Innocence and Nakedness

I confess, I didn’t discover the author’s note at the beginning of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life because I read the novel, but because Ethan Hawke’s novelist character talks about it in the opening scene of Before Sunset, when he’s fielding questions from journalists in a bookstore in Paris.

This note has been quoted in its entirety elsewhere on the Web; in fact, the novel in its entirety is available on the Web, just not for Americans (see, for example, this page of links on the Web site of the U. Penn. library—oh, Sonny Bono, I’m so confused; like, if I were to download the novel when I was in France, would I have to then delete it from my e-book reader before returning to the United States?).

Anyway, it felt worth quoting here in light of recent discussions on the nature of fiction and autobiography, and for the enjoyment of the three or four of you who stop by here regularly, perhaps especially for the two of you writing autobiographical novels about Clinton-era academic sex scandals and medieval Hungarian leg wrestling, respectively.

TO THE READER

This is a first book, and in it the author has written of experience which is now far and lost, but which was once part of the fabric of his life. If any reader, therefore, should say that the book is “autobiographical” the writer has no answer for him: it seems to him that all serious work in fiction is autobiographical—that, for instance, a more autobiographical work than “Gulliver’s Travels” cannot easily be imagined.

This note, however, is addressed principally to those persons whom the writer may have known in the period covered by these pages. To these persons, he would say what he believes they understand already: that this book was written in innocence and nakedness of spirit, and that the writer’s main concern was to give fulness, life, and intensity to the actions and people in the book he was creating. Now that it is to be published, he would insist that this book is a fiction, and that he meditated no man’s portrait here.

But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose. Dr. Johnson remarked that a man would turn over half a library to make a single book: in the same way, a novelist may turn over half the people in a town to make a single figure in his novel. This is not the whole method but the writer believes it illustrates the whole method in a book that is written from a middle distance and is without rancour or bitter intention.