I watched the film ‘Genius’ recently which focuses on the life of Thomas Wolfe. Thus inspired, here are two Wolfe openings from short stories for A level Unseen Practice:
THERE WERE TIMES IN EARLY AUTUMN—in September—when the greater circuses would come to town—the Ringling Brothers, Robinson’s, and Barnum and Bailey shows, and when I was a route-boy on the morning paper, on those mornings when the circus would be coming in I would rush madly through my route in the cool and thrilling darkness that comes just before break of day, and then I would go back home and get my brother out of bed.
Talking in low excited voices we would walk rapidly back toward town under the rustle of September leaves, in cool streets just grayed now with that still, that unearthly and magical first light of day which seems suddenly to re-discover the great earth out of darkness, so that the earth emerges with an awful, a glorious sculptural stillness, and one looks out with a feeling of joy and disbelief, as the first men on this earth must have done, for to see this happen is one of the things that men will remember out of life forever and think of as they die.
At the sculptural still square where at one corner, just emerging into light, my father’s shabby little marble shop stood with a ghostly strangeness and familiarity, my brother and I would “catch” the first streetcar of the day bound for the “depot” where the circus was—or sometimes we would meet someone we knew, who would give us a lift in his automobile.
Then, having reached the dingy, grimy, and rickety depot section, we would get out, and walk rapidly across the tracks of the station yard, where we could see great flares and steamings from the engines, and hear the crash and bump of shifting freight cars, the swift sporadic thunders of a shifting engine, the tolling of bells, the sounds of great trains on the rails.
And to all these familiar sounds, filled with their exultant prophecies of flight, the voyage, morning, and the shining cities—to all the sharp and thrilling odors of the trains—the smell of cinders, acrid smoke, of musty, rusty freight cars, the clean pine-board of crated produce, and the smells of fresh stored food—oranges, coffee, tangerines and bacon, ham and flour and beef—there would be added now, with an unforgettable magic and familiarity, all the strange sounds and smells of the coming circus.
The gay yellow sumptuous-looking cars in which the star performers lived and slept, still dark and silent, heavily and powerfully still, would be drawn up in long strings upon the tracks. And all around them the sounds of the unloading circus would go on furiously in the darkness. The receding gulf of lilac and departing night would be filled with the savage roar of the lions, the murderously sudden snarling of great jungle cats, the trumpeting of the elephants, the stamp of the horses, and with the musty, pungent, unfamiliar odor of the jungle animals: the tawny camel smells, and the smells of panthers, zebras, tigers, elephants, and bears.
Then, along the tracks, beside the circus trains, there would be the sharp cries and oaths of the circus men, the magical swinging dance of lanterns in the darkness, the sudden heavy rumble of the loaded vans and wagons as they were pulled along the flats and gondolas and down the runways to the ground. And everywhere, in the thrilling mystery of darkness and awakening light, there would be the tremendous conflict of a confused, hurried, and yet orderly movement
The Far and the Near
by Thomas Wolfe
On the outskirts of a little town upon a rise of land that swept back from the railway there was a
tidy little cottage of white boards, trimmed vividly with green blinds. To one side of the house
there was a garden neatly patterned with plots of growing vegetables, and an arbor for the grapes
which ripened late in August. Before the house there were three mighty oaks which sheltered it
in their clean and massive shade in summer, and to the other side there was a border of gay
flowers. The whole place had an air of tidiness, thrift, and modest comfort.
Every day, a few minutes after two o’clock in the afternoon, the limited express between two
cities passed this spot. At that moment the great train, having halted for a breathing-space at the
town near by, was beginning to lengthen evenly into its stroke, but it had not yet reached the full
drive of its terrific speed. It swung into view deliberately, swept past with a powerful swaying
motion of the engine, a low smooth rumble of his heavy cars upon pressed steel, and then it
vanished in the cut. For a moment the progress of the engine could be marked by heavy
bellowing puffs of smoke that burst at spaced intervals above the edges of the meadow grass, and
finally nothing could be heard but the solid clacking tempo of the wheels receding into the
drowsy stillness of the afternoon.
Every day for more than twenty years, as the train had approached this house, the engineer had
blown on the whistle, and every day, as soon as she heard this signal, a woman had appeared on
the back porch of the little house and waved to him. At first she had a small child clinging to her
skirts, and now this child had grown to full womanhood, and every day she, too, came with her
mother to the porch and waved.
The engineer had grown old and gray in service. He had driven his great train, loaded with its
weight of lives, across the land ten thousand times. His own children had grown up, and married,
and four times he had seen before him on the tracks the ghastly dot of tragedy converging like a
cannon ball to its eclipse of horror at the boiler head—a light spring wagon filled with children,
with its clustered row of small stunned faces; a cheap automobile stalled up the tracks, set with
the wooden figures of people paralyzed with fear; a battered hobo walking by the rail, too deaf
and old to hear the whistle’s warning; and a form flung pas his window with a scream—all this
he had seen and known. He had known all the grief, the joy, the peril and the labor such a man
could know; he had grown seamed and weathered in his loyal service, and now, schooled by the
qualities of faith and courage and humbleness that attended his labor, he had grown old, and had
the grandeur and the wisdom these men have.
But no matter what peril or tragedy he had known, the vision of the little house and the women
waving to him with a brave free motion of the arm had become fixed in the mind of the engineer
as something beautiful and enduring, something beyond all change and ruin, and something that
would always be the same, no matter what mishap, grief or error might break the iron schedule
of his days.
The sight of this little house and these two women gave him the most extraordinary happiness he
had ever known. He had seen them in a thousand lights, a hundred weathers. He had seen them
through the harsh light of wintry gray across the brown and frosted stubble of the earth, and he
had seen them again in the green luring sorcery of April.
Enjoy the challenge of a much neglected author.