1 Juzahn

The River Why Essays

Of Time and the River

Thomas Wolfe

The following entry presents criticism of Wolfe's novel Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth (1935). For discussion of Wolfe's complete career, see TCLC, Volumes 4 and 13; for discussion of his novel Look Homeward, Angel, see TCLC, Volume 29.

Of Time and the River has in common with Wolfe's other novels several features that have contributed to his reputation as one of America's leading twentieth-century authors: vividly drawn characters; a universal theme—the lonely individual in search of knowledge, experience, and self-sufficiency—given epic scope through its development against an American landscape that is powerfully depicted as at once magisterial and brutal, fascinating and terrifying; and a sensuous, exuberant prose style characterized by lyrical passages that have frequently been compared to the poetry of Walt Whitman. Autobiographical in content, Of Time and the River is a continuation of Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), in which he portrayed his coming of age through the character of Eugene Gant. In Of Time and the River, Gant, now an aspiring writer, leaves his home in a small southern town and embarks on a pilgrimage to find the source of his creative inspiration and the true meaning of American life. Although Of Time and the River was published to mixed reviews, it received the attention of major literary critics, and it was also the only one of Wolfe's books to reach the best-seller lists in the United States.

Plot and Major Characters

The narrative of Of Time and the River closely follows the events of Wolfe's own life from 1920 to 1925. The novel, which ran to 912 pages in its first edition, is divided into eight books, the titles of which are borrowed from myths and legends that provide insight into the various stages of Eugene's pilgrimage. When the story opens, Eugene is preparing to board a northbound train that will take him from his hometown of Altamont, Catawba (modeled after Wolfe's hometown of Asheville, North Carolina) to Harvard University, where he intends to study writing in a graduate program. Along the way, Eugene stops to visit his dying father in a Baltimore hospital; Wolfe's account of Old Gant's traumatic death from cancer later in the novel is considered one of the work's most powerful scenes. After three years at Harvard, Eugene returns to Altamont for a summer, awaiting news from a Broadway producer to whom he has submitted one of his plays. When the play is rejected, Eugene accepts a position as an English instructor at the downtown branch of New York University in order to support himself until he is discovered as a writer. However, he soon becomes disillusioned with the city, which he considers impersonal, corrupt, and dirty, and, in his continuing search to find fulfillment as both a man and writer, he journeys to Europe. He first visits England and then travels to Paris, where he encounters his close friend from Harvard, Francis Starwick. Eugene, Starwick, and two female companions travel around Paris and the French countryside for a while, but before long Eugene becomes disgusted with their dissipated lifestyle and breaks away from the group. He then spends some time alone in the southern provinces of France, finding new insight into his vocation as a writer. At the novel's close, as Eugene is embarking on his journey home to America, he sees an unidentified woman who, he tells the reader, is destined to become his lover.

Major Themes

Pilgrimage is the central theme of Of Time and the River. According to Wolfe in The Story of a Novel (1936), an essay in which he describes his life as a writer and the composition of Of Time and the River, the primary object of Eugene's quest is his "search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united." Thus, Wolfe's idea of a father has both literal and figurative meaning, and critics have interpreted the concept variously: as the fatherland, America; as the meaning of life; as the means of access to Eugene's buried creativity; as the security of childhood. Another important theme in the novel is time. As Wolfe explained in The Story of a Novel, he sought through Eugene's odyssey to work out a three-part vision of time: time present (the actual events of the novel); time past, which refers to all the accumulated experience that conditions and shapes the present (Eugene's memories); and time immutable, the eternal time of rivers, oceans, and forests (Eugene's desire to immortalize his memories through his art). A dominant aspect of Eugene's obsession with time is his fear of loss, which is evoked through both incident and imagery: Eugene's profound sorrow at the death of his father; symbols such as smoke and dreams, which represent the transiency of human life; and recurrent metaphors of death and resurrection. Critics have also pointed out other significant themes in the novel, including Eugene's love of America, his Faustian thirst for knowledge, and the element of flight or escape—from the South to the North, from America to Europe, from one social milieu to another—that attends his pilgrimage.

