Thomas Wolfe at Harvard: Damned Soul in Widener

Thomas Wolfe came to Harvard in 1920 determined to write great plays. When he left three years later, he was not only determined but confident: "I know now: I am inevitable. I sincerely believe that the only thing that can stop me now is insanity, disease, or death."

As it turned out, Wolfe never wrote great plays; he never wrote plays at all. Six years after he left Cambridge, Scribner's published Look Homeward, Angel, the first of four massive autobiographical novels. The time between had been filled with experimentation and revision. Wolfe had decided that dramatic form did not ideally suit his particular talents, and so discarded all the work he had done in Cambridge.

`Damned Soul'

The Harvard years, however, had been far from futile. It was here that his style and outlook developed as it never had before, and would not again. During his years at Harvard, Wolfe acquired a vast literary background. He read voraciously, eight or ten books a week, even in the periods of his hardest work. Of Widener he wrote: "I wander through the stacks of that great library like some damned soul, never at rest--ever leaping ahead from the pages I read to thoughts of those I want to read." Wolfe possessed an amazing memory, and he was convinced that his tremendous literary background would eventually be "fused and resurrected in new and magic forms."

It was also at Harvard that Wolfe realized the possibilities of his father as a literary character--a character which was to dominate much of his later work. In 1923 he wrote to his mother: "Mama, in the name of God, guard Papa's letters to me with your life.... There has never been anybody like Papa. I mean to say that, all in all, he is the most unique human being I have ever known."

Obstacles

In 1920 Wolfe had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His father, at that time dying of cancer, thought that any further education would be a waste of money, and flatly refused to pay for his graduate study. His mother, though reluctant to send Tom to a northern school, agreed to loan him the funds, subtracting the money from his share of his father's estate.

Wolfe's first reaction to Harvard was a strange mixture of awe and repugnance.

In some vague way he realized the vastness of the institution and yet he was repulsed by the club-going class which dominated the University in the 1920's. He detested "that species of knickerbockered, golf-stockined, Norfolk-jacketed, lisping ass...." The shallow glibness and "blase sophistication" of many of his associates filled him with disgust.

Much of this dislike stemmed from a sense of inferiority and his agonizing self-consciousness. As a result he buried himself deeply in his work and in his reading. Often in the letters of the period he would write of a profound loneliness: "Even the solitude of a desert is companionship when compared to the loneliness of a city. The modern hermit carries all within him--his retreat is the populous wilderness of this world."

In contrast to his despised contemporaries, Wolfe was a strange figure. Tall, thin, and quite awkward, he rarely spoke in class, and when he did it was with a shy stammer. Although his general lack of finesse was often embarrassing, Wolfe professed pride in the marked difference between himself and his classmates. He called himself "a raw Tar Heel ... with native simplicity."

His quarters in various Cambridge rooming houses were constantly littered with papers and books, many of them cast face down on the floor open to the spot where he had stopped reading. He scrawled illegibly on yellow typewriter paper which lay scattered over his desk, bed, chairs, and floor. Five hours sleep was his maximum; he often got much less. Wolfe cared little for his appearance. He went to classes unshaven and unbathed; financial conditions restricted his supply of clothes. It didn't bother him: "I lived in a kind of dream at first, a species of nightmare--at last--in a radiance--drunken with joy and power."

Hot-blooded and personally anarchic, Wolfe recoiled at the restrictions of New England morals. He imagined that the entire weight of false convention was pressing in upon him. The Boston social structure seemed meaningless, and its products void of emotion, and therefore they were repugnant and disgusting. In Of Time and the River, which includes a rather distorted chronicle of the Harvard years, he mentions the coldness of New England, and his resultant inability to have a physical desire for any Boston woman.

Although Wolfe felt oppressed by New England morality, there is no evidence that it had the slightest real effect on him. His letters refer to various affairs, and the writings of the last year especially are filled with allusions to a particular unnamed girl. On one occasion he wrote: "Last night I was caught in the Harvard Yard with a girl... doing the worst I could. The yard-cop was fat and portentious. `Mister,' says he, breathing heavily through his mouth, `this has got to stop.'"

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