Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be

"October had come again, and that year it was sharp and soon: frost was early, burning the thick green on the mountain sides to massed brilliant hues of blazing colors, painting the air with sharpness, sorrow and delight - and with October. Sometimes, and often, there was warmth by day, an ancient drowsy light, a golden warmth and pollinated haze in afternoon, but over all the earth there was the premonitory breath of frost, an exultancy for all the men who were returning, a haunting sorrow for the buried men, and for all those who were gone and would not come again."
Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River
* * *

3 October 2011 was the 111th anniversary of Thomas Wolfe’s birthday. I was reminded of the occasion by my friend Todd who is a lawyer and litterateur and man about town in Asheville. By happenstance, I was meeting with Todd on the morning of Wolfe’s birthday in order to return a few books he had lent me earlier in the year, and the subject of Wolfe came up.

I knew Todd to be a long-time Thomas Wolfe aficionado, and I asked him if any sort of ritual occurred to mark the anniversary. Customarily, he said, he visited Wolfe’s grave in Riverside Cemetery in the fading light of the October afternoon to share a bottle of Scotch with Wolfe and read a few selections of Wolfe’s infamously expansive writing.

I do not know why Scotch, in particular, is given to Wolfe in this postmortem fashion, and foolishly I failed to ask. According to the controversial biography of Wolfe written by David Herbert Donald (Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1986)), in the days of delirium and disease immediately preceding Wolfe’s death, Wolfe “muttered irrationally several times, once calling out for ‘Scotch!’ . . . .” This dubious story is reason enough, I suppose.

I consider myself a writer first and a lawyer second, but the latter trade is the only of the two which has paid me anything thus far in terms of money. It was in this lawyerly capacity that I was in Asheville that day—the anniversary of Wolfe’s birth—for the purpose of trying a real-property case between two old men who were as stubborn as a couple of old tree stumps. After seeing justice done and promptly giving my notice of appeal in open court, I sent Todd an e-mail saying I was finished for the day and would gladly accompany him to the gravesite for Scotch and literature in memoriam for the great Mr. Wolfe.

I waited a while but did not hear from Todd, so I drove downtown and walked over to Malaprop’s Bookstore. After a brief tour at Malaprop’s, where I found an excellent Kathe Kollwitz collection, I made my way over toward the Haywood Park Hotel, which is where I usually stay when I’m in Asheville. From the hotel, I walked south onto Wall Street and passed there at the corner a small group of hirsute musicians playing a melancholic Celtic dirge.

I walked past the Early Girl Eatery and stopped briefly outside the Market Place restaurant where I had eaten once before. Making a tent with my hands, I peered through the glass door and saw no one inside, either in the dining room or at the bar, so I continued down the street. I was pleased to find several people in the Laughing Seed CafĂ©, so I went in and ordered a beer. After I had started my second, Todd responded to my e-mail: “I’m here. Are you still in town?”

“I’m sitting at the bar at the Laughing Seed having a beer.”

“I’m at the condo. When you’re done if you want to pick me up, we’ll pay homage to Mr. Wolfe.”

“I’m almost finished. I’ll wrap up and come get you. Do you have the Scotch?”

“I’m prepared. I’ll get it from the car and be sitting curbside outside the building.”

I cashed out of the Laughing Seed and walked back up Battery Park and then up to Page to the Captain’s Bookshelf to quickly peruse their exemplary collection of works by and about Wolfe. Damnably, this extraordinary bookstore—easily the best in the state for rare, expensive books—is closed on Mondays, a fact I always forget. I cut through the alley next to the Captain’s Bookshelf down to Haywood and finally made it back to my car. I found Todd sitting outside his condo as promised with an old bottle of Scotch and a first-edition signed copy of Wolfe’s novel Of Time and the River.

