Analysis of 'The Lost Boy'

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Author: Wallace Stegner
Editor: Anna Sheets-Nesbitt
Date: 1999
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 33. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,132 words

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[(essay date 1950) In the following essay, originally published in 1950, Stegner characterizes "The Lost Boy" as an adept and magical incantation to time and the power of the past.]

The writings of Thomas Wolfe, whatever their other virtues, are not usually notable for the strictness of their form. At any length Wolfe was large and loose; his talents were antipathetic to the concentration and control by which the short story has always been marked. But "The Lost Boy" is something of an exception. It is large enough and loose enough, but it does have an unmistakable form, which arises immediately and inevitably out of the intention and is inseparable from it.

"The Lost Boy" has within it most of what Thomas Wolfe made his total message. It has the haunting evocation of the past, the preoccupation with Time, the irreparable loneliness of the individual, the constant solipsistic attempt to convert the remembered into the real. The characteristic search for the father is apparently not here, but the search for the brother which is the subject of this story is so closely related as to seem a part of Wolfe's extraordinary longing to project himself backward toward someone loved and respected and envied and lost. And the style and manner are Wolfe's typical manner; the form the story takes does not hinder his incantatory flow of words.

Wolfe was a magician, a witch doctor, drawing upon the same profundities of awe and ecstasy and fear which primitive religions and magic and superstition draw upon. His writing impulse was very often directed toward the laying of ghosts, the evoking of spirits, the making of medicine to confound restricting Time, the exorcism of evil, the ritual expiation of sin. It is entirely appropriate that the form of this story should be very close to that of a primitive or superstitious ritual. The story is as surely an act of healing as a Navajo Yehbetzai, as much a superstitious rite as the calling up of a spirit at a séance. It has the same compulsive, ritualistic, gradual accretion of excitement toward the point of the ghost's appearance. It observes rules older than literary criticism and taboos embedded in the subconscious of the race. This is a very subsurface story; it comes close to being pure necromancy. Story and ritual are one; the form is utterly compulsive, though perhaps largely unconscious.

It does not begin like an exercise in voodoo, but like one of Wolfe's hymns to Time. In the beginning Wolfe evokes the Square in all its concreteness, from the dry whisking of the tails of the fire-horses to the catalogue of implements in the hardware store window. Here is Grover, the lost boy, before he was lost; here is Grover "caught upon a point of Time." Grover is real in a real place, but the Square is more than a square, Grover is a child who is more than a child. There is a quality of trance: the returning plume of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420023829