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The Face of a Nation

Poetical Passages From the Writings of Thomas Wolfe

In an Introduction to “The Face of a Nation” by Thomas Wolfe (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), John Hall Wheelock shares a comment made by Wolfe that left Wheelock amazed.

It was often repeated: “I’d rather be a poet than anything else in the world. God, what wouldn’t I give to be one.” According to Wheelock, Thomas Wolfe seemed to define poetry, “more by form than by spirit.”

The sculpted angel found in Oakdale Cemetery reminds us of perhaps his greatest work, “Look Homeward, Angel.” But there are others: “Of Time and the River” and “The Web and the Rock.”

Wheelock describes Wolfe as a born poet and “author of some of the most magnificent dithyrambic passages in literature…a lyric poet of extraordinary intensity, with a sensitivity to word music, to rhythm and cadence.”

Wheelock makes this assertion: “Whatever he may have been or achieved, Thomas Wolfe was, first of all, a poet…which can be likened only to that of Walt Whitman, whose vision of America and the American continent he shared.”

“The Face of a Nation” selects from Wolfe’s various volumes selections that can stand alone, “where he speaks purely as a poet.”

There is “The Hills of Home”: “It was late October, there was a smell of smoke upon the air, an odor of burning leaves, the barking of a dog, a misty red, a pollenated gold in the rich, fading, sorrowful and exultant light of the day,–and far off, sound of great wheels pounding on a rail, the wailing whistle, and the tolling bell of a departing train.”

In “His Father’s Hands” (“Of Time and the River”) there is a poignancy that remains long after the passage is read: “…the boy could not forget his father’s hands, the largest hands he had ever seen…He{Gant} had never fully regained the full use of [his right hand}…could only hold the great wooden mallet that stone-cutters use in a painful and clumsy half -clasp between the thumb and the big stiffened fingers. His hands never lost their character of life, strength, and powerful shapeliness.”

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