Saturday, March 22, 2014

Look Homeward, Bibliophile

It hasn’t been a dominant part of our trip, but it has been an occasional pleasure.  Visiting Bookstores.    To a certain extent, we have avoided bookstores.  All of us in the family have serious book habits, which is fine when we live in our 2500 square foot house in Austin.  But we are living in the belly of the Monster.  Although the Monster is a serious structure to haul around the nation with a pick up truck, it’s not terribly accommodating for people and their personal libraries.
Thomas Wolfe
So we have been very disciplined book purchasers.  First, everyone is buying, renting, and borrowing books for their Kindles or IPads.  No clutter in The Cloud.  Two of my favorite digital books have been Scott Martelle’s Detroit:  A Biography and Deborah Davis’s gossipy history on Newport, Guilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort. How Newpor  Second, we will only occasionally purchase a hard-copy souvenir.   I now have a book on Cahokia, Seneca Falls, Bar Harbor, the Lower East Side, and a pamphlet on the iron industry in South Central Pennsylvania.  At the Longfellow House and Museum in Portland, Maine, I succumbed to a cheap paperback copy of Evangeline and Other Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I had not planned to read Evangeline, but I did and am very happy to have done so.  The rhythm of Longfellow’s dactyls bounce along quite nicely with the hum of the road. Third, I did sin, once.  I over-indulged when I could not resist some mass paperbacks at a library sale in Bar Harbor:  The House of Seven Gables, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Square, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and The Awakening.  Fifty cents a piece, each of these filled a slot in the syllabus for the great American Road Trip. 
More important are all the books we have resisted.  Think of all the places we have visited and all the gift shops.  Woody Guthrie, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, L.L. Bean, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Calvin Coolidge, Emily Dickinson, Paul Revere, John Bradford, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, W.E. B. Dubois, Sojourner Truth, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, Robert E. Lee, Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Martin Luther King, and the list goes on and on.  So many wonderful, fascinating, strange Americans to understand.  I have my reading list for when we return.
Bruised Apple Books
So fourth and finally, the bookshops.  My three favorite bookshops on this trip so far are Bruised Apple Books in Peekskill (New York),  Daedelus Books in Charlottesville (Virginia), and Black Mountain Books in Black Mountain (North Carolina).   At Bruised Apple, I picked up The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and A Fan’s Notes.  The first two became part of Dr. J.’s and my shared reading (as we had done with Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, On the Road, and The Road).  I reserved Exley for my own personal miseries.  At Daedelus, I nabbed a copy of Leo Damrosch’s biography of Jean Jacques Rousseau and a couple of other books,  for the class I am taking to satisfy requirements for the sabbatical that is paying for this adventure.  The owner of Daedelus, who is famous in the area and a wonderfully sweet and generous man, gifted Jacob with three mysteries.  At Black Mountain Books, a little tourist bookshop that remains true to the artistic heritage of the town by hiding some really tasty books in the backrooms, I found my copy of Look Homeward, Angel
At nineteen and twenty, at the University of Texas, I fell head over hills in love with Scott Fitzgerald.  I read almost everything he had written.  A few years later on Staten Island, that obsession transformed into a summer of love with Ernest Hemingway, which, on returning to graduate school, was soon tempered by a sweet tryst with Thornton Wilder.  William Faulkner entered my life occasionally for a few desperate over-wrought hours, but departed soon enough.  Even though in the mid-nineteen seventies, some professors still recommended the beauties and pleasures of Thomas Wolfe’s enthusiastic and overbearing prose, I resisted.   I can’t tell you why really, except that I have an innate attraction to the clean and classic, the simple and direct, none of which is a description of Thomas Wolfe.  And, being a slow reader, I avoid large books when I can.
Daedelus Books
But we were in North Carolina.  We were visiting Asheville.  We are seeing America, and no one—except, of course, Walt Whitman—loved America, wished to roll himself in the strong arms of this great and various nation more than Thomas Wolfe.  He gushed and spurted, salivated, spit, drooled, splashed and slopped his never ending rush of words over the body of the nation.   Now that I have finished his first novel, I have added the names of his other books to my “To Read Once the Adventure Is Over” list. 
