The Far and the Near
The Far and the NearIntroduction
Thomas Wolfe's short story "The Far and the Near" was first published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1935 and was reprinted later that year in Wolfe's first short-story collection, From Death to Morning. For a writer known by his long, sprawling novels such as Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life and Of Time and the River, this ultra-short short story is a rare occurrence. While Wolfe's novels have often fallen under criticism for their excessive autobiographical sources, the influence of their editors, and Wolfe's wordy style, many critics in the last half of the twentieth century began to praise Wolfe for his short fiction. "The Far and the Near" details the story of a railroad engineer in the 1930s who passes a certain cottage every day for more than twenty years, waving to the women who live there but never actually meeting them or seeing them up close. Upon his retirement, he goes to see the women, but they treat him badly and destroy the idyllic vision that he has built up around them. Within its few pages, Wolfe's short story emphasizes the potentially devastating effects on a person who is forced to confront the reality behind a vision. Since the work was written during the Great Depression, the loss of hope that takes place in the story would have been extremely familiar to Wolfe's audience. The story can be found in the paperback edition of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, which was published by Collier Books in 1989.
Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, a resort community. Wolfe was a good student at the local elementary school, and in 1912 he was sent to a private school. At the ripe age of fifteen, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1919, one of Wolfe's plays, The Return of Buck Gavin: The Tragedy of a Mountain Outlaw, was staged by the Carolina Playmakers, with Wolfe playing the lead role. Wolfe graduated in 1920, and, emboldened by his initial success in the theater, he entered Harvard University the same year, where he studied playwriting.
In 1922, Wolfe graduated from Harvard with his master's degree, although he remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writing plays and unsuccessfully trying to sell them. In 1924, he started teaching English at Washington Square College of New York University, a position that he held on and off until 1930. In 1924, he also traveled to Europe, returning the next year. On his voyage home, he met Aline Bernstein, a married woman nineteen years his senior, with whom he started a long affair. The two stayed together in England during Wolfe's 1926 trip and shared a New York apartment when they both returned to the United States. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, was published in 1929. For this first publication, Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, worked closely together. In 1930, Wolfe gave up his teaching post, ended his affair with Mrs. Bernstein, and traveled to Europe again. In 1935, he published his second novel, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. The same year, he published his first short-story collection, From Death to Morning, which included the story "The Far and the Near."
In 1935, Wolfe published The Story of a Novel, an essay detailing his writing methods and theories. In a review of the essay, Bernard DeVoto attacked all of Wolfe's work, stating that Wolfe depended upon the heavy editing of Perkins. As a result, Wolfe eventually left Scribner's, signing with Harper's in 1937. However, he was unable to publish any more works before he died of tubercular meningitis in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 15,1938. Following his death, Wolfe's editor at Harper's, Edward C. Aswell, set about creating distinct volumes out of the massive amount of manuscripts, notes, and outlines that Wolfe had left with him. From this assortment, Aswell created several works,
including two novels—The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940)—and a short story collection, The Hills Beyond (1941). In 2001, the original, unedited manuscript (according to its editors) of Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life was published as O Lost: The Story of the Buried Life.
Wolfe's "The Far and the Near" starts out with a description of a little town, which contains a small cottage on its outskirts. The cottage appears clean and comfortable. Every day, just after two o'clock in the afternoon, an express train passes by the house. For more than twenty years, the train engineer blows his whistle, prompting a woman inside the house to come out on her porch and wave to him. Over this time, the woman's little girl grows up, and she joins her mother in waving to the engineer. The engineer grows old during this time and sees a lot of tragedy during his service for the railroad, including four fatal accidents on the tracks in front of him. Throughout all of this tragedy, however, he remains focused on the vision of the cottage and the two women, an image that he thinks is beautiful and unchangeable. He has a father's love towards the two women and, after so many thousands of trips past their cottage, feels that he knows the women's lives completely.
As a result, he resolves to visit the women on the day he retires, to tell them what a profound effect they have had on his life. When that day comes, he walks from the train station into the small town. As he walks through the town, he is unsure of his decision, because the town seems so unfamiliar—much different from how it has looked from his train cab. When he gets to the women's cottage, he is even more unsure, but he decides to go through with it. When he meets the woman, she is instantly suspicious of him, and the train engineer is sorry that he has come. The woman whom he has idealized all of those years appears different, and her harsh voice is not what he expected. He explains who he is and why he has come, and the woman reluctantly invites him inside and calls for her daughter. The engineer sits down with both women in an ugly parlor and awkwardly talks to them while they fix him with hostile looks. Finally, the engineer leaves, and he is shaken from his experience. He is distraught because the one aspect of his life that he thought was pure and beautiful is stained. With this revelation, he realizes that he has lost all hope and that he will never be able to see the good in life again.
The Train Engineer
The train engineer is the protagonist of the story, whose idealistic vision is shattered when he sees the reality behind it. Every day for twenty years, the engineer's express train passes a cottage on the outskirts of a little town. Each time, he blows the train's whistle, and the woman in the cottage comes out and waves at him. As the years pass, he watches her little girl grow into a woman, who joins her mother to wave at the engineer. He has never met either of the women but feels he knows all about them and their lives. In fact, the beauty of his vision of the women is so strong that he relies on it to get him through hard times—including the four fatal accidents he witnesses when people get stuck on the train tracks in front of him. He resolves to go visit the women when he retires, to tell them about the impact they have had on his life. However, when he goes to do this, it is not the idealistic trip that he had envisioned. The town is unfamiliar, and the women are hostile and suspicious, even when he explains who he is. In addition, the women look different—older and more haggard—than how they appeared from the engineer's train cab. Still, he forges ahead, and by the time he leaves the women, he is shocked and disappointed and has lost his hope and his ability to see the good in life.
