Cubism & Its Wordy Equivalent: On Thomas Wolfe

Fruit Dish, Georges Braque, 1912

Thomas Wolfe. I knew his name enough to know that I needed to read something of his in my lifetime. Like many authors, we know their name more than any singular work they’ve produced. Look  Homeward, Angel. Ever  heard of it? I hadn’t either. It’s probably his most well-known work.  But since I’m on a short-story compendium kick, I picked up  The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe instead.

And I was blown away.

I can’t seem to hang on to Faulkner; he’s just, well, out there. And Melville’s abysmal abysses and personification lose me.

Thomas Wolfe has that comfortable language, that lilting dialogue that pulls you in, in accessible, personable, familiar prose words. But then he peppers things up, sharpens the dialogue, creates a parallel dialogue, uses big words. But those big words — “vituperative” for instance — somehow you know what they mean. Perhaps it’s the logical context? He cuts back and forth between continents; in one sentence you are in France, the next you are in Cincinnati. He is a master of inflection and voice. “I wondeh what t’ hell she’s doin’ all dis time! –Hey!” she cried harshly, and hammered on the door, “Who’s in dere?… Com on out, f’r Christ’s sake!… Yuh’re holdin’ up duh line!” But perhaps his most interesting practice is his unique ability to paint several different feelings of one character in response to one event or observation. It’s very multi-faceted: “I knew the passionate heart of the boy who from the darkness of his berth watched, with a wild exultancy of joy and hope and sorrow, the great stroke and fanlike sweep of the immense and imperturbable earth… I  had known as well all other joys and labors of the night.” (From “Death the Proud Brother”)

So what picture does Thomas Wolfe, the author, paint?

Perhaps a pieced together, patchwork quilt or a cut-glass collage. But he’s still something more, perhaps something more innovative, elite. Perhaps if we knew the cultural context in which he wrote — the day, the age — we could make a guess and be spot on. He wrote in the 20’s and 30’s. He was southern – from Asheville, North Carolina. He was said by Faulkner to be his generation’s best writer (Faulkner credited himself with being #2). He influenced Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth. And he was a master of autobiographical fiction.

Mix all of this up and you get (according to this critic, at least)… Cubism.

Why Cubism?

Cubism was a 20th century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized painting and sculpture and inspired movements in music and literature. In cubist works, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth.

Wolfe took an abstract, liberal view (viewpoint of interlopers to a bum’s death), tackled many viewpoints (from the farmer to the upper crust), and wrote with pieced-together, mad passion (“he spoke roughly, casually, but with a kind of brutal…”).

Wham, bam! Braque and Picasso flew into my head when my eyes hit the page.

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