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Crying Wolfe’: An Exchange

In response to:

Who Wrote Thomas Wolfe's Last Novels? from the March 19, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I wish to comment on the letter by John Halberstadt [NYR, March 19]. He asserts at the beginning that the three posthumous novels of Thomas Wolfe “were not written by Wolfe in the usual sense but were predominantly the work of an editor named Edward Aswell.” The statement is false, as I hope this letter makes clear and as I will spell out at length in a future comment on his recent article in the Yale Review.

In the course of his long letter, Halberstadt talks about his “discoveries,” but what he claims to have discovered has been known for about twenty years, and his interpretations of these matters is exaggerated and misleading. In 1962 I described in the three final chapters of my book The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe how the three published volumes came into being. This included a discussion of Wolfe’s assembly of his final manuscript and Aswell’s editorial treatment of it after Wolfe’s untimely death in 1938. In an appendix, I published Wolfe’s Outline of that work—the fourteen-page listing of his sections and chapters—and offered in footnotes a rather full commentary describing what these items were and giving further detail about Aswell’s editorial handling. The book was reviewed in over fifty newspapers and magazines, and no hysteria of the sort that Halberstadt is trying to promote took place as a result of my discussion of Aswell’s cutting and rearranging of Wolfe’s assembled manuscript and my revelation that in You Can’t Go Home Again, Aswell had rewritten some of Wolfe’s passages and had even added some paragraphs of his own.

There were two reasons why there was no hue and cry about my commentary on Aswell’s editing. In the first place, Aswell himself had described his editorial activity in some detail when he published “A Note on Thomas Wolfe” in the third of the posthumous volumes in 1941. He indicated why unusual editorial work was necessary: “Some parts of the manuscript had been written as recently as four months before he died; other parts dated back to Look Homeward, Angel, and had, in fact, been cut from that book; still other parts had been written in each of the intervening years. The manuscript contained everything that is in the three posthumous volumes and much else besides. There were all the variant versions. There were mere notes and sketches, some of them left unfinished, the writing sometimes broke off in the middle of a sentence. There were fragments that had been cut out of each of the earlier books. There was a long fragment with whole blocks of pages missing from the beginning and middle of it which represented all that was left of the second book Tom wrote—a book called K 19, which was never published…. As if all this did not make the manuscript complex and confused enough, Tom had changed his point of view a number of times in the writing of different portions, and had signified these changes by also changing the names of his characters.”

In the second place, I made clear in my book that Wolfe’s methods of composition during his last years involved writing and rewriting his autobiographical episodes and then interweaving these varying versions and that Aswell’s editorial practice of interweaving various portions of the material was similar to Wolfe’s own procedure and to some extent dictated by the material itself. I brought out further details about Wolfe’s accumulating plans for his “George Webber” book in the two-volume edition of The Note-books of Thomas Wolfe in 1970.

In other words, American literature scholars have known about Aswell’s editing for years and have taken that into consideration in their classroom use of the books and in their critical writing. Halberstadt’s attempt to hand the authorship over to Aswell is absurd.

The simple facts of the matter are these: Wolfe’s manuscript was unpublishable in the state he left it, but it contained magnificent material and an over-all design that was generally clear. Aswell fulfilled Wolfe’s intentions, as well as he could discern them, and two generations of readers have been grateful.

I never thought the day would dawn when I would be defending Edward Aswell because he treated me very badly, but in all reasonableness I have to admit he did a good job for commercial publication of Wolfe’s big book, and the people who knew Wolfe’s work best, Maxwell Perkins and Elizabeth Nowell thought so too. I cannot defend his withholding the information about the extent of his editorial role until 1941, but he did finally tell his story. Furthermore, he placed all the letters about Wolfe and the editing in the Houghton Library at Harvard, along with the other Wolfe manuscripts.