The Woman in the Cottage
The woman in the cottage waves to the train engineer every day for twenty years but is very hostile to him when he comes to visit her. Although she is comfortable with waving to the engineer when there is a safe distance between them, she is suspicious of him when he comes to her cottage. As a result, she and her daughter—who has grown up with the daily waving ritual—are on guard against the engineer, and the conversation is awkward. Her unexpected hostility shatters the engineer's idealistic vision.
The Woman's Daughter
The woman's daughter grows up in the cottage by the railroad tracks, where she joins her mother in the daily waving ritual to the train engineer. When the engineer sits down to talk to the two women, the daughter is as guarded and suspicious as her mother.
For more than twenty years, the engineer blows his train whistle every day as he passes the cottage, and "every day, as soon as she heard this signal, a woman had appeared on the back porch of the little house and waved to him." Although he has seen the woman—and later the two women—do this from afar, the engineer nevertheless allows his mind to fill in the gaps about how the women might appear up close. In his mind, he crafts these assumptions about the women's appearance into an idealistic vision, in which he feels very connected to them. The narrator reports, "He felt for them and for the little house in which they lived such tenderness as a man might feel for his own children." As the years pass, this vision builds in strength, until the engineer feels that he knows "their lives completely, to every hour and moment of the day." However, when he meets the women face to face, his vision is shattered. The reality is that, even though the two women have waved to him from afar, up close they are suspicious and fearful of him. Also, while he has imagined their beauty, when he comes face to face with the woman who owns the cottage, he sees that her face is "harsh and pinched and meager," and her flesh sags "wearily in sallow folds." When the engineer finally leaves the house of the two women, he realizes as he is walking away that he has allowed himself to be fooled by a distant appearance. Now, he can see "the strange and unsuspected visage of the earth which had always been within a stone's throw of him, and which he had never seen or known."
While he is under the spell of his false vision, the engineer is truly happy: "The sight of the little house and of these two women gave him the most extraordinary happiness he had ever known." When he prepares to go visit the two women, he is even more happy, because he will finally be able to tell them how their "lives had been so wrought into his own." In turn, he thinks they will be happy to see him and that they will welcome him as a friend. While he is working as a train engineer, he never has the opportunity to go and visit the women, and so the ultimate realization of his vision—meeting the women—remains a goal. While this goal is not met and he still has the desire to go see them, he is happy. However, once he leaves the safety of the train and its distance from the women, his happiness is quickly undermined. He is overcome by a "sense of bewilderment and confusion" as he walks through the town. Nothing lives up to his idealistic vision, and his happiness diminishes with each disappointment, from his confusing journey through the town to the hostile treatment by the two women.
Although the engineer is confused when he walks through the town, he pushes on, thinking that the situation will improve when he gets to the cottage. However, the engineer starts to regret his journey as soon as the woman in the cottage opens the door: "And instantly, with a sense of bitter loss and grief, he was sorry he had come." Still, the engineer tries to talk to the women, determined to overcome "the horror of regret, confusion, disbelief that surged up in his spirit." After he leaves the cottage, this sense of regret has physical effects, as the man suddenly loses his strength—which his vision provided him—and realizes that he is old and frail. "His heart, which had been brave and confident when it looked along the familiar vista of the rails, was now sick with doubt and horror." Even more crushing is the realization that his vision has been a lie and that his former happiness is gone forever. He knows "that all the magic of that bright lost way, the vista of that shining line, the imagined corner of that small good universe of hope's desire, could never be got again."
- Wolfe's From Death to Morning, which includes "The Far and the Near," was adapted as an unabridged audiobook in 1997. It is available from Books on Tape, Inc.
- Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life was adapted as an audiobook in 1995 under the title Look Homeward, Angel. It is available in two parts from Books on Tape, Inc.
- Wolfe's Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth was adapted as an audiobook in 1996 under the title Of Time and the River. It is available in two parts from Books on Tape, Inc.
For roughly the first half of the story, Wolfe paints an idealistic picture of a railroad engineer who has built up a silent relationship with two women. The reader is led to believe that this is going to be a positive story, since even negative events like the deaths the engineer has witnessed are tempered by his idyllic vision. However, a little more than halfway through, the mood. or emotional quality of the story, starts to change: "Everything was as strange to him as if he had never seen this town before." From this point on, the reader's awareness of the changing mood increases as the engineer's "perplexity of … spirit" increases. When the engineer gets to the cottage and sees the woman's face, he—along with the reader—realizes that his idyllic vision is a lie. As the story progresses to its negative ending, the reader empathizes with the engineer's feelings of regret, sadness, and disappointment.
