The word soup in Thomas Wolfe’s refrigerator

If you have ever met me or read my blog, you know that I am not a tall person. And I’m okay with that. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, was not a small person. I assume he was okay with that. Tall people come across with a sense of authority and power to us shorties. I am 5′ 0″. Wolfe was 6′ 6″.

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Due to budget constraints, the “life size” Wolfe is only 6′ 0″. The actual life size me is 5′ 0″. Add 6 more inches difference. He was really tall; just sayin’.

 

I’ve always kind of known about Thomas Wolfe, mostly from the book title You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940) and the romanticized view of Southern writers that an avid reader who spent her childhood in Georgia can’t escape.

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After watching the film Genius, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer A. Scott Berg book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978)  and writing about it, I have continued reading and researching into the life of Thomas Wolfe.

 

I loved the film, but after my recent sojourn to Indianapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society, I have even more questions. (And I’m buying yet more books. Running out of places to put them all!).

 

What was interesting to me is that so many dedicated Wolfe scholars and readers had some negative reactions to the film, which we watched together at the Indianapolis Public Library as a part of the weekend. Author Berg, on the other hand, who spoke to us to a standing ovation at our closing banquet, was pleased with the film. And I still love it.

 

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One of the complaints from the group about the film was the casting of Jude Law as Wolfe. Law, in my opinion, did a wonderful job, but he’s not anywhere close to 6′ 6″ and 250 plus pounds. But what actor would be close to that without being some former wrestler or football player of dubious acting ability? Law is better looking than Wolfe, but it’s a movie. I can look past that!

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The book had been considered for films for many years, according to Berg. At one time, Paul Newman was slated to play Max Perkins. And at another, Tim Robbins wanted to play Wolfe. That I can see, in his younger days.

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A young Tim Robbins, who is 6′ 5″.

One thing to keep in mind is that the film is based on a book about Max Perkins, the editor who wrangled with Wolfe and served as a father figure to him in many ways. In the book, next on my to-read list, Perkin’s relationships with 2 of his other writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are also featured. It’s not a biography of Wolfe.

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In speaking about the casting of Jude Law, Berg said that in the interviews he did for the Perkins book, it was mentioned that when Wolfe first appeared in Perkins’s doorway at Scribner’s, Perkins saw, in his mind, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Berg sees Shelley in Law’s countenance. Of course, we don’t have photos of Shelley to get an accurate idea, but there are portraits.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My imagination was totally captured by the images in the film of Wolfe writing as fast he could, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, sheets of paper flying through the air as he filled them with words. I imagine the inside of his head as a swirling word soup. Mine often is like that, but my word soup tends to stay soupy and muddled, whereas Wolfe was able to put the words into such beautiful creations. If we were working in a restaurant, I would be the dishwasher and Wolfe would be the executive chef, the genius who I admire and emulate. Or maybe Wolfe would be the Chef de Cuisine, doing the work of making the delicious soup, and Perkins would be the executive chef, at the pass making sure the plates are perfect before they go out.

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Word soup ingredients.

 

This leads to the burning question, can a refrigerator be used as a desk? Remember that Wolfe was 6′ 6″ tall. A typical 1920s-1930s refrigerator was probably just over 5″.

 

You can buy such a vintage refrigerator today if you think it will help you become a writer.

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Being who I am, I had to test this out. My home refrigerator is 5′ 10″ tall. For me to use it as a desk, I have to stand on the kitchen counter next to it.

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No worries; I sanitized the counter after I was done.

 

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At 6′ 6″, Wolfe could probably even use a modern day refrigerator as a desk if he really wanted to. It wouldn’t be a good ergonomic choice.

 

One of my favorite papers presented at the meeting was by Paula Gallant Eckard of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of the recently published Thomas Wolfe and Lost Children in Southern Literature (2016).

 

There is a common thread of a sense of “lostness” in much Southern literature, especially in regard to children. Eckard discussed, among other contemporary writers, Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, 1987) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011).

 

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Other highlights: the charming performance by the Indiana University Kokomo Players of “Wolfe’s Wanderlust: Scenes and Music from His Life and Fiction”

and the amazing table centerpieces created for the banquet, each based on a theme in Wolfe’s life.

 

Everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I arrived a bit anxious about going into a meeting of scholars with relatively little knowledge. I needn’t have been. They are all eager to share Wolfe with the world and bring him back into the canon of American literature alongside his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He died so young; who knows what legacy he might have left behind.

Speaking of young, the first person I encountered going to register for the conference was my new friend Savannah Wade, from Asheville, North Carolina. Pay attention to that name, she has a bright future ahead of her. I was so impressed with her varied interests and thirst for knowledge. When I was 23 years old, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to get on a Greyhound bus alone and head to an unknown city to meet with anyone! I felt so grown up doing this at age 55. Savannah, now, I can picture writing a work of genius using a refrigerator as a desk. And I can see that she has ways with word soup that I can only dream of.

Savannah
Savannah

And now I must go and dust off the top of my refrigerator. It’s the first time I’ve seen the top of it in a while!

Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said

Thomas Wolfe had a thing about home. So did E.T., but his wish was much simpler: call the folks and get a ride back.

