Sunday, September 13, 2009

With the Suddenness of a Dream

Since first visiting Maine in the summer of 1988, and early trips to Ocean Point and Orr’s Island, I have long been interested in the American writer Thomas Wolfe’s brief yet interesting association with this rocky coastline. My early visits to those areas, coupled with my research, eventually led to an article, "Ocean Point Rhapsody," in the August 1994 issue of Down East Magazine, followed by a talk on the subject at a conference at Harvard University, in 2001. I later organized an annual meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society which convened at the Eastland Hotel, in Portland, in 2005, and Wolfe’s visits to Maine became a focal point of that gathering. Earlier this summer, while on a short visit to Maine, I returned once again to the areas where Wolfe stayed and I poked around his old haunts. [Vintage postcards courtesy of the Sally Ann Rogers Collection. Current photographs courtesy of the author.]

" ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’ A dozen times that year he made these tormented journeys of desire." With these words Thomas Wolfe, in Of Time and the River, describes the protagonist Eugene Gant’s desire to escape New York by train for brief "journeys of caprice" into unknown territories. On one such excursion Gant would discover "the lonely, tragic and elemental beauty of New England. It was the country of his heart’s desire, the dark Helen in his blood forever burning." Eugene, like Wolfe, felt drawn to New England, "with its harsh and stony soil, and its tragic and lonely beauty; its desolate rocky coasts and its swarming fisheries, the white, piled, frozen bleakness of its winters with the magnificent jewelry of stars, the dark firwoods, and the warm little white houses at which it is impossible to look without thinking of groaning bins, hung bacon, hard cider, succulent bastings and love’s warm, white, and opulent flesh."

Thomas Wolfe also traveled through New England, with brief visits in New Hampshire and Vermont in addition to his sojourns in Maine. Before gaining fame as the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and other novels and stories, Wolfe visited Maine on three separate occasions between 1923 and 1931. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, he grew up in the western mountains of his native state, and having never spent any time near the sea, the rugged coast of Maine made a deep impression on him.

Wolfe's first trip to Maine, in August 1923, was a short one. He traveled from New York to Portland on his way to Madison, New Hampshire, the home of Henry Carlton, a former Harvard classmate. Although Wolfe reacted favorably to his first trip to northern New England, his correspondence from that time provides no specific impressions of Maine. But he did return to the state almost six years later when he needed time and solitude for the preparation of the manuscript of his first novel for publication.

By the summer of 1929, the galley proofs of Look Homeward, Angel, were ready for review. Max Perkins, the iconic editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, assigned John Hall Wheelock, one of his junior editors, to supervise the final preparation of the manuscript. Perkins and Wheelock had already revised and shortened Wolfe’s morass of words by the time he received the galleys. Although Wolfe was already at work on some short stories, as well as developing ideas for his next novel, he set off on the arduous task of reviewing the galleys in his Manhattan apartment. "I don't like to visit people, or to make trips, or to do anything much besides my work when I am busy at it," he wrote to his mother. "I want to be here, naturally, while the book is coming out." But the weather in New York was "hellish hot" and he found it difficult to concentrate on his work; "It's as hot as any where on earth and you can smell all 7 million when the temperature hits 90."

At the end of June 1929, Aline Bernstein, Wolfe's lover and benefactor, rented a small cabin at Ocean Point, near Boothbay Harbor, where she and the young author could relax far away from their responsibilities in New York. Wolfe wrote to his mother that he was "tired and nervous" after working on the galleys for six weeks. Although he had been to Portland before, he was excited about the prospect of visiting an unknown place "far up the seacoast, no people around, very quiet. I'm going to think of nothing for two weeks." Furthermore, Wolfe was certain the weather would be better than back home in New York. "Where I go in Maine will be cold enough for a sweater and blankets. After New York I should like an ice box."

Wolfe departed New York in mid-July, traveling by train to Boston, and on to Bath, where he boarded a steamer for the hour-and-a-half trip down the Kennebec River to Boothbay Harbor. From there, he traveled by car the last few miles to the summer colony at Ocean Point, "a little place on the wild and rocky coast with a few summer cottages." Wolfe found his new surroundings to be an ideal place to get some rest; a cottage tucked away among the spruce trees "not 25 yards from the water," and the gray sky "full of creaking gulls, the Atlantic sweeps in a long grey surge." Aline Bernstein joined him a few days later, and he later wrote, "It's a wonderful place for a vacation - no noise except the ocean, nothing doing, no one has to dress up. You can fish, swim, sail and loaf to [your] heart's content, and there is always - even when they're roasting in Boston and New York - a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean." Wolfe enjoyed writing to family and friends, telling them about a nearby "rotten old wharf" and his ability to "pull fish in as fast as I drop the line."