The physical setting is extremely important in this story. The setting is established with the first line: "On the outskirts of a little town upon a rise of land that swept back from the railway there was a tidy little cottage." The cottage is located by the tracks, but it is "swept back from the railway." This distance shields the engineer from the reality of the two women's appearance and thus becomes the means by which his mind creates the idyllic vision. If the cottage were located close to the tracks, the engineer would see the true appearance of the women. Also, the distance serves as a safety buffer for the two women. The women are comfortable waving to the engineer when he is far away but are suspicious of him when he is up close. If the setting were slightly different and their cottage were located close to the train, the two women might not have felt comfortable waving to the engineer. On a similar note, the cottage is located at a bend in the tracks, where each day, the train "swept past with a powerful swaying motion of the engine, a low smooth rumble of its heavy cars upon pressed steel, and then it vanished into the cut." During this brief time, the engineer and the women only have a few moments to view each other. Just like the distance factor, the time factor plays a part in helping to build the engineer's vision. If he had had more time to observe the women as he passed by, he might have a more accurate picture of the two women, which would also decrease his chances of blindly following a self-made illusion.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the various documentation that explores how Wolfe and his editors created his books and stories. Find another author—from any point in history—who has been accused of having overzealous editors and compare this author's life to Wolfe's life.
- Research the various railroads that were operational in the 1930s. Plot all of these railway lines on a map of the United States. For each railway line, use photos, illustrations, or any other form of visual representation to depict the types of trains that were run on each line. Also, provide a short description for each railroad, which details what its primary use was and how the Great Depression affected its business.
- Research the history of the toy train industry and discuss how it began. Compare the decline in the use of railroads to sales figures for their toy equivalent and discuss any apparent trends. Then, write a short report on the state of the toy-train industry today.
- In the story, the engineer witnesses several deaths on the railroad tracks during his many years of service, although he is initially able to cope with them through his optimism. Research the psychology of death and dying and discuss at least two coping mechanisms that people may use after they have witnessed a violent death.
Another aspect of the setting, the cottage's distance from the train station, is important in the story. The cottage is "on the outskirts" of town, while the train station is located in town. As a result, on the day he retires and gets off at the train station, he must walk through the town to reach the cottage. As noted above, it is during this walk that the engineer gets an increasing sense of apprehension. If the cottage were located close to the train station, the engineer would not have to walk as far, and Wolfe would not have the time he needs in the story to slowly build the negative mood.
One last aspect of the setting deserves mention. The town is located either in a northern or a mountainous region, since the narrator talks about the "wintry gray across the brown and frosted stubble of the earth." The fact that the town experiences seasons is important to the engineer's perception of the women because he has "seen them in a thousand lights, a hundred weathers," and thinks that this diversity gives him a greater understanding of their lives. Since they appear the same in his idyllic vision, no matter what the weather conditions, it becomes proof to his mind that they must be as he imagines them.
In his many years working for the railroad, the engineer witnesses several tragedies, including four fatal accidents. "He had known all the grief … the peril, and the labor such a man could know." However, despite all of this tragedy, the engineer maintains his happiness and his optimistic view of life, as a result of "the vision of the little house and the women waving to him." The vision becomes a coping strategy by which the engineer is able to look past the tragedy. He sees the women as the one aspect of his life that is "beautiful and enduring, something beyond all change." Unfortunately, the engineer's determination to realize this vision proves to be his tragic flaw—the personal quality that leads to his downfall. The engineer is sure that his vision will play out exactly as he imagines it. When he gets to the town, it is unfamiliar and strange, but he pushes on nevertheless, determined to see the two women. Had the engineer given up on his goal to see the women once the town failed to live up to his vision, he would have preserved his fond memory of the women through blissful ignorance. He does not back down from this resolve, however, even when the gate to the cottage appears unfamiliar, the woman opens the door and the engineer is obviously unwelcome, and the two women sit "bewildered" while he talks. At any point, he could have left and tried to salvage some of his memories, or at least his dignity. Instead, by "fighting stubbornly" against his apprehensive feelings, "his act of hope and tenderness" ultimately feels like a shameful one, and at the end of the story, he must live with the tragedy of tainted memories and a failed dream.
Following a revitalization that had taken place in the economic good times of the 1920s, the railroads were well equipped to handle the 1930s—or so they thought. Unfortunately, several factors led to the bankrupting of many railroad companies. Chief among these factors was the severe national economic downturn that the country experienced in the 1930s, called the Great Depression. Although the exact causes of this economic catastrophe are still debated, most historians give at least some blame to the stock market crash of 1929. The Great Depression bankrupted many individuals and sent the unemployment rate skyrocketing to a high of more than 23 percent. Hunger and poverty became common in many areas of the country. Some families who lived by railroad tracks were so desperate that they sent their children to search for dropped coal from passing trains so that they could heat their homes and operate their cooking appliances. As widespread panic and despair gripped the nation, the suicide rate rose, and millions of families migrated to other areas of the country, only to find that those areas were just as bad—if not worse. Dislocated families set up makeshift shelters on vacant lots in cities and towns. These collections of makeshift dwellings became known as Hoovervilles, after President Hoover, whom many blamed for the Depression.
Businesses were affected, too, including the railroad industry. Railroad traffic—both freight and passenger—plummeted, and many railroads went out of business. When they did, their rail lines were often taken over by other railroad companies that were more financially stable. However, even these companies faced many challenges. As the decade progressed, railroads faced increasing competition from other transportation industries, including automobiles, trucks, buses, and airplanes. Collectively, these industries threatened both freight and passenger transportation on railroads. To make matters worse, many of these industries were supported by government funds and were not burdened by heavy regulations, while the railroads were privately owned and still heavily regulated—a side effect of earlier government involvement. The fact that railroads were privately owned led to another inherent problem in the industry. Railroads required a lot of maintenance, such as replacing track, and railroad owners were on their own to cover these expenses. The railroads that did survive were innovative, using new technologies such as the diesel locomotive, a faster and more efficient locomotive that was first introduced at the end of the previous decade. Railroads also courted passengers by using improved passenger cars, many of which were air conditioned, and by slashing the ticket fares.