* * *

Riverside Cemetery is in the northwestern quadrant of Asheville, off Montford, Pearson, and Birch in that order if you are coming from downtown. There is a gate at the entrance to the cemetery on which the Thomas Wolfe Society (presumably with the permission of the municipal authorities) has placed a bronze and gold plaque which reads:



OCT. 3, 1900 - SEPT. 15, 1938



MAY 14, 1988

The cemetery itself is beautiful as far as cemeteries go. It is green and rolling with ancient trees throughout. To be sure, there are worse places to be buried. Its grounds hold the decayed remains not only of the great Thomas Wolfe, but also William Sydney Porter (known in some circles as O. Henry), not to mention Zebulon Vance and a host of other persons of marginal historical significance.

Todd and I found two other (living) people at Wolfe’s grave when we arrived. Consistent with the aforementioned ritual, they had come with a bottle of some alcoholic beverage discreetly wrapped in a paper bag, and between wince-inducing pulls at the bottle, they were taking turns reading passages from O Lost, the original and therefore expanded version of Look Homeward, Angel (2000, Arlyn & Matthew J. Bruccoli, eds.). Todd knew them both; they had met at the grave the previous year. Two empty bottles of wine rested on Wolfe’s headstone already.

Someone had left colored plastic flowers on the ground just in front of the headstone. Others had left pennies and odd change scattered about the top of the monument. Later, I noticed that the same had been done on William Porter’s grave marker. I have seen this, too, in other places, but I am unfamiliar with the origins of this solemn practice. An obolus for Charon to pay transit across the underworld rivers of death, perhaps.

The ground had been trampled so frequently by visitors that no grass grew on Wolfe’s grave except in sparse clumps. A small section of dead sod was still visible, and a few handfuls of inert grass seed lay scattered on the hard-packed ground.

Wolfe’s headstone itself is a curiosity. It is of modest size and is quite plain. There is a humility to it that seems simultaneously contrary to and yet somehow strangely befitting the profusive and elegiac Mr. Wolfe. Still, it is a bleak irony that this lost boy who heard the departing trains and longed for the golden and unvisited world far away was to become part of the soil of the very mountains he once found so oppressive.

In faded lettering below the names of his parents, W. O. and Julie E. Wolfe, and in the shadow of his father’s larger and more prominent death monument, Tom’s headstone contains two terse epitaphs that were taken from his most notable literary works.

The first comes from Look Homeward, Angel, and it reads simply:  THE LAST VOYAGE, THE LONGEST, THE BEST. This passage was selected for the headstone by Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s editor for Look Homeward, Angel, and his longtime friend and mentor.

The second comes from The Web and the Rock, the first of two novels which Edward C. Aswell edited and prepared for publication following Wolfe’s death in 1938. It reads: DEATH BENT TO TOUCH HIS CHOSEN SON WITH MERCY, LOVE, AND PITY, AND PUT THE SEAL OF HONOR ON HIM WHEN HE DIED.

Aswell was asked, along with Perkins, to select an epitaph for Wolfe’s headstone by the Wolfe family, and the preceding passage is what Aswell chose. To those familiar with the rhapsodic and lyrical Wolfe, it does not sound particularly like Wolfe, and indeed according to one source this passage may not have been penned by Wolfe at all.

One biography of Wolfe suggests instead that it was written into The Web and the Rock by Aswell, whose overreaching editorial decisions with respect to Wolfe’s posthumous works have been criticized by numerous Wolfe scholars (see, e.g., R. Kennedy, L. Rubin Jr., C. H. Holman, & c.), making its inclusion on the headstone as questionable a decision by Aswell as so many of the meddling edits he made to The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.

Ironically, the most fitting and truly moving sentiment on Wolfe’s headstone is contained in three simple unattributed words:


* * *

According to my friend’s version of the Wolfe Graveside Ritual®, you pour a Scotch for yourself and one for Tom, and whatever Tom doesn’t drink, you drink. So we stood for a while in the increasing cold and dark of the early October evening drinking Tom’s Scotch, and Todd read from his first-edition signed copy of Of Time and the River, which must have cost a fortune. The girls there ahead of us then took turns reading their bookmarked selections in O Lost, and after each one we would all toast solemnly to Wolfe.