Halberstadt has complained bitterly in his letter and in an interview in the Village Voice about the fact that Paul Gitlin, the Administrator of the Estate of Thomas Wolfe, had refused him permission to publish his Ph.D. dissertation, which was based on the Harvard materials, and he implies that his discussion of Aswell’s editorial practice was the reason for that refusal. I do not know why Gitlin turned down his request, but so far as I know Halberstadt has never sent Gitlin his dissertation to examine. When Halberstadt talked to me by telephone, I suggested that Gitlin’s refusal was based on his having given Professor David Donald the exclusive right to use the Wolfe materials while he completes his new Wolfe biography—because Gitlin had held up a request of mine for several months while he considered the contract he had signed with David Donald and his publisher. I have since learned from Donald that he does not pose an obstacle.

But I can say this about these requests to publish material from the Wolfe papers: when I was a young college instructor recently out of graduate school, Gitlin did not refuse me permission. I sent him my manuscript with all its information about Aswell’s editing and it was read carefully by Gitlin’s law partner, Melville Cane. The only restriction I faced concerned a clause in the contract that Aswell had signed between the Wolfe Estate and Doubleday to this effect: the Wolfe Estate would not allow any quotation from the unpublished Wolfe material for any competing biography until five years after Elizabeth Nowell’s book, Thomas Wolfe, A Biography, was published. I had to remove a good many biographical passages and one whole chapter on Wolfe as a teacher at New York University. Thus my book became more a study of Wolfe’s literary publication and less of a critical biography.

My experience over the years in dealing with Paul Gitlin, both for my own projects and those of my graduate students, leads me to say that he is very cautious about whom he allows to make use of the Wolfe papers and he is continually on guard against unwarranted exploitation of this valuable literary property. But when he is convinced of serious scholarly purposes, he is very generous in his dealings.

Scholars who respond to Wolfe’s work have always yearned for a publication of the original manuscript that Wolfe left behind at his death, but when they discover the unfinished condition in which he left it, they have to change their wishes. Even so, I have thought for some time that the publication of a representative portion of the manuscript might satisfy scholarly curiosity about the situation which Aswell faced or that the reediting of a portion of the manuscript might prove valuable. When I learned that Halberstadt was studying the manuscript for a Ph.D. dissertation, I thought perhaps something of this sort might emerge, but after his recent attempt to create an unjustified literary scandal, I have lost confidence in his judgment.

In his letter, Halberstadt tries to blame everyone but himself for his present predicament of being unable to publish his dissertation and of being barred from the Houghton Library (for unauthorized quotation from the Wolfe papers in his Yale Review article). But the truth of the matter is that he set off on his own self-destructive course.

Everyone was helping him. His dissertation adviser has been guiding him for long past the normal period; I and others have been answering his questions and encouraging him; the assistant librarians in the Houghton Library Reading Room have coped for years with his excessive demands for service; the amiable curator of manuscripts, Rodney Dennis, offered to intercede with Paul Gitlin if Halberstadt would ever get his dissertation accepted by the Yale English Department. But Halberstadt turned down Dennis’s offer and chose to go another way—by unauthorized publication of his article and by making sensational and inaccurate charges in the news media about a literary conspiracy.

As a result he has attracted a lot of notoriety, but meanwhile he has embarrassed both the Yale Review and his dissertation adviser; he has caused his former advocates at the Houghton Library to disown him, he has angered the Administrator of the Wolfe Estate, and he has made himself suspect among Wolfe scholars in general.

One major difficulty is that he has no understanding at all of the concept of literary property. The situation can be compared to a scenario like this: Gitlin has allowed Halberstadt to use a new car belonging to the Wolfe heirs in order that he might learn how to drive. But now that Halberstadt has his driver’s license, he feels that he ought to be able to use that new car to go wherever he wants, and he complains mightily when Gitlin declines to let him do so. But even the garage owner (Houghton Library) who looks after the car has found him a reckless driver and forbidden him the use of any car in the garage for a year.

All I can say in conclusion is that I feel sorry for Halberstadt in his troubles, but when I examine what has happened, I have to add that he appears to be his own worst enemy. Let us hope that somehow he can make peace with himself.

