Hem, Faulkner, Wolfe: Voices of the times

Good morning! The below article by John Krull is so interesting and a great observation of the end of the 1920’s. I greatly enjoyed it and it’s short enough for me to read on a busy Saturday. I hope you enjoy this look at Hemingway and two of his contemporary. Tomas Wolfe also had Max Perkins as his editor and Hem at times was jealous. Best, Christine

By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – They appeared within days of each other, like flowers blooming just as a storm hit.

Three of America’s enduring novels – William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” – were published in the autumn of 1929, just days before the stock market crashed and sent the nation into the most profound economic depression in its history.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Vastly different books written by vastly different men, the novels shared at least one thing in common. They were signs of something stirring in American culture, a willingness to peer beneath the surface and record without hesitation what one saw in the scurrying places down below.

Hemingway’s book came first. It was published on Sept. 27, 1929.

Taken often – particularly in the movies – as an aching tragic love story, “A Farewell to Arms” is much more than that. Hemingway is often – and with justice – criticized for his macho chest-thumping and seeming celebrations of combat, but his relationship with war was more complicated than his myth suggests.

In “Farewell,” his lovers flee a World War I in which rules and alliances seem to have been shattered. Comrades kill comrades and chaos reigns.

Hemingway wrote of the importance of exhibiting “grace under pressure” because he saw that the world often made no sense. It was crucial to maintain presence of mind when reason itself seemed to have abdicated the throne.

Faulkner’s book appeared next, on Oct. 7. A tour de force, American letters hadn’t ever seen anything like “The Sound and the Fury.” In some ways, American literature still hasn’t.

It was an explosion of modernist technique. A tale told by several voices, it is the story of a doomed Southern family. Each narrator carries wounds and each wound was inflicted by history.

In the course of the story, Faulkner probes and exposes all the sore points of the Southern heritage – race, incest, guilt, defeat, despair.

Before Faulkner, Southern literature celebrated regional notions of chivalrous conduct, a mythology grounded more in wishful thinking than historical fact.

After Faulkner, such denials of Southern reality became harder, even impossible, to sustain. He’d torn away the concealing curtain.

Wolfe’s book followed Faulkner’s less than two weeks later, on Oct. 18. Now often dismissed as self-absorbed coming-of-age story, “Look Homeward, Angel” was more intricate than that. Wolfe, with a master’s degree from Harvard, was the best-educated of his literary contemporaries – and he likely was the best-read of them.

“Look Homeward, Angel” mingled elements of James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis to take a penetrating look at the not so quietly desperate life of a Carolina mountain boom town. It slices away at one of the sustaining myths of American life, that small communities were temples of virtue and rectitude.

Six days after Wolfe’s book came out, “Black Thursday” happened and the stock market started its long, hard dive. Five days later, “Black Tuesday” – Oct. 29, 1929 – happened and the debacle was complete.

Over the next decade, as much as 25 percent of the American population – and in some parts of the country the number was closer to 40 percent – would be jobless. The stock market and the American economy wouldn’t return to the levels known before the crash until the early 1950s.

The despair Hemingway, Faulkner and Wolfe depicted became the national norm.

But they demonstrated a diamond-like resilience in the American character. However profound our devotion to illusion may be, we Americans periodically do find the clear-eyed courage to peer into the darkness and not blink.

Hemingway, Faulkner and Wolfe weren’t saints. Tortured men, they all drank too much and battled demons from their own experience and, often, of their own making.

Each writer came to a hard end. Hemingway, of course, committed suicide. Faulkner suffered a series of debilitating injuries and illnesses brought on by heavy drinking before he died. Wolfe succumbed to tuberculosis of the brain, brought on, one story has it, because he shared a bottle of whiskey on a raw day with a sickly hobo.

Each, though, left his work as a kind of monument, an affirmation that there is harsh beauty in truth.

And a timeless reminder that we Americans can’t make dark times any lighter by ignoring that darkness.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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