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.'"

47 Workshop

In the first two years, Wolfe divided his time between George Pierce Baker's "47 Workshop," and classwork for a master's degree. He took Shakespeare from Kittredge, Romantic Poetry from Lowes, and completed the required curriculum with nearly all A's. Generally he tried to read the complete works of every author mentioned in his classes, and his term papers ran to fantastic lengths, sometimes 80 or 90 typewritten pages.

By far the most significant part of Wolfe's work at Harvard, however, was the plays he wrote for the 47 Workshop. His relationship with Professor Baker was quite close, and the eventual split with Baker when he left Harvard was the source of great anguish.

In the winter of 1920 Wolfe wrote his first play at Harvard, a one-act drama called The Mountains, which was produced for a special workshop audience the following fall. The Mountains was a raw, unpolished production, little resembling the glib drawing-room fare produced by other members of the workshop. It was a story of the Carolina mountain people, dirty and sordid, yet filled with the mystical and romantic eulogization of the "land" which became a trademark of Wolfe's later work. Criticism of the play was highly unfavorable, and Wolfe became despondent: "I will never forget the almost inconceivable anguish and despair...." In his letters he lashed out again at people who talked softly of "creative ottists," and who considered clinical analysis of a character's psychology more important than what Baker called "simple human values."

Wolfe later lengthened The Mountains into a three-act play. He revised by completely re-writing; in a letter to Baker he mentions that he wrote the three-act version of The Mountains without once looking at the original script.

Belief in Ineguality

The following autumn, Wolfe started Mannerhouse, a drama about the decay of old South. He wrote to a friend: "I think my play The House will `pack a punch,' for it is founded on a sincere belief in the essential inequality of things and people, in a sincere belief in men and masters, rather than in men and men, in the sincere belief in some form of human slavery--yes, I mean this...." Wolfe did not finish this play at Harvard. He finished it years later, just before he abandoned drama and started Look Homeward, Angel.

In June of the second year Wolfe received his master's degree. While waiting in Cambridge for Commencement, he was called home to the death-bed of his father. He returned to Harvard the following September convinced of the dramatic possibilities of the entire Wolfe family. Fragments have been found among his papers which suggest that Wolfe experimented with his family as characters for drama immediately following his father's death, and at this time conceived in some embryonic form, the general outline of Look Homeward, Angel.

Happiest Year

Wolfe's third year at Harvard was his happiest and most productive. Since his father's death had freed him from financial difficulties, and has formal classwork was finished, he could devote his entire mind and energy to the 47 Workshop. In the first two weeks after his return to Cambridge, Wolfe submitted the first acts of six projected plays to Professor Baker. At Baker's request he concentrated on one of these plays, which he had tentatively titled Niggertown. During the course of the winter he developed it into an unconventional ten scene form, and renamed it Welcome to Our City as a concession to the remaining vestiges of Cambridge abolutionism. It was performed in Agassiz Theater on May 12 and 13, 1923, and is generally thought to have been the finest produced by the 47 Workshop.

Welcome to Our City was a sprawling four-hour dramatization of the cross-section of a Southern city caught in the frenzy of the predepression boom years. "Greed, greed, greed--deliberate, crafty, motivated--masking under the guise of civic associations for municipal betterment.... The standards of national greatness are Henry Ford, who made automobiles cheap enough for us all, and money, money, money!!"

DeVoto

In the note Wolfe sent to Professor Baker with the manuscript of Welcome to Our City, he described his ideas of "literary photography," the quality in his later writing which was to make critics throw up their hands in disgust, and prompt Bernard DeVoto to growl about the "proper business of fiction." Wolfe wrote to Baker: "I have written this play with thirty-odd named characters because it required it, not because I didn't know how to save paint. Some day I'm going to write a play with fifty, eighty, a hundred people--a whole town, a whole race, a whole epoch--for my soul's ease and comfort."

The production of Welcome to Our City was fairly successful. In the late spring of 1923 Wolfe was elated, and confident of commercial success. Baker had submitted the play to the Theater Guild, and Wolfe considered himself a buding dramatist: "I am a slave to the thing; my mind is filled with it night and day. I find I have become an evesdropper, I listen to every conversation I hear, I memorize every word I hear people say, in the way they say it. I find myself studying every move, every gesture, every expression, trying to see what it means dramatically."

And so Wolfe decided that Harvard had done all it could for him. While waiting for the Theater Guild's decision on his play, Wolfe traveled to Asheville and then to New York City. His finances were running low and he hesitated to turn again to his mother for help.

Success was a long time in coming. The Guild rejected Welcome to Our City, and Wolfe remained steadfast in his refusal to trim it to a practical length. For six years he lived as a vagabond, teaching sporadically at N.Y.U., and roaming over the face of inter-war Europe. At times he was exultant, but often hopeless and despondent. From Brussels he wrote: "At 23, hundreds of people thought I'd do something. Now, no one does--not even myself. I really don't care very much...." Finally in 1929 Look Homeward Angel was published, and Thomas Wolfe came into his own.

Thus six years separated Wolfe's work at Harvard and his emergence as a major writer. It is difficult to estimate the extent of the influence of the Harvard years on his later work; that there is a significant influence however is undeniable. The ideas found first in the Harvard plays and letters of the period, occur again and again in the great autobiographical novels. Though the eventual failure of Welcome to Our City produced a temporary disenchantment with the University and Professor Baker, Wolfe later acknowledged his debt to both. In the first draft of Of Time and the River he wrote: "Harvard--the one place he had found where utter freedom had been given him to read think and say what he liked.... Few places have meant more.