Sometimes a great book and the place in which it was read combine to cast a spell so potent and so enduring that both book and place become forever entwined in the memory of the reader.

Whenever I see a copy of War and Peace, I think not only of Pierre and Natasha but of the concrete courtyard of a shopping mall in El Cajon, California, where I read Tolstoy while taking my lunch breaks from the bookshop.  Anna Karenina whisks me away to the dusty second-floor reading room of Shakespeare and Company in Paris; The Portable Hemingway summons up a spring break, a North Florida beach, and a motel room with pink walls, worn bedding, and water that bubbled up into the shower whenever the toilet was flushed.  The Sound and the Fury transports me to a plastic chair in a Beacon Hill laundromat, the Backside of the Hill, only miles from where Faulkner’s Quentin commits suicide.  Long Day’s Journey Into Night puts me down beside a railroad track in Greensboro, North Carolina, on a hot wooden bench surrounded by glittering bits of beer bottles not much bigger than the sand on a beach.

Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River works the strongest magic in producing these dislocations of time and space.  A mere glimpse of that book sweeps away 35 years of my life and carries me like a fantastical carpet 700 miles north to Storrs, Connecticut, to the dumpy little apartment where I retreated after my life as I had known it had come to an end.  Even the merest mention of this novel calls to mind those pathetic quarters: a tiny kitchen and two small rooms bare of all furniture or decoration but a desk, two hardback chairs, a stuffed chair, three lamps, and a bed.  This was the den in which I lived that summer, my anchoritic cell where, wounded in spirit, crushed by a failed love, deserted by all ambition, I read Thomas Wolfe’s books as Wolfe himself had once written them, staying awake until three and four in the morning with Gants and Webbers, and then sleeping until the July noonday heat forced me back to dreadful consciousness.  In this dark time Thomas Wolfe and his books, particularly Of Time and the River, were more than literature to me.  They were oxygen and sutures to all my collapsed and bleeding dreams.

During that summer of my convalescence I felt that I held some sort of sole proprietorship to Wolfe and his novels; he spoke to me, particularly through the character of Eugene Gant, with so deep and true an intimacy that he seemed to belong to me alone.  Only later would I learn the full extent of Wolfe’s influence, that not only had he won the plaudits of contemporaries like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, but he had inspired so many younger suitors of the muse.  Writers ranging from Jack Kerouac to William Styron, from James Jones to Betty Smith, from Kurt Vonnegut to Robert Morgan—all proclaimed Thomas Wolfe a deliverer from their fears, an inspiration in their writing.  Ray Bradbury wrote a short story celebrating his deep affection for Wolfe; Herman Wouk composed a novel, Youngblood Hawk, based on Wolfe’s legend; in “A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe” (from My Reading Life), Pat Conroy reported that reading Look Homeward, Angel was one of the pivotal moments of his life.

Despite such accolades, Wolfe’s reputation today has reached an all-time low.  From the beginning, critics have attacked him, often justly, for his autobiographical storytelling, for his verbosity, for depending too much on editorial guidance in the shaping of his novels.  These negative assessments and shifting literary tastes have taken their toll.  Wolfe’s work today is rarely anthologized.  He seldom appears on high-school summer reading lists.  In what may well be a blessing in disguise, given the humiliations and ludicrous dissections other authors have suffered at the hands of our postmodernist deconstructionists, colleges and universities long ago consigned Wolfe’s novels to the literary boneyard.  Indeed, it says something of Wolfe’s staying power and the loyalty of his admirers that his work has continued in print without these academic props.

Even here in the heart of Thomas Wolfe country many people are unfamiliar with his books.  Asheville has not neglected recognition of her most famous son: There is the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the Civic Center, a Thomas Wolfe collection at the public library, and various historical markers celebrating Wolfe’s life.  The state of North Carolina maintains as a national landmark The Old Kentucky Home, the boarding house where Wolfe grew up and which was so central to Look Homeward, Angel, and Wolfe’s grave in Riverside Cemetery remains a tourist attraction.  Yet casual inquiry among the citizens of Asheville will produce far fewer readers of his novels than one might suspect.

