Novelist Susan Swan visited the Chelsea last summer, staying in Thomas Wolfe's old room (you remember Thomas: he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again" in room 829). She considers Wolfe a literary father-figure, and, as you can see from the following story, her stay at the Chelsea was for her a profoundly spiritual experience.
Thomas Wolfe doesn’t knock. Why bother? He’s home. I hear his tubercular cough as he lets himself in. He floats through the wood and on down the curving vestibule until he is right where he wanted to be. Of course I scream and clutch the sheets to my chest. "It’s just me…a shade of my former self" His ghastly head inclines back and forth and I realize he is laughing at his own joke. Then he says: "Something feels amiss." I follow his eyes and say, "They divided your rooms in two. A musician lives in the other half. But I’ve got the best section. See? The fireplace still works." "Nothing like a fire." He stares at the silent blaze of my log. "Only those synthetic things give me the willies."
My Feet Hit The Floor with a Smack
I was raised to be the master of any social occasion. My feet hit the floor with a smack. Still clutching my sheets, I throw him a groggy stare: "Do you want a Scotch?" Again in the darksomeness, the silvery head moves back and forth: Yesssss.
Extending My Hospitality
I come back with a drink tray, the ice cubes in the tall glasses, sloshing and jangling. "You’re awfully quiet," I say. "Please talk--it makes me uncomfortable when people stare." He accepts his glass politely and sits down in an armchair by the fire. I seat myself on a nearby stool. "Forgive me," he says in a very faint voice. He has been gaping at me, trying to decide if he finds me attractive.
Thomas Wolfe on Me
He thinks the distracted look on my face suggests the abstracted devotion of a young nun. He can imagine a cowl draping my head. It’s a very literary way of looking at me, as you might well imagine.
A Shade of his Former Self
Frankly, Thomas Wolfe hasn’t had much success lately with his own writing. Did he mention that? He can’t concentrate long enough to start the flow. It takes all his energy just to hold himself together. Increasingly, he feels like someone lightened of every tissue and synapse.
Once his writing was synonymous with American prose. But today his books are an "undergraduate indulgence." He read that phrase somewhere and God, it stung. Today his name is so faded on the mattering map of American literature that it is no bigger than the bottom row on an ophthalmologist’s chart--the tiny letters that only those with perfect vision can see. Thomas Wolfe, not Tom, I say to young friends who haven’t read his novels.
His Size Thirteen Shoes
"Somebody came here last week and took away your shoes," I tell him. "They had to be yours. Size thirteen--a fan, I think." He sighs, the sound of his gratitude like a whoosh of traffic noise.
I, Too, Worry about my Reputation in American Letters
I, too, worry about my reputation in American letters. Especially now that my book had been savaged in the Times. Following a silence of 15 years, I had brought forth a new work and heard it dismissed as "inconsequential, plodding novel & neither original nor memorable. " Brittle & overwhelmingly self-pitying " had been some of the dismaying phrases. "At least they didn’t say I couldn’t write my way of a paper bag." Thomas Wolfe replies. "The only thing a writer needs to concern himself with is staying open to experience. If we aren’t vulnerable we can’t write."
Thomas Wolfe on the Writing Life
No one thinks about what happens to writers after they lose the attention of their public do they? Writers either peak early or last too long. And who, more than Thomas Wolfe, dares to argue? He was raised to win but now he says losing is the art writers need to master.
When Thomas Wolfe was a resident, Purdell Kennedy, the bell captain, was his best friend. Purdell would bring him free coffee with a dab of Scotch every morning and say, "A little hair of the dog, boy?" Poor Purdell, dead and gone so long now. He loves the hotel’s façade of rufous brick--its spidery balustrades and Victorian gables. How many nights did he cover the floor of his suite with manuscript pages? And sweat-stained shirts, fortified by raw gin? One thousand four hundred and eighty? Or was it only six hundred and two? And now he’s back to finish his manuscript.
His Last Masterpiece
He left the Chelsea in the summer of 39, planning to return to put the final touches on his last masterpiece. Instead he fell ill in Baltimore from acute pulmonary tuberculosis. To give him relief, the doctor bored a hole into his skull and fluid had spurted three feet into the air. Those were his biographer’s very words. He couldn’t remember what went on in the operating room. Just his brother remarking, "You’re going to be fine, boy." "I hope so, Fred," he’d replied. And look what happened!
Thomas Wolfe on His Critics
I can still remember every word of my last review. …Placental material--long, whirling discharges of words unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction & raw gobs of emotion, aimless and quite meaningless jabber…" Thomas Wolfe stops. He realizes he is getting distraught. And once he starts, he can’t help himself. He can recall every word. They all do. We all, he corrects himself. "If only that critic could hear me now! I don’t have a clue how I lost my biblical cadences," he says. "But after all these years I am turning into a modernist like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They were enemies of mine, you know."
"Time transforms everyone," I reply. "No reason to think you will be any different."
Thomas Wolfe Plans to Fix the Critics
My next book will reassert my old prominence. It’s going to be a living diaogical--is that the right term? I shake my head. "Dialogical."…a living dialogical mural that fictionalizes the life of every man and woman in Eastern America. I will go back to my old Biblical cadences and put in every beauteous cranny of the world I love. Do you believe me? I put up my hand in protest. "I think you should know that I read one of your old journals last night and it made me cry." I’m sorry."Look, no need to be modest with me. I know the passage off by heart." I begin to quote: ‘No one owes the writer anything for writing…he may regret the stupidity or ignorance that keeps his work unknown, but he must accept it as one of the possible conditions under which he must work.’
Ah, Now He remembered
Ah, now he remembered. He wrote those words as a young man. When he didn’t know better. I see his eyes move to his old desk. Surely, now that I have welcomed him so hospitably, he can get on with his writing. At least, that’s what I think he’s thinking. "Don’t you want to hear the rest?" I ask aware his attention is straying."Oh god, no," he says. I give him a sympathetic look. "You know, I think you need to hear it. I take another gulp of her Scotch: "’No one asked the writer to write…let him expect nothing’”. My voice quivers slightly over the word nothing and then I compose myself. He extends his silvery hand for another Scotch and says, "Thank God, I am still a sentient being in some respects at least." (to be continued next halloween)
Susan Swan is a novelist, journalist and one of York University's most prestigious public intellectuals. She is the author of six books of fiction including The Wives of Bath, a finalist for Ontario's Trillium and the Guardian Fiction Award in the UK.
Her most recent novel, What Casanova Told Me, was nominated for the 2004 regional Commonwealth Prize and as a Globe and Mail, Now Magazine and Calgary Herald best book for 2004. (more information on the reception to that novel can be found here)