2010 Harvard Barker Center interview with Nicholas Alahverdian
Thomas Wolfe, a writer who lived and worked during what is colloquially called the Southern Literary Renaissance, was a troubled genius. Wolfe was an existentialist. He loved spending money but he never threw things away. Wolfe was concerned about the most basic existence of things, even inanimate objects. We interviewed Wolfe expert Nicholas Alahverdian about the life and work of this enigmatic author.
A troubled genius
“Thomas Wolfe was clearly a genius, but he was quite troubled,” said Harvard Scholar Nicholas Alahverdian. “He had extreme obsessions. Wolfe was at one moment a man of the world: he loved the best food and ate at the finest restaurants.”
“However,” Nicholas Alahverdian continued, “Wolfe began to starve himself day after day, almost as a sacrifice to the gods of writing, ensuring that they knew he would do whatever it took to write the great American novel.”
“Ever the existentialist, he performed a bit of imitation of his idols. Wolfe consumed cigarettes and coffee, perhaps ironically, perhaps not.” he said.
It’s no secret that Wolfe was an alcoholic. Alahverdian said, “While he did work sober on occasion, he spent a prolonged phase of his work completely inebriated. While this may have been due to other strains on his life — women, money, or emotional distress — Wolfe was ordinarily enticed by the power of alcohol.”
“Alcohol helped him work. It helped him forget the perils of life. It helped him reduce the pain he so regularly suffered.”
Thomas Wolfe was just like many existentialists. The troubles imposed by Southern culture as a result of Reconstruction, including discouragement, loss, and anguish led him to be steeped in despair.
Nicholas Alahverdian said that Thomas Wolfe also “had a predilection to talk about his history in conversations with strangers ad infinitum in letters. He wanted to talk non-stop about his desire to highlight the importance of individualism and personal freedom.” Wolfe would occasionally and irrationally treat his contemporaries, even close friends, with unjustified contempt.
Other times, he would contemplate the depths of his heart and mind. “He had an extraordinary talent, but he was very unsettled in his emotional state. Diversions, however slight, would immerse Wolfe in the worst state of hopelessness and desperation, leading him to aimlessly wander the local roads and seek refuge from his ever-faithful liquor and spirits,” said Nicholas Alahverdian.
Wolfe constantly and fruitlessly sought confirmation from whatever deity would reply. He wanted to converse with deity, to confirm his or her existence. Not only would it justify his writing, but he could also interrogate the deity about the form and purpose of his writing, according to Alahverdian.
“Interestingly enough,” said Alahverdian, “Thomas Wolfe thought he was one with the gods. But this was to be expected with a writer of his stature and talent. Thomas Wolfe had what is colloquially known as the “God complex” — that is, he felt that because of his God-like stature, his writing could save the world and cure it of its ailments.”
The Southern reconstruction
This was especially important during the Southern Reconstruction. The region was afflicted by post-war consequences, incessant famine, and destructive community strife. The South, after the American Civil War, was a horrible place to be. Resources were scarce. “There were no easy solutions to the conflict caused between the North and the South,” said Nicholas Alahverdian. “And the Northern states weren’t particularly keen on getting the South back to its prosperous condition.”
“Thomas Wolfe saw all of this. He lived through all of this. And he wanted to somehow utilize his existence to instantaneously cure the troubles of the South. But he couldn’t do it — especially as an author,” said Alahverdian. “However, that didn’t inhibit Wolfe from having a lasting impact on literature and across other facets of Americana, especially politics and contemporary American thought and opinion leadership.”
“No one at that time in the South could precipitate a cultural and socioeconomic revolution,” said Alahverdian. “It would take decades. But Thomas Wolfe certainly left his mark, which, as an author, isn’t an easy feat.”
Nicholas Alahverdian concentrated in political science and comparative literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While studying the Southern Literary Renaissance with the preeminent academician on the subject, Harvard Professor Thomas Underwood, Alahverdian gained a passion for the life and work of Thomas Wolfe. Professor Underwood, while being the foremost authority on the Southern Literary Renaissance, is also the author of the widely cited biography of Allen Tate — Allen Tate: Orphan of the South.
