Review of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 4/19/08
The things people have told me about Thomas Wolfe. Descriptive. Long. Boring. Plodding. Misogynist. Etcetera. Ok so yes, Of Time and the River isn’t exactly a short book since the version I have finishes at 866 pages with small print and it took me a little over a week to read. But am I glad I did.
First, allow me to be brief. I think Of Time and the River is a great novel yet that does not mean it goes without flaws. There are moments that could have benefited from being cut but from what I read online, Wolfe had gotten into a feud with his publisher because the original text he wanted to publish finished around 330,000 words. So, his publisher told him there was no way in hell he was going to publish his book at that length so he forced him to cut it back and what we are left with is Of Time and the River. Having said that, the book would have benefited from even more cutting, yet I don’t think as much as many might think. Perhaps maybe a hundred pages? Tough to say.
But the fact that Wolfe started out with such an overwhelming quantity tells me that he didn’t really know what worked and what didn’t. There is no doubt that Wolfe is a great writer—he has some of the best philosophical and descriptive writing I’ve ever read, rich passages that can rival Steinbeck. Yet I can tell that narrative in and of itself was not Wolfe’s strong point, and the parts that could have used some trimming are probably not those that others would choose.
The book is divided into eight sections, or “books” and the first book has some of the best writing I’ve ever read. The story is a carry over from Wolfe’s earlier work, Look Homeward, Angel about Eugene Gant as a young man who is beginning college. Much of what goes on is the narrator’s observations, what the character is ruminating, the motion of the train against the still earth, the motion of time, etcetera. Here is a little clip of what readers will be in store for:
“Outside, the moon was up, flooding the dark earth of Virginia with a haunting light. That grand, moon-haunted earth stroked calmly past and, through the media of its changeless and unceasing change, the recession and recurrent movement of the enchanted scene, the train made on forever its tremendous monotone that was itself the rhythm of suspended time, the sound of silence and forever.”
Not only note the music in the words, but these are 2 sentences. The second one goes on for several lines. What surprises me is that there are so many readers who love to criticize what they call “run on sentences”, confusing them with “complex sentences” which is what Wolfe does. And this second sentence isn’t anywhere near “long” when thinking of Wolfe.
Another point I have to clear up regarding Wolfe is this idea that he was a misogynist. I have no idea about the man’s personal beliefs, but one cannot base that claim because of this book. Yes there is one character in particular who is definitely a misogynist but just because a writer has a misogynistic or racist character does not mean the writer is and nor does it mean that the book is either.
Throughout the story, Gant goes to college and decides he wants to become a writer—a playwright to be exact. He meets a rather melodramatic friend named Starwick and the two discuss ideas, writing, and philosophy together while getting drunk in the streets. And as most writers, Gant feels little support from his academic institutions as well as his own family. There is a particularly funny scene when Gant submits a play of his, ultimately to only have it rejected. Gant, who is 22 at the time, feels “his sense of failure was abysmal, crushing, and complete,” the narrator notes. Of course, the character presses onward and this reaction is oh so typical of someone that age where life can be grand and crushing in a single sweep. Sort of like the river?
As the narrative progresses, Gant goes off to Europe with Starwick, to England first and then to France, where they meet up with a couple of girls. Gant desperately wants approval from this one girl from Boston (who he meets in France) but she declines his affection because she admits to having feelings for Starwick. At this point in the book, the narrative gets a bit soap-operaish but Wolfe does convey the sort of “snobbery” of the French well enough. Likewise, Starwick and Gant engage in some moments of interesting discussion about living the life of the artist, such as can one be happy just sitting around in these French cafes all day or should one work a real job and earn a living?
Ultimately by the end the two friends part (yet they are young so such doesn’t necessarily mean the final end to their friendship) but Gant decides he misses America and wants desperately to travel home. The last section deals with Gant seeing the ship that is bound for America and talking of how beautiful it was compared to the dull European skies. It’s also an interesting end in that he sees a woman exclaiming how beautiful the ship is and so Gant recognizes the beauty of that woman. Just to give a bit of the symbolism:
“He turned, and saw her then, and so finding her, was lost, and so losing self, was found, and so seeing her, saw for a fading moment only the pleasant image of the woman that perhaps she was, and that life saw.”
It is clear that this image that Gant is seeing is more than mere woman alone, but his craving for beauty and his home. And not to give away too much, but I think I found the nugget (or at least one of them anyway) that pretty much sums up the title for the book and its metaphor:
“For this will always be one of the immortal and living things about the land, this will be an eternal and unchanging fact about the city whose only permanence is change: there will always be the great rivers flowing around it in the darkness, the rivers that have bounded so many nameless lives, those rivers which have moated in so many changes, which have girdled the wilderness and so much hard, brilliant, and sensational living, so much pain, beauty, ugliness, so much lust, murder, corruption, love and wild exultancy.”
Remember what I said about long, complex sentences? No surprise that the section called “The City” holds the most amount of personal change for the character as well. Of Time and the River is overflowing with metaphor and meaning and really is an enjoyable read if you’re in the mood for it. I found it particularly intriguing to see where Betty Smith got her idea about the tree in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—which was influenced by Wolfe. Likewise, Of Time and the River is one of those books that has influenced many writers, for Wolfe is no doubt a writer’s writer. There is much to be said about it and I’ve only touched upon a tad of it. Don’t read this if you want something “fast” but I do think it’s one of those classics that any literature fan should inevitably visit.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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