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The Shoes of a Giant

essay from The Oxford American, included in new book Gather at the River

On a curb that flanks the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville, N.C., the unwitting tourist confronts an enormous pair of tortured-looking shoes. At first glance they look like something cast off by a derelict reduced to negotiating the mean streets of downtown Asheville in his stocking feet.

But something about the orderly way they sit there--as if a bellman might come out and pick them up for a shine--invites a closer inspection. Looming just behind the shoes is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the 29-room "Old Kentucky Home" ("Dixieland" in "Look Homeward, Angel") where Wolfe grew up among his mother's boarders. Gutted by fire several years ago and closed to visitors, the monstrous old house is being reconstructed, slowly, under blankets of blue rainproof plastic.

There's no obvious connection between the shoes and the Wolfe Memorial. But what I discover on the curb is a literary relic, an actual pair of Wolfe's gargantuan shoes, lovingly bronzed by a local garden club and set in a memorial plaque that jests predictably about how hard it would be to fill these shoes.

Like ten thousand fools before me, I step up next to the big shoes and make the inevitable comparison. My black Reeboks are size 12s; the Asheville Giant appears to have me by at least four sizes, never mind the width.

Thomas Wolfe was a great big man, nearly six-and-a-half feet tall in his stocking feet. His awesome shoes were custom-made, like his coffin, and when he died he owned a literary reputation to match. For better than half a century, scholars with little picks and chisels have chipped away at the towering reputation that once cast its shadow, like Mt. Mitchell, over all the lesser peaks and tamer ranges of Southern letters. In 2000, the centennial year of his birth, Wolfe's stock is so deflated that his fierce partisans--of whom there are many--are struggling just to hold his place on the exotic fringe of the canon.

What have they done with Thomas Wolfe, to whom William Faulkner once ceded first place among all American writers of the '20s and '30s? (Faulkner ranked himself second.) To my surprise the question seems important again, after one night in a seventh-floor hotel room with a bird's-eye view of Wolfe's bronze shoes and his mother's dreadful house. As if some revenant with a grievance had whispered in my ear while I slept.

Wolfe's was no ordinary spirit; Asheville is no ordinary place. Driving north from Asheville on the remarkable Blue Ridge Parkway, you climb straight into the clouds. In a few minutes you're a mile above sea level, and the Great Smoky Mountains spread out below and around you in a panoramic extravagance beyond anything East of the Rockies, as vast and blue and breathtaking as anything on this continent. I pull over at the first high overlook on the parkway, where a marker reads: "The last buffalo seen in this locality was killed nearby in 1799 by Joseph Rice, an early settler."

I'm still being haunted by comparisons. Wolfe wouldn't have shared my trite, eco-sentimental sigh for the last Eastern bison and the biodiversity lost because our ancestors' one approach to wildlife management was ballistic. He'd have eyes only for the sublime, for the alpine valleys and range after range of blue mountains beyond. Then I remember, from researching a magazine article a few years ago, that Wolfe hated the mountains.

In the latest issue of Appalachian Journal, scholar John Idol makes an impressive attempt to reclaim Asheville's wayward giant for Appalachian literature, citing later works like "The Hills Beyond" where Wolfe is less ambivalent, at times even sentimental about the hills of home. But for most game that dog won't hunt. Wolfe's agent, Elizabeth Nowell, recalled that he had no use for nature and never learned the names of "the commonest birds or trees or flowers." By choice he lived most of his adult life in New York City. He was a more familiar figure in Paris than in North Carolina.

Maxwell Perkins, who edited "Look Homeward Angel," spoke of Asheville's mountains "imprisoning" Wolfe's imagination.

"The mountains hem you in and hold you and never let you go," complains a character in one of Wolfe's first plays.

Kentucky's ageless James Still--at 94 Thomas Wolfe's last living contemporary among Southern writers--chose similar words to express a very different emotion:

"I shall not leave these prisoning hills," begins Still's poem "Heritage," which hangs framed in the kitchen of our house near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Ashe County, North Carolina. "Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond."

