Big Bad Wolfe?

The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe

edited by Francis E. Skipp, foreword by James Dickey
Scribner’s, 621 pp., $24.95

Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe

by David Herbert Donald
Little, Brown, 579 pp., $24.95

No one is afraid of him now; but was Wolfe really big and bad? Of his bigness—in physical stature and appetites, in literary ambition and productivity—there can be no doubt. Nobody, least of all Wolfe himself, ever forgot it: Wolfe typically thought of himself as Gulliver, a giant surrounded by people who are not only little but petty, venomous, and contemptible (as in the short story “Gulliver, the Story of a Tall Man,” and the foreword to Look Homeward, Angel, in which Wolfe asserts that “all serious work in fiction is autobiographical…for instance, a more autobiographical work than Gulliver’s Travels cannot easily be imagined”). If his gigantism is undeniable and unignorable, his badness is, inevitably, subject to debate: hardly his badness as a man, which, though softened by Donald’s use of psychological terms like “secondary narcissism,” is unmatched in its purity of self-absorption and ruthless egotism (one of the longest index entries under his name is “infantilism”), but his badness as a writer. This debate arises from the fact that Wolfe was afflicted by a kind of literary bulimia, devouring life insatiably and expelling it in his writing, which he was unable to restrain or control.

It is ironic that one whose ambition was so grandiose—to write the Great American Novel, the biggest book ever produced, the epic of America, expressing and so redeeming both himself and his country—should now be interesting (to me, at least, and I suspect to most readers) chiefly as the subject of an academic debate. The debate concerns the role of Wolfe’s editors in producing his work. That Maxwell Perkins, the editor at Scribner’s who did much for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others, played an important part in shaping Wolfe’s first two novels has long been known. It became so well known, in fact, that Wolfe felt driven to change publishers in 1937 to demonstrate that he was not dependent on Perkins. His successor, Edward C. Aswell at Harpers, is the chief bone of contention: Aswell, in editing the two posthumously published novels (The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again) and the collection of shorter pieces with a fragmentary novel, The Hills Beyond, since he could no longer consult Wolfe, had to go far beyond even what Perkins had done.

Richard S. Kennedy’s The Window of Memory, the first full study of the manuscripts, could not be published until 1962, after Aswell’s death; it revealed for the first time exactly what Aswell had done. Almost twenty years later, John Halberstadt published several articles that revived the controversy by taking the position that the three posthumous novels “were not written by Wolfe in the usual sense but were predominantly the work of an editor named Edward Aswell.” Richard S. Kennedy, reviewing the “Wolfegate” affair in the Harvard Magazine in 1981, called Halberstadt’s statement “simply untrue” and repeated his own opinion that Aswell’s editing was “acceptable, even commendable …

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