Thomas Wolfe’s “Oktoberfest”
By Ellen Apperson Brown
*Ellen was scheduled to appear at Thomas Wolfe Memorial for the monthly discussion of a Thomas Wolfe short story on April 9th, 2020 sponsored by the Wilma Dykeman Legacy. She has offered us a written version of the discussion from her selection of the story Oktoberfest, found in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, ed. Francis E. Skipp (pp. 308-315).
My initial motivation for selecting this story was to have another look at Wolfe’s attitudes and opinions about German culture, a subject of special interest to me, a student of German language and literature. I can remember my first impressions of German (and Austrian) culture from my trip abroad, when I was fresh out of college, and spending time in Vienna and Salzburg. I, too, remember going to Munich, in October 1973, and watching with awe and amazement as several hearty young women carried out 3-4 steins of beer in each hand.
Remembering his own time spent at Munich’s Oktoberfest, in late September of 1928, Wolfe described a scene when “…a peasant woman bore down upon us, swinging in each of her strong hands six foaming steins of the powerful October beer. She smiled at us with a ready friendliness and said, ‘The light or the dark?’ We answered, ‘Dark.’ Almost before we had spoken, she had set two foaming mugs before us on the table and was on her way again.”
According to Wolfe’s story, the narrator did not initially enjoy the crowded festival, but dismissed it as a sort of second-rate Coney Island. “My first feeling as I entered the Fields was one of overwhelming disappointment. What lay before me and around me seemed to be a smaller and less brilliant Coney Island.” Oktoberfest also reminded me of an amusement park, at Myrtle Beach, or perhaps even of a rock concert, like Woodstock. Wolfe’s character, George Webber, was content to tag along with his friend, Heinrich Bahr, who thoroughly enjoyed the dizzying rides. This harmless fun turned a little sour, however, when he paused to watch the spectacle of a young man, an escape artist, being hoisted above the crowd “…a young man whose body and arms were imprisoned in a sleeveless canvas jacket and manacled with a chain. Presently the barker stopped talking, the young man thrust his feet through the canvas loops, and he was hauled aloft, feet first, until he hung face downward above the staring mob. I watched him as he began his desperate efforts to free himself from the chain and jacket which fettered him, until I saw his face turn purple, and the great veins stand out in ropes upon his forehead.” A disturbed Thomas Wolfe writes “…this last exhibition, coming as a climax to an unceasing program of monsters and animal sensations, touched me with a sense of horror. For a moment it seemed to me that there was something evil and innate in men that blackened and tainted even their most primitive pleasures.”
They soon turned to drinking and eating, essentially the main event. “Our savage hunger was devouring us; we called loudly to the bustling waitress…in another moment she sent another woman to our table who was carrying an enormous basket loaded with various cold foods. I took two sandwiches, made deliciously of onions and small salted fish, and an enormous slice of liver cheese, with a crust about its edges. Heinrich also selected two or three sandwiches, and having ordered another liter of dark beer apiece, we began to devour our food.”
Wolfe described the German crowd as being frightening and powerful. He felt trapped “not only in another world but in another time.” Happily, he is rescued from his fear, at least in part, by music, singing “Ein Prosit” along with “the roar of those tremendous voices, swinging and swaying.” He soon felt welcomed into the crowd. Everyone was laughing, smiling and talking. The evening wore down, and the two men walked back toward the railway station, happy and contented. “The fumes of the powerful and heady beer, and more than that of the fumes of fellowship and affection, of friendship and of human warmth, had mounted to our brains and hearts. We knew it was a rare and precious thing, a moment’s spell of wonder and joy, that it must end, and we were loath to see it go.”
In order to discover more about Wolfe’s experiences in Germany, I looked up “Oktoberfest” in my search engine and was shocked to find a letter Wolfe had written to Aline Bernstein, dated October 4th, 1928. Describing his violent return to the fairgrounds, having consumed about 8 liters of beer, he got into a drunken brawl. He tells about this “drunken, hapless experience,” and admits to having received a “concussion of the brain, 4 scalp wounds, and a broken nose.” The awful account went on to include a trip to the police station, and eventually to a hospital, where he had surgery and stayed for several days.
It is fascinating to try and ferret out from these two very different accounts of a German Oktoberfest, what was going on in Wolfe’s heart and head. He seems to be conflicted about whether to admire or embrace, or to reject and fear, his German heritage. Toward the end of his letter to Aline, he writes: “In these places you come to the heart of Germany, not the heart of its poets and scholars, but to its real heart. It is one enormous belly. They eat and drink and breathe themselves into a state of bestial stupefaction – the place becomes one howling, roaring beast, and when the band plays one of their drinking songs, they get up by tables all over the place, and stand on chairs, swaying back and forth, with arms linked, in living rings. The effect of these heavy living circles in this great smokey hall of beer is uncanny – there is something supernatural about it. You feel that within these circles is somehow the magic, the essence of the race – the nature of the beast that makes him different from the other beasts a few miles over the border.”
Pamela Hansford Johnson, in The Art of Thomas Wolfe (1963), dives into the character of George Webber, and of the book Thomas Wolfe was composing, originally called The October Fair. She quotes this passage from what would become The Web and the Rock.
“Again there had been the roaring tumult of the people rising from their tables, linking arms together with their mugs upraised, the rhythmic swinging, the rocking back and forth to the blaring of “Ein Prosit!” Again the ritualistic spell of all those human rings in swaying, roaring, one-voiced chant there in that vast and murky hall; again the image of the savage faces in the old dark forest of barbaric time; again the sudden fear of them that froze his heart. What happened then he did not know. In that quick instant of his drunken fear, had he swung out and smashed his great stone mug into the swine like face, the red pig’s eyes, of the hulking fellow next to him? He did not know, but there had been a fight – a murderous swinging of great mugs, a flash of knives, the sudden blindness of fury of red, beer-drunk rage.”
I wonder to what degree Wolfe may have felt frightened by his own German heritage, and realize that he was, one might argue, part of the German race. I also wonder whether Wolfe recognized the same sort of bestial behavior in 1936, when he attended the Olympics amidst the masses (of Fascists) at the stadium.