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Who Wrote Thomas Wolfe’s Last Novels?

To the Editors:

I think your readers might want to know some of the background to my discovery, published in the current Yale Review, that the three posthumous novels of Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond, were not really written by Wolfe in the usual sense but were predominantly the work of an editor named Edward Aswell.

Readers are generally aware, of course, that the novels published during Wolfe’s lifetime, such as Look Homeward, Angel, were heavily edited by Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins. But readers may not know that near the end of his career, Wolfe fled Perkins to sign with a new publisher, Harper’s, and a new editor, Edward Aswell. “Fled” Perkins’s scissors, that is. That Wolfe’s novels depended on Perkins’s large-scale editing was common gossip.

Wolfe signed a contract with Edward Aswell for a manuscript-in-progress which, when he finally relinquished it to Aswell, came to perhaps one and a quarter million words, some five thousand pages, over two hundred chapters. The contract, however, specified that “no changes, additions or alterations in the title or text” of the work could be made without Wolfe’s written consent. Aswell probably didn’t think much about this clause. He was so happy to sign Wolfe he offered him a $10,000 advance for the manuscript “sight unseen.” He made the offer in November 1937 and Wolfe signed the contract on December 31.

In May 1938, Wolfe gave this manuscript to Aswell. It was not a finished product in any sense. It was a collection of materials Perkins had cut from earlier novels, previously published sketches or even short novels, chapters in variant versions, fragments, new writing—only the “enormous skeleton” of a novel, as Wolfe had described his earlier manuscript for Of Time and the River; but he wanted Aswell to become familiar with the general plan. And it had one. As usual, the work would be autobiographical but this time it would span more than one hundred and fifty years and include hundreds of characters. In fact the very first chapter would show America itself being created, being made manifest out of the unmanifest absolute “source” from which Wolfe believed all manifest creation springs.

At least sporadically throughout the manuscript, in fact, Wolfe’s hero actively searches for a procedure for transcendence, a way to contact the absolute. If one could but touch the never-changing basis of life, the absolute, one would enrich the ever-changing surface, the relative, Wolfe believed, until one could live a life “more fortunate and happy than man has ever known.” Wolfe himself appears to have been quite serious about this quest. Unpublished manuscripts, if they are essentially autobiographical as I believe they are, suggest that Wolfe sought a literal technique for achieving transcendence ever since childhood. At Harvard he held his breath on subways for four counts trying to “break through.”

The manuscript which Aswell called a “mess” begins in the transcendent or absolute, introduces the hero’s frontier and Civil War ancestors at length, his childhood neighborhood, later a mistress and editor such as Wolfe himself had. As I will explain shortly, it has not been possible in the forty years since Wolfe gave this manuscript to Aswell to know, except for a relatively brief sketch, what was in it. After turning over the “mess” to Aswell, who put it in bundles, Wolfe raced to catch a train west. He fell sick on the trip and returned to Baltimore where he died.

Aswell in New York now faced a one and a quarter million word “mess” for which he had risked $10,000, with no author to consult and no permission to make any “changes, additions, or alterations” because the contract explicitly forbade it. But Aswell found a way out of the dilemma, I discovered. Another clause in the contract stipulated that Wolfe would give Harper’s a manuscript that would not exceed 750,000 words. Since Wolfe’s last unfinished manuscript was at least a million words, Aswell estimated, he had permission to cut at least 250,000 words. Maxwell Perkins, who was now the estate’s literary executor, gave his blessing to this clever interpretation of Wolfe’s contract.

Aswell then shelved the manuscript’s transcendental opening section. He collected all the chapters about the hero’s ancestry and published them last as The Hills Beyond. He was now ready to make the first of “Wolfe’s” posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock. He fashioned an introduction for the novel by completely reducing and distorting a document Wolfe had written for another purpose, but by comparison with Aswell’s other editorial manipulations, this is a mere quibble. Aswell then cut at least fifty chapters of the manuscript. He made at least ten more, here and in his next production, by putting together bits and pieces of the original. Let me make this clear. Aswell would take a few pages from a chapter or variant version of a chapter, a few pages from a second, write a line himself, then mix in third and even fourth sources until he had the hybrid he desired. In my Yale PhD dissertation, which concerns Wolfe’s last manuscript and its editing, I have “maps” showing where Aswell found almost each line of five of his hybrid chapters. I think this is one reason my adviser, R.W.B. Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Edith Wharton, has written in a report on my dissertation: “In years past, I have often taught The Web and the Rock in American literature courses; after reading Halberstadt, I would not dream of doing so again. It would be teaching an unacknowledged and profoundly misleading hybrid.”

But in the second posthumous novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Aswell did not merely cut chapters, make collages of others, and rearrange the chapters which he did not cut in a new order. This time Aswell created out of Wolfe’s materials wholly original characters. For example, “Randy Shepperton,” an important character in You Can’t Go Home Again, the hero’s confidant, is actually Aswell’s combining of two young salesmen, an older literary executor, and perhaps other characters as well—I don’t know. Randy’s sister Margaret is another collage. “Tim Wagner,” a combination of a drunk and an addict in Wolfe’s manuscript, is another example.

At the end of the third posthumous novel, The Hills Beyond, created mainly by transposing a group of chapters that were supposed to come at the beginning of Wolfe’s epic and calling the group a short novel, and then attaching sketches cut from various sources to this “novel,” Aswell wrote a long essay about Wolfe in which he skillfully created the misleading impression that Wolfe had left behind a relatively complete manuscript, and if one removed its excesses, the remainder cohered “like a jigsaw puzzle.” One could not easily tamper with Wolfe’s prose, he wrote, “By just a little injudicious tampering, those sonorous sentences [of Wolfe’s] which have the majestic swing and roll of mighty music can be reduced to limping dissonance.” Aswell not only misleads the reader but cites Randy Shepperton as proof Wolfe wasn’t always autobiographical but was capable of “free invention.” “Randy represents another imaginative projection of the close contemporary—sympathetic, understanding, loyal—whom Tom desperately needed…but did not have.”