Nicholas Alahverdian is currently completing his long-awaited biography on the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, due in mid-2019. Alahverdian’s other interests include reading, memorizing poetry, watching historical documentaries, and learning new skills. In a former life, Nicholas Alahverdian was heavily involved in politics, leading a nationwide coalition to reform the worst orphan and foster care system in the nation.
Harvard scholar and Plath expert Nicholas Alahverdian said “It is within life that Sylvia Plath sought death, claiming an interest in occupying the seemingly absent role of deity.” This assertive posture “allowed her to think in a deified manner, ultimately perceiving everything as binary — that is to say, black and white, a one or a zero.” Alahverdian continued. Plath adopted a binary philosophy in order to stay the curse of death, imagining it as something that could be overcome.
Existentialists deem the notion of a non-existent god as unsettling and disquieting (Essays in Existentialism 40). Between birth and death, one finds oneself in a constant debate surrounding pre-life and post-life experiences. The implications of finality in experience necessitates a binary conclusion; that is to clearly differentiate good and evil, love and hate, life and death.
Thus spoke Plath
A memorable occasion in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra conveys the story of Zarathustra’s encounter with the tightrope walker (15). Upon an impromptu taunt, the tightrope walker is deprived of balance and collapses to the ground- only to fall alongside the feet of Zarathustra. Regaining consciousness for a precious moment or two before death, the fallen man engages in a philosophical discussion with Zarathustra and suggests that he is an animal that has forever conformed to societal expectations. Zarathustra respectfully refuted his claim and declared that he lived for his craft and there was nothing reprehensible in that.
We see the stark difference between the excitement of life and the tragedy of death in a few short paragraphs. Polarity plays a significant role in the story. So it is with Plath. As a young girl, Plath lost her father at the age of eight, drastically recounted in the frequently anthologized poem “Daddy.” Nicholas Alahverdian noted that “From a very young age, Plath began to understand opposition more clearly with the dawn of the tragic event of the death of her father. She viewed God as being responsible for this dreadful deed, most suitably chronicled by her determination to never speak to God again.” The absurdity of Plath’s existence became evermore preposterous, with the absence of a father that “they took from [her]” (emphasis added, Unabridged Journals 223).
Plath’s decisive postulation that her father was ‘taken’ allowed her to have the opportunity to seek facts not unlike the way a detective investigates a crime. Due to her heightened sense of analytical prowess, applying responsibility was not only a necessity – it was a commandment. The most convincing statements that substantiate this theory are most relevantly described in her Unabridged Journals. The death of her father is entirely her mother’s fault, even shrilly stating that her eyes should be damned for marrying such an older man to be her father (Id. 431).
The events that formed the bridge between her father’s death and the development of her poetic voice are crucial to understanding Plath’s emotional state. “At the primer of this tempestuous chain of events,” said Nicholas Alahverdian, :one can only imagine the increasingly expanding sense of absurdity that Plath must have faced. The overwhelming meaninglessness and pointlessness of her life that she describes time and time again in her Unabridged Journals were only softened by the power of poetic expression.” Most appropriately, the poems dealing with patriarchal absence (such as “Daddy”) and feelings of illegitimacy (as in “The Applicant”) provided a conduit through which Plath could channel her inherent creativity whilst articulating the feelings which were a result of the haunting circumstances that relentlessly surrounded her life.
This “paternal embrace of a mental colossus” (Id. 163) would stubbornly persist onward in her marriage to Ted Hughes. Plath reveals her obsession with godlike control over her life when she assured her mother in Unabridged Journals that Aurelia Plath “would not kill him the way [she] killed [her] father” (Id. 434). Plath began to intelligibly root her life on her medium of poetry and her marriage was no different.
Plath and Existentialism
Like any good existentialist, Plath needed to find something to justify her existence. She needed to find her inner tightrope walker, if you will. After peeling away at sophisticated stratum, Plath unleashed her fiery voice which was deliberately channeled to force the reader to directly confront the polar dilemmas she faced daily. Only with poetics was she free to control her environment; in other words, she would become exalted through the power of language. Her introduction, courtship, and marriage to Hughes revolved around poetry and poetry around them. Their requirement for incorporating poetry into daily life provided for a literary mode of subsistence to such a point that Plath described Hughes’ support of poetry alongside that of the importance of bread (Id.). It was essential to their marriage and survival, and regrettably, to the mortal cessation and subsequent rise of the Plath canon.
