The Charlotte News



Wolfe: Genius Or Not?

Genius Is The Mildest Term They've Applied To
The Great Tom Of Tarheelia; Maybe You Agree
With This Conclusion

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: Ultimately, Cash would call Wolfe, shortly after his untimely death on September 15, 1938, "undoubtedly the ablest novelist of his generation". (See "On Living Forever"- October 16, 1938.)

There is a kind of critic in practice among us who apparently reports the name of any new author--at least of any new author that he himself has not been the first to ferret out and proclaim as being somehow an affront to himself and to his gods and who does his level best to hoot all such arriving young men altogether off the stage regardless of their merits.

And there is another kind who once merit is suspected in any of the vast host of aspirants for recognition, heaves away discretion altogether, searches all the dictionaries for more potent adjectives to express his boundless enthusiasm and will have it that here at last is the grand and authentic American genius despite the fact that he was saying the same thing about poor Thornton Wilder (a man of some genuine talent who has been overwhelmed by being laden with the temptation which went far beyond his powers) a few years back, and about, say, Percy Marks, a few years before that.

The Rocketing Prodigy

A case in point is the treatment of our rocketing Tar Heel prodigy, Tom Wolfe.

By far the greater number of reviewers in the country have hailed Wolfe in the most extravagant terms. Genius is the mildest word they have applied to him, and they have confidently ranged him already into the company of the immortals.

But that, it seems to me, is an immensely dubious performance. Wolfe is a man of very great talent, as a cursory reading of any of his works ought to make plain to anyone. He is a genius of high order, in the sense that all men who are truly artists at all are geniuses, which is to say, creators. But that he is a genius in the sense that he belongs in the very front rank of literary men in America during the last hundred years is a proposition which had better be left to cool for awhile before it is set loose in the world lest it do Wolfe a great deal more harm than good.

There's Dreiser, After All

For my own part, I frankly doubt it. After some years of wading around in the books of American authors, my feeling is that the only living American certain to be read for a more or less great while after he is dead is Theodore Dreiser. Possibly Willa Cather will hold up for a long time on the strength of that one incomparably beautiful story, "My Antonia." And there is some chance, I suppose, that Cabell will survive purely as an exhibit in a curious and often lovely style.

But read the story of Hutwood in "Sister Carrie," read the tale of the passing of Antonia's father, and then pick up Wolfe and read any comparable portion of his works, and it is immediately plain that he somehow fails to measure fully up--that there is some secret massivity, of rendering life fully in the round, and some penetration of essential beauty here to which he has not quite reached and which is the guerdon of immortality.

Force, Color, Beauty

But when that is said, the fact remains that he towers above his contemporaries in the age as old Mitchell towers above the hills of the Piedmont. Faulkner, Caldwell, Hemingway--not one of these is remotely his equal in force, in color, in accurate observation, in beauty.

But will the carping critics have it so? Far from it. Not content to enter the objections which may be legitimately entered to over-extravagant praise for him, they must deny him all merit whatever, and seek to pick him to pieces, to count up all his faults and a great many imaginary ones in an effort to make him seem a great awkward, inept lummox, who had better have kept to the family trade of stone-cutting, instead of trying to climb into the swell company of Henry James and William Dean Howells.

Second-Rate Inferences

Thus, one of the stock charges against him is that his books are great, sprawling inordinately long productions--the inference somehow being that because "Anthony Adverse" was a second-rate book, all long books are pretty certain to be second-rate, which is a little hard, to say the least, on "Tom Jones," "Clarissa Harlow," "Don Quixote," and the Holy Bible. Of course, nobody with any sense thinks that mere length is a measure of merit. The test is this--does interest hold up through that great length? And the answer here is emphatically yes.

And again they will have it that he is guilty of too free use of rhetoric. And again that he piles up his adjectives in great rows in flat defiance of the nice little rules set down in the nice little books on the laws of English by the professors who can't write a decent line. And again that he has read too much James Joyce, and occasionally leaps off into space with nonsense which has no such justification as Joyce's does have. And again that when he gets in a jam and doesn't see his way out, he simply leaves his tale dangling and goes off to tell quite another tale which, as like is not, he will end by treating in the same cavalier fashion. And all of it, every word of it, is perfectly true. But it means nothing, for in the end, this fact stands fast over and above everything: he gets his effects.

And finally, they will lace him with the count that his material is not worth all the effort he spends on it. I dismiss that by saying that it is a hangover from the days of the servant-girl romance and the doctrine that novels had to have a person of title as protagonist if they were to be "serious."

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