The Web and the Rock

The Atlantic BOOKSHELF

by Thomas Wolfe
[Harpers, $3.00]
THIS novel is one of two which Thomas Wolfe finished before his death. It marks, he says in an author’s note, ‘not only a turning away from the books I have written in the past, but a genuine spiritual and artistic change. It is the most, objective novel that I have written.’ But not many readers will be able to agree with this statement. The novel is ‘about one man’s discovery of life and the world’: it describes his boyhood in ‘Old Catawba,’his years at college, his assault on New York, his teaching at the ‘School for Utility Culture,’his writing of a huge novel, his trips to Europe, and his chaotic at - tempt at adjustment in a torturingworld of beauty and evil.
This is all familiar. The name of the hero may be George Webber, but Eugene Gant is his twin brother, and it is clear enough that both are merely pseudonyms for Thomas Wolfe. There is only one main episode in this novel that is not parallel to those in the earlier novels, and that is the long and admirable account of the hero’s love affair (again a piece of autobiography) which occupies the last part of the book. Consequently the reader who takes Wolfe at his word and expects to find here a further development of his extraordinary gifts will be disappointed. As far as subject matter or craftsmanship or ‘objectivity’ is concerned, The Web and the Rock is Time and the River over again.
There are, to be sure, as there were in the earlier books, — many admirably drawn objective figures: the people in the hero’s home town (though none are so powerfully described as the parents of Eugene Gant), the people the hero meets in New York or abroad —but they are all, one feels, part of Wolfe’s own experience, and many of them are put into the book merely because, in his own words, ‘he could never forget them’; they are not part of any foreseen structure.
In fact there is no ‘structure’ to the book at all. Like the earlier books it is held together merely by the hero’s, or the author’s, vast torrential energy of feeling, which makes all things important and every sensation a reverberating cataclysm. ‘From his earliest childhood he could remember all that people said or did, but as he tried to set it down his memory opened enormous vistas and associations, going from depth to limitless depth, until the simplest incidents conjured up a buried continent of experience, and he was overwhelmed by a project of discovery and revelation that would have broken the strength and used up the lives of a regiment of men.
The last part of this sentence is significant. For this energy, unrestrained and indiscriminate, no matter how many vivid sensations it may describe, no matter how awakening it may be to people with a lower vitality, is in the long run destructive. It is destructive in two ways. It not merely destroyed Wolfe himself, it also destroyed his sense of values, as it can destroy the sense of values of anyone who relies on it alone. In this book, for example, what the hero gets increasingly enthusiastic about is not so much the struggle to describe the evil or the beauty or the conflicts in his world — it is merely food. Soups, steaks, chickens, salads, arc described over and over again with a gluttonous relish, and the climax of this emphasis comes when, after a quarrel with his mistress about the possession of his soul, the hero is reconciled to her by the thought of the good cooking he’ll miss if SHE leaves him.
To overemphasize this point may be easy, but the fact that it is possible is indicative of a kind of coarsening or blunting of awareness which is evident throughout the book. Though individual scenes are excellently done and many of the comments on experience are lyrical and moving, there is even less coherence here than there was in the earlier volumes; the coarseness of awareness extends to technique. There is none of the real novelist’s sense of the relations between one event or one person and another; there is no real drama. There are merely successive chunks of description and lyrical reflection.
The book, like Wolfe’s other books, describes without discipline a life without, discipline, and to an impartial observer there is something frightening in the fact that the intensity of the description can be praised as a justification for the artistic failure. Is this typical of our art, of our Emersonian inheritance? Is American art to be merely the outpouring of unstifled and heterogeneous emotions, and our criterion of value merely that of emotional intensity? If it is, the ruined life described in this book, and the failure of its greatly gifted author to make of that ruin the tragedy, the ordered tragedy, which he might have made, may stand as a warning. And a challenge.