The writer’s nature is “torn between opposing poles of loneliness and gregariousness.”


Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

While reading Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) I came across something I’d like to quote here. As with most of Wolfe’s work, it’s autobiographical and the following comes from a chapter when he – George Webber – meets Sinclair Lewis – (fictionalized as Lloyd McHarg; link). If you’ve got the time, I recommend reading Webber and McHarg’s whole adventure (it’s pretty hilarious).

Meeting for the first time, Webber shows up at McHarg’s room where he’s socializing with two men absent any “qualities of intellect.” Wondering why the great McHarg would associate with them, he’s puzzled that these men are merely international Babbitts – the same people McHarg (Lewis) satirized. Yet, even as the writer distances himself from such people, it’s inevitable all roads eventually circle back.

The reason became plain enough as he thought about it. Although McHarg and Webber could never belong to Bendien’s [One of the Babbitts] world, there was something of Bendien in both of them–more in McHarg, perhaps, than in himself. Though they belonged to separate worlds, there was still another world to which each of them could find a common entry. This was the world of natural humanity, the world of the earthly, eating, drinking, companionable, and company-loving man. Every artist feels the need of this world desperately. His nature is often torn between opposing poles of loneliness and gregariousness. Isolation he must have to do his work. But fellowship is also a necessity without which he is lost, since the lack of it removes him from all the naturalness of life which he demands more than any other man alive, and which he must share in if he is to grow and prosper in his art. But his need for companionship often betrays him through its very urgency. His hunger and thirst for life often lay him open to the stupidity of fools and the trickery and dishonesty of Philistines and rascals. [Bolding mine]

I’m reminded now of a letter I received from Ted Kooser, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, upon asking him about the importance of writer communities. At first I was irritated by his answer, but as time’s passed it’s become apparent how right he is. Writers are the worst.

I gather you’d like to find a community of young rural poets and for social reasons that might be pleasant, but, as for writing quality poetry, that happens not in a community but in isolation. You will write your best poems, alone, wherever you are, and having other poets around will be an irritation. [May 2, 2013].

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