The Torrents of Wolfe

The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe

edited by Richard S. Kennedy, edited by Paschal Reeves
University of North Carolina Press, two volumes pp., (out of print)

On the matter of a manuscript written by Thomas Wolfe, we find his agent busy at work.

I’ve been cutting like mad since it came and have got it down to ten thousand and a half by cutting very stringently.

Thomas Wolfe, were he living today, would be a hundred years old. Thus the year marks his centennial, along with that of a few others, including Louis Armstrong. The moment is honored by an exhibition at the New York Public Library, a celebration at the University of North Carolina, and by the publication of the original typescript of O Lost, the title that became Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe’s first book. There is disagreement about the number of words eliminated by Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Scribner’s—was it 90,000 words or a mere 66,000? The editors of O Lost have toiled over word counts, common typographical errors, spacings, and so on, and have come up with some interesting numbers. “With the same typography and design as the 626-page Look Homeward, Angel, it [the original manuscript] would have made a book of about 825 pages—not impossible to publish in one volume, as this edition demonstrates. Gone with the Wind (1936) had 1,037 pages.”

Sometimes Thomas Wolfe seems to belong to editorial history rather than to the annals of American literature. Maxwell Perkins, “Editor of Genius,” as his biographer names him with some unintended obscurity: is the editor a genius or are we alerted to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, among others who came under his care? Maxwell Perkins was modest about the professional duty or privilege to draw a pencil through one line or thousands. Thomas Wolfe was anxious but not modest about the gift to write the lines that made up his mountains of pages. We can read that to accommodate the excisions he would often write transitional passages of greater length than the matter deleted.

Thomas Wolfe died at the age of thirty-eight. While traveling out west he was taken very ill with pneumonia and, symptoms unabating, was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he died of a tubercular lesion to the brain. He was outsize in every respect; hugeness is his dominating iconography. Six feet four-and- a-half inches tall; awkward, handsome, impressive, and intimidating. A prodigious drinker and brawler, sleepless to produce the pages that arrived at the publisher in a crate, or so it was said. As a writer, he became a statistic of extremity. He was vain in the belief in his talents, and insecure, unsteady in the manner of a refugee who has traveled far from the home that formed his being. Lost, o lost, he cries out again and again. Hunger, another word that dots the pages. Hunger for experience, for escape, for fame. Himself, every step of his journey, his family, that turbulent crowd of folks from which he came, each passage on a train, each face met on the …

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