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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.”1 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, for a commercial publication.”

Should Aswell’s versions be regarded as legitimate, or must the manuscripts be reedited to accord with Wolfe’s presumed intentions? If Wolfe’s intentions cannot be discovered, as in those many cases in which he had not made up his mind among different versions, should all the different versions be printed? (The mind reels at the magnitude and unreadability of the books that would result.) What does “respecting the integrity of an author’s text” mean in such cases?

Fortunately, the new collection of Wolfe’s short stories shows that it is possible in some cases to reconstruct stories that had been dismembered so that parts could be published in magazines or in the various novels and to restore them to what Wolfe clearly intended. The two most extensive restorations are “No Door” and “Death the Proud Brother,” and these become splendid examples of Wolfe at his best. The editor, Francis E. Skipp, goes back to Wolfe’s unedited typescript as his copy-text wherever possible, as it is for all but a few of the stories. This volume includes everything of Wolfe’s that was originally published as a short story—the use of this factual criterion neatly avoiding questions of definition. None of them was written as a short story to begin with; their publication “was the product either of his editor’s blue pencil, the desire of his publishers to keep his name before the reading public between novels, or the consequence of a need for money that sent his literary agents prospecting into the mountain of his manuscript.” Since Wolfe did not ever intend to be a short story writer, it seems rather unfair to judge him as one. Many of these pieces are really fragments rather than self-sufficient and complete works. As his best critics noted back in the 1930s, Wolfe’s great weaknesses are his lack of selectivity and his deficient sense of form, and success in the short story demands precisely the opposite qualities.

James Dickey, in his foreword, does not discuss the critical issues at all, but describes in personal terms his lasting gratitude for his own early encounter with Wolfe’s writing. He argues that most readers care nothing about criticism and are concerned only with what the book does for them. Thus he makes the case for Wolfe finally equivalent to the case for Life as against Criticism: Wolfe, like Lawrence, will “show you how not to be a dead man in life,” will tell us to “open up entirely to our own experience, to possess it, to go the whole way into it and with it, to keep nothing back, to be cast on the flood.” This is probably the most effective case that can be made for Wolfe; no one wants to be a wimp, on the side of Art as against Life, or of prissy academics against the common reader, or of an arrogant critic like Yvor Winters, full of reservations and negations, against Wolfe’s romantic daring. It is, however, a case that seems much less convincing—or a model that seems less inviting—after such scrutiny as it is given in Donald’s biography, in which the sad tale of Wolfe’s life is spelled out in excruciating (but fascinating) detail.

Donald’s biography takes its place immediately as the standard one, superseding those by Elizabeth Nowell (1960) and Andrew Turnbull (1967). It is, as virtually every reviewer has observed, admirable in many respects: it is both readable and based on monumentally thorough research. (Like everything relating to Wolfe, the collections of his papers are gigantic, the Wisdom Collection at Harvard alone containing several million pages.) Every possible source (including unpublished dissertations) has been consulted. When he discusses Aswell’s editing, Donald says: “I myself have read every draft, and every carbon copy, of all of Wolfe’s manuscripts…and I have compared these, on a line-by-line basis, both with the typescripts from which the printer worked…and with the published books.” As an eminent historian, Donald is undaunted by the magnitude of his task, and his tenacity and skill in getting at the facts are impressive. His use of psychological modes of analysis in discussing Wolfe’s peculiarities is unobtrusive, very intelligent, and illuminating. His attitude toward Wolfe is sympathetic but detached; he presents all the evidence and avoids oversimplifying.

On the other hand, he has no background in or evident gift for literary interpretation, and this is a major handicap. For example, venturing into the territory of literary history, he says of the publication of “A Portrait of Bascom Hawke” in 1932 that it was “Wolfe’s first published statement as self-appointed bard of America, prose poet of affirmation. With this story he helped American literature make the transition from the disillusionment of the 1920s to the affirmations of the 1930s.” The American woods had been full, so to speak, of writers eager to confute Eliot ever since publication of The Waste Land in 1922, among the most prominent and determined being William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane; to cite this story as a landmark seems very odd. (It does not give one confidence that Donald misquotes the line from “Lycidas” from which the title of Look Homeward, Angel, comes.)

In his preface, Donald asserts, plausibly, that Wolfe’s fiction “offers a remarkably full social history of the United States during the first four decades of the twentieth century.” But then he asserts, implausibly, that, though Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major writer and his novels lack form, his unique literary voice and his lyrical passages give him rank among the “very great American authors.” Wolfe was not naive, he states, because he had “the best formal education of any American novelist of his day”; furthermore, he was an experimental and self-conscious writer. (One feels obliged to make the paralyzingly obvious observation that three years of graduate work at Harvard, especially when “reading” ten to fifteen books a day, do not necessarily produce an educated man, nor does a large number of allusions prove depth of literary understanding.)

Why has his artistry not been perceived? Because (according to Donald) Wolfe wanted to seem simple in order to appeal to a large audience, and because of the interference of his editors. But this kind of argument from external evidence is beside the point: Donald is honest enough, in the body of his biography, to show just how simple-minded and ignorant Wolfe was, in all the ways that matter, when he decided to become a novelist after failing as a playwright. Acquaintances in England found him “simple as a child, and as gullible.” He chose the novel (“Epic Poetry and the essay still remain,” said Wolfe) having read “surprisingly few modern novels,” none of Forster, Woolf, Lawrence, only a little Joyce and Conrad; he could never finish a novel of Henry James. He “was never much interested in the development of character;…he had no interest in plot.” “James and Flaubert, not Dickens or Trollope, became the models for aspiring novelists. But when Wolfe began to write fiction, he did not even know that this debate was going on.” “Flaubert me no Flauberts,” he told Fitzgerald later.

Donald’s conclusions, though always balanced and sensible, sometimes blandly include contradictions. In discussing Wolfe’s relations with his editors, Donald wants to have it both ways. The friendship with Perkins could be described

as one between a talented but undisciplined author and a superbly gifted editor who dedicated his career to making his friend a success. Or just as readily one could write of Wolfe as a struggling genius whose work was turned into conventional fiction by an unimaginative editor. I have tried, instead, to tell a story without a hero and without a villain. Wolfe and Perkins needed each other, and they developed á symbiotic relationship that was in one sense enormously beneficial to both men but in another, hurtful and limiting.

As to the debate about Aswell’s role, he makes the magisterial statement that his own conclusion falls between the two extreme positions: the posthumous novels are Wolfe’s, not Aswell’s, but on the other hand “Aswell took impermissible liberties with Wolfe’s manuscript, and his interference seriously eroded the integrity of Wolfe’s text”; his editorial interference was “unacceptable.” But then Donald concludes that Aswell really had no feasible alternative, and that there “is no way to know what these last books would have been had Wolfe lived to complete them.”

  1. 1

    The Making of Thomas Wolfe’s Posthumous Novels,” Yale Review, Vol. 70 (1980), pp. 79–94; “Who Wrote Thomas Wolfe’s Last Novels?” The New York Review of Books (March 19, 1981) and Letters, July 15, 1981.

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