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D A N I E L B A R T H Chico, California Thomas Wolfe’s Western Journeys “You can’t go home again, but there are other places you can go. .. The real life of Thomas Clayton Wolfe is very much shrouded in legend. Most often associated with his native North Carolina, Wolfe last lived there in 1920, the year he was graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After that he lived primarily in New York City, but also travelled a great deal, living for periods of time in England, France and Germany, among other places. But essential to Wolfe’s writing was his vision of America. His avowed goal was “to get the whole wilderness of the American continent into my work” (Kennedy 6). As he matured as an artist, and toward the realization of that goal, it was to the western U. S. that he turned, seeking inspiration and understanding. “Almost every American, no matter where born, is a Westerner at heart,” he said late in his life. “The West is the American horizon” (The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe 963). A thorough reading of the biographies of Wolfe, together with his letters, notebooks and published works, makes it clear that a large part of what he was after was an understanding and artistic depiction of European settlement and expansion in North America.1 In dealing with this subject matter he was inevitably led west. He made two trips to the western states, one in 1935 and another in 1938. These western trips had a greater influ­ ence on his life and writing than has generally been given credence. Wolfe’s travels in the West and his associations with writers of the region came to play a significant role in the development of his art, a role that has been underappreciated in light of his southern roots and their memorable evoca­ tion in his writing. 40 Western American Literature As a child Wolfe had traveled with his mother and siblings to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. From that time on he dreamed of visiting the territory west of the Mississippi. For many years this dream went unreal­ ized. But in 1934 it was given renewed impetus when he visited the Chicago W orld’s Fair. In a letter to his mother at that time he wrote: “America is a huge tremendous country and someday I hope to see it all. . . . Someday I am going to see the Far West too, and hope to explore the country thor­ oughly before I am done” (Donald 333). In the summer of 1935 an opportunity to begin the exploration pre­ sented itself. That year Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River, was published to great acclaim and became a bestseller. Wolfe had gone to Europe to rest after the novel’s completion and to distance himself from its critical reception. While in Berlin, where he was celebrated as a writer who “personified the freedom and promise of America” (Turnbull 213), he received an invitation to speak at a summer writers’ conference at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. He accepted at once. On June 30 Wolfe sailed for New York, arriving on the 4th of July. After three weeks during which he worked on his lecture and attended to correspondence and other personal matters he boarded the train for Colo­ rado. En route he wrote: “I’m looking forward to my Western trip and intend to go the whole way to the Pacific coast” (Thomas Wolfe’s Letters To His Mother 314). His first stop was Greeley, Colorado where he deliv­ ered a version of his lecture at the Colorado State Teachers College. “I have been here in Greeley just a day,” he wrote, “but like the West and the people very much” (Letters To His Mother 314). On July 31 he arrived in Boulder. The writers’ conference was already in session. Wolfe immediately plunged into the attendant academic and social life. W ith Robert Frost, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Robert Penn Warren, and others he participated in a round-table discussion of “Poetry and Intelligibility.” Again with Warren, whose review of Of Time...


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