Tom wrote often of mortality and the tragic brevity of life. He was always mindful of death, and this condition common to all men was a frequent theme in his writing. Wolfe, like Keats, maintained a not-irrational fear that the dark curtain of time would close his eyes too soon, before all he had to say about this life had been written.

Illustrative is a passage from You Can’t Go Home Again in which the narrator, George Webber, watches as the casket holding his Aunt Maw is lowered into the earth:

“And as the black lid disappeared from sight George felt such a stab of wordless pain and grief as he had never known. . . . It was an aching pity for himself and for all men living, and in it was the knowledge of the briefness of man’s days, and the smallness of his life, and the certain dark that comes too swiftly and that has no end.”

Even in Tom’s spirited months in the spring of 1938, well before he became aware of the illness that would take his life, Tom spoke of the “fatal impingement of time” and of the sense of urgency this notion engendered in him with respect to his writing. And indeed, his time came too soon.

When Wolfe was 37 years old, before he could complete or even coherently organize the sprawling material that would become The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, he became ill on a summer trip to the west. He developed a cough, a fever, and debilitating headaches. Instead of promptly returning to the east, he remained in Seattle under dubious medical care for several weeks.

When it became clear that Wolfe’s condition was not improving, he was transported by train to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. At Johns Hopkins, according to one account, Wolfe was diagnosed as suffering from “acute pulmonary tuberculosis, with a cerebral tubercle or possibly tuberculous meningitis.” (D. Donald, Fawcett 1988, p. 461.)

On September 12, 1938, in light of Wolfe’s grave and deteriorating condition, and with the permission of Wolfe’s family, his physician performed an “exploratory operation on his cranium.” Id. What he discovered there were “myriads of tubercles.” Id. at 462. The medical report of the operation stated simply: “Obviously, nothing could be done.” Id. Wolfe died three days later, his work on earth unfinished, and his life unwritten. He was 37 years old.

Several members of Tom’s family are buried in Riverside Cemetery, including Tom’s older brother Ben, who died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic. Wolfe later dedicated his seldom-read work, From Death to Morning, to “Benjamin Harrison Wolfe” and “to the proud and bitter briefness of his days.”  Ben was 26 when he died.

I always experience a profound sense of sadness upon revisiting this dedication, but my sadness is more for Tom than for Ben. As a current but temporary member of the living class, I understand all too well the fleeting nature of time. When I see that which is death and turn inward to confront my bodily circumstance of clay and ash and nothing more, I can reach but one honest conclusion, and that is a never-ending darkness where all departed souls reside. In this bleak light, all deaths are unwanted and untimely, save but a few. For that singular man we do not know but only admire for some extraordinary gift granted to but one man among all, the sting of loss is more bitter and more acute, for we have seen his struggle with time, and we have witnessed a life impossibly rare fall away into unbeing. And so it is with Thomas Wolfe. In my mind, therefore, this dedication—“to the proud and bitter briefness of his days”—is for Tom.

As the others waited for me to read from O Lost or otherwise compose an appropriate toast, I thought of Tom there beneath the dying grass, silenced as he was by unrelenting time and disease long before he was able to give voice to all that surged and roared chaotically inside him. I imagined briefly that I could be his living eyes and ears; that I could see and hear in his stead on this cool October night; to breathe in the wood smoke from the first fires of the evening; to feel the lonely excitement of nightfall in the city; to taste the honeyed warmth of Scotch on my tongue; to know life and the ephemeral joy of all things living, just for a moment, for Tom. To allow him to see and feel again, through my eyes and body, the exquisite autumn of October in the mountains of old Catawba.

At last the words came to me, and I made my toast: “To the life of Thomas Clayton Wolfe, and to the proud and bitter briefness of his days.”

Fn. This article shares the title of a poem by John Keats (ca. 1818;  pub. post. 1848).