For my friend Ted Mitchell (1949-2008), a dedicated Wolfe scholar
During my recent visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to attend the annual gathering of the Thomas Wolfe Society on the campus of the University of North Carolina, I was reminded of a prologue reading I delivered at a similar gathering in Asheville, North Carolina back in the spring of 2007. That reading was taken from Antaeus or A Memory of Earth which Wolfe wrote in 1930 and which he originally intended for inclusion in his massive second novel, Of Time and the River (1935). These passages are Wolfe’s fictionalized account of the great flooding of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers in and around his native Asheville, in July 1916 after several days of steady rain. A dam was breached and the rising waters inundated the city’s river front claiming the lives of eleven local citizens. Wolfe had previously referenced this flood in Chapter 27 of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), but the Antaeus passages were Wolfe’s first well-tended treatment of the subject. One cannot read these passages without realizing how well Wolfe understood that no one could spend any time on or near a river without feeling, and perhaps fearing, it as a living presence.
Finally, the names of the mighty rivers, the alluvial gluts, the drains of the continent, the throats that drink America (Sweet Thames, flow gently, until I end my song!). The names of the men who pass and the myriad names of the earth that abides forever; the names of the men who are doomed to wander and the name of the immense and lonely land on which they wander, to which they return, in which they will be buried – America! The immortal earth which waits forever, the trains that thunder on the continent, the men who wander, and the women who cry out, “Return.” Finally, the names of great rivers that are flowing in the darkness (Sweet Thames, flow gently, until I end my song!).
The names of rivers, of great mouths, the mighty maws, the vast wet coiling never glutted and unending snakes that drink the continent. Where, sons of men, and in what other land will you find others like them, and where can you match the mighty music of their names? – the Monongahela, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Columbia, the Tennessee, the Hudson (Sweet Thames!); the Kennebec, the Rappahannock, the Delaware, the Penobscot, the Chesapeake, the Swannanoa, the Indian River, the Niagra (Sweet Afton!); the Saint Lawrence, the Susquehanna, the Tombigbee, the Natahala, the French Broad, the Chattahooche, the Arizona, and the Potomac (Father Tiber!) – these are a few of their princely names, these are a few of their great proud glittering names, fit for the immense and lonely land that they inhabit
O Tiber! Father Tiber! You’d only be a suckling in that mighty land! And as for you, Sweet Thames, flow gently till I end my song; flow gently, gentle Thames, be well-behaved, sweet Thames, speak softly and politely, little Thames, flow gently till I end my song.
William Least Heat-Moon, writing about his long trip across America by boat in River Horse , describes navigating his way along the Missouri River, in South Dakota. “There’s something in flowing water that can make a bloke downright contemplative.” Standing on the banks of the Missouri just a month before I delivered this prologue reading I started to think a great deal about rivers; not just the flowing waters of the big American rivers, but also about my beloved trout streams in Northern New Hampshire; the chuckling waters of a freestone creek in Latimore Township, Pennsylvania, not far from where Wolfe’s father grew up; the French Broad River, as it meanders through western North Carolina.
And thinking of these I was reminded of a favorite passage from Norman Maclean which, appropriately, always speaks to me of the dimensions and constituencies of all water. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of these words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” The American actor, Tom Skerritt, who portrayed the father in the film adaptation of Maclean’s novel, once noted that rivers are very visceral, and that this passage is “as fine a piece of American prose as I can ever imagine.” Maclean added, “A river has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.”
Wolfe, like Maclean, also searched for the true nature of these flowing waters. Writing to his editor Max Perkins in July 1930, Wolfe clarified what he was intending with Antaeus; “everything moves across the enormous earth . . . moves to the great rhythm of the great river . . . .” Perhaps Wolfe was recalling Mark Twain’s stories of flooding along the Mississippi, something William Faulkner also alludes to in The Wild Palms (1939).
Of the paw of the yellow cat that smites the nation, of the belly of the snake that coils across the land – of the terrible names of the rivers in flood, the rivers that foam and welter in the dark, that smash the levees, that flood the lowlands for two thousand miles, that carry the bones of cities seawards in their tides; of the awful names of Tennessee, the Arkansas, the Missouri, the Ohio, and the Mississippi.
Thomas Wolfe would have understood this elegy as he demonstrates so well in these quoted passages which he describes to John Hall Wheelock, another editor at Scribner’s, in 1930. “In Antaeus, in a dozen short scenes, told in their own language, we see people of all sorts constantly in movement, going somewhere, haunted by it . . . I saw it as a child, I’ve seen it ever since, I see it here in their poor damned haunted eyes.” There is an urge to wander the earth just as its rivers wander through their various landscapes. Life is brief, but the rivers continue to flow gently on.
Yes, he likes livin’ on the River, an’ he likes lookin’ down the River, an’ he can’t fool me, I know why he keeps listenin’ in the night when he thinks I’m sound asleep; he’d like to be out there upon the River, he wouldn’t care if he went on forever, he could spend his life-time floatin’ down the River
[ . . . ]
O God! Just let me live where nothin’ moves! Just let me live where things will always be the same! I want a house way up there on a hill! Just make him build a house upon high ground! I want a house that’s all my own, an’ trees an’ hills an’ no more River!
There’s nothin’ you can hold there on the River! There’s nothin’ you can keep there on the River! It takes your house, it takes your home, it takes Annie holdin’ to the oak, it takes people by you all day long, it takes your man away – yes! even when you look at it you find you cannot look at it, it takes your eyes along with it, an’ you keep lookin’ down the River, there’s nothin’ you can keep along the River, my life an’ time an’ all, ten years of it, have gone on down the River! That’s why I hate an’ always will, the River!
Now he’s beside me listenin’ to the River. Now I can feel him listenin’ to the River! He thinks that I’m asleep, but I can’t sleep for listen’ to the River!
I know each sound that’s comin’ from the River! I hear the willows trailin’ in the River! I hear the oak-limbs snagged there in the River! All of my thoughts are flowin’ like the River, all of my life is movin’ like the River, I think an’ talk an’ dream just like the River, as it flows by me, by me, by me, to the sea.
[Thomas Wolfe, Antaeus or A Memory of Earth, edited by Ted Mitchell, The Thomas Wolfe Society, 1996]
Thomas Wolfe was certainly haunted by waters. Perhaps we all are in one way or another.
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