There is much to say about Look Homeward, Angel.  Too much really.   I put some of what I have to say into an essay for the class I am taking (many thanks to the professor for allowing me to bring non-required reading into the course).  You can find that essay here.   On a personal level I found the final third of the novel to be compulsively overwhelming, feeling what I imagine a glutton feels gorging, gorging, gorging long after one is sated.  One cries, “No more! No more!” while scooping up larger and greater portions.  Remember that scene in Magical Mystery Tour with John Lennon shoveling pasta on to the diners’ plates.  That’s it.  Gleeful torture.
Thomas Wolfe's First Novel
Some critics call his work indulgent, adolescent, lacking art.  I think they are missing the point.  Is Ulysses adolescent?  Is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mere autobiography?  Weren’t these the books Wolfe was attempting to place his book beside?  I think Wolfe knew exactly what he was doing—at least in the composing.  Sure, he was less assured in the assembly.  But that criticism misses the point.  His narratives were not constructed on emotional arcs.  His novels were a great piling on of detail.
Wolfe captures that American compulsion to over-indulge, over-desire, over-emote, over-express, to dominate and to be dominated by personal demons.  It’s LBJ and Nixon.  It’s Cheney and Trump.  It’s John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison.  It’s everyone of us who doesn’t know when to say that we have had enough, that “This is all I need.”  Wolfe’s father was a raging and periodic alcoholic.  His mother was perfect American capitalist, denying love and comfort to her family, as she nurtured tenderly and greedily her bank balance.  And Wolfe, himself, gushed forth his own coinage into the vaults of his novels, with rage and greed equal to his parents’. 
I read somewhere that Look Homeward, Angel was one of Kerouac’s favorites, and, if true, that fact makes sense to me.  Both writers were unsettled, rebelling against and imprisoned by their hometowns.  They couldn’t go home; nor could they make home elsewhere.   Look Homeward, Angel is one long aching plea—“Where is my home?”  Isn’t that close to why Kerouac hit the road?  Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mexico, all part of a search to find the place where it all feels right.
Thomas Wolfe's Home, Called "Dixieland" in his novel
In our family, Knightsmama is the searcher.  It is her hunger for change, for some kind of perfect home, that animated this adventure.  I am the homebody.  Give me my books, a typewriter of some form, and some friends and family I see on occasion, and I will be content.  I am the introvert; I search inside.  Knightsmama is the extrovert; she searches the borders.  Yet, I have loved this trip, the great adventure, even with our being tied to the docks in East Texas for three months now, almost.  And I am ready to hit the road again, and I am not sure I would ever wish it would end. 
An Angel from Wolfe's Father's Shop
Thomas Wolfe’s fourth novel, published posthumously, is titled You Can’t Go Home Again.   Of course, the first fact is you can go home again.  I know plenty of folks who left my hometown of Temple and returned, and they seem perfectly happy.  The question for those of us who got out and made ourselves a life away from home is why would one want to go home again?  And in a strange way, this is a question I have to ask myself as I contemplate the completion of this year on the road:  why would I want to return home in Austin?  My job is the first reason.  I like having a job.  But if this year has taught me anything it is that home is where I am, where I am with my boys and with my wife.  That could be in the thirty-four foot monster.  It could be in The Buckaroo’s home on Hundred Acre Woods in the middle of Nowhere, East Texas.  It could be in any of our favorite places where we have stayed:  Fayetteville (Arkansas), Paducah (Kentucky), Grand Bend (Ontario), Cooperstown (New York), Newberryport (Massachusetts), Portland (Maine), Narragansett (Rhode Island) Peekskill (New York) or, Carlyle (Pennsylvania), Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia), or Crozet (Virginia), or Asheville  or Wilmington (North Carolina).  That’s my list, at least.
In one week, we will be hitting the road west.  We have “lost” about six weeks from our original Western itinerary.  Mostly these weeks will be subtracted from New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.  We lost a great deal of lingering time. We still have our firm date of hitting Corvallis, Oregon, for Knightsmama’s graduation from Oregon State University.  She completed all her course work, the final classes in the fall, on the road.  Then in June and July, we point the monster home east and then south.  If all goes to plan, we will still hit all the western states.

There is a strange thing about our plans for these final months.  The greatest goal is our visits to American National Parks.  The strange thing is that Thomas Wolfe died at age thirty-eight after touring several great western national parks.  We have his notebooks, his great enthusiastic jottings.  It will be one book I carry along with us.  O great arms of America!  I am returning see you again!

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Dan Seals:  "Heading West."
Cyndi Lauper:  "Heading West."

1 comment:

  1. Yay! The Caravan lives another time. Once again, I am envious of your travels. At the same time, I am thrilled to read about your experiences, as I travel with you. Keep on rolling.
    Love to all,
    Ricky

    ReplyDelete