Thomas Clayton Wolfe (October 3, 1900 – September 15, 1938) was a major American novelist of the early twentieth century. Wolfe wrote four lengthy novels, plus many short stories, dramatic works and novellas. He is known for mixing highly original, poetic, rhapsodic, and impressionistic prose with autobiographical writing.
Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
- A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
- p. 3
- Most of the time we think we're sick, it's all in the mind.
- p. 10
- It was like a dream of hell, when a man finds his own name staring at him from the Devil's ledger; like a dream of death, when he who comes as mourner finds himself in the coffin, or as witness to a hanging, the condemned upon the scaffold.
- p. 62
- The exquisite smell of the south, clean but funky, like a big woman.
- Nacreous pearl light swam faintly about the hem of the lilac darkness; the edges of light and darkness were stitched upon the hills. Morning moved like a pearl-gray tide across the fields and up the hillflanks, flowing rapidly down into the soluble dark.
- p. 142
- And it was this that awed him — the weird combination of fixity and change, the terrible moment of immobility stamped with eternity in which, passing life at great speed, both the observer and the observed seem frozen in time.
- p. 157
- Through Chance, we are each a ghost to all the others, and our only reality; through Chance, the huge hinge of the world, and a grain of dust; the stone that starts an avalanche, the pebble whose concentric circles widen across the seas.
- p. 160
- The old church, with its sharp steeple, rotted slowly, decently, prosperously, like a good man's wife.
- p. 267
- By Christmas, with fair luck, he might be eligible for service in khaki: by Spring, if God was good, all the proud privileges of trench-lice, mustard gas, spattered brains, punctured lungs, ripped guts, asphyxiation, mud and gangrene, might be his.
- Eugene Gant contemplating entering the service in World War I
- p. 434
Of Time and the River (1935)
- His own power and magic — overwhelmed him for a moment with a feeling of the purest, highest, and most glorious happiness that life can yield — the happiness that is at once the most selfish and the most selfless — the happiness of the artist when he sees that his work has been found good, has for itself a place of honour, glory, and proud esteem in the hearts of men, and has wrought upon their lives the spell of its enchantment. At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being — the reward he seeks — the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity.
- Play us a tune on an unbroken spinet, and let the bells ring, let the bells ring! Play music now: play us a tune on an unbroken spinet. Do not make echoes of forgotten time, do not strike music from old broken keys, do not make ghosts with faded tinklings on the yellowed board; but play us a tune on an unbroken spinet, play lively music when the instrument was new, let us see Mozart playing in the parlor, and let us hear the sound of the ladies' voices. But more than that; waken the turmoil of forgotten streets, let us hear their sounds again unmuted, and unchanged by time, throw the light of Wednesday morning on the Third Crusade, and let us see Athens on an average day.
- They belonged to that futile, desolate, and forsaken horde who felt that all will be well with their lives, that all the power they lack themselves will be supplied, and all the anguish, fury, and unrest, the confusion and the dark damnation of man's soul can magically be healed if only they eat bran for breakfast.
- America... It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.
- Book 2, chapter 14, p. 155
- In New York the opportunities for learning, and acquiring a culture that shall not come out of the ruins, but belong to life, are probably greater than anywhere else in the world.
- Who owns the earth? Did we want the earth that we should wander on it? Did we need the earth that we were never still upon it? Whoever needs the earth shall have the earth: he shall be still upon it, he shall rest within a little place, he shall dwell in one small room for ever.
- Book 1. This excerpt is also cited in a short story "Forever and the Earth" (1950) by Ray Bradbury.
You Can't Go Home Again (1940)
- Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and now it seemed to George that there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railroad station. For here, as nowhere else on earth, men were brought together for a moment at the beginning or end of their innumerable journeys, here one saw their greetings and farewells, here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of the human destiny. Men came and went, they passed and vanished, and all were moving through the moments of their lives to death, all made small tickings in the sound of time--but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.
- Book I, Ch. 5: The Hidden Terror
- Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox in America--that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, this is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.
- Book I, Ch. 5: The Hidden Terror
- To a future world,— inhabited, no doubt, by a less acute and understanding race of men, — all this may seem a trifle strange. If so, that will be because the world of the future will have forgotten what it was like to live in 1929.
- Book II, Ch. 14: Zero Hour
- He who lets himself be whored by fashion will be whored by time.