Richard S. Kennedy

Temple University,

Philadelphia, PA

John Halberstadt replies:

By way of reply to Kennedy’s defense of his position as well as his attempt to discredit both my character and my scholarship, I wish to acknowledge an important oversight on my part. I thought it was original with me to observe that in Kennedy’s The Window of Memory, which is the classic of Wolfe scholarship, there was more than sufficient evidence to find Edward Aswell guilty of considerable malpractice in the editing of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond, to the extent that I have written, as Kennedy reports, that these novels were “predominantly” Aswell’s productions.

Kennedy had enumerated countless cuts, splicings, and rearrangements performed by Aswell to produce the novels from Wolfe’s last and unpublishable manuscript, admittedly, but Kennedy felt that Aswell’s efforts to produce a great portion of one of these was “creative editing.” Aswell “play[ed] author with the manuscript” in a second case, yet Kennedy, as he says in his letter, believes Aswell did “a good job.” Even though “more hands than his [Wolfe’s] own” fashioned his novels (here Kennedy refers not only to Aswell but to the editing of Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, Wolfe’s earlier editor), “whatever is valuable or censurable is his own for he was responsible for the themes, the characters, the episodic action and the style.” My own research, which proceeded along the lines in which Kennedy pioneered, concluded that even some important characters in Wolfe’s fiction were not Wolfe’s own in the usual sense.

First, however, I wish to acknowledge my oversight. In 1963, a distinguished critic, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in “Thomas Wolfe: Time and the South” had already noticed that Wolfe’s posthumous novels “were given their status as novels primarily by Edward Aswell.” “All that Wolfe left behind were fragments. After Of Time and The River [Wolfe’s second novel], he never wrote another novel.” Also in 1963, in a review of Kennedy’s book, Rubin wrote, “except for Look Homeward Angel [Wolfe’s first novel], all these years we have been dealing with published texts so corrupt as to give an entirely misleading idea of how Wolfe wrote.” More recently, Rubin made a remark which extends his criticism to include Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, Wolfe’s earlier editor. “Of all the important writers of the 1930s, Wolfe was by far the worst edited, both at Scribner’s and Harper’s.”

C. Hugh Holman, a noted Wolfe scholar, has more than once commented on Aswell’s “silent” editing and there have been others who have contributed to this theme, but Rubin is the earliest and most outspoken critic I have so far discovered since the appearance of Kennedy’s book. Perhaps he and others will finally receive the attention which they merit. I overlooked the matter but I want to remark that no scholar at Harvard or Yale during the years I worked on my dissertation, no editor, book reviewer, and of course no general reader, brought it to my attention. I can cite biographical, bibliographical, and critical studies which paid Rubin’s work no attention or are not very explicit about it. Finally, it is worth reporting that Wolfe’s posthumous novels are still being sold with only Wolfe’s name on the covers.

Aswell, I discovered—by reading Kennedy and doing independent research at Harvard—cut over fifty chapters of the manuscript Wolfe left him. It was not always possible, of course, to know how much of a “chapter”—there were over two hundred—Wolfe meant to save. A “chapter” could mean a sketch cut from an earlier novel or a fragment or a previously published short novel; or a chapter might come with a variant version. Aswell cut chapters and reshuffled those he did not cut. He made hybrid chapters by mixing up to four different materials together. Chapters 44, 45, 48, 49, and 50 of The Web and The Rock provide illustrations. He also made new characters in this manner, such as Randy Shepperton, an important figure in You Can’t Go Home Again.

Randy’s sister Margaret and J. Timothy Wagner, who also plays a significant role in the novel, are further examples. Confirming this does not require the special resources of Harvard’s Houghton Library. The reader needs only a copy of Wolfe’s short novel “Boom Town,” available at ordinary libraries. Here he will find at least one piece of three Aswell characters. For example, he will discover a salesman named Lee “teetering restlessly” from foot to foot; the man teeters again as Randy Shepperton in Chapter 5 of You Can’t Go Home Again.