Like much of Thomas Wolfe's short fiction, the stories in From Death to Morning, including "The Far and the Near," were formed from leftover material that did not fit into his novels—in this case, 1935's Of Time and the River. Although the novel sold well, the collection of stories did not. In addition, as Ladell Payne notes in his 1991 entry on Wolfe for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, although Wolfe was famous in 1935, "he also was stung by the criticism that he was too wordy, too autobiographical, and too dependent upon Perkins." Payne is referring to Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe's editor at Charles Scribner's & Sons.
These three criticisms were brought up again the next year by Bernard DeVoto. In his now-famous piece for the Saturday Review of Literature, "Genius Is Not Enough," DeVoto used the review of Wolfe's essay The Story of a Novel as an opportunity to discredit Wolfe himself. "Mr. Wolfe is astonishingly immature," says DeVoto, adding that Wolfe has not mastered "the psychic material out of which a novel is made nor the technique of writing fiction." In addition, DeVoto says that if Wolfe "gave us less identification and more understanding," people would stop "calling him autobiographical." Finally, DeVoto criticized the influence of Perkins and the other editorial staff who helped Wolfe with his novels, calling them "the assembly line at Scribner's."
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: The United States is in the midst of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate reaches more than 23 percent, and poverty and hunger are common in many areas.
Today: The United States is in the midst of an economic downturn. The unemployment rate rises from a thirty-two-year low of 4 percent in 2000 to hover in the 5 to 6 percent range in 2002.
- 1930s: Following the widespread adoption of trucks in the United States in the 1920s, the railroads lose business on their freight trains.
Today: Although the railroads' percentage of domestic freight traffic has decreased at a relatively steady rate since World War II, their higher percentage of freight traffic than trucks has been maintained.
- 1930s: During the Great Depression, many railroads fall into bankruptcy. Those that survive do so in part because of their adoption of new technologies, such as the diesel locomotive, which help make the trains faster and more efficient.
Today: In the United States, subways and passenger trains are popular options for daily commuting, although subways exist only in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. In Western Europe and Japan, however, railroads are experiencing a renaissance, thanks in part to the availability of technologically advanced, high-speed trains.
Although others had brought up these concerns before, most acknowledge that DeVoto's influential review helped guide criticism of Wolfe in general for much of the twentieth century. As Terry Roberts notes in his 2000 article for the Southern Literary Journal, DeVoto's essay "set the tone for critics ever since who wished to establish their own intellectual superiority by attacking Wolfe in print." Despite this fact, however, Wolfe did regain some critical favor. In his 1970 article for the South Atlantic Quarterly, Martin Wank notes one of the first events that helped inspire this revival: the 1953 publication of The Enigma of Thomas Wolfe, a collection of critical essays. Wank notes that this collection was followed by several other biographical and critical works on Wolfe. One of these was B. R. McElderry, Jr.'s 1964 Thomas Wolfe. In this work, McElderry notes that, amidst all of the negative critical attention given to Wolfe's longer works, not much has been said about his short fiction. Says McElderry: "The detailed study of these shorter pieces, their precise relation to the novels, and to such manuscripts as survive, has not been carried very far."
Over the next decade, more critics started to notice Wolfe's stories, although the attention was not always positive. In his 1947 book, Thomas Wolfe, Herbert J. Muller notes of Wolfe's From Death to Morning that it "is a collection of short pieces which, with a few exceptions, add little to his stature or to our understanding of him." Muller also says that many stories seem incomplete and singles out "The Far and the Near," saying that it is "a bare outline for a potentially good short story." Others disagree. In his 1974 entry on Wolfe for American Writers, C. Hugh Holman, a noted Wolfe scholar, says that From Death to Morning "has never received the attention it deserves." Holman also notes that, contrary to the belief that Wolfe's works lacked structure, "he showed a control and an objectivity in his short stories and his short novels that effectively belie the charge of formlessness."
For the short stories, this positive criticism has continued to increase. In her 1981 entry on Wolfe for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Leslie Field notes that From Death to Morning "contains many fine pieces." In his 1983 article for Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, James Boyer cites the quality of Wolfe's story collection, saying that this quality is largely due to the influence of his agent at the time, Elizabeth Nowell. Boyer singles out Wolfe's "The Cottage by the Tracks" (the original title of "The Far and the Near"). As Boyer notes, stories like this "represent units complete in themselves." In her 1984 book, Thomas Wolfe,
Elizabeth Evans calls "The Far and the Near" "a sentimental story" and notes how the destruction of the engineer's "idyllic scene" leaves him "disappointed and lonely, since the reality of the unfriendly cottage inhabitants precludes his hopes of friendship with them and indeed ruins his memory." With the 1987 publication of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, Wolfe's short stories received even more attention.
Although Wolfe's overall literary reputation is still in question, several critics, like Roberts, continue to focus on Wolfe's short fiction. As Roberts notes:
in the short fiction he wrote during the nine brief years between the publication of Look Homeward, Angel and his death, Wolfe managed to turn almost all of the critical stereotypes about his work inside-out.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Wolfe's pervasive use of opposites in "The Far and the Near."
