Old America

W.C. Spengemann

  • Look homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe by David Herbert Donald
    Bloomsbury, 579 pp, £16.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0004 5
  • From this moment on: America in 1940 by Jeffrey Hart
    Crown, 352 pp, $19.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 517 55741 X

Nostalgia – literally ‘homesickness’ – ranks high among the motives of modern historians. The genre we call history has evolved over the last four centuries as the antidote to an epidemic of homesickness in Western society, a growing feeling that radical and unprecedented changes in the shape and meaning of life were severing the present from the remembered past. And even today, when professional historians seem more concerned to compute the past than to connect it with the present, the histories that readers remember and long to reread are usually those which treat their subjects – no matter how remote – as places the writers remember and long to revisit. Historical nostalgia need not imply a desire simply to flee the bewildering present, to go back home, as Thomas Wolfe put it, ‘to the escapes of Time and Memory’: the historian’s purpose in going home is to recover something left there, some knowledge or power or psychic condition which, brought back to the present, can help us all to feel more at home in this strange place.

Nostalgic historians may be classified according to the times and places in which they locate their homes. Some, like Henry Adams, seem to discover that far country through study and then begin to remember it as their own birthplace. Others, like David Donald and Jeffrey Hart, remember it first and then study it up in order to flesh out their memories with circumstantial detail. In either case, historiography is given the task that Wordsworth assigned to poetry: to reconcile the seemingly unrelated worlds of perceived present and remembered past.

For Donald and Hart alike, home lies in America at the end of the Depression: Donald’s in Goodman, Mississippi, where he first read Wolfe’s novels as a schoolboy; Hart’s in New York City, where he glimpsed through ten-year-old eyes the political events, sporting contests, entertainments and books of 1940 which, plumped out with later reading, fill the pages of the present book. For both, that home stands within view, but on the far side of an impassable rift opened in the historical landscape by the shocks of time and change. In 1940, Donald left ‘rural Mississippi for ever to take up residence in the strange and terrifying North’; a year later, World War Two ended the ‘lazy summers and provincial slumbers’ of Hart’s ‘old America’, so that from that moment on ‘things would never be the same again.’

Apparently feeling themselves psychically wounded by this interruption in their lives, both Donald and Hart have set out to rescue the disconnected past and give it a new presence. Donald hopes that his biography ‘will spur persons who are not familiar with Wolfe’s work to read his novels’ and even persuade readers who dislike them to ‘read his books afresh’. Hart’s book ‘is intended not as a history of the year 1940 but rather as an evocation’ of that time for the benefit of readers who may misremember it as well as those who are too young to remember it for themselves.

Both writers devise a rhetorical strategy for their rescue missions. Donald adopts the methods of empiricist historiography, withholding so far as possible his own comments on the events of Wolfe’s life and restricting his present point of view to the selection and deployment of words written by Wolfe and his contemporaries. Hart employs the techniques of the novelist, attuning his present language to a 1940 key in order to ‘capture the tone ... of life in that pivotal year’. Both reap the benefits of their chosen methods: Donald, a fidelity to the historical record; Hart, a sensitivity to the novelistic feeling of difference and resemblance between then and now. And both assume the risks entailed in their rhetorical strategies. By letting Wolfe dictate his rhetorical agenda, Donald exposes his own workmanlike but not especially stylish prose to the deadly Wolfian virus: ‘Ernst Rowohlt, a giant-sized man with bright blue eyes and hair the colour of straw, knew how to catch the public’s eye.’ Along with the swing rhythms and period figures of 1940, Hart’s stylistic rescue ship retrieves a few corpses. American skies are for ever darkening with ‘the clouds of war’. But here the similarities end. A prolific historian of the American Civil War, Donald was prompted to write this literary biography when, rereading Wolfe for the first time since he left home, he discovered to his surprise that, although long since fallen into critical disfavour, these books retained their power to move him. Look homeward, he hopes, will make this personal experience general by re-introducing Wolfe to the reading public.

