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Monday, November 7, 2011

Crying Wolfe

This last August at Long Novel Weekend we discussed Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel and the work was so well liked that quite a few of us put our names on a list to read and get together to discuss more of Wolfe's novels.  Here is a very interesting follow up regarding Wolfe's later works.

Crying Wolfe

by Walter L. Mosley

Time was when Thomas Wolfe was regarded as the equal of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.  In fact, Faulkner went so far as to suggest that Wolfe might have been the most gifted of them all.  However, if you seek for Wolfe in The Library of America, that effort to publish definitive editions of this country’s most important writers, you won’t find anything.  He hasn’t been admitted into that prestigious company.  Why is no secret.

When Thomas Wolfe submitted the manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel to Scribners, it became a project for Maxwell Perkins, an editor who worked with Scribner’s most distinguished writers.  Perkins saw his task as turning this rhapsodic family saga into a commercially successful novel, and while eliminating some 60,000 words involved some struggle with the author, he succeeded.  He took such an important role in the development and form of Wolfe’s second book, The Web and the Rock, that Wolfe published a volume describing Perkins assistance in the creation of the book (The Story of a Novel).  The rumors about Perkins’ role in the first book became a published confession about his importance to the second, and Wolfe’s reputation began to be widely questioned.

In fact, the damage was such that Wolfe, who regarded Perkins as friend and something of a father figure, felt it necessary to terminate their relationship.  Wolfe moved from Scribner’s to Harper’s where his new editor was Edward Aswell.  Wolfe maintained a voluminous output of prose, moved by whatever circumstances and events swept him up at the time.  However, he became ill on a trip west and died unexpectedly at the age of 38.  Harper’s had given Wolfe advances toward his next book, but had nothing to show except a mountainous manuscript of various autobiographical experiences without much organizing principle.  Wolfe had settled on a title, You Can’t Go Home, Again, but Edward Aswell was left to cobble together chunks of Wolfe’s prose, and, unlike Perkins who never added words of his own or changed an author’s, Aswell evidently had to build the bridges between them himself.  The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home, Again, which contain much fine work, finished demolishing Wolfe’s reputation.  Aswell’s creativity justified Harper’s investment in Wolfe, but discredited the author.

Wolfe was really not a novelist inventing characters and situations, but a passionate observer of his own life and times, a kind of journalist.  He wasn’t exactly a diarist either, building a private record of his experience.  He might have been a poet, but he was too long winded perhaps.  He didn’t fit easily into any current genre.

Fortunately, Matthew Bruccoli, a literary scholar who has focused largely on Scribner’s authors, and his wife, Arlyn, have reconstituted the original manuscript that became Look Homeward, Angel, and it has been published by The University of South Carolina under its original title:  O Lost.  The original is a monumental record of American life that does not deserve to be lost.  Indeed, Bruccoli frankly considers O Lost “a greater work than Look Homeward, Angel.”  Perhaps one day, The Library of America will republish O Lost.

Readers interested in pursuing this story might consult the following:

Bruccoli, Matthew J. and Buckner, Park, Editors, To Loot My       Life Clean:  The Thomas Wolfe--Maxwell Perkins    Correspondence (U. of S. Carolina Press: Columbia, SC,    2000).

Donald, David Herbert, Look Homeward:  A Life of Thomas Wolfe (Ballantine Books:  New York, 1987).

Mitchell, Ted, Editor, Thomas Wolfe:  An Illustrated Biography (Pegasus Books:  New York, 2006).