The story title "The Far and the Near" presents two diametrically opposed concepts. In fact, if readers examine the title of the collection in which the story was included, From Death to Morning, they find two more opposite concepts. When death is associated with a time of day, it is usually night. Likewise, when morning is used to represent a life stage, it usually symbolizes birth. As C. Hugh Holman notes in his entry on Wolfe for American Writers, most of Wolfe's books featured opposites in their titles in either a suggestive or an overt way. Holman notes that this had to do with Wolfe's view on life: "Thomas Wolfe grappled in frustrated and demonic fury with what he called 'the strange and bitter miracle of life,' a miracle which he saw in patterns of opposites." This obsession with opposites is also evident in the content of Wolfe's tales themselves. "The Far and the Near" is a particularly vivid example of Wolfe's use of opposites. In the story, Wolfe employs distinct contrasts in imagery and word choice to increase the effectiveness of the story's mood shift.
This mood shift takes place at a very specific point in the story, directly after the engineer gets off his train and walks "slowly through the station and out into the streets of the town." Everything up to this point is described in positive terms, while everything past it is negative. This is most apparent in Wolfe's use of imagery. When the story begins, the reader is exposed to part of the vision that the engineer has survived on for more than twenty years. The town is described as the place where the train "halted for a breathing space" on its journey between its two destination cities. This quaint description associates the town with restful images, making it sound like a comfortable, tranquil place. This idea is amplified by the initial description of the house that the engineer passes every day: "a tidy little cottage of white boards, trimmed vividly with green blinds." The house also features "a garden neatly patterned" and "three mighty oaks" that provide shade. As the narrator notes, "The whole place had an air of tidiness, thrift, and modest comfort."
This positive image of the town and the cottage only increases when the engineer begins the waving ritual with the woman in the cottage, a routine that is prompted by the whistle of his train. "Every day for more than twenty years … a woman had appeared on the back porch of the little house and waved to him." The simple image of a woman waving at him becomes fixed in his mind and helps flesh out his overall vision of the town, cottage, the woman, and her daughter. This idyllic image gets the engineer through tough times because he thinks his vision is "something beautiful and enduring, something beyond all change and ruin."
What Do I Read Next?
- Unlike "The Far and the Near," which features an unnamed railroad engineer, the majority of Wolfe's longer works employ autobiographical characters, like Eugene Gant. Wolfe's first novel about Gant, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929), was set in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. The narrative follows Gant through his turbulent childhood and young adulthood, and its often negative depiction of the townspeople and the American South in general angered many residents.
- Wolfe's Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth (1935) continues the story of Eugene Gant, following him into adulthood and throughout Europe. Like its predecessor, the book was highly autobiographical and drew directly upon Wolfe's experiences in Europe, including his adventures with two contemporary writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.
- At a writers' conference in 1935, Wolfe presented an essay describing the way that he wrote his books and his close editorial relationship with his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. The essay was published in 1936 as The Story of a Novel and was reprinted with another essay in 1983 under the title The Autobiography of an American Novelist. Although both The Story of a Novel and The Autobiography of an American Novelist are currently out of print, they are available at many libraries.
- Voltaire's satirical prose work Candide; or, All for the Best was first published in both French and English in 1759. The story criticizes one of the optimistic philosophical theories of Voltaire's time, which stated that humans live in the best of all possible worlds, ruled by a benevolent God. Voltaire challenged this idealistic idea by placing a number of optimistic characters in realistic situations where they are forced to face war, dismemberment, and death, among other horrors.
When he goes to meet the women and tell them how this positive image has profoundly affected his outlook on life, he expects that the whole experience will be positive, too, since that is how for years he has anticipated this day. However, when he walks into the town for the first time, the imagery does not match his mental picture: "Everything was as strange to him as if he had never seen this town before." This feeling grows in the time he takes to walk all the way through the town to the women's cottage. When he gets to the cottage, he is able to identify it by "the lordly oaks," "the garden and the arbor," and other familiar characteristics such as the house's proximity to the railway. However, these images do not have the same positive connotations that they did in the beginning. The town and cottage are no longer quaint and comfortable. Instead, "the town, the road, the earth, the very entrance to this place he loved" has turned unrecognizable, like "the landscape of some ugly dream." The ugliness of this imagery increases when he is finally let into the house and led into "an ugly little parlor."
The women also turn out to be contrary to what he expected. In the first half of the story, his unwavering belief in the goodness and beauty of the women—created by the image of their waving—leads him to believe that he knows "their lives completely, to every hour and moment of the day." Perhaps more importantly, he assumes that they will greet him as a welcome friend. However, in the second half of the story, this image is also shattered. When he meets the older woman face-to-face, he knows "at once that the woman who stood there looking at him with a mistrustful eye was the same woman who had waved to him so many thousand times." However, just as the correct identification of the house by its exterior brings him no joy, neither does the woman's appearance. Her face is "harsh and pinched and meager," and the flesh sags "wearily in sallow folds." Even more disappointing, she does not welcome the engineer but instead views him with "timid suspicion and uneasy doubt."
