Of Time and the River
by Thomas Wolfe
“The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know — the greater the number of the books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be…. The thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever.” ― Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth
This is the sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe's massive first novel. It is a sequel that almost doubles the first novel's length. In much of Wolfe’s writing, lengthy descriptions of train journeys impart a sense of movement and change. In Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth, his hero, Eugene, embarks upon a trip northward. Having left college in his native state, Eugene believes that he has become a witness to a vast and panoramic series of images which, taken together, reveal the many faces of America itself. He feels a sense of escape from the dark and mournful mystery of the South to the freedom and bright promise of the North, with its shining cities and extravagant hopes. The plains, peaks, and valleys that shape the landscape over which he passes, as well as the innumerable towns and cities along the way, suggest to him the limitless diversity of the United States.
Other images, mainly from the past, are called up within Eugene when he stops in Baltimore to visit the hospital where, in his fatal illness, his father is being treated. The old man seems yellow, wan, and exhausted, and only the stonecutter’s hands, of a massive size and grace, seem still to suggest the strength and dignity with which he had once carried out his chosen calling; even appearing to have wasted away, and with only hints of his once vibrant spirit. Somewhat later dies in the midst of numerous relatives and friends who have come by during his last days.
Wolfe’s second novel is divided into parts bearing allegorical allusions; the figure most readily identified with his fictional hero is portrayed in the second section as “young Faustus.” Just as Goethe's Faust is noted for his striving for knowledge that marks him as the first modern man, Eugene Gant is propelled by an immense and boundless striving to read anything and everything he can and to encompass all known learning and literature in a self-imposed regimen that goes well beyond the limits of formal study. At Harvard’s library he prowls about in the stacks, taking down volumes he has not seen before and timing with a watch how many seconds it takes to finish one page and read the next before moving on. Eugene also walks the streets alone, mainly for the sake of gathering in sights and sounds that are still new and not entirely familiar to him. He marvels at the lonely, tragic beauty of New England, which he has come to believe differs from his native South.
Eugene, like Wolfe himself, for a time devotes unstinting energies to writing plays for a workshop which absorbs his energies, but later he turns away from these efforts as constraining and imposing limits upon his creative self. At times he expresses his disdain for productions that he thinks are overly fashionable or artistic. Wolfe often was given to expressing his hero’s observations and aspirations quantitatively, in large numbers, to suggest some great and unrealized vision of the nation and of human culture, in its immeasurable richness: While at Harvard, Eugene yearns to read one million books, to possess ten thousand women, and to know something about fifty million of the American people. Such strivings seem idealistic and elemental yearnings of and young man whose very being seems set upon not the satisfaction but the pursuit of his unending quest.
For a time, however, he must provide for himself by teaching college-level English courses in New York. All the while, the growing discontent fed by this routine breeds in him wants of another sort. Eugene yearns to travel and experience new vistas on several levels. One autumn he sets forth to see the great cities of the Old World.
In England, Eugene feels some affinity with a people who share with him a common language and literature. Though England seems drab and colorless in some ways, and the cuisine for the most part bland and disappointing, he ultimately senses a bond of affection which transcends any outward differences. On the other hand Eugene is moved by the atmosphere and attitudes which contrast with those of his own country. In France he feels overwhelmed by the Faustian urges that had beset him earlier; he wants to learn and read everything about Paris and its people. Not quite attracted or repelled, he becomes fascinated and at times awestruck by his surroundings.
Some episodes having less to do with cultural matters prove diverting and at times distressing. When he encounters a man he had known from his Harvard days and two American women, their brief camaraderie turns to bitterness and recrimination when Eugene, somewhat put out by what he regards as their affected Boston ways, becomes involved in a fight with his erstwhile friends. After some spirited quarrels, he leaves the others. Once out of Paris, he is befriended by some odd older women from noble families; in the end, as he has chronically been on the verge of exhausting his money altogether, his travels on the Continent must be brought to a close. Having traveled about at length, more and more he has become beset with a longing for home, and indeed he is eager for the sight of anything that might hint of America. When the journey of this modern Faust has been completed, he also—in a state of some wonderment—comes upon a woman for whom he has been longing, on the return voyage home.
"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals therof are coals of fire, which have a most behement flame." (p 922)