It was January, and we had just gotten back from winter break, and it was warm so we walked from campus to Weaver Street for coffee and because I was eighteen, probably a chocolate croissant also. I had received Of Time and the River and You Can’t Go Home Again for Christmas, and then had spent the rest of break in bed, on the Reynolda lawn, and the corner of the Robinhood Starbucks swallowing them. This is a time when I would not have felt self-conscious about using the word ‘swallowing’ to describe reading a book with speed and emotion. I remember sharply my friend’s response after I described what I had spent my break doing: “Everyone grows out of Thomas Wolfe. You will soon.” She was an Asheville native, like Wolfe, and I reckoned she must be right.
But it’s six Octobers hence, and Thomas Wolfe still thrills me and gives me the confidence to use the word ‘hence.’ There is no substitute for his wild employment of adjectives, his unbridled repetition, his profligate descriptions of food, of sex, of land, and then, of course, his unabashed use of exclamations! Trite phrasings and hackneyed diction cast no cheeks red. Verbosity conceives pride. Concision is admirable, true, but his paragraph-long sentences leave you breathless even if you have not gone through the practice of reading them out loud (which truly leaves you breathless). Every subsequent page feels as though you are traveling further into a stranger you have been watching and wanting to know. The landscapes he describes are lonely, foreign, and warm, and you have known them already and for the whole of your life. Above and below all, there is no shame in his writing. And yet there is great shame in being (next Wednesday) twenty-three, and counting Thomas Wolfe among the authors I love the most deeply.
Every October, for his birthday and mine, I return to this love and shame, which both stem his youthful saturnalian style of writing. Shame dissipates, and love strengthens, and every October I try to read The Web and The Rock as hungrily and desperately as I did when I was seventeen, and took my copy down to the Watauga River over fall break and walked along the rocky bank where the water was clear but low and with a pen I circled and marked all the “green-gold magic”s and “wood smoke smell”s and the “bright morning”s and “warm light”s and “blue night”s of Thomas Wolfe’s North Carolina Octobers while the leaves were blowing against my bare legs, and I did this until my mother called me home.
October haunts Wolfe’s writing and hangs over every landscape. Those are verbs he would want me to use. In Look Homeward, Angel there is a chapter in which he repeats again and again “It was October.” This chapter follows the section in which the main character’s brother dies. (O Artemidorus, farewell!) October, the word, and O, the letter, the cry, they all become beacons, guiding through again to the green-gold bright mornings and the dark and lovely blue nights of Octobers in Old Catawba, which is what Wolfe calls North Carolina. The familiar magic of October at home. And yet, Wolfe’s Octobers away can feel familiar now too.
“It was a fine clear night in early October, crispness and an indefinable smell of smoke were in the air, students were coming briskly along the street, singly or in groups of two or three, light glowed warmly in the windows of the book-shops, pharmacies, and tobacco stores near Harvard Square, and from the enormous library and the old buildings in the Harvard Yard there came a glow of lights, soft, rich, densely golden, embedded in old red brick.” From Of Time and The River
Tomorrow I fly back to Cambridge and I will walk around the city. I have plans to think this and feel no shame: “O but for this ancient town, the yellow of the lights, the smoke of autumn swirling against the yellow of the ground, all coats and leaves turned up and gliding along, the smears of burgundy moving past with students’ laughter, and now we too are moving home towards the lonely shape of the university, the power and austerity of the bricks of Harvard, but far away and far beneath, the ecstasy of home, the profligate beauty of the South, the love ginned up and awash across the hills of Carolina in October, the stones up to the door, open wide but far away from this ancient town.”
But of course, I do feel self-reproach, not for making it public, but for the act of writing it. But Thomas Wolfe helps me battle against having regret and shame for what I write and make. Others too, others who have no other reason to fall into ranks with Wolfe, and in fact, would probably fight me on being put into a club with him–Leslie Jamison, Sally Mann, Marilynne Robinson–help too in their justifications: it is ok, alright, good, great, ideal to shape the writing, the light, the content in the direction that your heart steers. For them, and at first, for him, I press publish.