Critical Reception

In The Story of a Novel, Wolfe tells how Of Time and the River brimmed forth from him "for almost five years like burning lava from a volcano." By December, 1933, Wolfe had written over a million words, and he and his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins, began the difficult task of cutting back the manuscript to publishable size. The process was slowed by Wolfe's reluctance to delete any material and by his desire to wait another season before sending the book to press. Typically, Perkins would excise long passages, usually where he felt that Wolfe's language was overly poetic, and Wolfe would respond with revisions that were even longer than the originals. Perkins, working in conjunction with a copy editor, eventually sent the manuscript to the printer in October 1934 without Wolfe's final consent, and the book was published in March 1935. Initial critical reaction to Of Time and the River, while lavish, was mixed. A number of reviewers praised the power and beauty of Wolfe's rhapsodic, elegiac style, viewing the novel's raw energy as confirmation of the talent displayed in Look Homeward, Angel, but they objected to Wolfe's lack of rhetorical restraint, complaining that he invested even the most trivial details with monumental significance. Many reviewers felt that the long poetic passages were out of place in a novel; the book's lyricism, combined with its episodic nature, caused some critics to question whether Of Time and the River could properly be called a novel at all. The most famous contemporary review of Of Time and the River was Bernard DeVoto's landmark attack against Wolfe in the Saturday Review of Literature. Entitled "Genius Is Not Enough," DeVoto's indictment of Wolfe was based on the author's record of his working methods and relationship with Perkins in The Story of a Novel. DeVoto, while acknowledging that Wolfe possessed genius of the passionate, romantic sort, offered Of Time and the River as proof that Wolfe was undisciplined and incapable of restraining his emotions or of organizing his material into a coherent whole. DeVoto's conclusions were widely accepted for several years after the publication of his essay, and to this day the stereotype of Wolfe as a poor craftsman persists. Later critics have continued to be preoccupied with the apparent formlessness of Of Time and the River and with the question of Wolfe's editorial dependence, but in general they have judged the novel to be less disconnected than early reviewers, many arguing that Of Time and the River has a coherent design that derives from the unifying motif of the pilgrimage and the themes that represent the objects of Eugene's quest. In addition, critics note, the loose structure allowed Wolfe to interrupt the narrative with poetic meditations that developed his ideas on the diversity of the American landscape and population. One aspect of Of Time and the River that critics have tended to agree upon over the years is its characterization. Wolfe has been consistently praised for his skill at portraiture, especially for his effective blending of satire and affection and for his attention to the seemingly minor details of speech, habit, and dress that can capture the essence of personality. Popular and critical interest in Of Time and the River steadily declined after its much-hyped publication, largely because of increasing enthusiasm for Look Homeward, Angel. Today, Of Time and the River continues to be overshadowed by Look Homeward, Angel—a fact that some critics attribute to the latter's more traditional structure—but fans of Of Time and the River predict that the novel only serves to benefit from the recent resurgence of interest in Wolfe's writings as a whole.

One March in the mid 1990s I checked into a cheap hotel in Helsinki. I dropped my bag on the floor and, wondering what Finnish daytime television was like, switched on the TV. A darkened room with a dining table came into focus, and around it were six people having a conversation. To my surprise, all were speaking English, then a face I knew filled the screen – it was Oliver Sacks. Then another, Stephen Jay Gould, and another, Daniel Dennett. I had books by all three. It was snowing outside, and Helsinki seemed suddenly less inviting; I sat down on the bed and began to watch.

A Dutch TV company had assembled these men, together with Freeman Dyson, Stephen Toulmin and Rupert Sheldrake, for the round-table finale of a documentary series on science and the meaning of life. The series, A Glorious Accident, didn’t seem to have invited any women to take part but even so I watched it to the end – three hours later. The participants’ areas of expertise were diverse: biology, physics, palaeontology, neuroscience, philosophy. As the only practising clinician, Sacks made perceptive and valuable contributions – and was clearly having fun. I was just starting out in medicine, and it was a relief to see how a lifetime in clinical practice offered insights still relevant across the sciences.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes review – loving Oliver Sacks

Sacks died two years ago in August. A melanoma of the eye, diagnosed nine years earlier, had recurred and metastasised to his liver. The New York Times had referred to Sacks as the “poet laureate of medicine”, and carried an obituary that said that neurological conditions were for him occasions “for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition”. In his last year he put the finishing touches to a memoir (On the Move), and completed some final magazine essays collected soon after his death (Gratitude). In one of his last newspaper pieces he wrote: “I have several other books nearly finished.” We might expect further posthumous essay collections to be on the way.

