Thomas Wolfe may be the only American author whose Wikipedia profile includes his height. His size, after all, made him stand out wherever he was, whether in a crowd or writing at a desk that allowed him to work standing up, since desks intended for the average-sized man were too small to accommodate his frame. If anything characterized Wolfe—the man, his life, and his writer’s output—it was the tendency for everything about him to be outsized, the inevitable result of great talent and a vaulting ambition. It was said that the original manuscript of what was to become his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was 1100 pages in length before his legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, trimmed its bulk by one fourth. These days, though, Wolfe’s once outsized literary reputation has itself become subject to severe shrinkage.
At the apex of Wolfe’s career, he kept literary company with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway—all of whom still enjoy considerable reputations today, possibly even greater than in the 1920’s and ’30’s. Wolfe had attracted a large readership early on with his signature style, a hybrid of the lyrical and the confessional. He was especially popular among those who had experienced a similar search for identity as Eugene Gant, his creator’s literary alter ego and the protagonist of Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s name quickly became synonymous with what would later be called the anti-hero, a character who sought the life of the mind as an antidote to what he saw as the vain striving of those caught up in the pursuit of wealth and prestige. Wolfe was able to probe such psyches with knowing skill, creating characters recognizable for their outsider status and who bore believable traces of authenticity, just as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway had done for very different characters of their own.
The prosperity of post-World-War-One America had produced a so-called “lost generation” that looked inward for its guidance, finding the quest and attainment of self-knowledge the most satisfying of human achievements. Wolfe’s success in locating the geography of that alienation in a character and his ability to give him life was the continuation of an American literature that had begun with Mark Twain and Jack London. For his own novels, Wolfe reached deeply into his past, transmuting those materials into exuberant prose. The language he used—incantatory and Baroque—combined with a young character who was dreamy and confused, at war with his family, his surroundings, and especially himself, gave new shape to an archetype that contained the beginnings of characters who would follow later in the century—Augie March, Holden Caulfield, Jack Kerouac’s “angel-headed hipsters.”
If a reader’s first encounter with Wolfe’s prose was startling, fresh in a way that brought new intensity to the reading experience, by the 1960’s it had begun to seem overheated, his agonized characters irrelevant to the times. A growing group of critics saw his writing as excessive, the once-admired poetry of his style they now thought merely “poetic,” the product of half-digested romanticism and an undisciplined approach to craft. Eugene Gant now seemed more a projection of Wolfe himself than a fully-rounded literary character. Once widely read and widely imitated, his work was now seen as a bad influence, too unwieldy and uncontrolled for the modern sensibility. He had become a kind of literary persona non grata. Worse still, the traces of racism and anti-Semitism scattered through his novels now rang harshly on politically sensitive ears. Even the plaque commemorating him at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, mysteriously disappeared some years ago. The new generation of readers and critics looked to Europe for models, placing the highest value on work grounded in class, gender, and sexual preference. Wolfe’s work seemed unsophisticated in such company, his mountain origins marking him as a provincial whose work now came across as regional. One of Wolfe’s most vociferous detractors, Harold Bloom of Yale, calls Wolfe’s work mawkish, possessing no literary value. In interviews, he’s even refused to discuss Wolfe on the grounds that to do so would simply be a waste of time.
At this point, Wolfe’s most lasting literary legacy seems to be the phrase he used as the title of one of his books, “You can’t go home again,” a phrase regularly invoked by those confronting the futility of seeking comfort from the incompatibility of memory and reality. Now a phrase whose use by bad writers has rendered it a cliché, its original insight has all but lost its original force, hardly a worthy legacy for a once powerful writer. A cynic might say that Wolfe’s most famous line of poetry lives on as an example of his logorrhea, and could be read coincidentally as an address spoken to his fraying reputation: “O lost and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” That mournful echo, “O lost,” was the original title of Wolfe’s first novel, but now aptly captures the poignance of a literary reputation that has seemingly wandered into a dark pocket of time.