In addition to the stark contrast in physical imagery, Wolfe also chooses contrasting words to represent the distinctly positive and negative ideas and feelings of the story's two halves. In the beginning, Wolfe's narrator instills a sense of strength in the engineer's train. The train is "great," "powerful," and achieves "terrific speed," and its progress is "marked by heavy bellowing puffs of smoke." The engineer is also described in terms that emphasize his strength: "He had driven his great train, loaded with its weight of lives, across the land ten thousand times." The fact that the engineer has successfully completed so many journeys, safely delivering his human cargo, underscores the idea of strength and dependability. In addition, the engineer has "the qualities of faith and courage and humbleness," and his old age is described in the best possible terms, with "grandeur and wisdom." He also feels "tenderness" for the two women, whose image is "carved so sharply in his heart." Even the tragedies he has seen on the railroad tracks have not affected his positive mood thanks to his idyllic vision of the two women.
However, when the engineer gets off the train and views the unfamiliar town, Wolfe starts to use words that seem uncharacteristic to the reader since they immediately follow the positive language of the first half. The engineer is no longer strong and sure, and neither is anything else. His "bewilderment and confusion" grow as he walks to the "straggling" outskirts of town, where "the street faded." Even the engineer's walk is described as a "plod" through "heat and dust." All of these words have negative connotations, which increasingly give the town and cottage a feeling of stagnation and impending death. These feelings intensify when he first sees the older woman and feels "a sense of bitter loss and grief."
Even sounds become negative, both the woman's "unfriendly tongue" and the engineer's own voice, which he is shocked to find sounds "unreal and ghastly." Like the descriptions of the town, the engineer's physical qualities, such as the strength of his voice, degrade in the second half of the story. After he spends his "brief agony of time" with the women, feeling "shameful" for coming, the man leaves, at which point he realizes that he is "an old man." Unlike the first half of the story, when his age is described with terms like "grandeur and wisdom," old age by the end of the story is unpleasant. The shock of reality has withered him, and his heart is "sick with doubt and horror." The engineer is no longer part of the railroad company, and thus he can no longer identify with the train, which sustained his illusion. At this point, he is truly alone and without hope.
As Elizabeth Evans notes in her book, Thomas Wolfe: "The engineer is left disappointed and lonely, since the reality of the unfriendly cottage inhabitants precludes his hopes of friendship with them and indeed ruins his memory." This painfully negative ending is a huge contrast to the extremely positive beginning. This distinct difference between the two halves of the story gives it more impact, since readers experience two emotional extremes within a very short period of time. Holman notes the effectiveness of stories like this one: "On the level of dramatic scene, fully realized and impacted with immediacy, Wolfe could construct magnificently. Single episodes of his work, published separately as short stories, are powerful narrative units." In his article in Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, James Boyer makes a similar observation about stories like this one, which were originally intended for Wolfe's novels. Says Boyer, they "represent units complete in themselves which were to have functioned in the novel to illustrate various themes or facets of the national character."
This idea may cause readers to question Wolfe's motives behind the story. What was he trying to say about the national character? When one examines the historical context in which the story was written and compares this context to the use of time in the story, a possible answer presents itself. In the story, the engineer staked his faith on an idyllic vision in the past, which has failed to come true in the present. In fact, the present reality is horrible for him, and it destroys his optimism and hope. This transition directly parallels the time in which the story was written. In the 1930s, when Wolfe wrote the story, the United States was caught in the grip of the Great Depression, a time when people's optimism from the past was shown to be unfounded. The previous decade, the 1920s, had been a very positive time, since the nation had a strong economy. Many people assumed that the economy, and life in general, would continue to improve, and so they staked their futures—and in some cases their fortunes—on this vision by investing heavily in the stock market. When this vision failed, many were overcome with despair and hopelessness, just like the engineer. In the end, images such as the woman's "harsh and pinched and meager" face—a sign of poverty and possibly hunger—may be Wolfe's way of indicating the tough times that his public was experiencing during the Great Depression, when reality intruded on many dreams, and optimism was often met with disappointment and sorrow.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on "The Far and the Near," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2003.
In the following essay excerpt, Evans discusses and evaluates the writing of Wolfe's collections of short fiction From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond, and The Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe.
Although Wolfe published many short stories, he admitted that he did not know what magazines wanted and declared he would "like nothing better than to write something that was both very good and very popular: I should be enchanted if the editors of Cosmopolitan began to wave large fat checks under my nose, but I know of no ways of going about this deliberately and I am sure I'd fail miserably if I tried." Most often his short stories were segments of the larger manuscript he was always working on at the time, and he felt uncertain about excising a portion and shaping it as a short story. Once when he sent Elizabeth Nowell approximately seven typed pages out of a manuscript (a piece about two boys going to the circus) he wrote, "The thing ["Circus at Dawn"] needs an introduction which I will try to write today, but otherwise it is complete enough, although, again, I am afraid it is not what most people consider a story." ("Circus at Dawn" was published in Modern Monthly in 1935; it was also included in From Death to Morning.) Wolfe generally left such decisions and selections up to Nowell.