Wolfe was completely taken by the serenity of Ocean Point and the beauty of coastal Maine. "If I ever make any money I may buy or build a little place here," he wrote to his mother in North Carolina. "Land is cheap - you can buy several good lots on the shore with spruce trees all around you for the price of a single foot of earth in Asheville several years ago - good lots are from $250-$500, I believe." In a letter to John Hall Wheelock, Wolfe described a harbor island, viewed from the porch of his cottage: "It is covered by a magnificent forest of spruce trees, and a little cottage is tucked away in a clearing under the mighty trees at one end." Now, he dreamed of buying the entire island, "and so strange is the possibility that one day perhaps I shall." He also confessed to Wheelock that he had been dreaming about an island even before he came to Ocean Point. He saw himself putting off from an old decrepit wharf on the mainland with his servant and provisions, and traveling to his island, with its "spring house where butter and milk and rounds of beef" are stored, and where one could face out on the open Atlantic. Now, from the porch of his cottage, Wolfe could finally see the island of his dreams. "I am unable to distinguish one from the other," he confessed to Wheelock, "so imperceptibly have the two fused (even to the rotten old wharf from which I fish)."

Wolfe's stay at Ocean Point was not without constant reminders of the work that needed to be done. Wheelock continued to send the latest galleys to the post office in Boothbay Harbor. Wolfe reviewed them, making the necessary changes and explications, and sent them back. Although most of their correspondence focused on the galley revisions, Wolfe apologized for subjecting Wheelock to his long "personal rhapsodies," but he felt obliged to share with his friends and family the joys of his newfound paradise. "In this wild and lovely place, all America stretches below me like a vast plain: the million forms that spend themselves in the city, and torture us so by their confusion and number, have been fused into a calmer temper - I am filled with a kind of tragic joy. I want to tear myself open and show my friends all that I think I have." The solitude of coastal Maine, the wooded islands, the scattering of small secluded cottages along the winding shore roads, the tidy yards with their bright flowers, and the immediacy of the sea, all had a profound impact on Wolfe. He had never spent any time near the ocean, and was struck by its mystery and grandeur. "I had ceased until recent years to believe there could be such scenes, and even now it does not seem real. I thought there would be preludes to the sea. But there are not."

In describing to Wheelock a night walk near his cottage, Wolfe demonstrated the power of his prose, not only in a more carefully crafted fiction, but in his description of the area near his cottage at Ocean Point. "The little farmhouses slept below the moon, the gnarled apple trees full of apples getting ripe leaned over the hedges, and on the walls the wild wood lilies grew." There is something unique about the Maine coast. You are passing through a pine forest, or an impressive stand or birch with its undergrowth of alders and rose hips, and then the wide ocean expanses are before you. Wolfe seemed mesmerized by this. "You would not say along that road the sea was there behind the houses, behind the fir trees and the hedge, and the apples getting ripe - and yet you round a bend, and the sea is there. I thought there would be vast lengthenings into the sea, slow stoppages of land and rock, drear marshy vacancies, slow lapse and waste relinquishment of earth, but when you round the bend of the road the sea is there . . . This union of the vast and lonely with the little houses, the land, the little harbor, made a great music in me . . . And I thought that if one came into this place on a ship from open sea it would be with the suddenness of a dream." Invigorated by the peace and quiet at the Ocean Point cottage, Wolfe found the time and energy to complete his galley revisions and to work on some new projects. "I feel packed to the lips with rich ore."

Wolfe's sojourn in Maine was brief, however, and at the end of July he left for Québec City, planning to spend a week or two in Canada before returning to New York. But Wolfe departed Ocean Point with a renewed spirit. "These two weeks up here have done me alot of good," he wrote to his mother. "[I am] no longer nervous and getting fat." The summer weather on the Maine coast - cool with only one day of rain - had agreed with him. On the trip to Québec Wolfe was also impressed with the lakes, hills and forests he had seen on his 1923 trip to New Hampshire. He returned to New York in mid-August, relaxed and ready to go back to work. The galleys of Look Homeward, Angel were sent to Max Perkins later that month and publication came later that year.