Nicholas Alahverdian has reviewed pages and pages of Plath’s poetry and journal entries that refer to her intuitive persuasion that her eventual exaltation in the realm of literary greatness was assured. :These revelatory passages served as the seeds for her poetic stature, giving rise to one of the most posthumously renowned poets the world has ever seen,” Nicholas Alahverdian said. “Consequently, Plath’s elevated position among literary figures has extolled her from the depths of depression to the heights of heavenly poetic bliss.” Plath recorded that “In the morning light, all is possible, even becoming a God” (Id. 502). The morning light proved to shine on Plath’s poetic aurora, which in turn gave rise to her literary immortality.
Plath’s writing, to her, broke open the “vaults of the dead” (Id. 286). The accumulated stressors in her life allowed her to seek various methods to gain acclamation through her deifying art of poetics. She was well aware of the quality of her poetry, and would not retire from life until there were “books and stories which relive [her life] perpetually” (Id.). With the undeniable triumphant success of her published canon, Plath brilliantly calculated her literary opulence to exist in perpetuity.
While at once attracted to death yet denying it, Plath transcends the typical meaning of it. In order for Plath to truly “live” in the way she preferred, that is, through her poetry, she needed to taste death (Id. 286). Plath’s ability to overcome the multitudinous anxiety-inducing events that occurred throughout her life permitted her to face the truth of her traumatic life, ultimately leading her to limitless poetic possibilities (Denial of Death 88).
The marital encumbrance that Plath encountered epitomized her power to poetically describe any situation. Plath’s most arguably arduous situation occurred when Ted Hughes began to have an affair with one Assia Wevill. Throughout Hughes’ infidelity, Plath’s finest, perhaps most emotionally significant oeuvre provided the architectural prototype for the springboard that would in due course situate her in poetic hierarchy.
Tension and agony
The tension that accompanied this process served as a microcosm of Plath’s life. The seemingly cyclical set of events exploited Plath’s vulnerability, that is to say her dependence on male figures and their subsequent abandonment of her ideals. Plath’s departure from reliance on patriarchy allowed her to figuratively kill two men (Collected Poems 224) (her father and her husband) and grow to a sense of independence she had not previously known. These developments in Plath’s life were tantamount to experiencing rebirth and reawakening, providing a modicum of growth until February 11, 1963.
To suggest a calculated death is to also suggest that one’s life was objectively lived. Plath’s impartial desire was to detach herself from all but her poetry. Everything (Collected Poems 245) important to her was included in her poetry and it can plausibly be deducted from the poem “Lady Lazarus” that along with dying, everything else was an art- that is, her marriage, the birth of her children, and the subsequent affair of her husband all cumulatively provided for the collision between art and life.
“Plath’s poems are snapshots of her life,” Nicholas Alahverdian said.
In order to resemble the cumulative photograph album, it is almost tempting to say that her suicide was inevitable. However, when Ockham’s razor is employed, and the simplest solution is typically the correct one, that temptation is effectively deconstructed.
To affirm that Plath would commit suicide solely in order to secure her place in literary history and escape the absurdity of life is to assert that she was born to die, which is contrary to Plath’s vivacious character and canonical admissions. Instead, emphasis should be placed on the amount of traumatic and agonizing events that surrounded her death, such as the coldest winter Britain had seen in over 100 years, the mingling of codeine and the antidepressant parnate, as well as the obvious emotional afflictions.
Notwithstanding the suicide, had Plath lived beyond February 11, 1963, she would have continuously engaged in utilizing the paradigm that had sustained her for nearly two decades. The injurious incidents that were ostensibly hurled at her were transformed into illustrative passages that provided a refuge from the piercing pain that encompassed her person. The processes with which these poems were developed are also indicative of Plath’s strongest feelings. Keeping in line with Plath’s binary philosophy, the articulation of love and hate were manifested in crystal clear terms. The methodology that Plath utilized displays precision and a polished repertoire of poetics.