All fourteen stories that From Death to Morning (1935) comprises appeared in magazines or academic journals between July 1932, when The Web of Earth was published, and October 1935, when "The Bums at Sunset" appeared. Seven of these stories were published by Scribner's Magazine, two by Modern Monthly, and one each by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, and the Virginia Quarterly Review—a wide variety of publications. Letters in 1933 indicate that Wolfe was hard pressed for money; selling stories was therefore essential. He was down to $7, he said, when the sale of No Door to Scribner's Magazine brought him $200. Although he welcomed this sum, Wolfe wrote George Wallace (a former member of Professor Baker's 47 Workshop at Harvard) that he was considering taking his stories to another agent, one who had indicated he could get higher prices than Scribner's Magazine, Wolfe's most frequent publisher, offered. Obviously Wolfe would indeed welcome "large fat checks" from Cosmopolitan. These stories earned him funds first as single sales and then in the collected volume From Death to Morning. This volume appeared eight months after Of Time and the River was published, making 1935 an important year of publication for Wolfe.
Wolfe attributed the unenthusiastic reviews of From Death to Morning to the criticism that continued to be made about Of Time and the River: excessive length. The favorable reviews stressed the lyrical prose, humor, realism, and engaging characters. Nevertheless, this neglected volume generally has been underrated, with just a few stories receiving serious attention; indeed, Richard Kennedy thinks that From Death to Morning is a book that discourages a second reading. While critics wisely avoid extravagant claims for this collection, they need not shy away from confidently praising Wolfe's variety of narrative forms, his range of subject matter, the large number of effectively drawn characters, the careful attention to place, and the emotional power. Indeed, emotional power is the significant feature, one that Wolfe conveys best through a pervasive feeling of loneliness in characters and through some extraordinarily violent scenes.
Narrative forms include the episodic, epistolary, stream-of-consciousness, as well as slice-of-life, the form that describes "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "The Bums at Sunset." Each of these stories concerns a problem, for which no solution is reached. Like most of the stories in this collection, these two implicitly explore the theme of loneliness that is prevalent even in The Web of Earth, a piece of writing whose main character, Wolfe says, "is grander, richer and more tremendous" than Joyce's Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses. In both "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "The Bums at Sunset," the characters are flat, distinguished only by age and basic reactions. The bums are a chance collection of lonely men exiled for unknown reasons from families and productive work. Both stories center on the arrival of a stranger. In "The Bums at Sunset," the appearance of the young, uninitiated bum threatens those who know the ropes and are suspicious of his lack of experience. "What is dis anyway?" one of them sneers, "a—-—-noic'ry [nursery], or sump'n." In "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," the big guy who presumes to learn all of Brooklyn by asking directions and studying his map baffles the narrator, who declares, "Dere's no guy livin' dat knows Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo." While the voice of the Brooklyn native narrates this story, an omniscient voice tells the story of "The Bums at Sunset," and his diction contrasts with the bums ungrammatical speech and limited vocabulary in its use of figurative language; for example, the fading light of sunset looks, he says, "like a delicate and ancient bronze." And in picturing these nondescript men, the narrator emphasizes that their inescapable loneliness tells "a legend of pounding wheel and thrumming rod, of bloody brawl and brutal shambles, of the savage wilderness, the wild, cruel and lonely distances of America." "Gulliver," a brief character study of an excessively tall man, relates the discomfort of someone who never fits into chairs, beds, or Pullman car berths—of a giant in a world of normal-sized people. Furthermore, the central character is subjected to the same insults wherever he goes: "Hey-y, Misteh! … Is it rainin' up deh?" His physical size dominates the story and causes the pain and incommunicable loneliness that mark his life. In "The Far and the Near," a very short piece originally entitled "The Cottage by the Tracks," Wolfe tells a sentimental story about a railroad engineer who finally discovers the reality of what he had thought to be an idyllic scene: a mother and a daughter who live in a country cottage near the tracks. For twenty years the engineer has waved to them as his train roared past, and now that he has retired, he comes to greet them in person. From the moment the older woman opens the door, he knows he should not have come. The idyllic scene he saw for years now fades before her suspicious attitude, her harsh voice, and her unsmiling face. The engineer is left disappointed and lonely, since the reality of the unfriendly cottage inhabitants precludes his hopes of friendship with them and indeed ruins his memory. If the engineer has any other life to go to, we are not told of it.
The subjects of loneliness and death coalesce in the story of the dying man in "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time." Because he is ill, the man must go away alone for the winter to warmer climate; his wife promises that she will join him in the spring. Other people board the train, many of them talking and laughing as they leave. The dying man's wife settles him in the compartment, turns, and quickly leaves to join her young, robust lover who waits on the platform. This desertion is repeated in a lesser way with the American youth assigned to this same compartment. His good health and youth contrast sharply with the dying man's condition. And when the youth leaves the compartment for the conviviality of the dining car, the older man dies. He never fulfills his modest desire of knowing well just "vun field, vun hill, vun riffer."
As it appears in From Death to Morning, No Door is only the first segment of a much longer work of the same title, a short novel Max Perkins considered bringing out in a limited edition. He did not do so, however. In the original version, this first segment is subtitled "October 1931." Structurally, the brief version in From Death to Morning fails to develop a unified plot. The story begins in the luxurious apartment of the host, a rich man who has taken the requisite trip to Europe, collected a suitably impressive collection of sculpture and rare books, and lives among furnishings that are of "quiet but distinguished taste." His young mistress is at his side when his guest (a writer) relates painful glimpses of Brooklyn's low life. The host appears to listen, but he responds incongruously—"grand," "marvelous," "swell"—even though the young man tells of men who live in alleyways, beat their wives, and consider murder and robbery honest toil. In some detail the guest relates an episode about the loud demands of a lonely prostitute for her $3 payment. Her client refuses to pay her until, as he puts it, she will "staht actin' like a lady." Oblivious to the irony, the host continues to murmur "grand," and he envies the young man the rich experience of living among such people.