Following the publication of his first novel, royalty payments made it possible for Wolfe to resign his position at New York University and work full time on his second novel. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and he spent a year in Europe working on the growing manuscript. He eventually returned to New York in early 1931, and perhaps thinking back to the cottage at Ocean Point, considered moving to New England to write. Instead, he chose the relative anonymity of Brooklyn, where he hoped to find the peace and quiet he needed to finish his book. But Wolfe soon found it impossible to work. Pressure from Perkins to complete the manuscript, and the oppressive summer heat in his Brooklyn apartment drained his energy and ambition. His love affair with New York had faded and he yearned for a respite. Perhaps some time on the coast of Maine, the immediacy of the powerful ocean, might be just what he needed to salvage his work.

In early August 1931, Wolfe made another brief trip to Maine. Given his favorable impressions of the rocky coastline and the offshore islands two years earlier, it is surprising that he chose not to return to Ocean Point. Instead, he traveled to Orr's Island, not far from Portland, in Casco Bay, where he spent a week or so at a local boarding house. "It is a quiet place," Wolfe wrote to his mother, "and a good place to get a vacation." Wolfe had grown up in his mother's Asheville boarding house, but he quickly discovered that Orr's Island and his fellow boarders, with their "tartness of speech," their "mean prim swirliness," and their "suspicious chip-on-the-shoulder we're-as-good-as-anyone attitude," did not provide the solace he sought. "I'm taking my meals at a boarding house and the crowd of boarders is the same as it always was, " Wolfe wrote in a postcard to Alfred S. Dashiell, the editor of Scribner's Magazine. "They sit on the porch and rock - they never change."

The boarders’ attitudes overshadowed any effect the ocean had on Wolfe and served only to intensify his growing sense of alienation and discontent. "At night they come up to the fringes of the sea: they go down across the springy turf of pine-warm woodlands, they clamber over rocks, they walk along the hard sliding mist of salty sea - level, salty, unspeakable exultant, and illimitable - the sea confronts them and they cannot escape their hatred." The woodlands and the islands at Ocean Point in 1929 had been dream-like, a source of pleasure and inspiration. On this visit they were oppressive and distracting. "Hatred on an island - Orr's Island, for example - the reason why Englishmen when they begin to hate their country hate it with such an intense and bitter hatred." Yet it was the people, not the island, that were the source of Wolfe's irritation. "If there were only one man on the island there would be no hate."

Wolfe was always a wanderer, visiting places and becoming instantly enthusiastic about the people who lived there and the things that he saw and did. "My life had been enriched and quickened immeasurably by contemplating and experiencing them, and always when I saw them I had the profit of a vast, fertile, inestimable comparison." Wolfe frequently described his personal experiences in his stories and novels, including "the hissing glut of tides upon the thousand miles of coast . . . of men in harbors and traffic of the ships." The places Wolfe visited were also places to live and write. "I learned instantly and forever that this mythical, this magical, this wonder-making, miraculous, and mysterious place to work was everywhere, was all around us, was wherever we happened to be so long as the power, the will, the overwhelming and inexorable necessity to work was in ourselves." But Wolfe was a man of superlatives; each new place often out-shined the ones that came before. If he returned to a place later, he was often disappointed that it did not live up to his inflated expectations.

Like Wolfe's reaction to the other places he visited during his lifetime, the infatuation with Maine was short-lived. He had found a paradise, the cottage at Ocean Point, and had gained the peace and quiet he desperately needed to work. When he tried to recreate it on Orr’s Island, his efforts failed miserably. Wolfe would never return to Maine, never relive the pleasures of Ocean Point and the dream of his own secluded wooded island. After leaving Orr's Island, he returned to New York, where, with the exception of a few extended trips around the United States and to Europe, he remained for the rest of his short life. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935, followed by a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning, in 1937. When Wolfe died from tuberculosis in September 1938, just a few weeks short of his thirty-eight birthday, he left behind yet another massive manuscript that, after major editorial work by Edward C. Aswell, was eventually published by Harper's as two novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. Maine does not appear in any of these highly autobiographical works. Wolfe had created a dream world in Maine, and it ended with the suddenness of its beginning.

NEXT WEEK: The Old Swimming Hole

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