• Brent Kaneft

On Masters and Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel is 626 pages ––– six hundred and twenty-six. Compare it to The Great Gatsby, a mere 218 pages, or 180 in the 2004 Scribner’s paperback edition. Both novels are included in “The Great American Novel” debate, though only one is on the radar of high school English teachers, and for obvious reasons. How long does it take an average reader to get through Wolfe’s behemoth versus Fitzgerald’s 47,094-word classic?[1] Months, probably. A motivated reader can read The Great Gatsby in a day or two. Which option is more likely to appeal to teenagers?

Compare the two openings:

"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 [i.e. Asheville, NC] 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 has 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."

- Look Homeward, Angel

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.'"

- The Great Gatsby

The differences are distinct. Wolfe’s takes you on a voyage from Europe to Pennsylvania, then to the mountains of western North Carolina, and finally on a time machine back across the seas to an island in Greece, eventually landing ––– where else? ––– back in Texas. The opening promises a novel of epic proportions, one that encompasses the universality of all human experience.[2] A student reading that passage knows he’s in for a long ride. He’s right, too.

Fitzgerald’s is neater, a little more tucked, like the shirt tails of the boys who are notorious do-gooders. He scales the scene down to one voice, one lens, and embeds the theme of the novel into the advice from Nick Carraway’s father ––– this is clearly a novel about class, the reader says. The American Dream, too, but what is the American Dream if it’s not economic and social mobility?

Could an English teacher, in their right mind ––– and that’s often a serious concern ––– teach Look Homeward, Angel to kids today? It’s long, it’s dense, and it’s poetic. What do they risk? This: losing their students’ short attention span; having one book dominate their syllabus; and, for an American Literature course, skipping the Puritans (a consequence I’m actually ok with), skimming the Romantics (less ok with), and ending the course before The Old Man and the Sea (another favorite for its brevity) was written.

Last fall I had breakfast with the widow of a former Christ School English teacher who might have risked it. Her name is Lucretia Finlay.

The name Lucretia has been tainted by the femme fatale, Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter or Pope Alexander VI. At least, that’s what my Wikipedia page said when I looked up the origins of the name. It can also mean “succeed” or “wealthy” or “profit,” and as Lucretia Finlay, Reed Finlay’s widow, approached our table at the Cracker Barrel, all of these associations ran through my mind. She is, undoubtedly, a charming woman: her outfit was fashionable, she’d aged very well, and her energy was like that of a twenty something.

I was impressed, as Dan Stevenson, Alumni Director and then table companion, said I would be. He’d also told me Reed had been the envy of all the boys at Christ School because of Lucretia’s beauty. I could see what he meant. Here before me was Reed Finlay’s muse.

I’d asked to meet her to help promote a summer literary tour I was offering to alumni (and eventually to CS parents). It was our hope that she’d remember some guys Reed taught who’d be interested. She didn’t remember as many names as she’d wished, her face strained by the effort. The breakfast then evolved into a discussion about who Reed Finlay was, a secondary desire of mine.

I’d heard his name mentioned before, among those Christ School giants like Wetmore, Harris, and McCullough, but always he seemed to be on the edge of myth, like there was something about Reed that wasn’t quite right, that didn’t need to be said too loud.

After Lucretia handed me a stack of Reed’s old papers, news clippings, and assignment sheets, she passed me a framed picture of Reed being hit by a bull in the rings at Pamplona. His heightened age ––– evident by his grey hair ––– initially made me think he’d wandered into the ring by accident. He ran with the bulls every year I knew him, except for maybe two, Lucretia said.

"So he was in the ring on purpose," I clarified.

"Yes, it was the amateur hour. Anyone can go in if they want to."

Hemingway did that, I thought. I show the picture of him in the ring every year to my boys. And as if she read my mind, Lucretia continued: "Reed loved Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises was his favorite novel."

I rummaged through Reed’s papers the moment I got back to school, looking for what, I don’t know. Everything had been written on a typewriter and I reminisced about how much slower life must have been then. Still, typewriters were the beginning of the curse, the evolution of speedy results, and now look at us, our legs vibrating even when our phones aren’t in our pockets.

