater moral vice than committing murder. Like other members of her Baptist kin, she thinks that divorce is unforgivable. Morally intolerant as she is, she’s not above abusing children in her care, and her kin fail to act when mining companies despoil the landscape to dig for mica. In pointing to this rape of mountain property, Wolfe takes a place as an early eco-minded writer.

True to his conceptual plan for moving to a more objective way of writing, Wolfe took measured steps to leave behind the trappings
of a Byronic hero, or a Shellyean rebel out to reform the world with idealism so compelling that even the yokels of the world would see the errors of their way. Rather than satisfying himself with a pinprick, he most often struck with heavy hammerblows. This new tone, rigorous in its denunciation and damning in its charges of hypocrisy and accommodation, underscores Wolfe’s expressed ambition to be more satiric and probing in this new cycle.

In large measure, Wolfe doffed Joycean and Whitmanesque garb in a revealing letter leading up to his attempt to present an avatar more representative of his maturing vision of American society. Pointedly, he wanted to leave behind the “wounded faun,” his portrait of a young American author misunderstood and undervalued by his countrymen, to strip his projected protagonist of what he labeled “Eugene Gant-i-ness.” Even though he liked the feel and look of a bardic mantle, he was moving inexorably towards Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Mark Twain, and those penetrating observers of the dark side of American culture: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. Lyrical outpourings would diminish as social criticism, satire, and dramatizations of human propensity to evil boiled to the surface of his fiction.

Even as he marched in closer rank with American writers, he looked to foreign writers for models of what he hoped to do in developing a new avatar, variously christened Paul Spangler, Joe Doaks, and George Webber. Spangler would be a kind of modern-day Gulliver, Don Quixote, or Werther, a man who discovered that the real world was quite different from the one he had imagined. Joe Doaks would not have a celebrated literary model but rather would be a man of the people, just one of those stumbling, bumbling humans trying to make his way through the world and getting bumped and bruised but nonetheless hanging tough and exposing—through his common touch, falsity, meanness, and pretense, and expressing, out of a hopefulness that the goodness of the American people would finally prevail—a conviction that the true greatness of the nation lay before it. George
Webber would inherit traits from Spangler and Doaks but would acquire a lineage linking him to a western North Carolina folk hero and a Pennsylvania brick mason.

The folk hero was Zebulon Vance, like Wolfe a native of Buncombe County, North Carolina, who served the state as congressman, governor, and senator. Wolfe reaches back before Vance’s time to trace the rise of the mountain-bred Joyner family, the founding member of which, William “Bear” Joyner, appears in the mold of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Mike Finn: a lusty, rough-edged fellow who fathers many children, one of whom, Zach, takes on the trappings of Vance in his climb to political power and heroic stature. It is from the Joyners that George Webber traces his maternal side, and it is that Joyner side, split in its views of morals, religion, and regard for the supernatural, that spawns much of the musing of young George as he stretches out on his Aunt Maw’s lawn at three o’clock one fine afternoon. But readers of Wolfe have to go to
The Hills Beyond
to find an account of George’s Joyner side, since Edward Aswell, his editor at
, chose to start George’s narrative with George and not his forebears, thereby repeating a move Maxwell Perkins made in cutting Wolfe’s account of Eugene Gant’s ancestors in
Look Homeward, Angel
. Much as he had worked to put together a connected narrative and to develop a cast of characters since early 1936, Wolfe delivered into Aswell’s hands portions of the Joyner-Webber material in various states of completion or mere drafts along with a rough outline and statement of purpose when he left New York to give a talk at Purdue University and to travel further west. That trip, crowded by sightseeing with a team of journalists wanting to prove that many of the great Western parks could be visited in a few days, further exhausted an already fatigued Wolfe, and precipitated a hospital stay in the Seattle area and his death in Baltimore on 15 September 1938, a victim of tuberculosis of the brain. Wolfe had intended, he had assured Aswell, to work hard and long to make this new work, now being called
You Can’t Go Home Again
, the best piece of writing he had ever done, more objective, more truthfully autobiographical, without the preening and posturing of Eugene Gant,
with less of a Joycean flavor, and with more of America as Wolfe had seen it, reveled in it, been disappointed and inspired by it. This means he would sometimes be naturalistic, hard-nosed, intent upon dramatizing how Americans came to act and believe as they did. But there would be jollity mixed with somberness, pessimism lightened by optimism, disgust mitigated by a deeply felt conviction that Americans would not let the dream of a democratic nation die. In Wolfe’s expansive way of thinking, he was writing one book, one in which he would wreak his vision of America as he positioned himself as a truth-telling protagonist, one more faithful and thoroughly autobiographical than he had drawn in depicting Eugene Gant.

Yet that book existed more as a concept than as a body of writing that could be readily turned into one or more novels. The stacks of material left in Aswell’s hands seemed to him a “jigsaw puzzle,” an accurate enough description considering that Wolfe had brought together pieces cut from
O Lost/Look Homeward, Angel
, stories previously published in magazines, and sketches and dramatic vignettes he wanted to use in a projected work about America at night,
The Hound of Darkness
. Faced with something he sometimes thought of as a chaotic jumble, Aswell turned to Maxwell Perkins, formerly Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s and now his literary executor; Elizabeth Nowell, Wolfe’s agent, who was quite familiar with Wolfe’s work in progress; and to members of Wolfe’s family to seek advice and counsel about how to proceed with the chore of editing and publishing. He particularly wanted Fred Wolfe to identify the real-life counterparts of characters based on persons living in Asheville, and he wanted to assure himself that Wolfe’s former mistress, Aline Bernstein, would not file a libel suit if Harper and Brothers published the love story of George Webber and Esther Jack, the fictional embodiments of Wolfe and Bernstein.

