Look Homeward: The influence of Thomas Wolfe on River Whyless drummer Alex McWalters

AN UNFOUND DOOR: Writer and musician Alex McWalters poses in front of a life-size photo of Thomas Wolfe inside the exhibit hall at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Photo by Thomas Calder

We return with the latest iteration of “Look Homeward,” a recurring feature exploring the life, work and impact of Asheville author Thomas Wolfe on our area’s local writers, educators, historians and creatives.

Previous articles have included conversations with authors Terry Roberts and Wiley Cash, as well as Kayla Seay, site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

In this month’s column, we speak with Alex McWalters, a local writer, musician and educator. For over a decade, McWalters has played percussion for River Whyless. In addition to his music, he currently serves as an adjunct professor of creative writing at UNC Asheville and serves on the board of Punch Bucket Lit, an Asheville literary nonprofit.

Xpress: What is your essential Thomas Wolfe line — this can be from a book, short story, letter, you name it. 

McWalters: Mine would be a passage from the opening of Look Homeward, Angel: 

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

“Each of us is all the sums he had not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

“The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.

“This is a moment.”

I have referred to this passage countless times in the 15 years or so since I first read Wolfe’s famous novel. … As with all great art, I find something new in this passage each time. Or, maybe it’s not that I discover anything new, only that the words resonate more deeply as I age.

First, it is a brilliant summary — a thesis statement of sorts — of what the book contains, both in terms of its subject matter and in terms of its lyricism. In the sweep of one sentence, Wolfe touches on the heritage of the characters that will feature in the novel, acknowledging America as a country comprised of immigrants, then tracing the Gant family’s movement westward and southward to Altamont, Wolfe’s fictional Asheville. He also includes the image of the angel, which, as the novel’s title suggests, and as readers soon learn, is one of the novel’s central symbols — one that gains power and reverberations as we move through the story.

Then, in the second paragraph, we get another slugger of a sentence. The idea that we are all the sums we have not counted is lovely, yes, but mostly terrifying. As James Baldwin says in his essay “The White Man’s Guilt”:

“History … is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.”

Wolfe, I think, is implying all of this in his “love that ended yesterday in Texas” line, which, to me, is somehow both beautifully mysterious yet direct: We are responsible, whether we know it or not, to things that happened long before we were born.

Lastly, I’ll say that I love this passage as much for its language and imagery as for its ideas. The “minute-winning days.” Listen to that! The assonance, the syllabic balance it creates! The image of days as winning minutes. It’s so good.

In short, as a writer myself, this is the sort of opening to which I aspire.

When were you introduced to Wolfe’s writing?  

I came to Wolfe as a junior in college at Appalachian State. I had changed my major from media broadcasting to creative writing the year before and was feverish with literary enthusiasm. I wasn’t much of a reader before college, and I remember feeling like I had a lot of catching up to do. Given that I was in Boone, I’m sure Wolfe’s name was floating around, but I came to his work via Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was unapologetically influenced by Wolfe, and I wanted to follow that lineage. I remember clearly being blown over by the power of Homeward‘s language, feeling simultaneously excited and desperately humbled. But in truth, it wasn’t until I read the novel again, a few years after college, that I really appreciated the depth of Wolfe’s courage and brilliance.

Tell me more about the Kerouac/Wolfe connection. 

Douglas Brinkley wrote the following in his introduction to Kerouac’s “Windblown World,” which is a collection of his journals that he kept while writing his first novel, The Town and The City and while writing On the Road.

“Under the lyrical spell of Thomas Wolfe, whose sweeping novels Of Time and the River and Look Homeward, Angel romanticized the desolation of the vast rawness that was America, Kerouac had become determined to make himself into just as great a native storyteller. Kerouac admired many facets of Wolfe’s writing: his robust prose; his embrace of the autobiographical impulse to create fiction out of one’s own myth; his ability to conjure the sadness in nostalgic moments, to find the spiritual in the forlorn, and to celebrate the holiness inherent in the American earth; and the romantic, optimistic tone he retained far into adulthood. According to Kerouac, Wolfe’s novels engulfed him in ‘a torrent of American heaven and hell…[that] opened my eyes to America as a subject.”