One page caught my eye. It had been given the title ––– written in Sharpie pen: “On Masters and Wolfe.”[3] In it, Reed chastises the nitpicking many teachers participate in during the year, the inability to see the big picture, and the arms-length approach many teachers adopt (or adapt) toward teaching. To address the latter, he used a quote from Look Homeward, Angel that I’ll share here. Eugene Gant (i.e. Thomas Wolfe) reflects on why his Greek teacher could never inspire him:

"[Students] engaged him in long debates: as he ate his lunch, he waved a hot biscuit around, persuasive, sweetly reasonable, exhaustively minute in an effort to prove the connection of Greek and groceries. The great winds of Athens had touched him not at all. Of the delicate and sensuous intelligence of the Greeks, their feminine grace, the constructive power and subtlety of their intelligence, the instability of their character, and the structure, restraint and perfection of their forms, he said nothing.

He had caught a glimpse, in an American college, of the great structure of the most architectural of languages […] but his opinions smelled of chalk, the classroom, and a very bad lamp – Greek was good because it was ancient, classic, and academic. The smell of the East, the dark tide of the Orient that flowed below, touched the lives of poet and soldier, with something perverse, evil, and luxurious, was as far from his life as Lesbos. He was simply the mouthpiece of a formula of which he was assured without having a genuine belief." (Reed’s underlining)

I’d read the passage before, but I hadn’t dwelled on it. What does it mean for your opinions to smell of chalk? I thought of the bold printed words in my old teacher’s edition textbooks, the 150-word summaries of Hawthorne and Poe or Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the “fun facts” about each author’s life included in the margin. As a fledgling teacher, I used them all, all of these words that “smelled of chalk,” words I hadn’t earned through diligent study, words I thought I had to say, words that fell from my lips like a bullet pointed list: too structured, too rushed, too unnatural.

As an English teacher I often run into this scenario: a parent or student or friend of my wife’s asks me whether or not I’ve read a book they like. Sometimes the answer is yes, but most often it’s no. I don’t tend to dabble broadly in my reading selections. Usually I read deeply into one subject; regardless, I always get the same response: “But you’re an English teacher. How could you have never read _______?” And I always give the same response: “There are lots of books out there,” which is both comforting and overwhelming at the same time. And then there are parents who grow concerned that I don’t teach Mark Twain in American Literature. That’s fair. My response: “It’s either Thoreau or Mark Twain, one of them has to go. I don’t have enough time for both.”[4] And therein is the rub. Time.

A shortage of time is often what creates the need for opinions smelling of chalk, the need to cover it all, to make sure every Christ School student walks away having heard every big name in American Literature, for example.

Sure, it’s a symptom of a greater sickness: exposure versus understanding. Exposure to information has become synonymous with intelligence. Skimming is more preferred in this age of information. Who has time to actually read it all? But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

It seems Reed Finlay didn’t care much about time. The more I rummaged, the more I found assignments dedicated to Wolfe’s 1929 novel and the more exasperated I became. There’s no way. He couldn’t have taught this book. I wonder, did he teach the entire thing or did he just choose selections?

I emailed Lucretia. She wasn’t sure. I asked Dan. He couldn’t remember.

Twice last spring I took my wife and two daughters rock climbing at Rumbling Bald, NC. My wife Jess carried our six-month-old, Emerson, in a baby bjorn and Kate Austen, then three, rode atop my shoulders, still a little wary of snakes. Taking young children climbing is fun; what it is not is a hyper-adrenalized climb-fest like I used to have in my twenties. There is a slowness to the experience that defies notions of progress or development. We walk slowly, we stop and look at flowers for whole minutes, we eat lunch ––– not just a protein bar, but a sandwich and pretzels and string cheese and a piece of chocolate for dessert ––– and we climb a few boulders. A very few. Maybe four in two hours.

Far below us, at the edge of Lake Lure, there is a church that rings its bell on the hour. I’ve been climbing at Rumbling Bald since 2001 and had never heard it. Jess, the girls, and I have heard it on both trips. Each time I’ve considered how ordered my life is around church bells.