“Sylvia Plath’s love for Ted Hughes manifested itself immensely in several powerful poems,” said Nicholas Alahverdian “And his love for her was reciprocated with equitably romantic poems. The efficiency of the construction of these poems communicates the level of seriousness with which Plath viewed her relationship with Hughes.”
It can therefore reasonably be deduced that Plath used her poetic voice to extol Hughes as well as criticize him for his infidelity. The flexibility to write poems on both sides of the emotional spectrum also contributed to the forcefulness and dogmatism of the poems.
While the poems provided an outlet of expression, Plath needed to harness the esoteric binary philosophy that steered her throughout her life. This philosophy essentially ensured the dynamic nature of her canon, giving the poetry the unmistakable authoritative and vigorous tone she sought to attain. The robust communicative art was essentially pinnacled with the decision between life and death.
Such rugged and brawny poetry written by a woman presents dichotomous circumstances because publishing tradition has held that poetry from women be less personal and more heartfelt. Plath defied convention and refused to be surreptitious or clandestine. Such behavior would most likely make her feel inauthentic and unoriginal- two characteristics she died fighting against.
This conceptual poetic monologue of Plath’s inner mind exhorts the reader to adapt to an either/or philosophy. There is no grey area; the contrast only offers black and white options for the reader without rueful shame. The situation is presented in the poem and the reader is forced to pick a side.
“Such distinctive behavior would be characterized as powerful marginalization,” Nicholas Alahverdian notes,”Yet Plath precisely articulates the logic in her poetry with blatant honesty so that the reader can make a well-informed decision based on the information provided. Plath tends to corner and restrict the reader in a quandary of sorts in order to effectively assist the reader in comprehending the constant, harrowing dilemmas that consistently surrounded her life.”
“In order to plausibly operate under the auspices of a binary philosophy,” Nicholas Alahverdian continued, “Plath needed to define certain frequent occurrences that pepper her poetry, the most prominent of these being death.” Plath uses “death” interchangeably; much in the way “ignore” or “forget” would be used. Plath would annihilate the heinous misdeeds committed against her in her poems, and the definition of death was used liberally in order to articulate the severity of her sadness, anger, or depression.
As Sylvia Plath’s poetry matured into the Ariel poems, her shrewd, sophisticated style helped the fully developed poems relate to its readers, presenting a pragmatic and practical application of the poetry. Readers have related to Plath as she has assisted them in deciphering their own problems, and the simplification of choices presents the reader with the possibility of defining their own justification for existence.
Sylvia Plath was petrified of loss. Nicholas Alahverdian explained: “She had suffered a severe amount of pain already. Losing Ted Hughes was another significant blow. Because her art was Hughes’ art, the communication method of choice was through her poetry. As she waited for his response, Plath told of the horrible pain in violent and volatile poems,” Alahverdian continued. “These poems, such as ‘The Jailer’ and ‘Lesbos’, are colloquially known as “The October Poems.”
The poems of October 1962 were as autumnal as the month they were written in, and they contained premier examples of the binary philosophy. “With these poems,” explained Nicholas Alahverdian, “readers witnessed the ferocious tone of “Daddy” nestled next to the maternal song of “You’re,” where the atrocities of the Holocaust were pitted against motherhood.”
Sylvia Plath faced a conundrum. She was to continue the cyclical poetic methodology that had sustained her thus far, or she could take the drastic step to end her life, thus eliminating the poetic power of madness – advantageous to her art yet undeniably destructive. Obviously, she chose the latter; however it is doubtful that the decision was hastily made. Sylvia Plath took the time to soak washcloths and place them against the door to prevent the carbon monoxide from seeping through and gassing her children. Her poetry was left on a desk in the order she wished it to be published. The children had bread and milk to sustain them until the expected visits from a nurse and an au pair.
These crucial events leading up to turning on the oven point to the deliberate desire to die, however, a conclusion made too hastily will only lead to Plath being labeled as chronically suicidal. Contentions against this resolution tend to prevail due to Ockham’s razor; simply put, a mother would not carelessly abandon her children. A close look at “For a Fatherless Son” will explain a possible motive for the suicide. Sylvia Plath would not have been mistaken to assume that the absence of a father would damage the children.