Wolfe's difference, of course, is that he mistook his feelings for mountains--for Everest, Chimborazo, Denali, Popocapetl--and among them he found the crags and precipices, the coves and waterfalls that were for him a source of endless fascination. A colossus of self-reference, he was the intrepid explorer of the Andes and Himalayas of himself. In one of his lectures he described himself as spewing forth material "like masses of lava from a volcano." Enthroned on his inner Olympus, he didn't need to climb Mt. Mitchell to feel like a god.

Like that last poor bison, Thomas Wolfe's an easy target--high, wide and woolly, too big to miss, in the flesh or on the printed page. He's not hard to understand or deconstruct: If he didn't actually write down every thought he ever had, he came close enough to leave us the simulacrum of an unbroken stream of consciousness.

Many writers have felt superior to Wolfe, cooler and more controlled, better at driving a large idea around a banked track without running into the wall. Most people who write about Wolfe have lived to be older than he ever was, and we all know things he never learned. How old were you when you last felt like a Eugene--or Eugenia--Gant? When you imagined that all the world's pain and all its majesty was assembled out there just to backlight your journey and sing harmony for the epic song of your soul?

"He wanted opulent solitude," Wolfe wrote of Gant. "His dark vision burned on kingdoms under the sea, on windy castle crags and on the deep elf kingdoms at the earth's core..."

Ego alone won't sustain such flights. They require innocence, too. Wolfe died young, not quite 38. He was emotionally arrested, a big brilliant dream-addled child. "Look Homeward, Angel" and "Of Time and the River" are views from the starting gate, almost before "real" life commences. But so are "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Magic Mountain."

His innocence is as unfashionable as his effusion, and his grandiloquence. Yet many of the critics who condescend to Wolfe are not his equals. This was no literary ruffian but an erudite giant who devoured Western literature with the same appetite he brought to sex and fried chicken."

"He spoke well, had read everything, knew everything." recalled the late Cleanth Brooks, who was present in Richmond in 1936 when Wolfe, gripping a bottle of whiskey, delivered an unscheduled lecture on poetry to Robert Penn Warren and the MLA.

Wolfe for all his awkward sprawl was not a primitive. He was an anachronism, a throwback to the turn of an earlier century, to those German and English Romantics he all but memorized. As a people, Americans don't think like Wolfe anymore. They're hive creatures who network and conform, and practice petty avarice and sell themselves cheap. Self-absorption is epidemic but it's expended in therapy and self-pity, scarcely ever in the Promethean struggle that consumed Thomas Wolfe.

When I think of Wolfe, I think of a tragic scene from the annals of vertebrate evolution: A huge, ungainly bird, aerodynamically unsound, ill-designed for flight but straining--eyes wild, beak open wide, heavy wings creaking--to clear the last ridge and soar. Feathers are falling. What stuns us is not the height or length of the flight, but the stupendous effort, the aspiration--a metaphor, like the myth of Icarus, for the human soul and the human condition.

Wolfe, never quite a great writer or a great intellect, was a great creative force field--a consciousness charged with uncommon grandeur. Too many of us are blessed or cursed with irony, the best antidote for the hubris that challenges the gods. Irony is symbiotic with humility. But if everyone felt dwarfed by existential insights, who'd produce great works of art, or even great feats of engineering like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachia's bold answer to the Great Wall of China?

Irony never grounded Thomas Wolfe, never diluted what Elizabeth Hardwick calls his "assertion of primordial selfhood." Addressing a freshman assembly at the University of North Carolina, the 16-year-old Wolfe announced that his portrait would one day hang on that wall next to ex-presidents and Confederate generals (it does).

For a few people egomania is more than a weakness for pleasing themselves at the expense of others. It's a physical deformity, a gross fact like the one that confronted Wolfe every morning when he looked down and thought, "Those are damn big feet I have there."

Individuals with bloated, disfiguring egos often drink themselves to death, or become dictators or ruthless tycoons. Wolfe did much better. He left this record, these massive documents marbled with prose poems that still inspire and intoxicate, to attest to a life that drab mortals can barely imagine. He left great alarming footprints--like the Sasquatch--and defied the puny ironist to fill his shoes.

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