The Angelus bell rings at 8:05 a.m. every morning. I stop whatever I’m doing, though I don’t always want to. When it rings again around 10:20 a.m., during chapel, I stand at attention in my pew and my mind continues to spin narratives around the life I’ve already lived for two hours. And then sometimes at night, when a team fighting for the Greenies a nation away comes home and rings a victory clang, I hear it from my bedroom, and if I’m mostly awake, I try to remember the team and then I put a face on the ringer. Believe it or not, boys’ personalities come out in their rings: loud and aggressive and soft and subtle and awkward and silent. Yes, even silent: sometimes if you don’t tug the rope correctly, the clapper and bell don’t meet.

And although Father Brown likes to teach the tradition of the Angelus by reminding us of its message to slow down, during the chapel service on Saturday morning of alumni weekend I realized something much different about this tradition.

I sat outside the Hamner Lobby, rocking underneath the pergola and hoping to catch a few straggling alumni to tell them about my summer literary tour focusing on Wolfe’s and Fitzgerald’s time in Asheville. A gentleman walked up as the Angelus was ringing, and we both waited to greet each other. I don’t remember his name, but he was up from Spartanburg and he was here for the Reed Finlay dedication. We spoke briefly before I mentioned the tour. I asked if he’d be interested.

"Maybe," he said politely. "Really I’m just here for “Big R”’s dedication. That’s happening today, right?"

"Yes," I said. Then, "I know this is an odd question, but do you remember whether or not Reed taught Look Homeward, Angel?"

"I don’t, I’m sorry. You should ask Tom or Ned. They were really into his class."

I didn’t find Tom or Ned, but I kept asking. Names continued to pop up. Ask Richard or John, they’ll know. That’s how every encounter went until I stopped asking.

No one knew. No one remembered. Granted, it was forty years ago for the class of 1975, the class responsible for the new Reed Finlay Plaza. What I realized was what Reed Finlay taught these boys didn’t matter; how he taught these boys did. Every piece of paper in the pile Lucretia gave me to sort through suggested Reed was an intense and passionate man, from his motivational suggestions for teachers to his exam updates that publically discussed students’ exam scores.[5]

Since I met with Lucretia, I have asked for everyone’s opinion on Reed who might have been around during his time, and there were myriad responses: unique, interesting[6], arrogant, kind, bombastic, energetic, and larger than life. His eulogy on the Christ School website identifies him as “an administrator’s worst nightmare;” laughter follows immediately, as if the boys knew it and loved him for it. Not that he was more like a student than a teacher, but that he was more like himself than what teachers often become: neutral. If I had to guess, Reed took sides, he let the boys know what he thought about things, and what he thought didn’t always gel with current standards. The latest wave of pedagogical nuance is for teachers to be a sounding board for each and every perspective, but to never tip their hats one way or another. To give information objectively, to be cold and factual, to give opinions that don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.

I am reminded of Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” when he describes a preacher whose affect made him never want to go back to church. According to Emerson, the snow falling outside was more real than the preacher. The sermon suggested nothing of the man’s life, whether he’d loved or hated or had experienced tragedy or triumph. You guessed it, his “opinions smelled of chalk.”

In a world where tolerating everything has become the highest achievement, taking sides and having opinions is archaic. Opinions hurt people’s feelings, and our world detests anything unpleasant.

Is there a risk involved here? Sure. Maybe Reed Finlay’s opinions were wrong. Perhaps his opinions turned a few boys away from his class. Could be his opinions changed a boy’s path onto one his parents never intended. And, I’ll say it, his opinions probably offended his students (and their parents) sometimes. They probably got a little angry when he suggested their lives could be something more, something greater, something they had never dreamed. Teachers are subversive. They are not there to reinforce, but to challenge. They are not there to hold your hand and tell you you’re great. They’ll do that, but that’s not their primary purpose. At its core, good teaching stretches students into that liminal space where self-discovery is possible, away from their homes, away from their comfort. Can you imagine how boring a class would be that confirmed everything you already believed? Why would you ever go back to school if it merely offered you more of the same?