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Thomas Wolfe was a little more complicated. He was born October 3, 1900 and died September 15, 1938. His father ran a gravestone business in Asheville, NC. He died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore just shy of his 38th birthday. Wlliam Faulkner called Wolfe the best talent of their generation. High praise.

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Look Homeward, Angel was Wolfe’s first novel. Published in 1929, it is a fictionalized account of his early life in Asheville. It caused an uproar in Asheville at the time, and Wolfe stayed away from the town for 8 years. Maybe that has something to do with his notions of home as well.

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You Can’t Go Home Again was published posthumously in 1940.

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I remember there being a made-for-television movie of the book in 1979, starring Chris Sarandon as the young writer in the story. I don’t remember if it was any good.

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I am more of a Steinbeck fan myself. He also said you can’t go home again.

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I recently went home again.

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I thought I was going home again when I took a job at the University of California, Davis last last year. The town of Davis itself felt like home and I was quite comfortable th. Campus also felt like home. Some things had changed, as I expected they would, but the general feeling of being there was much the same. For reasons I won’t go into, it didn’t work out, but it had nothing to do with the place.

In my own literary efforts, I hope to one day finish a memoir about moving away from home (see The Do It Yourself Museum ©, maybe someday brought to you by the Hallmark Channel ™). Home in this story is to me the house we lived in in Atlanta until the summer of 1972. I still dream about that house frequently, and remember the details of it better than most of the other countless apartments and houses I’ve lived in over the years since.

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So many memories. Dyson Drive, late 1960s.
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Dyson Drive house, early 1960s, before a back addition of a breakfast room, a large bedroom for my sisters, a second bathroom, a little teeny tiny bedroom for me (the littlest one).

I was in Atlanta for a short visit to celebrate October birthdays (we are the 3 Libra sisters). We had a wonderful time, with mani/pedis, bargain shopping, great food, a day at the Atlanta History Center (an upcoming blogpost) and a visit to the old neighborhood in Druid Hills.

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For the most part, the changes were no more than I expected. I don’t have any illusions that things remain the same. My Atlanta childhood memories are uniquely my own. My mother’s memories of the same places were different as were her mother’s. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and happily disagree with Messieurs Wolfe and Steinbeck. You CAN go home again!

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First we explored Emory Village, which we used to walk to to go to Horton’s. Horton’s is hard to describe; basically think old-fashioned five-and-dime with a soda fountain. A little change in your pocket as a kid went a long way at Horton’s!

 

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There are now 3 stores where Horton’s used to be.
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The old Kroger, where I used to love to go grocery shopping with my mother on a Saturday, is now a CVS. I saw something on the Internet that it used to be the nation’s smallest Kroger store, which is probably why I liked it.
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For many years (41 to be exact) this was the home of Everybody’s Pizza. I don’t remember what it was before that! It opened in 1971.
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This was a KFC. Falafel King is a big improvement if you ask me!
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One of these shops used to be the wondrous Alexander Stinson store. It was a, to us, groundbreaking shop, my first exposure to anything remotely counterculture in Georgia. It was opened in the 1960s by Bill Stinson, an English professor and a deft hand at creative merchandising and display. There were eventually 3 stores. I LOVED Alexander Stinson.
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The old cinema. The last time I was there was on a visit in 1978; my sister Ellen took me to see the Jill Clayburgh/Alan Bates film An Unmarried Woman. I also fondly remember the sandwich shop, as well as when I learned what PDQ stood for in Pizza PDQ.

And you can’t go to Emory Village without wandering into the gorgeous entrance to Emory University. When I was a high school senior in Sacramento, California, I desperately wanted to go to either Emory or to Mount Holyoke (that’s also a different blogpost; I went to neither).

Next stop: Fernbank Elementary School and the Fernbank Science Center.

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The old sign out front is gone.
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It’s been replaced with this sign.

The old building is gone, a new, large, spiffy one in its place. And that’s okay. The kids of the neighborhhood deserve a nice, new school with updated facilities. Yes, the Cat Stevens song (Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard plays in my head (see Is there a cure for earworms?Or, Help! I Need Somebody…) but it’s just a song and new kids in the neighborhood are making their own special memories.

Frankly, not all of my schoolyard memories are that great (I remember when the torment of my school years, the President’s Physical Fitness Test, was instituted at Fernbank. Nightmares!)

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New school.
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Plastic playground equipment and softscaping. I survived metal equipment on blacktop, but I did have a lot of skinned knees.
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Please don’t make me do the President’s Physical Fitness Test ever again!

At some point in my childhood, the Fernbank Science Center was built across the street from the school, and basically over the fence from our backyard. On hot summer nights we would walk over to the planetarium, which was blissfully air conditioned.

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The backyard of our old house is over that fence.

My favorite memory of school is GOING HOME at the end of the day! We lived so close, and walked rain or shine. When we moved to California and I had to ride the school bus, I was in total culture shock. This was my walk home:

I loved this house, it looks pretty much the same, and I hope I keep dreaming about living there!

Just remember, there’s no place like home.

 

And every woman should have a pair of red shoes. It was my mother who said that one.