The remainder of Randy can be found in the character of a salesman in another Wolfe short novel called “The Company,” and in materials at Harvard. “Boom Town” also supplied Aswell with part of Randy’s sister Margaret—she is a mother in “Boom Town.” And it also yielded J. Rufus Mears, a cocaine addict turned real-estate prophet whom Aswell combined with a town sot from another source to produce—see the chapter in You Can’t Go Home Again called “Boom Town”—J. Timothy Wagner.

In the slippery essay appended to The Hills Beyond, the one in which Kennedy holds that Aswell “did finally tell his story,” Aswell gave the following report on Randy Shepperton: “Though certain external facts of his career are undoubtedly borrowed from real life, I am convinced that in his essential character, Randy represents another imaginative projection of the close contemporary—sympathetic, understanding, loyal—whom Tom desperately needed…but did not have.”

Is this “a good job” or a case of Aswell fulfilling “Wolfe’s intentions, as well as he could discern them”—assuming, incidentally, that one person can fulfill a second person’s intentions. Is it perhaps a case of Aswell writing in a manner “similar” to Wolfe’s? Should editors not only assist writers in the improvement of their works but create imitation chapters and characters? Or is it all an illustration of what Rubin has called some of the “worst” editing of the period?

Not only did Aswell tell his story in the essay from which I have just quoted, Kennedy writes, but Aswell gave “letters about Wolfe and the editing” to Harvard. But Kennedy himself has written in 1969 that “Edward Aswell…guarded the Wolfe papers from academic researchers with hostile suspicion” until Elizabeth Nowell, Wolfe’s literary agent, published a collection of Wolfe’s letters in 1956 and the biography in 1960. It must be stressed, however, that neither of Nowell’s books told Aswell’s story. In fact, according to a recent article, Nowell died in 1958 before she could complete the biography, so “editors” completed it for her, much as Aswell completed Wolfe’s post-humous novels by doing a “good job” of editing. It is true, however, that Aswell left a clear trail for scholars at Harvard to follow by marking title pages of Wolfe’s manuscript with such words as “Out” or “Used” or other commentary. He may have expected his efforts to be found out after his death in 1958, and perhaps his editing was informed with good intentions.

Kennedy writes that I have “embarrassed” my Pulitzer Prize winning adviser, R.W.B. Lewis, as well as the Yale Review. Lewis assures me he was “not let down nor in the slightest embarrassed” by my performance; he has had “no conversation with Kennedy for two decades.” Kai T. Erikson, editor of the Yale Review, also assures me that Kennedy’s statement in his letter to the NYR “was not a product of any conversation with anyone” at his office. My attorney, Donald E. Gastwirth of New Haven, advises me that Kennedy’s reckless disregard for the facts, exemplified by his failure to authenticate other people’s views, goes beyond the limits of vigorous scholarly debate and constitutes precisely the type of action that even the most liberal judicial interpretations of the first amendment do not protect.

I reported in these pages that my Yale Review article was published without permission after several requests over a two-year period were turned down by Mr. Gitlin, the literary executor, and after I realized that some scholars were receiving permission while others were expected to keep agreements no matter what injustice to Wolfe they might have discovered or what loss of career was the price of their silence. I felt this was taking advantage of the rules of permission. Gitlin in fact has told the New York Times that “200 or 300 scholars” in his twenty-year tenure had not broken contracts with him; I alone had. That means that hundreds of scholars in the past decades did not publish who should have been encouraged to publish, provided only that they recognized the estate’s copyright and quoted judiciously. Kennedy’s own tale of deforming his work in order to satisfy an executor is also one which should not be repeated.

When I published without permission, I also broke the rules of Harvard’s Houghton Library so I am barred from research until January 1982. Even then, although Harvard will allow me to return, Gitlin may not let me inspect papers, let alone publish, once I am there. Gitlin, who has been controlling Wolfe scholarship for twenty years, is not himself a scholar, as far as I know. But I believe he is a well-intentioned administrator who is sensitive to the needs of his estate. I do not rule out the possibility of a dialogue with him. Kennedy’s decision to defend his position of preeminence in his field by electing the tactic of a personal attack on a younger scholar is difficult to understand. I would have thought it beneath him.

118 High Street, Charlestown, Mass. 02129

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