1. You compare it to A Portrait of the Artist and also mention Proust. I think it is valuable to point out that Joyce actually wrote a comparatively conventional, highly autobiographical novel called Stephen Hero. Despite his throwing it into the fire, we have a fairly large chunk to which we can compare The Portrait of the Artist. I don't know how you can suggest that this stylistically daring novel is immature in the same sense that Look Homeward, Angel is immature. Joyce published it when he was 34, after he had published Dubliners. The comparison is also apt to Jean Santeuil, the unfinished autobiographical novel that Proust wrote and abandoned before he began ŕ la recherche du temps perdu, which has been aptly described as a "novel masquerading as autobiography." This is quite different from writing autobiography and pretending that it is a novel, which seems to be what Wolfe did.
2. No, the novel is not difficult in the sense that Faulkner is difficult. Indeed, I personally find Faulkner so hard to read that I have found it difficult to take any pleasure in his work. (Although I fairly recently re-read As I Lay Dying and liked it quite a bit.) No, Wolfe is difficult to read because of the overly ornate, supposedly "poetic" descriptions that stop the already glacially paced novel cold while he rhapsodizes. For me, this was an exceptionally slow, plodding read. Maxwell Perkins may have cut 60,000 words, but I think that he should have cut about 100,000 more. It's not that Wolfe was without talent. For instance, he writes, "all the men who had died were making their strange and lovely return in blossom and flower." I like this quite a bit. However, the very next sentence is "Ben walked along the streets of the tobacco town looking like asphodel." Okay, by comparing Ben to a flower, Wolfe blunts the flower allusion in the preceding sentence. And them what in the world does that even mean? I had to look asphodel up to see what it looks like. (I knew it was some kind of flower.) After looking at a picture, I still could not make heads or tails of the simile. Further, Wolfe seems to have been particularly proud of the idea of the dead returning as flowers. He brings it up multiple times later in the novel.
3. The racism and antisemitism in the novel is shocking. I was shocked at the casual hatred toward jews. I actually thought that jews were rare in the American South. His treatment of African-Americans is offensive beyond words. Twain and Melville were products of their times, but both produced deeply sympathetic portrayals of non-white persons. (I know Queequeg isn't black, but I imagine he would be some kind of racial inferior to the average mid-19th century white American.) Faulkner had conflicted feelings about race, but a novel such as Absalom, Absalom! confronts and struggles with the issue with depth. Wolfe is apparently a simple, thoughtless, Southern redneck. For example, young Eugene's encounter with the black woman on his paper route is one of the most hair-raising psychosexual nightmares I've ever read. (I won't soon forget that scene, at least.) The trouble is that Wolfe seems to think that this libidinous trance is an expected behavior from a typical oversexed black woman. Presumably a white woman behaving this way would be portrayed as literally insane by Wolfe.
4. Wolfe seems to be totally incapable of any dramatic invention. He published only two novels during his lifetime. Both are highly autobiographical. There are two posthumous novels (which Wolfe can't really be held responsible for) that are also, apparently, totally autobiographical. The only other novelist I can think of that is so literally autobiographical is Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a lot more fun to read, though. At least to me.
5. It is certainly an attempt at a bildungsroman. In fact, I believe it is an attempt at a künstlerroman, a novel of the development of an artist. I this, as in so many other ways, I feel that the novel fails. Wolfe is reasonably successful at bringing his family to life. Eugene, however, never really comes into focus for me. I found him both self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. while both of these are familiar qualities of adolescence, I didn't get the feeling that Wolfe's emotional life had grown past this adolescent phase. I imagine that this book, at least in former times, was popular with the young because they saw themselves reflected in it. I found it to have little to offer me.
: OK, just in case, here are my thoughts:
: 1. I liked the novel. Yes, its style is
: probably immature, full of adolescent
: pathos, but not much more than, say, "A
: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"
: (I know Wolfe isn't Joyce, but anyway). It
: is often accused of being
: "disordered", but also I didn't
: find it much more disordered than many other
: modernist novels. For example, it doesn't
: jump around in time and the narrative voice
: isn't always unexpectedly changing, as in
: Faulkner (I know Wolfe isn't Faulkner,
: but... etc.).
: 2. Characters are portrayed with a very
: strange mixture of love and a total lack of
: mercy. For years, Wolfe had to absent
: himself from Asheville, as people were hurt
: and angered by their portraits in the novel.
: The same happened to Proust (I know Wolfe is
: not Proust, etc.). Oliver Gant is an
: incredibly complex character, a cultivated
: and even erudite man who is prey to his
: chronic depression, manifested in a violent
: alcoholism. His tirades are overbearing and
: repetitive, but he must have been like that
: in real life, and just one example of the
: rhetoric pieces wouldn't have been enough to
: convey the feeling. Eliza's process of
: descent, from admiration towards her
: husband, to greed and avarice, is
: wonderfully depicted, as well as its impact
: on her children's lives, especially Ben's,
: another key character. Helen and Luke are
: also acutely portrayed, the hysterical,
: strange woman, and the stammering,
: optimistic guy.
: 3. There is a fine, implicit analysis of the
: impact of the "protestant ethics and
: the spirit of capitalism" on young
: people's consciousness. The Gants may be an
: extreme example, but I would like to know
: how frequently American obsession with money
: deranges family life. Eliza's insistence on
: accumulation, and Oliver's permanent whining
: about money, seem to be the single most
: important factor in the family's
: dysfunction, perhaps even more than the
: father's alcoholism.
: 3. The novel is also an invaluable document
: about life in a small North Carolina city in
: the first quarter of the XX Century. It
: seems like the whole place is x-rayed, from
: the millionaires, to the black slums. The
: square, the pharmacy (which, strangely,
: doubles as soda-fountain, bar, and meeting
: place), the streets, shops, churches, post
: office, police station, newspaper,
: everywhere. If this is not the Great
: American Novel, it is certainly the Great
: North Carolinian Novel.
: 4. It is also a bildungsroman in the best
: tradition of the genre, since "Wilhelm
: Meister": the said pathos belongs
: 5. Finally, it is also courageous, a
: therapeutic action, which is probably the
: origin of its most egregious defects. Wolfe
: was likely a madman, but he had talent.
: --Previous Message--
: I'll keep trying for awhile. It is our
: September/October book, so I'm not exactly
: behind yet.
: I agree with Joffre that it is painfully
: slow-paced, which sometime is all right with
: me (Heck, I like late Henry James!), but LHA
: somehow does not feel that it is rewarding
: the effort. I think the poetic images,
: while sometimes effective, are overused.
: The effect is like an over-rich dessert that
: tastes wonderful at the first bite but of
: which one soon tires.
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