The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 16, 1938
Immortality in Words:
On Living Forever
--A Doubt, by W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: Cash speaks here a kind of brief ode to Thomas Wolfe who had died a month before in Baltimore. He would revisit the topic again in "His Sister Knew Tom Wolfe Well" - July 30, 1939; but for time, the short piece spoke volumes of Cash's admiration for "the ablest novelist of his generation". Prior to Wolfe's death just eighteen days shy of his 38th birthday, Cash had often critiqued his erratic cum poetic style and had often inveighed against the label "genius" for any of his contemporaries, including Wolfe; yet, when he visited Wolfe's grave in Asheville during a 1939 summer visit to see his now-steady companion, wife-to-be, Mary, temporarily staying in the birthtown of Wolfe, Cash could not help but displace tears from deep within him to the mountain-cooled graveside within the green of Riverside Cemetery.
The excerpt from Of Time and the River which follows appeared with this article, just below it. Whether Cash or book-page editor Cam Shipp was responsible for placing it is not known. Regardless, the poetry is the same--and perhaps timeless. (For Cash's own early poetry, see Poetry and Fiction, accessible from the homepage.)
For a short biographical tour of the life of Wolfe, including writing excerpts, visit The Thomas Wolfe Web Site at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
THE late great Thomas Wolfe has been promised immortality by most of the people who have written about him since his death. And that is a very large order, indeed. Immortality is, at best, only a relative term. The Pleistocene man who placed his drawings high up in the walls and ceilings of the cave of Altamira was as great a genius in his own right as Leonardo da Vinci, or Michelangelo Buonarroti, but we know no more of him today than we know of the tribal idiot who squatted about the communal fire, gibbering, while above him the lost great man did his work. It is more than probable that other, and perhaps greater, Homers sang of other and earlier Troys before ever the unknown who fashioned the Iliad sang or before Helen was--to be remembered, if remembered at all they are, simply through an occasional phrase cabbaged by those who came after. And the shadowy name of Thales of Miletus is perhaps no more than a symbolic summing up of the dead and done fame of a hundred great men behind him.
Some books, some works of art, some men, we remember for a very long time, as measured against the life span of a single man. Who wrote the bitter and stately measures of Ecclesiastes is as little known as who wrote the Odyssey or who carved the "fearful symmetry" of the lions in the disinterred palaces of the Assyrian kings. But for all the centuries since the tradition of Western man began to take shape, their poetry has continued to move every generation profoundly, and probably will continue to do so quite so long as that tradition shall last. In my boyhood I heard an old parson reading aloud from the Greek of Aeschylus, and the memory of that noble and sonorous music enables me to understand--what I would not understand if I had only the translations of Lewis Campbell to guide me--why the "Agamemnon" and "The Seven Against Thebes" have stayed alive through 2,500 years of the story of the Abendlands.
But, as against the long, long while since the first man who ever drew a picture or the first man who ever sang a song to his tribe laid his bones down to whiten and vanish in the embrace of the earth, even these periods are no more than a long drawn breath. Sophocles has lived 2,500 years, Shakespeare 300, John Keats a hundred, Poe 75, and so we assume that they will go right on living for good and all. But the conclusion does not follow. The great sweep of time went before us and will come after us. And there is no positive evidence that the tradition to which these men and their books belong in company with ourselves, will go on existing indefinitely. There is much positive and painful evidence to the contrary. And it is quite possible that even now we are seeing, with the rise of the new barbarism in Europe, the beginning of the break-up of that tradition. Anyhow, after us, soon, or late, there are likely to come men to whom our whole system of ideas will seem as completely gibberish as the system of ideas hailed by the monks of Tibet now seem to us.
And so I take little stock in that stock phrase, "immortality." And certainly not for a man who was our contemporary.