In the final pages Wolfe abandons the host, his mistress, the tinkling cocktail glasses, and the penthouse balcony to recount the haunting story of a priest's death. One of Wolfe's finest vignettes, this episode stays in the narrator's mind "like the haunting refrain of some old song—as it was heard and lost in Brooklyn." At evening, a man and a woman appear in their respective apartment windows to talk, their voices issuing banalities such as "Wat's t' noos sinct I been gone?" Although Father Grogan has died while this speaker was away, the priest's death is little more than a piece of news to be reported by one nameless character to another. It is not a grief to be shared, as one can see by the response to the news: "Gee, dat's too bad … I musta been away. Oddehwise I woulda hoid." Although the narrator is fully aware of the tragic implications of the priest's death, he makes no overt judgments about the insensitive speakers. The scene ends with a simple line: "A window closed, and there was silence." The casual announcement of Father Grogan's death and the equally casual reaction lead the narrator to consider time, in whose relentless power fame is lost, names are forgotten, and energy is wasted. Indeed, Father Grogan and all mankind die in darkness; they are remembered only superficially, if at all.
Related as it is to loneliness and violence, the theme of human dejection is present throughout these stories. The host may be wealthy, but he is a man who has never really lived. Indeed, Wolfe says this man measures time not by actual deeds but "in dimensions of fathomless and immovable sensations." His young guest lives in a run-down section of Brooklyn, an environment in stark contrast to his host's penthouse. When the young man describes the abject conditions of his neighborhood, the host considers such tales colorful and alive, unlike his own rich but dead world. The diverse reactions of these two men cannot be reconciled. The unrelieved loneliness, the failure of communication, and the narrator's search for certitude and meaning are problems introduced but left unresolved. Solutions are hinted at through brief passages whose imagery expresses a momentary harmony—"all of the colors of the sun and harbor, flashing, blazing, shifting in swarming motes, in an iridescent web of light and color for an instant on the blazing side of a proud white ship." The color flashes and then is gone, however; what remains for the narrator is unspeakable loneliness….
Source: Elizabeth Evans, "From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond, and the Short Novels," in Thomas Wolfe, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 95–133.
Boyer, James, "The Development of Form in Thomas Wolfe's Short Fiction," in Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, edited by Richard S. Kennedy, Croissant & Co., 1983, pp. 31–42, originally a paper read at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 8, 1982.
DeVoto, Bernard, "Genius Is Not Enough," in Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973, pp. 75, 77–78, originally published in Saturday Review of Literature, April 25, 1936, pp. 3–4, 13–14.
Evans, Elizabeth, "From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond and the Short Novels," in Thomas Wolfe, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 95–133.
Field, Leslie, "Thomas Wolfe," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945, edited by James J. Martine, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 172–87.
Holman, C. Hugh, "Thomas Wolfe," in American Writers, Vol. 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 450–73.
McElderry, B. R., Jr., "Chapter 6: Wolfe's Shorter Fiction," in Thomas Wolfe, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964, p. 104.
Muller, Herbert J., Thomas Wolfe, New Directions, 1947, pp. 158–60.
Payne, Ladell, "Thomas Wolfe," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Second Series, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 366–70.
Roberts, Terry, "Resurrecting Thomas Wolfe," in the Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1, Fall 2000, pp. 27–41.
Wank, Martin, "Thomas Wolfe: Two More Decades of Criticism," in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring 1970, pp. 243–55.
Wolfe, Thomas, "The Far and the Near," in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Francis E. Skipp, Collier Books, 1989, pp. 271–73.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Thomas Wolfe, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 2000.
This collection of essays offers a representative selection of the current criticism on the author. Like other books in this series, this volume features an introductory essay by Bloom, a bibliography, and a chronology.
Griffin, John Chandler, Memories of Thomas Wolfe: A Pictorial Companion to "Look Homeward, Angel," Summerhouse Press, 1996.
Wolfe was known for his use of autobiographical elements in his fiction, starting with Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. In this book, Griffin collects extracts from Wolfe's novel, along with photographs from Wolfe's life, giving readers an insight into how Wolfe constructed the tale.
Holliday, Shawn, Thomas Wolfe and the Politics of Modernism, Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.
Holliday offers reasons why Wolfe, who was once held in the same esteem as writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, now holds an uncertain place in the literary canon. Holliday attributes this to many factors, including Wolfe's critics (who, according to Holliday, misunderstood Wolfe's modernistic writing style) and editors (who, according to Holliday, tampered excessively with Wolfe's drafts).
Nowell, Elizabeth, Thomas Wolfe: A Biography, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1973.
Drawing on her experiences as Wolfe's agent—particularly during the period in which he wrote much of his short fiction—Nowell gives an in-depth look at her famous client. This first full-length biography of Wolfe was originally published in 1960.
Thorne, Martha, ed., Modern Trains and Splendid Stations: Architecture, Design, and Rail Travel for the Twenty-First Century, Merrell Publishers, 2001.
Although the popularity of railroads reached their peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, in Western Europe and Japan they are experiencing a renaissance. This book details the look and feel of the modern trains—many of which are high-speed vehicles—and their corresponding train stations.
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