The OF Blog: Moving passages

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving passages

It is rather disheartening to see the results to date for the poll on Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe is one of my favorite 20th century authors and while he tended to be a bit prolix at times, often there was such a great passion and talent in his novels that passages such as the namesake one near the end of his last, posthumous novel, You Can't Go Home Again:

The whole year that followed his return from Germany, George occupied himself with this effort of self-appraisal. And at the end of it he knew, and with the knowledge came the definite sense of new direction toward which he had long been groping, that the dark ancestral cave, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back - but that you can't go home again.

The phrase had many implications for him. You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of "the artist" and the all-sufficiency of "art" and "beauty" and "love," back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, 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.

In a way, the phrase summed up everything he had ever learned. And what he now knew led inexorably to a decision which was the hardest he had ever had to make...
When read in context, this powerful passage takes on even more layers of meaning. It is one that I return to, time and time again, when the pains of the day threaten to become overwhelming. There is just so much in that passage that it would take pages and pages of writing to even come close to the heart of the matter.

But what about you? What authors have you read that have similarly moving passages?


Mark C Newton said...

Don DeLillo (especially in Underworld) often had something along those lines - that is moving, yet gently sifting under our layers. And being DeLillo, it was accompanied by more than a little style. Underworld is chock-full of great passages.

Si- said...

I have nothing specifically relating the passages you are talking about, but David's Psalms are definitely a revolving point of my life and reading. particularly PS 24, 23, 1.
I have a diary where I record some passages from novels that I think are really superb. I often return the poems of Wilfred Owens, particularly 'To Eros'.

Elena said...

The thing about your question is, how many of the great writers of a particular time are ignored by the general public? I know some of the folks who read your blog may be more erudite than that (I am not putting myself in that category, to be honest, as current stuff i read tends to be niche but not necessarily literary or meaningful), but not all. So the survey results may be reflective of the fact that great writing is often recognized after it's time. I've been reading a book of mini-bios of 15 "lost" 20th century writers (who were writing in the 30s and 40s, so it's really the middle quarter of the century), and such was certainly true for all of them...

Just a thought.

Larry said...


I loved DeLillo's White Noise and I've been meaning to get more of his books, so I'll certainly have to raise Underworld on that pending to-buy list.


The Psalms are indeed meaningful passages. When depressed, I do read Psalm 69 for comfort. And Owens was certainly a talented poet.


Time is a tricky thing. Wolfe was very, very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but since his works are such a glorious mess (his last three actually being edited out of a mammoth single manuscript that since has been lost in places), it is hard to approach teaching it in schools, which probably has contributed to his obscurity today. I expected the majority to go "huh?" at his name, but I still can't help but to think of him as being spoken in the same sentence as Hemingway, Faulkner, or FitzGerald. Interesting that Faulkner said at Wolfe's death that Wolfe was the greater writer. High praise from the man who won the Nobel Prize in Literature a year later.

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