All of what Kerouac felt about Wolfe is precisely, to the word, what I felt about Kerouac, especially the part about my eyes being opened to America as a subject. And so, in learning of Wolfe’s influence on Kerouac, and then of Wolfe’s connection to the mountains to which I had just moved, I felt compelled to explore that literary lineage so as to go through Kerouac directly to the source of his inspiration — to see for myself what it was that had Kerouac so jazzed. I was not disappointed.

How has Wolfe’s writing impacted your music? For readers who don’t know, River Whyless’ 2012 debut album pulls its title, “A Stone, a Leaf, an Unfound Door,” from a line in Look Homeward, Angel.

Wolfe’s work was influential both to the music/lyrics of our debut album, as well as in helping us develop a sense of ourselves as artists. River Whyless became River Whyless not long after the band relocated to Asheville from Boone. In Boone, we had a different lineup and went by a different name, and so our move to Asheville and the album we subsequently recorded encapsulated a period of intense growing pains for us, both as individuals and as musicians.

In this way, our debut record was a coming-of-age work in the vein of Wolfe’s Look Homeward. We felt we had at once come home and embarked. And we chose Asheville, as opposed to Nashville or LA, because we found the city to be creatively exciting and inspiring, and so we also looked to Wolfe as an example of somebody who had embraced and mined his environment and his experiences to make something exuberant and beautiful. Wolfe is nothing if not epic, and we’re attracted to that.

Lastly, and probably most significantly, we chose the refrain from Look Homeward, Angel — “A stone, a leaf, an unfound” — as our album’s title because it captures a yearning for self-discovery that is always just beyond our reach and is thus always drawing us onward, a thing we still feel as musicians and that Wolfe captured so poignantly.

Why do you suppose Wolfe isn’t as widely read today as some of his contemporaries — I’m thinking specifically about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — all three of whom shared the same editor, Maxwell Perkins?

I think there’s a couple reasons. The first is simply that Wolfe is difficult in terms of the density of his prose. I happen to love his verbosity, but it takes more energy to read his sentences than it does the very terse and spare style of someone like Hemingway. The rhythms are utterly different. Not to mention that all of Wolfe’s novels are long. This alone can be a deterring factor.

I would also dare to argue that a book like Look Homeward, Angel is more or less plotless in a conventional sense of the word. That’s absolutely an oversimplification, but compare Look Homeward to The Great Gatsby, and I think you see my point. I happen to love long books and am tolerant of “plotlessness” if the language compensates for it — but, yeah, Wolfe asks a lot of his readers.

It’s also true, I think, that a book like Look Homeward, Angel is much more challenging to teach in a classroom than something like The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises, and so its merits are simply not propagated to the same extent. This is true also of his short stories. They weren’t anthologized in the same way his contemporaries were. That’s just a theory, of course. Speaking for myself only, I read a lot of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in my college lit classes. Wolfe, I came to on my own.

Finally, if you could time travel back to 1937, when Wolfe returned to visit Asheville, where in town would you take him and what question would you ask? (Oh, and if drinks were involved, please specify the type you’d be sipping.) 

I’d feel compelled to break the law. By that I mean, I would bring a flask of the best scotch I could afford and encourage Wolfe to walk the streets of Asheville with me. We’d pass the flask and also barhop along the way. This is my vision of kickin’ it with Wolfe, in part because it is, I confess, something I do without him. I carry a notebook, I walk the streets, I observe, and, yes, I often think of old TW.

The second time I read Look Homeward was after I’d moved to Asheville from Boone. I was living on Biltmore Avenue back then, and I often walked from the house I was renting up the long hill and into town. I pictured Wolfe walking this same street, his father’s shop up on Pack Square, the stone angel and of that hypnotic, haunting last scene in the novel. O lost and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again!

On our stroll, I would try to describe to Wolfe all the ways in which the city would change, about how his house looks now in 2023, and also I would thank him and embarrass him with praise. Then I’d challenge him to a game of pool.

Editor’s note: Thomas Calder, Xpress managing editor, is a member of Punch Bucket Lit. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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