Like most of the ‘at homes’ organised for Wolfe in his salad days, unfortunately, this one turns out a disaster. Not only is the Thomas Wolfe we meet in these pages so repellent that even a still healthy writer, let alone one in Wolfe’s critical condition, might not survive the exposure, but Donald’s conscientiously unmediated transmission of Wolfe’s words succeeds only in reminding those who may have forgotten how truly dreadful a writer he is. By the time Donald’s readers have slogged through some five hundred pages of Wolfe’s hateful antics (when his long-suffering agent asked for her portion of the royalties on a book that she herself had patched into publishable shape, he called her ‘a leech ... a parasite ... and a money-grubbing jew’ and turned her down), his banal ideas (‘things are not what they seem’), and his ludicrous prose (‘her octopal memory weaves back and forth across the whole fabric of her life’), they may well find that even the tiny residue of affection for Wolfe that led them to this biography has been strangled in its sleep. What on earth, the reader may well wonder, could Donald have possibly seen or felt upon returning to Wolfe’s novels that gave him the energy to write this huge book, let alone to ‘read every draft, and every carbon copy of all of Wolfe’s manuscripts’ and then compare these ‘line-by-line ... both with the typescripts from which the printer worked ... and with the published books’? Only love could have moved a mountain the size of Wolfe’s scribblings, we might conclude, were the resulting biography not so bereft of affectionate touches. Donald’s methods require that the facts be allowed to speak for themselves with the least possible interference on the part of the historian. But the reason Donald wrote the biography is that Wolfe cannot speak for himself. At any rate, his words do not say to us what they did to his contemporaries, and apparently, still do to Donald. If they did, we would be reading him and Donald’s efforts would be supererogatory.

Regarding his own responses to Wolfe as ‘just personal’ and hence of no value to the reader, Donald must locate Wolfe’s public value in Wolfe himself. The novels, Donald maintains, ‘offer a remarkably full social history of the United States during the first four decades of the 20th century’. The reader, however, may feel that Donald could hardly have found a cloudier window on that vanished world. If one looks at that period, as Hart does, one cannot miss Wolfe, towering over the rest of the populace and sounding his windy horn. But if one looks at Wolfe, as Donald does, one sees only Wolfe, as Wolfe himself did (however dimly), with a few other indistinct figures swimming through the suffocating depths of his self-regard. Wolfe could see clearly enough the myriad disconnected objects that helped to furnish his boundless ego. But like Funes the Memorious, he could neither forget anything he saw nor imagine anything he had not seen.

The one subject Wolfe does offer a historian of his times is the steep decline in his popularity and critical reputation over the last forty or fifty years. What did professional readers see in Look homeward, Angel which set them raving when they first looked at the novel, but which seemed to fade upon re-examination and which is now invisible to almost everyone except bookish teenagers, a handful of Southern academics and David Donald? But that is just the question Donald won’t consider. Instead, he merely asserts that, although ‘remarkably uneven’, much of Wolfe’s work is ‘extraordinarily brilliant and moving’, without ever taking the time to explain what it is about a passage like this that could move an adult of the Eighties to anything except Christian pity or raucous laughter: ‘Could I make tongue to say more than tongue could utter! ... Could I weave with immortal denseness some small brede of words, pluck out of sunken depths the roots of living ... and hurl the sum of all my living out upon three hundred pages – then death could take my life, for I had lived it ere he took it: I had slain hunger, beaten death!’ More precisely, Donald won’t tell us what it is in him that still resonates to this intense inanity, and without a contemporary sensibility to lend it a present life, Wolfe’s language remains as remote, as dead to our ears, as it was before Donald recalled it. Donald’s refusal to reveal – to discover – himself as a present reader leaves Wolfe stranded in an unremembered past, wearing the very character that Donald intended his method to prevent – that of a moral caution, a psychotic case-study and an unreadable writer.

Jeffrey Hart, by contrast, manages to maintain an intelligible relationship between nostalgic motive and published text throughout From this moment on. Memory does not shut down between the Introduction and Chapter One, as in Donald: it persists throughout the text, providing the past with a present home, a present meaning. Hart’s readers will make up their own minds whether or not they want to remember 1940 his way. But they will not wonder why he chose it as the year to remember, or why, from all his memories of that time, he chose the ones presented here. Roosevelt, Churchill and Hitler are the political champions of 1940 because the ten-year-old boy heard their distinctive voices on the radio and saw their iconic images in the news, and because the historican sees them now as an extinct species: men whose powerful wills and ‘sense of possibility’ enabled them to command, for good or ill, their own fates and those of despairing masses. Stalin stands outside Hart’s Hall of Fame (even though pipe-smoking Uncle Joe smiled inscrutably through every news medium in those years) because he was not, so to speak, an anti-Communist. Joe Louis qualifies for admission because, like everyone else in 1940, the boy thought of him as the American champion and because the historian can compare Louis’s comeback with those of his other heroes, as well as contrast ‘the Brown Bomber’s’ natural gentility with the resentful discourtesies of contemporary ‘black chauvinists’. Tennis comes into the picture rather than, say, golf because the boy played that game and because, in historical retrospect, the 1940 National Championship at the West Side Tennis Club seems ‘a last island of light’ amidst those ever-darkening skies, an image of courtliness now defunct.