It’s difficult to write about a man I never met. I can say, however, with some certainty, that Reed was not a teacher whose opinions “smelled of chalk.” I think he chose the literature he taught the boys based on one attribute: whether or not it blew their hair back. That’s why he was brave enough to teach Look Homeward, Angel because it was the right book at the time to teach. So maybe his syllabus only stretched to 1929. Maybe it took him months to finish it. Maybe the boys struggled through some of the extended dithyrambs. Maybe. But maybe they were awakened by Eugene Gant’s vision of life in Altamont, the hypocrisy he exposed in the adult world, the joy he found when his father took time to eat a milkshake with him, or the sadness he felt when his brother Ben dies at the end. Boys gravitate toward these subjects, as they gravitated toward the man who taught them. They didn’t remember Look Homeward, Angel, they remembered the man who taught it with such fury that they suspected he had some part in writing the damn book. They watched him and realized he was alive, so alive they decided his spirit should be permanently honored with a plaque set in the center of a courtyard outside the dorms. Not in St. Joseph’s Chapel, not in a classroom, not in Hamner, but outside, among the students, among the heat, the cold, and the precipitation of life. Emerson’s snow.

What Reed taught me about the Angelus was not a reminder to slow down, though I think he did like that message. No, what he taught me was that it’s not how pretty the bell is, it’s how it vibrates through the ages. It’s about how long it will keep ringing in the ears of the students who knew me, whom I taught. It’s about those concentric circles widening from the source to touch a bigger audience. It’s about using its shape and size and material to produce a ring that is infinite, and infinite rings don’t thud. An effective bell doesn’t stop halfway. You hear it. And sometimes it’s unpleasant, true. Sometimes it forces you to stop when it would be easier to continue the path you’re on. But there’s never a doubt that it’s there, that it’s served its function, that it didn’t merely wear a new bowtie every day and regurgitate stale information.

No, Reed’s opinions weren’t vanilla or neutral or chalky. They tasted like the mud in the bull ring at Pamplona, like the wine Hemingway’s Basque peasants drank, and like the sweat dripping down the matador’s face. He was not celibate in his take on the world; he took sides and gave the boys what he knew, what he’d experienced, and what he loved and hated. For that, they remember him. For that, I do too.

[1] In his introduction to O Lost, Wolfe’s original title for his first novel, Matthew Bruccoli reminds us that for “the novel that was reduced to Look Homeward, Angel,” Wolfe had written “1,110 double-spaced pages and 294,000 words” (xi). Enter Maxwell Perkins and ––– thankfully, in my opinion ––– we have Look Homeward, Angel. There is a raging controversy over Perkins’s involvement in editing Wolfe’s works, which has been stirred up once more by the hype surrounding the recent movie Genius. Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner’s editor who discovered, more or less, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe. Wolfe is played by Jude Law in the movie.

[2] On the question of Wolfe’s overwriting, I defer to the timeless Elements of Style: “Whether or not Mr. Wolfe was guilty of overwriting is, of course, another question ––– one that is not pertinent here” (68).

[3] “Masters” used to be the standard name for boarding school teachers. It was used as a sign of respect. If I asked my students to refer to me as “Master” today, they’d think I was on some sort of ego trip.

[4] For reasons I hope are clear, I think Thoreau is more prescient. We need less satire in this world, I think, and more instructions on how to live a good life. Do we laugh too much today?

[5] Literally Reed had typed pages of praise for his students’ performances, whether or not they earned an “A” or a “C.” For each student, there was specific recognition of how hard they worked to earn the grade. Praising a student for earning a “C” still happens, if that’s the best they’re capable of, but publically praising a student for making a “C” would be intolerable. It might embarrass the student, heaven forbid. The boys in Reed’s class didn’t seem to mind since I found several of these “Exam Reports,” which suggested he continued the practice for years.

[6] In the future, please don’t ever use “interesting” to describe anything. It suggests merely that what was “interesting” caught your attention, but you haven’t taken the time to digest what it meant to you. We use “interesting” too much. We are not processing enough

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