Places: Of Time and the River

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedAltamont

Altamont. Of Time and the RiverSmall North Carolina town in which Eugene grows up. Annoyed with his mother’s gossiping and his sister’s complaining, frustrated with his family’s financial problems and the general static superficiality of the town, he longs to leave. He is revolted by the constriction and triviality of what he regards as the paltry lives around him. He desires to escape these constraints and the hopeless location of his childhood. Hoping for a pilgrimage of discovery and escape, he resolves to travel to a northern land of promise where he can achieve understanding and satisfaction. Altamont stands for the beginning, the departure point; it is the place that Eugene works against but is also the place he works from.

*Harvard University

*Harvard University. Venerable New England center of learning in which Eugene enrolls. There, removed from the stifling elements of his youth, he grows enamored with the possibilities of his new life. His hunger for knowledge and intellectual growth make him open to learning from books and from life experience. He continues to develop his sharp eye for the peculiarities and inconsistencies of human nature. In a writing class, he becomes inspired and dreams of earning fame as a playwright. He believes that an answer to the loneliness and despair he has always been prey to might be found in a vast outpouring of language. He has begun to see his world expand, and he desires to engage an even larger world. Harvard and nearby Boston symbolize early hope, the seeds of education and the beginnings of a perspective from which Eugene can write about his experience.

*New York City

*New York City. Great northern city in which Eugene settles after finishing college. With his extravagant hunger for new experiences, he approaches the city’s energy, wealth, and possibilities with high expectations. He hopes for success in playwriting, relationships, and self-knowledge. At first, he succeeds in expanding his circle of acquaintances, sensing the deep bonds that unite him with his fellow man. However, he eventually becomes disillusioned. Teaching college English gives him little sense of accomplishment. His writing career does not take off; his idea of the glamour of the wealthy life is hollow; and his hopes for meaningful relationships fall flat. He seems to sense that to reach his true destiny, his life must be linked to a woman, so he is inclined toward romantic hopes and adventures, but these too lead nowhere. Eugene’s life in New York becomes one of frustration and disappointment. At the same time, however, the city symbolizes a key place for his obsession with processing all experience.


*France. Eugene continues his restless wanderings as he hopes to find in Europe the inspiration and purpose that have eluded him in America. In Paris he encounters Starwick, Ann, and Elinor–friends from America. He visits the sites of the city with them, feeling a paradoxical mixture of appeal and revulsion for them. He comes to realize how void and unpromising are his relationships.

Eugene also visits other cities in France–Chartres, Orleans, Tours, Lyons, Marseilles, and Cherbourg,–but what once seemed exciting with its possibilities now fills him with weariness and distaste. For example, he comes to believe that the notions of class and caste governing society are vastly mistaken. His personal hopes come to naught, but he begins to realize that he must return to America to discover himself. As he boards the ship for home, he hears the voice of a woman named Esther who, he feels, will be his true love and a key to his future. Thus, France, for all of its disappointment, yet proves to be a place where Eugene begins to get a grip on the nameless fury that drives him.

BibliographyIdol, John Lane, Jr. A Thomas Wolfe Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. A reference text for the study of Thomas Wolfe. Useful information not readily available in other sources may be found here, for example, a list of special collections of material on Wolfe, genealogies of major families in Wolfe’s fiction, a glossary of people and places in Wolfe, and primary and secondary bibliographies.Kennedy, Richard S., ed. Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective. Athens, Ohio: Croissant and Company, 1983. A collection of essays in two groupings, “Critical Considerations” and “Texts and Manuscripts.” Of Time and the River is treated specifically in one essay and incidentally in another.Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. A major critical study of Thomas Wolfe, tracing the author’s career from his early work to the novels published after his death. Of Time and the River receives extended treatment.Nowell, Elizabeth, ed. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956. A generous collection of the correspondence of Thomas Wolfe by the woman who was his literary agent and later his biographer.Wolfe, Thomas. The Story of a Novel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. This book began as a speech Wolfe gave at the University of Colorado Writer’s Conference in August, 1935. It is an account of the creative effort that resulted in Of Time and the River and acknowledges Wolfe’s debt to his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
Categories: Places