In 1962 a scholar named Richard S. Kennedy in The Window of Memory provided the first report that Wolfe’s posthumous novels had been manufactured by Aswell from Wolfe’s unfinished manuscript. Kennedy called Aswell’s efforts with a great portion of The Web and the Rock “creative editing.” In the case of You Can’t Go Home Again, Aswell “tampered with Wolfe’s style as he had not done before,” even “began to play author with the manuscript.” Although Kennedy’s brilliant and pioneering research did not make all the discoveries which I would—later—make: the contract violation, the collages of chapters and characters, the deceptive essay about Wolfe, Kennedy had himself noted hundreds of changes. He already had perhaps two-thirds of the story. But Kennedy felt it was all justified under the circumstances, an “acceptable job of editing for commercial publication.” For this reason or because his account is so understated, Kennedy’s book never produced the critical outcry I would have expected. At the very least, I felt, Aswell should have acknowledged what happened. So I went to Harvard to compare the original manuscript with the published novels and this comparison provided the basis for my PhD and my article. I also discovered about fifteen hundred neverquoted letters saved by Wolfe’s literary agent, some of which offer firsthand admissions by Aswell to Wolfe’s agent that yes, he altered this or wrote that.

The consequences of Aswell’s editing are far-reaching. First it is clear that much scholarship on Wolfe in the last forty years has been muddled. Just the other day I read a report reminding me that it is a “commonplace in Wolfe criticism” that all Wolfe’s novels taken together “constitute a single book” with “beginning, middle and end.” But the structure was not Wolfe’s. My article makes this clear…. We may need to study Aswell’s biography for clues to Wolfe’s psyche.

To do research for my dissertation, I needed permission from Mr. Paul Gitlin, the noted copyright attorney who is Executor of the Estate of Thomas Wolfe, and from Harvard’s Houghten Library. I made an agreement with him hat my dissertation would be “unpublished.” It may not leave the library at Yale in either its book or microfilm form (even though normally all dissertations are universally microfilmed by Ann Arbor Micro-films, or so I understand). I could, however, thanks to the courtesy of Mr. Gitlin, include a generous sample of Wolfe’s last manuscript in the dissertation.

In 1978 and 979, in a telephone call, letters, and finally a telegram pleading that survival in the “dwindling market of the humanities”—I have been a college English teacher—depended on publication, I begged to publish the fruits of my six or seven years’ research, but Mr. Gitlin replied with only two sentences. “In response to your letter of February 8th, this will confirm what I stated to you on the telephone, some time ago. We are not willing to grant permission for the submission of your dissertation, or the article based upon it, for publication.” No reason offered, yet because he brought it up on the phone, I had told Mr. Gitlin my general area of inquiry.

Mr. Gitlin had, however, in the same period given another scholar, a fine historian at Harvard, Dr. David Donald, permission to publish a Wolfe biography. I understand from another scholar that Dr. Donald and Mr. Gitlin have signed an exclusive three-year contract such that no one else in the field can publish anything. One day I observed that Dr. Donald had found a file of material which would permit him to scoop my own work with a quick article. By this time, I may already have begun disobeying Mr. Gitlin by submitting my article to be published by the Yale Review, but I recall that Dr. Donald’s activity provided an additional stimulant later.

I published without permission. Unthinkingly (I was so concerned and distracted by my relationship with Mr. Gitlin) I broke an agreement with the Houghton Library, the permission of which is also required, and in the process hurt the curator, Mr. Rodney Dennis, who had been kind to me. I came to make a gift of my article. He applauded, then grew dark as he became aware of what I had done. I am—this is the upshot—barred from the library for a year, a lenient punishment perhaps from the library’s standpoint, but serious for me since I need to see certain documents right away which are part of a group identified for the first time in my article. Otherwise someone else may capitalize on my discovery first. I also require this library should I need to defend my article and to research Henry James should my adviser agree to let me help him with his James research. (Many of the James family papers are also stored there.) But I can’t use it.

I asked a Harvard administrator to remove the restriction. He told me it was a minimal punishment “and you can’t go below the minimum.” This administrator was familiar with the case. Could he tell me the name of the Wolfe family member represented by Gitlin. “My advice to you,” he warned, “is to lie low for a year, and maybe this’ll all be forgotten.” Otherwise I’d make matters worse for myself. This applied to giving interviews to the press; I said I’d received invitations. (They came from UPI and The Boston Globe and elsewhere.) But even if I’m allowed back in the library at year’s end, I argued, having been quiet all year, there’s no guarantee that Mr. Gitlin will allow me to do anything once I’m there, given that three-year contract. I could be barred from the library for years, with or without that contract. The administrator said that, as far as he knew, the library could speak only for its own “bailiwick.” A publisher is interested, so far at least, in bringing out a more general version of my dissertation; in addition I would like to bring out a selection from Wolfe’s “enormous” last manuscript, which contains about fifteen sketches and passages that have never been published, or were published in distorted form, and in either case are worth publishing. (One of these is about one hundred pages long.) Still others have been previously published but were relocated by Wolfe in his last manuscript; these also deserve publication. As it is, however, I can’t do anything about them.

Wolfe, I believe, would have approved my writing this letter.

John Halberstadt

118 High Street

Charlestown, Massachusetts 02129

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