Nothing included unless remembered is the rule, and nothing remembered unless it means something now. Within the rule, past things can speak for themselves, as in a novel, because they reside in a present sensibility. Indeed, the historian must not interrupt these voices. Where Hart loses faith in the ability of his actual memories to speak his present mind and turns the job over to unremembered things – like the destruction of the Morro Castle in 1934 and the Hindenburg in 1937 by Communist saboteurs – or when he speaks his own mind without the aid of memory – as in excoriating what he calls ‘the current “the Indians were right and we were imperialists” nonsense’ – then he stops remembering for his readers and begins to hector them. Scrupulously observed, the rule of nostalgic history is a silken bond. As long as the historian’s data are remembered, they need not be news in order to justify the book. Whereas Donald must insist that his biography offers new objective information about Wolfe’s life, Hart can freely acknowledge the availability of his facts in any number of current popular histories. Their originality, their novelty, lies not in themselves but in the ‘texture and tone’ they derive from incorporation in a particular sort of memory. They need not even be verifiable, so long as they are remembered, imagined, in a presently significant form.

To the extent that nostalgic history trusts its materials to speak for themselves, of course, it grants them a licence to say things that the historian may not have intended. Donald surely did not stand Wolfe upon his wobbly legs so that Harold Bloom could knock him down again in the New York Times Book Review. No more are Hart’s thematic parallels among the characters of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt, or among the statist designs of the New Deal, the New York World’s Fair, Nazi Germany and the urban plans of Robert Moses, meant to confirm leftist suspicions that the Western democracies are proto-fascist. Nonetheless, Hart’s novelistic treatment of 1940 reveals a wild grain in his conservatism, a sympathy with maverick energies that has occasionally disturbed the dogmatic slumbers of his political bedfellows. His mind may dwell on the radial symmetry of the World’s Fair, but his affection flows toward the Gay White Way of the Amusement Zone, whose surroundings reflect, not some Führer’s new order imposed upon ‘the people’ from above, but the wayward desires of the people themselves: irreverent, intemperate, violent, erotic. At the same time, the book would seem to have arisen from Hart’s longing to revisit a vanished world of order, good manners, sportsmanship and a familiarity with the Classics. It may have intended, if not to recover those lost decencies, at least to remind us of our precipitate fall from light to universal darkness. What this projected Dunciad discovers among its catalogue of differences between past and present, however, are the sources of the lamentable present. It finds this principle of continuity, moreover, not on the darkening horizon of the departed world but in its luminous midst – in the ruthless will of its ‘heroic leaders, in the competitiveness of its athletic champions, in the carnival of democratic politics, in the untidy appetites of the Amusement Zone. Between the orderly World of Tomorrow envisioned by the designers of the World’s Fair and the actual, messy world of today there lies an impassable gulf. But from the martial amusements of Luna Park to the theatrics of terrorism on the Six O’Clock News, from the raunchiness of Coney Island to Deep Throat, there runs a Gay White Way of uninterrupted desire. It isn’t the post-war generations who have made love and war branches of the entertainment industry. That dusky exfoliation has its roots in the seemingly innocent pleasures of the pre-war island of light. By discovering a source for the dismaying present among its own cherished memories, Hart’s book returns from its sentimental journey, not with the discouraging words of Pope on its lips, but with Yeats’s ambiguous song about a ‘terrible beauty’ born of change, rebellion and ‘excess of love’.

Wolfe remained so closely tied to his family and his home town that his writing never really arrived in the North. While the novels may have given Donald the heart to leave the South, they could not help him to make himself at home among the Yankees. To do that, he had to forget his affection for Wolfe’s melancholy crooning, as his Northern colleagues advised, and cultivate instead the disciplined, affectless rhetoric of the Harvard historian. Once Donald had established his Northern credentials with a string of books about the Civil War seen from the Union side, he could turn his attention, without compromising himself, to a study of ‘Southern society and culture after Reconstruction’ – which is to say, his own homeland. Rereading Wolfe in the justifying context of that historical research, he doubtless discovered his youthful, unreconstructed Southern self still writhing ecstatically in the coils of those onanistic periods – as the Bloomsburied D.H. Lawrence discovered his Nottinghamshire self in the words of Dana, Cooper and Melville that he had read as a boy. But Lawrence was able to turn the rhetoric of these books-for-boys into Classic American Literature, while Donald could not adopt ‘the overheated adjectives, the balanced antitheses, the rhythmical prose’ of Wolfe’s novels without ceasing to be what he had made of himself by leaving Mississippi. Wolfe couldn’t go home because as a writer he had never left. Donald can only look homeward because, having once crossed the Mason-Dixon line in Wolfe’s rattletrap prose, he didn’t trust that vehicle not to break down and leave him stranded there, unable to get back to his hard-won new home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and his poodle named Maxwell Perkins. Only Hart manages to go home again – by bringing that lost place, along the unbroken road of an informed nostalgia, into a textual present where, in Eliot’s phrase, ‘every word is at home,’ so that the reader can always find it.