Literary Undertakers Part III

Thomas Wolfe 1937According to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, Thomas Wolfe has experienced much death by the time he was in his 20’s and wrote Look Homeward, Angel. He had also been a firsthand witness to the emergence of funeral homes as the new venue for dealing with the body after its last breath, and the emergence of the undertaker, who with self-proclaimed expertise managed the final arrangements.

Wolfe’s familiarity shows up in his depiction of the literary undertaker, Horst Hines, and in his description of protagonist  Eugene Gant’s reaction to the scene in the mortuary, where he and his brother have come to see how the undertaker has fared with the presentation of the corpse of their brother, Ben. At the same time, he is impressed by how the demeanor of Hines has changed since they met him at the beanery early in the morning, his mind is filled with dread at having to interact with him, and he wants to leave the whole business in his hands. Laderman quotes from the novel:

How like Death this man is (thought Eugene). He thought of the awful mysteries of burial — the dark ghoul-ritual, the obscene communion with the dead, touched with some black and foul witch-magic. Where is the can in which they throw the parts? There is a restaurant near here. Then he took the cold phthisic hand, freckled on its back, that the man extended, with the sense of having touched something embalmed. The undertaker’s manner had changed since the morning; it had become official, professional. He was the alert marshal of their grief, the efficient master-of-ceremonies. Subtly he made them feel there was an order and decorum in death: a ritual of mourning that must be observed. They were impressed.

Eugene’s brother Luke asks Hines to help them pick out a coffin, and he immediately takes on the role of salesman extraordinaire. Wolfe shows Hines making a point of demonstrating his sincerity by talking about the business he’d done with the family in the past, and at the same time shamelessly manipulating the boys, showing them the most expensive caskets first, then winding up giving them a break ($375 instead of $450) on a mid-range casket. He then takes them in back to show them the body of their brother. Eugene sees the well-dressed, neatly groomed body with the artificial smile and feels this is not Ben, but only a shell, prepared by an undertaker “hungry for their praise” for an empty funeral service.

Hines seems to be quite pleased with his work, but Luke remarks on the pallor of the corpse’s face.

Hines immediately touches up the dead boy’s cheeks with rouge, and is even more impressed with himself. Indeed, he feels he has done the work of an artist! But instead of making supportive remarks as the undertaker would seem to expect, Eugene has a different reaction. He bursts into a fit of laughter and tears.

Eugene staggered across the floor and collapsed upon a chair, roaring with laughter while his long arms flapped helplessly at his sides. ‘Scuse!’ he gasped. ‘Don’t mean to—A-r-rrt! Yes! Yes! That’s it!’ he screamed, and he beat his knuckles in a crazy tattoo upon the polished floor. He slid gently off the chair, slowly unbuttoning his vest, and with a languid hand loosening his necktie. A faint gurgle came from his weary throat, his head lolled around on the floor languidly, tears coursed down his swollen features.

In this way Wolfe blends comedy and tragedy in the scene, which follows upon the very difficult passage about Ben’s death. A point is being made about Eugene’s discovery of his occupation. Hines’ efforts to give a natural life-like appearance to Ben’s corpse are a bizarre parody of the very function of triumphing over time and death which belongs to genuine art. When Eugene cries out ‘A-r-rrt!’ he seems to recognize this. This episode, following upon earlier episodes where Eugene contemplates his father’s stonecutting and reflects on the poetry of Homer, leads up to a final realization in the last chapter of the book which must mirror a realization that Wolfe himself had, that his true calling is to be an artist.

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