Of Time and the River is a tough slog

Thomas Wolfe is one of the great exemplars of the “writing is rewriting” school of literature.

Wolfe’s editor appears to have gotten tired of waiting for him to finish reworking the material in Of Time and the River and published several rewrites before Wolfe figured out what he wanted to say.

 Of Time and the River   by Thomas Wolfe

A Legend of Man’s Hunger in his Youth. Charles Scribner, 1935. 886 pages. 1935 bestseller #3. My grade: C-.

Dust jacket for "Of Time and the River" by Thomas Wolfe: white type on wave-like pattern.A southern boy, Eugene Pentland, is studying play writing at Harvard. After his father’s death, Eugene returns home.

On that slender thread, Wolfe hangs odd bits of writing, but there’s no actual plot.

Eugene attracts, or is attracted to, eccentrics, weirdos, and nutcases. Wolfe tells their stories without weaving them into Eugene’s.

While the stories are often compelling — the description of Eugene’s father’s death is a prime example — the stories cannot stand alone and serve no clear purpose in the overall book.

Some of Wolfe’s writing is sure and clean, but large portions are sluggish and bloated: I counted 149 words in one sentence.

Certain descriptions, like that of the Boston train station, appear more than once, giving the impression that Wolfe hadn’t decided where to put it.

The novel is an “interesting” book rather than a good one. In the last analysis, Of Time and the River accomplishes nothing except to prove that great writers don’t necessarily write great books.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Linda G. Aragoni

I make big ideas simple for learners. In eight sentences, 34 words, I taught teens and adults to write competently. Now I'm writing guides to turn willing volunteers into great nursing home visitors.

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