Douglas Woolf Everywhere

Lou Rowan


Conventional criticism bridles precisely at invention's starting-line:
we can look for the new and valid beyond what criticism envelops. The neglect of Douglas Woolf's work, persisting more than a decade beyond his death, pays perverse tribute to its originality. As David Matlin shows above: if we read Woolf with attention, we'll experience his work reacting with precision and with almost too much feeling to the primary breakdowns (aka issues) of the last century.
In tapes held at the University of Delaware Library (home of the Woolf archive), Woolf calls Thoreau the dominant author of the 19th century, and Beckett of the 20th. If Walden is autobiography doctored by fictions exemplifying meaning, Woolf's stories and novels are fictions wounded and infected by autobiography. Their relentless attention to the logistics of being-like lodging and feeding-are the draining of meaning from Thoreau's exemplary simplifications, translating them to an environment of absurdity, to which humans can react with amoral mania or hurt withdrawal.
To put it baldly: a primary assumption of Woolf's work is that Beckett's landscape is a realistic rendition of the United States.
Woolf rarely writes in the first person (unless the narrator is an
animal), but the consciousness of the narrator distorts, through
systematically sustained metaphors, conventional facts and data.
We could call this technique deliberating pathetic fallacy, were the objects responsive to the narrator's perceptions. But it is their unresponsiveness that forces the narrative and the narrator to be so alert, so ready to retreat into a verbal re-creation of an absurdly hostile environment.
The seeming weirdness of Woolf's fictions is the realistic story of the struggle between a reasonable and reasonably innocent being and that being's encounters with the 20th-century mundane. It is no accident that a primary source of critical appreciation for Woolf has been poets who grasp Woolf's formal and verbal accuracy.
Woolf's Guide to New York is an unpublished novel that he calls "autobiographical." It takes the narrator back to his region "of origin," so that he encounters not only today's experience but also his whole life's adjuncts to today's experience. After remembering wrenching post-butterscotch-sundae-partings from Grand Central, he can return to his perceptions of sustenance, the gathering of which he chronicles like Thoreau, but the contents and circumstances of which are as absurd as transcendental:
He could dab as long as he wanted today. The butterscotch must surely have changed, but it was impossible to say in what way. The sweetness still clutched the throat; the battle between hot and cold took place in the front of the head. No, neither he nor the butterscotch had changed in those ways. Face it, he said to the mirror, you're enjoying this more than you used to because now you're in need of it.

Yes, he's indeed "facing it:" all the meanings, judgments,
self-judgments, feelings-plus the accurate, literate, slightly desperate good humor necessary to go on (Beckett) are present in this paragraph. So that at the end of this episode, when the packed
narrative has taken Ray through the grotesqueries of his work and his firing his neglectful publisher, when he has retired sore-legged from his daily self-judgments and self-exams, when the sounds of his
copulating neighbors have retreated, his rest is disturbed by a police
But Ray feels OK, because "at least they hadn't caught him sticky-mouthed." An obvious narrative would fasten on the sordidness, the fear and annoyance of the late disturbance. But we'd learn nothing new from that. What Woolf brings us in those last few words are the lonely Ray's feeling so complicit, so close to the sounds because they make him feel...what? They make him feel he's vulnerable to parental correction for not wiping his lips after the butterscotch.
What a wonderful illustration of what David Matlin calls above taking "quietly unusual narrative chances." Butterscotch at Walgreen's may be about as commercial as an evocative madeleine could become, but as continuing metaphor AND fact it completes not only one of many "artistic" unifications of this episode, but it also conveys the hurt consciousness of the boy the narrator will not relinquish. Woolf's art conveys multiple perceptions of the same event with grace, tact and accuracy, since we realize also that "lonely old men" can get "sticky-mouthed" in hotels like that less innocently.


Note: David Matlin's essay responds primarily to the Dalkey Archive Press re-issue of Ya! and John-Juan in one volume, introduction by Robert Creeley. Creeley's piece and Sandra Braman's After Words to Hypocritic Days and Other Tales (Black Sparrow, 1993) are the best introductions I know of to Woolf's work. In addition, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring, 1982, devoted half an issue to Woolf's work.

The Woolf archive resides in the highly cooperative University of Delaware Library, where the unpublished novel Woolf's Guide to New York, and many other important works and sources of information await attention. Publishers and others should contact his literary executor Sandra Braman at
Douglas Woolf's work challenges us: if we are serious about American fiction, and maybe ourselves, we will read and re-read it. It is funny, sad, utterly original and lively. There is nothing, as Gilbert Sorrentino has written, cheap about it. It ranges from relatively simple narratives "by" animals to novels capturing wide ranges of object-matter. The trajectory of its darkness is impounded by John-Juan, a hell-bath that can be seen as the American "In the Penal Colony."

Previous publications from Woolf's Guide.

Loving Ladies, to Maine and back & beyond:  Concerning mainly one of my daughters, one of my wives, and one of my mothers.  Minneapolis, MN:  William Shields, 1986.

 From an autobiographical novel, as expurgated by Sandra Braman. 
Greensburg, PA:  Zelot Press, 1982.