Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is an acquired taste. Most cognoscenti of literature scorn him for overwriting, and yes, he had a heavy hand with the pencil (he wrote in pencil on yellow legal pads, often—because he was so tall—on top of his refrigerator). I do love much of his writing, though, and when he was “on,” he perfectly captured the feel, look, and smell of America. William Faulkner rated Wolfe as the best writer of his generation (and remember, that includes, among Americans, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Faulkner himself).
Look Homeward, Angel is an American classic, and at least two excerpts from his books, chapters called “I have a thing to tell you” (about Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany) and “The child by tiger” (about a black man in the South who can no longer stand his degradation) are among the most moving things I’ve read in English.
Wolfe died at only 38, the victim of tuberculosis that spread to his brain.
This passage about October, which I’ve posted before but is also appropriate today, is from Of Time and the River:
Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands. The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling. Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say where that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .
October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all: the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.
Wolfe with some of his manuscripts. He’d deliver them in crates like this to his editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins, and the two of them would then have epic battles about cutting the material down to book size.