Thomas Wolfe: Unseen response

A model response to the Thomas Wolfe unseen ‘The Far and Near’ found here : 2 Passages for A level unseen practice.

The passage opens with a description of the kind of Mid-Western setting which embodies the American Dream and the literary trope of the prairie settlement – wholesome and redolent of purity of spirit. Immediately the farm is separated from thge ‘little town’ by being placed on the outskirts -possibly it was there before the town grew up or possibly the town has never grown further, having been superceded by the railway in its usefulness. This kind of supercession can be seen throughout American Literature in the way that the small towns of the Mississippi fall prey to the faster, stronger steam boats portrayed by Twain or by the way in which a railway can bypass an area such as The Vally of the Ashes in Gatsby. The farmhouse itself is delivered in detail with the contrast of the ‘white boards’ and the ‘vivdly … green blinds. The use of colour conveys a purity and cleanliness inherent in the use of the ‘tidy’ house and the adverb ‘vividly’ is important at suggesting the brightness of the colour which might signify fecundity, something picked up in the crops grown in the ‘neatly patterned’ garden: the ‘plots of vegetables’ suggest quantity and the grapes in the ‘arbor’ suggest a rich and luxurious harvest to come. Indeed, the whole thing, shaded by ‘mighty’oaks seems to be an almost Edenic situation. In this setting, the American Dream of self sufficiency and purity of living seems embodied as does the spirit of the Pioneers in the tricolon which ends paragraph 1 – the ‘tidiness, thrift and modest comfort’. The final item is the heart of the contrast between the Pioneer age and the industrial ages which follow – ages dominated by the pursuit not of happiness but of money, which will reach a crushing climax in The Great Gatsby but which is foreseen in the picaresque second section of Huckleberry Finn in which the trope of the Grifter is introduced to American writing. The tree itself, with its adjectives of size refelct the immensity of the American Landscape, once all-encopmpassing and now reduced to thie visible reminder of the greatness tamed by industrial man.

Neither the conurbations nor the characters are named in the passage, perhaps reflecting the enormity of the American landmass and the lack of contact between the settlers so far apart, yet the ‘Engineer’ embodies another trope of American writing -the traveller -on his repetitive journey through this landscape. In his limited way he can be seen ot have established a relationship over 20 years with the naonymous ‘woman’ and her daughter. No details are given. Perhaps like Antonia in Cather’s novel she runs the farm alone, perhaps there are male family out in the fields. Wolfe insists tha ta distance be created betwene the two particpants of this fleeting human contact. He sees this as part of the American ladscape which is never to change – the figure of the Pioneer woman: ‘brave’ and ‘free’ in spirit as her wave is used a synecdoche of her whole being – despite the coming industrial world, signified by his ‘iron schedule’. A schedule created by and for his engine – a character in its own right – as it has to halt for a ‘breathing space’ before seemingly vanishing into the earth, ‘bellowing’ puffs of smoke like an industrial dragon from myth.

He himself is a form of Pioneer for a modern age: his route is laid out in ‘pressed steel’ – alliterative to echo the sound of the wheels on the rails – yet he travels it much as the pioneers in their wagons did before him. He is a man who has seen suffering and who is capable of longing and desire as suggested in the idea of the ‘luring sorcery’ of April – a suggestion that each new Spring has the power to pull someone away from their fixed path in life. Emphasis is placed on his role as a pathfinder or pioneer for a new age by the reference to the ‘weight of lives’ he has transported – the figure of 10,000 journeys is a necessary hyperbole perhaps to emphasise the collossal size of the Westward migration seen in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His life story with ‘peril… joy… and labor’ sums up the lives of earlier pioneers – hardship and hardwork. Wolfe notes each of the four moments of tragedy which he has seen as each, despite their being so few, has left an indelible mark on the mond of the driver – the simile of the cannon ball being eclipsed by the boiler of the engine reinforces both the horror of the sight and the destructive power of the engine, destroying both the innocents mentioned and a part of the engneer’s mind. His conclusion of the ‘grandeur and wisdom’ inherent in the old man possibly looks back to a time when things were better in many ways, certainly morally, a time in which ordinary men and women could achieve greatness by their deeds, rather than by their wealth – something explored in much Literature from the mid 1920s onwards.

This past time is encompassed in the reference to the idea of ‘something beautiful and enduring… beyond all change and ruin. American life in the wearly 20th Century was changed swiftly as the railways spread westwards through the Mid West and accross the Rockies. Landscapes were altered and lives ruined as the ‘robber barons’ of industry piled up their fortunes. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fate of the Native American Plains Indians who were driven from the lands and whose cultures were erased. In Huckleberry Finn, the beginning of this destruction is polarised into the clash between the raft and the steamer. The raft – an Edenic symbol of purity and a simple life stands no chance in the face of the onrushing symbol of new industry and wealth. Here, just as the Mississippi has lasted well after the changes wrought upon it, the engineer recognised the ‘enduring’nature of life on the prairie or out of the large cities. Thisis the pure life embodied in the Pioneer ethos and is the reason for his obsession with the women by the track – they represent something which endures -vthe spirit of the true America.