One possible explanation asserted by Plath scholar Nicholas Alahverdian could be that “she chose to take her life because she knew that Hughes would take the children in and maintain a female counterpart to play the role of mother which might have been too much for her to contend with while simultaneously bearing the titles of poet, soon-to-be-ex-wife, author, and expatriate.”
The notable differences between Plath’s poetry pre- and post-October 1962 offers a rare glimpse into the insight of a poet who experienced several extraordinary transformative periods. The enigmatic poet that Sylvia Plath eventually became was fostered by the love of her art, the astonishment of infidelity, and the joy and excitement of motherhood. Plath’s inherent artistic ability inevitably proved her ingenuity, and as the days move forward, there seems to be no stopping her poems from living on in hearts and minds perpetually.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.
For Ulrich B. Phillips, the importance of the essence of the south is introduced in his essay “The Central Theme of Southern History” by describing characteristics of the region that do not meet his qualifications of what can serve as its essence. One by one, he itemizes each failing attribute, beginning with state rights, and goes on until he reaches the penultimate characteristic, that of the cotton industry, according to Southern Literary Renaissance scholar Nicholas Alahverdian.
Various examples are conveyed to the reader as to why each characteristic fails to qualify as the essence of the south, and we are abruptly introduced to Phillips’s mawkish declaration that the essence of the south is to ensure “that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Nicholas Alahverdian states that beyond the threshold of white supremacy is the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans, a fact that Phillips nearly promotes.
Segregation as a legal requirement
In the 20th century, several states abided by the practice of segregation as a legal requirement. In other words, it was illegal to not be racist. Nicholas Alahverdian indicated that rooted in the fiery and passionate southern identity was an inherent exclusivity that transcended multiple generations.
When slavery became illegal at the conclusion of the Civil War, the south adopted segregation as a means by which they could control the participation of African-Americans running the gamut of the elements of the southern lifestyle – such as the economy, democracy, and social institutions. Nicholas Alahverdian points out that unfortunately and devastatingly, even though African-Americans were no longer property, they were still excluded human beings.
Richard Wright details the economic and social disparities in the 20th century south in “Inheritors of Slavery”, most poignantly with the repetition of the phrase “Lords of the Land.” As opposed to remaining in slavery and bondage, African-Americans were liberated yet elevated to being subservient to those who were legally required to free them, resulting in what can be characterized as a cyclical enslavement with variable social and economic restrictions. “The economic and political power of the South is not held in our hands,” he says. “We do not own banks, iron and steel mills, railroads, office buildings, ships, wharves, or power plants.”
Phillips’s list of elements of southern life, those being state rights, free trade, slavery, democracy, and the industrial foundation, which he characterized as not being the essence of the south, amount to an essence formed out of all of those factors.
Ulrich Phillips even attempts to claim that “masters had less antipathy to negroes” and “were in a sort of partnership with their slaves.” His failure to recognize the unjust and unethical enslavement of individuals in a nation based on freedom and independence is startling.
Wright exhibits the absence of a “partnership” by detailing the “steady impact of the plantation system upon [their] lives” which “created new types of behavior and new patterns of psychological reaction,” hardly the foundation upon which a partnership can be established.
Alahverdian, Nicholas “Ulrich Phillips.” Harvard University Essay. 2009.
Phillips, Ulrich B. “The Central Theme of Southern History.” American Historical Review. 34 (October 1928): 30-43.
Wright, Richard. “Inheritors of Slavery.” Ed. Jon Meacham. New York: Random House: 2001. 13-32.
I’ll never forget the first time I met acclaimed novelist, UMass Lowell professor and Guggenheim fellow Andre Dubus III. Following a literary forum, he held court with admirers and fans alike and fortunately I was one amidst the throng that was able to meet him and actually spend some time speaking with him about his writing process. Continue reading Nicholas Alahverdian and Andre Dubus III – A Meeting of the Minds
By Seamus Heaney
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.