The Face of a Nation


Poetical Passages From The Writings of Thomas Wolfe

A compilation published posthumously in 1939


It’s funny how certain books have come into my life, unannounced and unexpected over the years. Such is the case with a hard-to-find, out-of-print book containing passages from the writings of Thomas Wolfe called The Face of the Nation.

When I was living in Oakland during the 1980s, I would often visit the great used bookstores. Living in San Francisco for a number of years, I had a high standard for used book stores as I lived only a few blocks from the legendary Green Apple bookstore on Clement Street or City Lights in North Beach. I eventually found Shakespeare Books and Moe’s near the UC Berkeley campus and a huge antiquarian bookstore called Holmes Books in downtown Oakland. Holmes was  the oldest continuously operating antiquarian bookstore in California and a cultural beacon for generations of Bay Area residents.


Holmes Book Company

It was at Holmes Books I one day found a dusty book buried under a pile of books with no title on its cover. Instead, there was only a green image image of a man standing at an opening with  the sun at his back either rising or setting. Inside, I saw the book was titled The Face of a Nation with a sub-title that that read “Poetical Passages From The Writings of Thomas Wolfe.” For a person who admired the mystery and poetry of Wolfe’s work but not his over-long ramblings, it was a perfect book.

Soon, the 1939 book became one of my favorites and I found myself opening it to random pages and reading. The insight of Wolfe and the almost spiritual approach to writing was new and inspirational to me when I was getting back into my interests in writing and literature after it’s hibernation through law school and work at a large, international corporation.

I lost the book on one of my many moves since the 1980s. Now, I live in Columbus, Ohio and its the middle of September 2016 – almost thirty years later. I’m  watching a late Saturday night football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oklahoma Sooners and (at the beginning of the fourth quarter) it looks like the Buckeyes have the game wrapped up. (They eventually won 45 to 24). I channel surf to the POD section of movies on my Time Warner system and see  a new film called Genius about Thomas Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins. I’m suddenly reminded of The Face of the Nation for the first time in a long time and conduct a search to find the book on the Internet. (The movie gets mediocre ratings from Rotten Tomatoes)

I track down a used hardback copy that looks like the one I found at Holmes Books. I order it on Amazon for something like $6. It will arrive in a few days, entering my life (again) like it did thirty years ago through another serendipitous event. This time it was not found by browsing through a bookstore but browsing through television channels and then links on the Internet. The meaning of this book for me is difficult to pin down.


The meaning of the episode …

I recall a quote from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that seems to explain this phenomena. It occurs at the beginning of the book when a sailor introduces Marlow and begins to tell Marlow’s tale, stating, “to him the meaning of the episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought out only as a glow brings out the haze.”

It seems like this with many books I’ve acquired over the years and especially like this with Thomas Wolfe’s The Face of a Nation. Certainly within the book are powerful “poetical” passages, promised in the sub-title of the work. But the “meaning” of the book seems to exist outside its covers in the context of one’s contact with it rather than merely the content of the book.

As I wait for the book to arrive, I wonder about this mysterious force that has brought this book back to my attention. It might have directly been a football game but the real meaning of this book seemed just a little outside my awareness, “enveloping” my new contact with it. Maybe I’ll find clues to this force when the book arrives?






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