Thomas Wolfe: the Southerner, the Existentialist

By Nicholas Alahverdian

Thomas Wolfe, an author in the Southern Literary Renaissance, was not like the Southern writers that preceded him. These foregoing authors focused on historical romances, purportedly valiant efforts by Confederate soldiers, and the antebellum Southern condition. This historical writing, firmly rooted in the traditionally Southern rhetorical style (a method, as Allen Tate argued in his 1959 essay “A Southern Mode of the Imagination,” of writing based on persuasion and oratory) began to diminish as the South witnessed several crucial events: the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Confederate forces, and Reconstruction [1865–1877].

These occurrences impacted Wolfe as strongly as they impacted many people throughout the South, and following these historical events, he emerged as the writer who seemed most affected. During this crucial period of literary innovation Wolfe was not isolated from the texts, ideas, and teachings of the existentialist movement; most specifically relating to meaning, recovery, war, and others.

Wolfe, widely considered one of the most necessary and crucial writers of the 20th century, embodied the philosophical conceptualization of existentialism. He lived his life and authored his works in such a way that was not unlike attempting to mimic the proverbial life of the existentialist. Further, he was immersed in the depths of loneliness and alienation caused by events that occurred in his life. Growing up in the New South, he faced a region that was depressed by the loss of a war and a devastated economy.

Wolfe had a complex, contradictory character. Frugal despite his love of spending, he never threw things away. He was inherently concerned about the existence of things. He had brawny passions: he loved great food, but then he starved himself day after day, almost like fasting, trying to write the great work of his generation. Even further, perhaps mimicking the icons, he partook of the proverbial existential cultural elements of black coffee and cigarettes. He leaned toward alcoholism yet labored many sober days — almost tugging at the delicate balance between life and fantasy — assisting with flowery and descriptive writing in his work.

There seems to be a polarity in Wolfe’s life, his lifestyle choices, and he also demonstrated symptoms of bipolar. Like many existentialists, he applied meaning to his life, living it both passionately and sincerely notwithstanding the existential obstructions imposed by Southern culture including discouragement, loss, and anguish. Wolfe also had a “compulsion to pour out the history of his experience in talk, letters, [and] diaries” substantiating further his aim to emphasize human individuality and freedom, and in this case his own. He described his life experiences as a person would describe storms or floods. His passion was so immense that even the slightest of distractions would put him into despair and he would constantly brood, drink, and pace the streets.”

Wolfe would call friends on the phone in an accusatory manner, claiming betrayal. This existential angst, the crucial desire to figure out who his genuine friends are, this discovering of the independent self is right on par with the way French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described it: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the wold — and defines himself afterwards.” He encountered himself via his soul-searching and through the discovery of true friends and faithful advisers.

A relentless writer, he always wrote in iambic pentameter, forever faithful to his passion. Ever true to his enthusiastic search for meaning, he applied this fervor in his literal and figurative search for a father or a god of some sort. Wolfe persistently sough out a powerful deity or a cunning muse. Nevertheless, the challenge of searching for “an image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger” fused his zealousness for truth with his literary confidence and judgement, producing some of the most remarkable work of the 20th century.

Memorizing poetry as a child also helped Wolfe to practice adding meaning to his life early on. Gradually amplifying his focus on the literary fire in his belly allowed Wolfe to live his life acknowledging his existence preceded his essence — a critical component of existentialist philosophy. He grasped the notion that he was not born a great writer and must become one. Perpetually restless, he was “without a home — a vagabond since [he] was seven” and seeking out where he belonged physically (i.e. in Asheville, his home or Harvard) as well as intellectually. This concept that he was indeed without a father led him to gain greater understanding, eventually realizing that his search for a patriarch was not merely a “father in the flesh,” but a substitution for God, a guiding light, and an alluring source of inspiration.

Prioritizing the search for truth was imperative for Thomas Wolfe. As he blazed this trail, he absorbed and adopted the traditional qualities of an astute philosopher and author, learning that he was not to be afraid to think or question, nor was he afraid of critically examining provincial conventions. Every idea was a planted seed for Wolfe, and he nourished each idea until it came into full fruition, producing even more.

