Remembering Thomas Wolfe
By Richard Mabey Jr.
In the summer of 1967, between having graduated from Chapel Hill School and starting Boonton High School, I read Thomas Wolfe’s novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I read it as one of the books toward earning the Reading Merit Badge in scouts. I remember that I took out a copy of it at the little library in my old hometown. A book of over 600 pages, it was truly a challenge for me. I had never read a single book with that many pages!
I read Look Homeward, Angel at my desk in my bedroom. I read it high atop the world in my old tree fort. I read it, sitting at the foundation of my great-great grandfather’s icehouse, along the old Morris Canal. I felt as though this wonderful writer had pierced the chambers of my atrium and looked into the fiber and core of my heart. Somehow, it burnt something deep inside of me. I would never be the same. For I saw the value of the mundane and ordinary aspects of life. I saw the glory and wonder and charm of plain living. I saw the nobility in ordinary people.
I made a vow then to be true to this writer. To do my best, in my own way, to bring glory and victory to the ordinary way of life. To find the charm of the little barbershop, to find the enchantment in the town’s sweet shop. I don’t know what it is. Lately, I feel that I have failed my vow to the ghost of Thomas Wolfe.
Maybe the big wheels of these big book publishing companies are right; that folksy, down-to-earth, homespun stories of ordinary people in the midst of the plain struggle of life, are out of style in our modern world. I don’t know if they are right or not. It’s something that I am seriously pondering in heart, mind and soul.
I have always done my best to be true to the simple truths of ordinary life. There is the sound of the crack of the bat, as the kid who normally strikes out sends one out to left field. There is the echo of the stories told by the local barber, in his humble barbershop, as the men sit and talk and laugh, awaiting their turn to get their hair cut. There is the long row of swirling stools in the local sweet shop. The kids in the back of the sweet shop, deciding which comic book to buy. The teenage boy sitting beside the love of his life, as she sips some of her ice cream soda, he struggles to find something clever and witty to say to win her heart. There is the sound of the air horn of the truck driver, diving by a neighborhood gang of boys, jumping up and down with exhilaration and excitement as the big truck roars by. There is that free feeling in the midst of a summer afternoon, walking along the railroad tracks. There is that joy and splendor when the weekly hometown paper hits the stands on a Wednesday afternoon. There is the peaceful, quiet feeling of a Sunday afternoon.
“Hold dear these simple virtues,” whispers the ghost of Thomas Wolfe into my ear in the midst of the night. “Stay true to the course,” the spirit beckons.
I honestly do not know. I really and truly don’t know if there really is any worth of publication for the simple moments of the humble life that flows and ebbs in small town America. Perhaps the big wheels at the big publishing companies are right; in order for a book to sell it’s got to have spice (not nutmeg, I think you know what I mean) and excitement. Perhaps there could still be just one book publisher out there, that sees worth in the values of the humble people of fading small town America. I pray there is.
Peace and harmony,