Thomas Wolfe’s Existentialism with Harvard Scholar Nicholas Alahverdian

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.

Nicholas Alahverdian
Nicholas Alahverdian

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.”

Nicholas Alahverdian, Thomas Wolfe
© 2012 Nicholas Alahverdian.

“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.

Wolfe’s vices

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.”

Nicholas Alahverdian
© 2012 Nicholas Alahverdian. All rights reserved

“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.

Nicholas Alahverdian, Thomas Wolfe
© 2012 Nicholas Alahverdian. All rights reserved

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.

Nicholas Alahverdian, Thomas Wolfe
© 2012 Nicholas Alahverdian. All rights reserved

“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.”

Thomas Wolfe, Nicholas Alahverdian
Thomas Wolfe © 2012 Nicholas Alahverdian. All rights reserved

“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, Willow
© 2009 Nicholas Alahverdian. All rights reserved.

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.

Ulrich Phillips

Nicholas Alahverdian on

Ulrich Phillips

The Essence of the South

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.

Nicholas Alahverdian

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.”

Southern Life

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.

Works Cited

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.