Aswell’s efforts, though fruitful in many ways, still left him with a disjointed work, a work needing revision, transitional passages, excision of duplicate materials, fuller realization of characters or scenes, and untangling of names. The task was a daunting one, solved, ultimately, by
his becoming a coauthor, a role in part acknowledged in a note appearing at the end of
The Hills Beyond
, in which Aswell explained that he had added italicized transitional passages between books. But studies of Wolfe’s typescript reveal that Aswell did more than provide bridges. The extent of his creative contribution to the Webber cycle will likely be the work of some doctoral student in American literature, the result of which will be a dissertation or an article in a learned journal. Part of that task has been undertaken and shared by John Halber-stadt. Aswell’s note on his work to bring Wolfe’s stacks of material to print makes the justifiable claim that Wolfe was not thinking of two separate novels, rather one that would be called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” It was a matter of convenience, wrote Aswell, that Harper and Brothers decided to issue the novel in two parts, naming the first installment after a working title Wolfe was using for part of his stack of manuscript, “The Web and the Rock.”

As far as the whole result is concerned, the decision was not a happy one, for Wolfe wished to salvage the love story he had meant to publish as
The October Fair
. To use it in the Webber cycle would demand heavy revision, for the story was truly Eugene Gant’s and the style was early Wolfe, not the later Wolfe, who had moved to a leaner style and a more objective way of presenting his characters. The first three chapters of
The Web and the Rock
were later Wolfe, part of the Joyner-Webber cycle, a recasting of Wolfe’s boyhood and family relationships, a deeper and more objective evaluation of the forces of southern Appalachia on his thought and personality.

The decision to issue the three initial chapters of
The Web and the Rock
rescues a portion of Wolfe’s work that could pass from the American literary scene. As a few of the earliest critical estimates of the whole work asserted, the novel had mismatched, uneven parts, and represented a falling off of Wolfe’s powers. Some reviewers, rightfully, complained that the claim made in the author’s note, about a more objective manner and a pronounced satiric flavor was not an accurate description of the work. That note, shaped from a letter to Aswell,
more properly related to the Webber-Joyner cycle. It certainly did not apply to much of the material in the final four books.

The three books rescued in this edition do indeed merit publication, even if Wolfe was recycling some materials. They are rich, varied, evocative of time and place, and abounding in characters that Wolfe either created from scratch, for example, Nebraska Crane, or had but skimpily developed in the Gant novels, a notable one being Gerald Alsop, who had merely a cameo role in
O Lost
under another name, Jack Harvey, a fictional version of John Skally Terry. No doubt the richest, most varied and evocative book is the first. Its four chapters introduce us to George Webber’s world, his Joyner and Webber kin, the Joyners linked to southern Appalachia, John Webber (George’s father) to Pennsylvania, the same ancestral heritage of Eugene Gant. But here Wolfe, commenting on mountain-bred civilization, delves far more deeply and concretely into narrowness, clannishness, bigotry, hypocrisy, religion, moral values, superstitions, and beliefs in the occult than he had in the Gant cycle. It is a world that Mark Joyner in Book II will vividly expose and roundly condemn. It is a world that George rejects in favor of the envisioned Golden City of the North. Yet it is a world that Wolfe readers must examine and study if they are to understand the forces that helped shape him. A sense of place emerges graphically and powerfully here in Book I, and to rush through Wolfe’s wrestling with his mountain heritage is to miss a vital element in his cultural background. His roots indeed run deep in Blue Ridge soil. His lover’s quarrel with his native region adds vinegar, and sometimes gall, to his depiction of mountain folk, including thinly disguised members of his own family.

Although some passages about these mountain folk—these “grills,” as W. O. Gant would have called them—read more like sociological notes than facts transformed into fiction, Wolfe enables readers to discern the web George must escape if he is to find his way to the Golden City and become the writer he longs to be. Happily, sociology gives way to character presentation and dramatized events as Wolfe moves to trace the enlarging circles of George’s world: his friendship with Nebraska Crane, a part Cherokee boy who later becomes a professional baseball player; his
disgust with and loathing of white-trash boys from the Doubleday section of town; his resentment that Aunt Maw would interrupt his reveries to ask him to do a mere chore; his encounter with Jerry Alsop at Pine Rock College (another, less favorable, rendering of the University of North Carolina) over whether Charles Dickens or Feodor Dostoevski was the greater writer; his admiration and adulation of a star athlete, Jim Randolph, who was based on William Folger, a star performer at the Citadel and later the University of North Carolina; his further disagreement with Alsop about the greatest men since Jesus Christ, Alsop’s candidates being Woodrow Wilson and the saintly and morally stern president of Pine Rock College; his life among a group of young Southern men trying to find their way in New York City and his conclusion, that Jim Randolph, their ostensible leader, was truly a member of the Lost Generation; and, finally, his decision to go his own way, to use his powers and talents to the utmost to win recognition and fame in the Golden City. As a means of rounding out George’s journey from daydreamer to his hope of becoming a successful, celebrated, and loved author, Aswell closed out Book III with a fantasy Wolfe had written much earlier, setting it in Boston and casting it as part of Eugene Gant’s means of coping with his lonely feelings in Boston.

Interesting as that journey is, in the literary tradition it is a retelling of a provincial’s migration to the big city, where, if all goes well, his talents take him to the pinnacle of fame. Had Wolfe only this well-worn plot to share, readers would likely turn to
The Web and the Rock
as relevant but not powerful foregrounding autobiographical fiction linked to the better-realized George Webber of
You Can’t Go Home Again.

BOOK: The Web and The Root
12.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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