Millions of Sacks’s books have been printed around the world, and he once spoke of receiving 200 letters a week from admirers. For those thousands of correspondents, The River of Consciousness will feel like a reprieve – we get to spend time again with Sacks the botanist, the historian of science, the marine biologist and, of course, the neurologist. There are 10 essays here, the majority published previously in the New York Review of Books (the collection is dedicated to its late editor Robert Silvers). Their subject matter reflects the agility of Sacks’s enthusiasms, moving from forgetting and neglect in science to Freud’s early work on the neuroanatomy of fish; from the mental lives of plants and invertebrates to the malleability of our perception of speed.

Living with Oliver Sacks and love in later life: Bill Hayes and Sylvia Brownrigg – podcast

The essay on speed has some characteristic flourishes: of Parkinson’s disease, Sacks writes that “being in a slowed state is like being stuck in a vat of peanut butter, while being in an accelerated state is like being on ice”. He is as good on near-death experiences: “There is an intense sense of immediacy and reality, and a dramatic acceleration of thought and perception and reaction.” Sacks has a Jain-like reverence for insects, and delights in comparative neuroanatomical facts: an octopus may have six times more neurons than a mouse; many plants possess nervous systems that move at a thousandth the speed of our own.

Plagiarism troubled Sacks, and an essay on memory dovetails with one on creativity, examining how someone can copy another’s work through unconscious repatternings of memory. “Memory arises not only from experience,” he concludes, “but from the intercourse of many minds.” He quotes the letters between Mark Twain and Helen Keller on plagiarism, and his own correspondence with Harold Pinter (whose play A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Sacks’s Awakenings). Most of his books are mentioned in passing, and the chosen essays stand as a kind of testament or gazetteer to their range. Reading them, I was reminded of something Annie Dillard said about the essay form: “The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed.”

Some of the slighter pieces here suffer from being placed between more substantial work, and in one, only one, Sacks’s argument loses coherence. But even then I was conscious of the great premium he placed on flights of ideas: “If the stream of thought is too fast, it may lose itself, break into a torrent of superficial distractions and tangents, dissolve into a brilliant incoherence, a phantasmagoric, almost dreamlike delirium.”

Sacks was deliriously in love with details – to the irritation of his editors – and he crammed his books with them. When the text couldn’t take any more, he spilled them over to the bottom of the page. It’s in the footnotes that his treasures are often to be found: in a two-page footnote to his essay “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science”, Sacks outlines how urgent is the need for reconciliation between psychiatry and neurology, divided now for nearly a century. A “scotoma” is a blind spot in the vision, an area of darkness conjured by irregularities in brain or retinal function:

If one looks at the charts of patients institutionalized in asylums and state hospitals in the 1920s and 1930s, one finds extremely detailed clinical and phenomenological observations, often embedded in narratives of an almost novelistic richness and density ... this richness and detail and phenomenological openness have disappeared, and one finds instead meagre notes that give no real picture of the patient or his world.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes review – loving Oliver Sacks

Through the course of the 20th century, the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a book conceived to facilitate health insurance billing) has, Sacks insists, impoverished clinical language. “Present-day psychiatric charts in hospitals are almost completely devoid of the depth and density of information one finds in the older charts, and will be of little use in helping us to bring about the synthesis of neuroscience with psychiatric knowledge that we so need.” Earlier in the book he singled out one of the defining moments of that schism, when in 1893 Freud gave up looking for elements of brain pathology that might be relevant to mental health: “The lesion in hysterical paralyses must be completely independent of the nervous system,” Freud wrote, “since in its paralyses and other manifestations hysteria behaves as though anatomy did not exist or as though it had no knowledge of it.”

We’re still suffering the consequences of that schism: neurological dualism is alive and well. It’s estimated that around a third of patients referred to neurological clinics have no “lesion” that tests or scans can identify. But their problems are not “all in their head” – that catch-all, meaningless phrase that to many implies malingering or hypochondria. Functional illness is neither, and modern psychiatry no less than neurology is tragically ill‑equipped to deal with it. In that Helsinki hotel room I saw Sacks break out of the silos of his training, and offer a more humane vision of what communion between the specialties might bring. Two years after his death, he’s still reminding us that a unified vision is long overdue.

• Gavin Francis is a GP and emergency physician. His Shapeshifters – On Human Life & Change will be published next year by Profile. To order The River of Consciousness for £13.15 (£18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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