This neglect, both local and national, is unfortunate, for despite his failures as an artist, Wolfe continues to offer discerning readers several gifts.  First among these is the literary merit that can be found in his works.  Though it is true that Wolfe never met an adjective he didn’t like and that he too often used himself as a protagonist in his fiction, it is also true that Wolfe offers us a sweeping narrative of people and places rarely seen in novels today.  He makes a brave attempt, as even his hostile critics have acknowledged, to bring emotions and moments in time alive on the paper.  His writing is repetitive, bombastic at times, and frequently a volcano of verbiage, yet with today’s minimalists still exerting their influence, and with the tone of their music being “cool” rather than “hot”—and Wolfe blew as hot a verbal trumpet as any other writer before or since—Wolfe’s wild prose offers welcome relief from the MFA style of writing that today dominates American letters.  Here is a man who writes with his guts and heart, who doesn’t play it cool, who takes us beyond the graduate-school prose of so many of today’s writers.

We can also turn to Wolfe for an acerbic criticism of the arts.  Here he is even more relevant today than he was in the 30’s.  His attacks on the effete and the bogus in literature and art remind us of similar critiques by his namesake, the white-suited Tom Wolfe, in “Radical Chic” and The Painted Word.  His description of the glitterati in The Party at Jack’s, for example, and particularly of the antics of Piggy Logan and the wire-doll miniature circus at that party, remains a savage satire of all that rings false today in the world of art.  In Of Time and the River, Wolfe’s portrait of the homosexual dilettante Starwick, his love of all things European and his corresponding hatred for America, reflects a struggle that continues to this day: the battle between those Americans who seem shamed by their country and who want us to mimic the ways of the French, Germans, and Italians, and those who know the greatness and value of America and fear the rotting soul beneath the cradled socialism and bare cathedrals of the Europeans.

Wolfe is also the great recorder of solitude and comforter of the lonely.  Near the end of Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene Gant stands on the square in Altamont “naked and alone in darkness,” and this theme of loneliness, of being ultimately alone in the world, particularly when in the grip of death, haunts all of Wolfe’s books.  In our own brave new world, this time of disconnected lives where we have a hundred “friends” on Facebook but few we can call on when catastrophe strikes, Wolfe’s meditations on solitude can assuage our sense of isolation.  The young man in agony in an apartment in Connecticut, the young writers like Pat Conroy, who describes himself as “lonely as an earthworm” before encountering Wolfe: These and others connected with Wolfe because he made them aware that they are not alone after all, that another wayfarer had traveled that same desolate route and had survived not only to tell the tale but to write out a detailed map for those coming behind him.

Finally, Thomas Wolfe was an American.  Like other writers of his time who made America their theme—one thinks of Carl Sandburg or Stephen Vincent Benét—Wolfe criticized his country, particularly in his last works, but he loved his native land and its people.  So many writers today despise their fellow citizens that it is difficult to remember that there once was a time when even those of the left embraced America and her people.  Wolfe displays a deep affinity for Americans, the countryside and the cities, the people and their speech.  In Of Time and the River, for instance, he chants lists of American names—what he calls “the thunder of imperial names”: mountains and rivers, Indian tribes and railroads, cities and states and battlefields.  Again and again, in all his books, he reveals this abiding affection for his country.  “He knew that the light and color of America were different,” Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s, wrote after the author’s death, “that the smells and sounds, its peoples, and all the structure and dimensions of our continent were unlike anything before.”

Wolfe calls us to remember this spirit of America.  He let us see and hear the movement and sway of a train traveling from the Great Smoky Mountains to the great and glittering North, the quiet railway stations of the Virginia countryside, the raw voices of the dining car; he gives us the silence of the streets of Brooklyn at midnight; he recreates the smell and sound of an Asheville diner at dawn, lit up and awake with lonely men while the city sleeps.  He shows us an America not yet buried by a hundred thousand concrete banks and plastic restaurants, not yet made cynical by the pejorative one-liners and canned laughter of a thousand sitcoms on television, not yet the arbiter of the world’s wars and revolutions.  Ironically, just as we may feel rudderless in the storm that is 21st-century America, so, too, did Eugene Gant feel 80 years ago, mourning in Of Time and the River the “lost America—the America of twenty years ago of quiet streets, the time-enchanted spell and magic of full June . . . ”  Even here in Eugene’s lamentations we may find solace, knowing that Wolfe observed what we may observe, the displacement of the past by the swollen floodtides of the present, the constant changes—that most American oxymoron—in our cities and landscapes that are both the bane and the blessing of America.

Near the end of his short life, Wolfe, who enjoyed traveling, sailed to Europe for a sixth time.  After visiting his beloved Germany, he returned home disillusioned by Nazism and wrote the short story “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” in which he reported the repression and ugly brutality of Hitler’s regime.  The title of this story might well serve as an apt capstone for the writings of Wolfe himself.  In spite of his blunderings, artistic excesses, and lack of restraint, Thomas Wolfe did indeed have things to tell us.

And still does.