- Book II, Ch. 21: Love is Not Enough
- Now they saw it — its newness, its raw crudeness, and its strength — and turned their shuddering eyes away. "Give us back our well-worn husk," they said, "where we were so snug and comfortable." And then they tried word magic. "Conditions are fundamentally sound," they said — by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, forever and ever, amen. But they were wrong. They did not know that you can't go home again. America had come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else. But no one knew what that something else would be and out of the change and uncertainly and the wrongness of the leaders grew fear and desperation and before long hunger stalked the streets. Through it all there was still only one certainty, though no one saw it yet. America was still America, and whatever new thing came of it would be American.
- Book III: An End and a Beginning
- His enemy was time. Or perhaps it was his friend. One never knows for sure.
- Book III, Ch. 26: The Wounded Faun
- Go, seeker, if you will, throughout the land and you will find us burning in the night.
- Book IV, Ch. 31: The Promise of America
- So, then, to every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity—to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him — this, seeker, is the promise of America.
- Book IV, Ch. 31: The Promise of America
- You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
- Book VI, Ch. 44: The Way of No Return
- To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora's Box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so forever.
- Book VII, Ch. 47: Ecclesiasticus
- I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. And this belief, which mounts now to the catharsis of knowledge and conviction, is for me — and I think for all of us — not only our own hope, but America's everlasting, living dream. I think the life which we have fashioned in America, and which has fashioned us — the forms we made, the cells that grew, the honeycomb that was created — was self-destructive in its nature, and must be destroyed. I think these forms are dying, and must die, just as I know that America and the people in it are deathless, undiscovered, and immortal, and must live.
- Book VII, Ch. 48: Credo
- I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfillment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon. I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is Here, is Now, and beckons on before us, and that this glorious assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished.
- Book VII, Ch. 48: Credo
- I think the enemy is here before us, too. But I think we know the forms and faces of the enemy, and in the knowledge that we know him, and shall meet him, and eventually must conquer him is also our living hope. I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the brutal power of his blind grab. I do not think the enemy was born yesterday, or that he grew to manhood forty years ago, or that he suffered sickness and collapse in 1929, or that we began without the enemy, and that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly were in his camp. I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and that he has been here with us from the beginning. I think he stole our earth from us, destroyed our wealth, and ravaged and despoiled our land. I think he took our people and enslaved them, that he polluted the fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and, not content, for the nature of the enemy is insatiate--tried finally to take from us the crust.
- Book VII, Ch. 48: Credo
The Anatomy of Loneliness (1941)
- "The Anatomy of Loneliness", in The American Mercury (October 1941), p. 467
- The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.
- When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul, as evidenced by the innumerable strident words of abuse, hatred, contempt, mistrust, and scorn that forever grate upon our ears as the manswarm passes us in the streets -- we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.
- The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.
- And the eternal paradox of it is that if a man is to know the triumphant labor of creation, he must for long periods resign himself to loneliness, and suffer loneliness to rob him of the health, the confidence, the belief and joy which are essential to creative work.
- What Christ is saying always, what he never swerves from saying, what he says a thousand times and in a thousand different ways, but always with a central unity of belief, is this: "I am my Father’s son, and you are my brothers." And the unity that binds us all together, that makes this earth a family, and all men brothers and the sons of God, is love.
- And Christ himself, who preached the life of love, was yet as lonely as any man that ever lived. Yet I could not say that he was mistaken because he preached the life of love and fellowship, and lived and died in loneliness; nor would I dare assert his way was wrong because a billion men have since professed his way and never followed it.
Quotes about Thomas Wolfe
- ("Can you go home again?") MA: Thomas Wolfe was right-and he was wrong. You see, you can never leave home. It's under your fingernails, in the bend of your hair. It sings out of your mouth. What I found is that I had to come home to America to write about coming home to Africa. As I write in the book, "Many of us had only begun to realize in Africa that the Stars and Stripes was our flag and our only flag, and that knowledge was almost too painful to bear."
- 1986 interview in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989)
- Works by Thomas Wolfe at Project Gutenberg Australia
- North Carolina Office of Archives and History - A Brief Biography of Thomas Wolfe
- A Wolfe Family Album
- The Thomas Wolfe Web Site
- Thomas Wolfe Memorial
- The Thomas Wolfe Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Thomas Wolfe Papers at Wichita State University
- Thomas Wolfe Memorial at Find A Grave