Eugene Smith, Thomas Wolfe, and John Coltrane

This weekend I was in Asheville, N.C. for a private Jazz Loft Project event and on Friday my wife and I went to Riverside Cemetery to check out the grave where Thomas Wolfe was buried in 1938 (we’ve been to the Wolfe home before).

Everything about Wolfe was excessive – he produced some of the largest, most over-flowing manuscripts in literary history – including his physical size; six-foot-six, two hundred and fifty pounds, which in today’s terms would be seven-foot, three fifty.  So without really thinking about it I expected a huge grave stone.  It surprised me to see his stone dwarfed by the one for his parents, like it was tacked on (see below).

Eugene Smith compared himself to Wolfe in several letters during his never-ending Pittsburgh odyssey in the 1950’s.  He wrote:

“Part of it (his Pittsburgh work) is like Thomas Wolfe being the greatest of our writing failures because he tried with such tremendous talent and tried so hard, harder than the rest of us.”

Faulkner once wrote that Wolfe was trying “to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin.”  That description might fit Smith’s enterprise, too.

Today Smith and Wolfe have something else in common:  They aren’t as exalted as they once were.  Wolfe was once mentioned in the same sentence as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.  Not anymore.  (Anne Trubek had an interesting piece on Wolfe’s decline in the Oxford American last year).  Same with Smith; he used to be mentioned with Evans, Lange, Hine, and Cartier-Bresson.  Now, the sentence includes Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Arbus, and Frank, sometimes Winogrand and Friedlander, but not Smith.

The jazz analog to Smith and Wolfe is John Coltrane, who similarly erupted with boundless artistic expressions, “sheets of sound” as Ira Gitler famously put it.  Yet, Coltrane’s effort is appreciated as a tenuous human soul (Coltrane died in 1967 at age forty) expressing something profound and exotic, dangerous and alluring.  Since 1980 every budding saxophonist has absorbed Coltrane note for recorded note.  When I’m at the gym I often crank the 15-minute title track from Coltrane’s late album Transition as loud as I can stand it.  It helps me reach a higher level of cardio work.  But in photography and literature today such excess, the wearing of passion on the sleeve, is considered self-indulgent and undisciplined, even naïve.

In my travels researching Smith over thirteen-plus years I’ve met or heard of countless photographers that came along before 1980 who revered him (including Robert Frank).  Last week I was listening to a loft tape from around 1965 and a photographer named David Brooks (who had an image in Steichen’s Family of Man at MoMA in 1955) wandered into the loft, unannounced, to pay homage.  Smith didn’t know who Brooks was, but he wasn’t surprised; this happened all the time.  Now, though, if there are any photographers that came along after 1980 who claim Smith as a primary influence I haven’t heard of them.

There is isolated anecdotal evidence suggesting that the presentation of Smith’s unknown Jazz Loft material is helping his reputation.  In the May issue of The Believer magazine, published by the cutting edge McSweeney’s, Suzanne Snider has an intriguing interview with photographer, filmmaker, writer, and publisher Lawrence Schiller.  In the narration of Schiller’s career, probably written by The Believer’s staff, it says, “He worked with the great W. Eugene Smith on Minamata, a book of photos related to mercury poisoning in Japan.”

This may seem like a minor thing.  But I’ve been following things like this for a long time and this simple reference – the great W. Eugene Smith – made me blink.

I wonder if Wolfe’s reputation will ever be restored to previous levels.  The proliferation of writing workshops, where tastes and markets are arbitrated and created, seems to be an obstacle.  It’s hard to imagine roundtable encouragement of Wolfe’s process – prodigious, rhapsodic manuscripts that require painstaking edits.

wolfe grave

-Sam Stephenson

2 Comments

  1. martha Said,

    June 27, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    so we missed each other in asheville by a week … we didn’t get to the gravesite but i wish we had made it there. the home and museum is simple and evocative and very well run. i am currently reading a copy of “O Lost” .. the unexpurgated (i.e. 25% longer) version of “Look Homeward Angel” … talk about getting drunk on words. this volume, unexpurgated, should restore the reputation. it’s stunning.

  2. Dave Sage Said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    A lot of early 20th century art and writing got the heave ho during the late 80s and early 90s when 3rd wave fems and postmodernists held sway, Sam. Those modernists were the scourge of humankind’s existence for 15-20 years don’t you know. Well, sort of . . . .

    I believe we will see many reputations, not just Wolfe’s, restored as time passes and new gens of scholars search for areas of study.
    How can it be otherwise? Too much of who and what we are today is bound up in that period.