I am very far from meaning to disparage Wolfe by that. He will, I think, be remembered and read for a good many years, for he was undoubtedly the ablest novelist of his generation. The man was perhaps the greatest master of rhetoric the United States has ever produced, and the rhetoric he used was rhetoric of his native land, round and huge and soaring. And immeasurably better than anybody has ever done, he got down the story of the bewildered adolescence of the generation of men to which he belonged. It is not, when you think about it, very wonderful or startling that his work was "formless and chaotic and verbose." For the life of that generation which came to manhood on the heels of the war was certainly just like that. The outward world, indeed, seemed fixed and permanent enough then, as it no longer does. But inwardly, all was "formless and verbose." The standards of our fathers were going, and strange, exotic standards were pouring in upon us. We, whose people had been simple people with a relatively fixed set of notions ever since their coming to these shores, found ourselves overwhelmed by a torrent of new ideas and whole systems of ideas, for coping with which we had no equipment. And so the result was that we weltered and plunged and sank and rose in a sea of sensation and indecision.
Nobody, as I say, ever got that down better than Wolfe. And I doubt than anybody ever will. And so, just as long as men like to read about that generation, I think they will continue to like to read Wolfe.
The Poetry of Thomas Wolfe:
Now Looms Bright October
--From "Of Time and the River"
THAT THOMAS WOLFE wrote in great torrents of poetry when he performed those vast books, "Of Time and the River" and "Look Homeward Angel" in his vast ledgers with a nub of a soft pencil has many times been commented on and reported. The first pages of "Look Homeward," for instance, are hexameters. But one of the loveliest and grandest comes from Chapter XXXIX in "Of Time and the River," arranged thus by some discerning editorial writer, probably Gerald W. Johnson, on the editorial page of the Baltimore Sun:
Now October has come again
Which in our land is different from the
October in other lands.
The ripe, the golden month has come
And in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.
Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living
On the earth
turn home again.
The country is so big you cannot say the
The same October.
In Maine, the frost comes sharp and
quick as driven nails.
Just for a week or so the woods, the
bright and bitter leaves,
Flare up: the maples turn
A blazing bitter red, and other leaves
Turn yellow like a living light, falling
about you as you walk the woods.
Falling about you like small pieces of
So that you cannot say where sunlight
shakes and flutters on the ground,
And where the leaves.
Meanwhile the Palisades are melting in
massed molten colors.
The season swings along the nation and
a little later,
In the South dense woodings on the hills
begin to glow and soften.
When they smell the burning wood-smoke
Children say: "I'll bet there's a forest
fire in Michigan."
And the mountaineer goes hunting down
in North Carolina:
He stays out late with mournful flop-eared
hounds, a rind of moon
Comes up across the rude lift of the hills:
What do his friends say when he stays
Full of hoarse innocence and laughter,
they will say
"Mister, yore ole woman's goin' to
If ye don't go home."
Oh, return, return!
October is the richest of the seasons: the
fields are cut, the granaries are full,
the bins are loaded to the brim with
And from the cider-press the rich brown
oozings of the York Imperials run.
Bores to the belly of the yellow grape,
The fly gets old and fat and blue.
He buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily
to death on sill and ceiling.
The sun goes down in blood and pollen
Across the bronzed mown fields of old
Crude, unharnessed, careless of scars or
Everlasting and magnificent, a cry, a
space, an ecstasy!--
American earth in old October.
The great winds howl and swoop across
They make a distant roaring in great
trees, and boys in bed will stir,
Thinking of demons and vast swoopings
through the earth.
All through the night,
There is the clean, the bitter rain of
And the chestnut burrs are plopping to
In the night
The distant frosty barking of a dog,
The clumsy stir and feathery stumble of
the chickens on limed roosts.
And the moon, the low and heavy moon
Now barred behind the leafless poles of
Now at the pinewoods' brooding edge and
Now falling with ghost's dawn...
Then a chime of frost-cold bells may peal
out on the brooding air.
And people lying in their beds will listen:
They will not speak or stir.
Silence will gnaw the darkness like a
rat, but they will whisper in their
"Summer has come and gone.
Has come and gone
And now --?"
But they will say no more...
Silent and brooding as the frost, to time,
strange ticking time.
Dark time that haunts us with the briefness
of our days.
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.