Thomas Wolfe’s Hymn to October

October 1, 2022 • 7:30 am

I’ve put up the words of Thomas Wolfe several times on October 1 (he was born on October 3, 1900 and died of tuberculosis at just 37). This is a repost from exactly two years ago. The prose is gorgeous and evocative, and of course appropriate to the day.

*********

No writer has captured the color and feel of America better than Thomas Wolfe. 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 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.

16 thoughts on “Thomas Wolfe’s Hymn to October

  1. In the latter half of the 20th century, Wolfe was rightly accorded a place in the pantheon of great American literature.

    It’s sad to me that he’s been all but forgotten by the vast majority of Americans in the 21st century.

    His work is accessible, but deliciously dense, as illustrated in the passage above. Perhaps that’s why Wolfe is not read or appreciated as much any more: reading him requires a certain amount of focus and concentration.

    Ah, but I suppose we cannot always go home again…

    1. I think part of it may be that Wolfe died so young, in the middle of the Great Depression, at age 37 (three years earlier, and seven years younger, than F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose untimely death is viewed by many as a literary tragedy). Wolfe’s contemporaries like Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck (each of them a Nobel Lit laureate) all lived into their sixties (and into The Sixties), so have tended to overshadow him.

  2. Here’s hoping that the USDA will approve all the work that has gone into the American Chestnut Foundation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry restoration projects and allowing them to be planted out into the forests, thus securing a future where chinkapins and related Castanea will again fall in Virginia and throughout the eastern woodlands, safe, or at least more resistant to Cryphonectria parasitica.

    1. Hear him, hear him! In my Southeastern Ohio homeland, it is still possible to find young American Chestnuts in the most acidic forests. I used to take my Dendrology students out to see them, before I retired. But sadly, they rarely live long enough to bear before succumbing to the blight. I share your hope that such a magnificent species will return to our eastern forests, although I won’t be around to see it. On a brighter note, recent decades have seen some Amish, and old-order Mennonites, move into this region. And some of them shock their corn, so the scene that Wolfe evoked can sometimes be encountered.

    2. Nice to see you both mentioning chestnuts and TACF here, and the recombinant effort currently under review. Oddly enough, I have just returned from their annual meeting, which, after a 2yr COVID-hiatus, was in Asheville NC.

      I had some downtime between the Board/Committee meetings and the general meeting, and prowled downtown Asheville for awhile. They celebrate Thomas Wolfe there, and have some nice sculpture in homage to him in the vicinity of the courthouse.

  3. Several bits and phrases here come directly from Keats’s Ode to Autumn. It is difficult to tell whether Wolfe is alluding to it on purpose or unconsciously recycling it.

    1. It could be coincidental as well. I just read the poem and I don’t see anything that I would consider recycling, unconscious or not. I’m not even sure Wolfe was a fan of Keats or read Keats.

  4. So beautiful! I was just thinking about Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock and Of Time and the River this morning.. How lovely to see this here, so close to his birthday. Thank you.

  5. “The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape…”

    I bet the “bee” he speaks of is the yellow jacket. Bees don’t do that, hornets on the other hand… Yes, pedantic, I know.

    I like the thick prose of Wolfe, and boy could he write many glorious pages in that form. Faulkner lays it on thick as well…bring it on, I say.

Leave a Reply