When I was in sixth grade my class took an overnight field trip to Asheville, NC. This would have been the winter of 1980-81 and it included the obligatory visit to the Biltmore House, and, for some reason, a stop at a K-Mart near the hotel (I think my group's chaperone needed shaving cream or something). I think I bought a poster there, although I don't remember of what or why I thought it would be a good idea to spend some of my limited funds on it.
Anyway, the trip also included a visit to the Thomas Wolfe House. I remember being told that Wolfe was North Carolina's most famous writer and that this home was an important piece of American history. Here's a picture:
I don't really remember much about the place except that it was kind of dark in there and that it was full of period furniture. Maybe the stairs were steep. This was 35 years ago, after all.
These days hardly anyone reads or remembers Wolfe, and North Carolina's most famous author is probably Nicholas Sparks (alas, and he's from Nebraska). Here's the thing, though: growing up there, you'd think I would have read one of Wolfe's novels at school. I mean everyone agreed that Wolfe was amazing and the state's greatest writer, etc., etc., but none of his books ever appeared on a reading list. To be fair, sixth grade was probably too young for it (although my teacher, Mr. Grubbs, tried to get us to read A Tale of Two Cities, a slog at any age), but you'd think that maybe in high school they would have squeezed one in between Hawthorne and Shakespeare.
I bring this up because I finally decided to rectify the situation and read Wolfe's most famous book, Look Homeward, Angel. Subtitled A Story of the Buried Life, it is clearly autobiographical. The book is set in the fictional town of Altamont (clearly Asheville), where the young Eugene Gant lives with his mother in her boarding house, Dixieland (clearly the house run by Wolfe's mother in real life). As I plodded through all 500+ pages, I kept asking myself if I liked this book. In the beginning, I certainly did not. I mean, we get a narrative in which the novel's protagonist has a rich inner monologue as a toddler; since this is really Wolfe himself we get the sense that he thinks he's pretty special and smart and all that (as if the subtitle didn't clue us in). He used the word phthisic waaaaay too much (isn't once too much?). As Gant gets older we see how the school masters think he's special, his father wants him to go into law and politics, and his mother "pshaws" him constantly. He is prone to outbursts in which he tells his family they're all just haters (not in so many words, of course). Frankly, he comes off as a whiny brat, which would be ok if his family actually did something to make him feel bad. Except they don't, really. So, no I didn't like ole 'Gene and didn't care for the story much as a result. And when he goes to the state college in, get this, Pulpit Hill (groan), I just had to decide to ride it out.
Some 25 years later, J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye, with America's most famous whiny brat protagonist, Holden Caulfield. As I read Angel, I couldn't help thinking about Holden. I could all but hear 'Gene calling everyone around him phonies. Pining for girls who won't give him the time of day. Blah, blah, blah.
Here's the problem with books like this: you can only really identify with them when you're a teenaged boy (maybe girls can, too, dunno). When you read them as an adult, perhaps with a teenager of your own, you have no patience for them. I re-read Catcher a few years back and it annoyed me to no end; well, Holden annoyed me. The book itself is well-written.
Which is what I'll say for Wolfe. He crafts beautiful prose (when he isn't overusing obscure words). So I think I understand why everyone went nuts over his work; as an example of how to write floridly it's great, but as a novel it falls flat. And this latter point makes me understand why it never appeared on my high school reading lists--Salinger did it better and shorter.
But that's how it goes, I guess. What one generation thinks is great is often slowly forgotten. Maybe I should tackle Trollope next.