However, the existential Wolfe was afflicted with angst and dread. He was “more lost at Harvard than he had ever felt before.” Money was certainly an issue, and he was extremely depressed. Leaving the house was rare, and he sometimes spoke so infrequently that “the sound of his own voice seemed strange.” Wolfe experienced insecurity and fear during these arduous times, and his fury drove him to read many books. The search for a colossal source of inspiration was intensified by his father’s death, something that perhaps was an unfinished quest. One influential person in Wolfe’s life, Harvard Professor George Pierce Baker, didn’t even get a proper farewell from him. Wolfe tried to exalt Baker into a God, a father. “The great man, the prophet, the infinitely wise and gentle and strong spirit” that Wolfe knew soon diminished into a fleshly being, “fallible and mortal.”

Captivated by despair and the intricacies that came with it, Wolfe valued the defining qualities of existentialism. He knew that even though there were events that caused him to lose hope, or be catapulted into depression, or to be immersed in pain, he persevered through stalwart determination, growing throughout the way. He began to use dismay as an incentive to develop meaningful characteristics that would not fail him, provoking the most productive periods of his short yet distinguished career.

Wolfe’s experiences with doubt and distrust inhibited his writing so abundantly that he used his cynicism and anguish to fuel independence — in his writing and in his life. Wolfe began to learn that he was at the helm of his life. He began to make weighty choices that would ameliorate his life by meeting with editor Maxwell Perkins in 1928 and, perhaps something he would not do just a few years earlier, worked with him to reduce his manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel by 60,000 words. These actions taught Wolfe the values of independence and freedom to choose. He learned that he could still write fervently and passionately (i.e., with meaning) while making independent or collaborative editorial and literary choices.

Wolfe’s writing could conceivably be contrived as the embodiment of his inherent desire to be authentic. He found himself by writing and wrote in order to find himself. This reciprocative process only strengthened the image he had of himself — thereby generating meaning in his life — while also improving the view that others had of him. No longer was he bound by the chains of uncertainty or the inability to be independent. He began to write, more than he ever had before, and eventually submitted many manuscripts — totaling over one million words — to his editor before his death.

Throughout Wolfe’s writing, especially in the semi-autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel, he demonstrates his interest in the existence of human beings and the results and effects of their choices. The son searching for the father is a theme throughout the novel, as it was for Wolfe throughout his life. Thematic elements including loneliness, depression, and the search for meaning are also common in both the book and his life. In order for Wolfe to produce tangible, literary results that were steeped with meaning to himself and others, he had to occasionally subvert his writing process from a search for a patriarchal figure to simply deriving inspiration from his own experiences and life lessons.

Even the fictionalization of his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina is evident — naming it Altamont, Catawba. He desired to plunge into the fundamentals and essentials of life, not only his own, but also those of his friends and relatives. The novel addresses many tragedies, which can also be interpreted as “teachable moments” including the marriages and struggles of protagonist Oliver Gant. Gant, after losing a wife and several children, becomes an energetic patriarch, proving himself to be worthy of his own expectations for familial relations. Even as he was drunk and away from his wife while she was giving birth to son Eugene, he evolves into a character that becomes formidably warm and perhaps gentler than when we first meet him.

This and other examples demonstrate Wolfe’s fascination with the human condition, and his credo correlates with that of philosophers of the existential school of thought. He began to understand that life itself is based on the human subject — his experiences, his successes, and his failings. As he gained a greater understanding of an absurd albeit beautiful world, even his own Southern world, he became a better writer while beginning to attribute meaning to his own life.

In his life and in his work, Thomas Wolfe lived deliberately. As Wolfe evolved, his writing also grew, and it was not without an evolution of ideological framework or philosophical debate. Throughout these philosophical trials, this personal soul-searching, Wolfe espoused what Allen Tate praised as the keystone of the Southern Literary Renaissance: the dialectical method. A literary dialectical method that not only permitted internal discourse, but encouraged such soul searching that eventually allowed Wolfe to become an extraordinary writer. As he pondered the future of the devastated South, he came to know his own history and the meaning of his life.

Wolfe became a hallmark writer of the Southern Renaissance.