The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe
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 way, landscape, voices, a thousand vignettes, history, memory uncanny, language at hand like water flowing down a stream. And with all this, a Southerner—there was that clinging to him also.
Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, a pleasant small city in the Great Smokies. The mountain air attracted tourists, among them George Vanderbilt, who built there one of those monuments to the imagination or lack of it, a “château” of 125 rooms which he named Biltmore. There were also rather grand hotels with suitable accommodations for well-to-do travelers. To these useful items of commerce, Thomas Wolfe’s mother added a shabby rooming house that went by the name of “The Old Kentucky Home,” translated to “Dixieland” in Look Homeward, Angel. In Asheville there were also “lungers,” since the mountain air was felt to be helpful for the victims of tuberculosis.
Thomas Wolfe, the last child, had seven siblings, one of whom, his brother Grover, would die at the age of ten. The father, W.O. Wolfe, born in Pennsylvania to hard-luck farmers, early orphaned, with little education, was apprenticed to a stonecutter and showed talent for simple tombstones, as well as for decorative carvings of lambs and angels. Wolfe drifted to Raleigh, North Carolina, was something of a rake as the proceedings for his divorce indicated; second marriage forced by pregnancy of the wife, who was tubercular, and thus they trailed on to Asheville where she died. For her he had built a house and into it Thomas Wolfe’s mother would move on their marriage. The father worked at his craft, but he was an alcoholic of serious, scandalous proportions; after a spree of days, picked up on the streets, carried home to bang on the door where his wife, inside, was screaming, Don’t let him in here! and so on. The marriage was a raucous union of mutual distaste.
As the father wanders through the books of his son, he is a dramatic whiner, given to ornate accusations of abandonment and ill-treatment. His death is a misery, but his life on the page has a certain magnitude born of monstrous frustrations and ruined hopes. He is often a frightening father himself frightened by fate. At his deathbed:
Nothing was left, now, to suggest his life of fury, strength and passion except his hands. And the hands were still the great hands of the stonecutter, powerful, sinewy, and hairy as they had always been, attached now with a shocking incongruity to the wasted figure of a scarecrow.
In the South, and perhaps elsewhere, when the father’s origins are dim and better left in the shade, the mother is likely to bear the ancestral burden with some background flourish. So it was with Eliza Gant, true name Westall, known as the Pentland family in the novels. Her father was Major Pentland, “military title…honestly if inconspicuously earned.” The Pentland family was “as old as any in the community, but it had always been poor, and had made few pretenses to gentility. By marriage, and by intermarriage among its own kinsmen, it could boast of some connection with the great, or some insanity, and a modicum of idiocy.”
Eliza Gant in fiction and apparently in life is a personal and historical phenomenon. Born before the Civil War, she is a born business woman, seeming to come by her bent as naturally as some girls are born flirts. Property, real estate was her calling. She could not take a walk without saying, “Do you see this corner here—the one you’re on? It’ll double in value in the next few years…. They’re going to run a street through there some day as sure as you live. And when they do… that property is going to be worth money.” About her husband’s trade she was skeptical: there’s no money in death, people died too slowly in her calculation.
She took herself and most of her children off to Saint Louis at the time of the 1904 World’s Fair and tried a business venture that did not work, and once back in Asheville, Altamont in the fictions, she bought Dixieland, a blight on her children’s lives, but not on her life, as the owner and manager:
Dixieland was a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms; it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance, and was painted a dirty yellow…. In winter, the wind blew howling blasts under the skirts of Dixieland…. Its big rooms were heated by a small furnace which sent up, when charged with fire, a hot dry enervation to the rooms on the first floor, and a gaseous but chill radiation to those upstairs.
Here in the disheveled, “murderous and bloody Barn,” as the father called it, Eliza reigned with parsimony and grueling labor. She had the suspicious nature of a miser and could not keep help, colored, “never having been used to service,” as her son wrote. The better lodgings had signs reading No Invalids, but Dixieland took anyone that knocked on the door. About a miserably coughing client, the mistress would say that the fellow had only a little bronchial trouble; girls of questionable occupation were agreeable young women who liked to have a good time. The children ate pick-up meals next to the stove and, until they could get away, were shifted from one attic room to another. The father stayed on in the previous house, ill, complaining with considerable rhetorical force to his nursemaid daughters. The church was a definition in small towns at the time; by birth the family was Presbyterian, a middling group in local faiths. The Presbyterians bowed to the richer Episcopalians, condescended to the Methodists, and snubbed the Baptists, but the Wolfes were not church-goers. In Look Homeward, Angel the Gants are tribal, occupying a bit of forest in the middle of downtown Asheville, North Carolina.
Thomas Wolfe, renaming himself Eugene Gant, made his way through the thicket into situations of surprising privilege. A good scholar, a reader, he would in the manner of small-town history come to the notice of an English teacher in the public schools. The English teacher: in American literary striving she will again and again appear as a creature of fable, or as Daddy Warbucks to a ragtag orphan. A private school was opened in the town and Wolfe was encouraged to enroll. The cost, the cost—at home a squall of thunder and lightning—but the change was accomplished. At the new school he studied Latin, Shakespeare, the classics, and graduated with honors. Since there is never an end to onward and upward, the next hotly disputed step was college, with the scholar dreaming of Princeton or the University of Virginia. It was to be the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Now, I’ve given my word; you’ll go where Isend you or you’ll go nowhere at all.” And there he is at the end of Look Homeward, Angel before moving on to Harvard in Of Time and the River.
Look Homeward, Angel was published when Wolfe was twenty-nine years old. At Harvard he had the fantastic notion that his literary destiny was to be playwriting, a mode crippling to his marathon inclinations. Plays went off to the Theatre Guild, but were not met with approval. Look Homeward, Angel was rejected by three publishers and finally turned up at Scribner’s where it aroused interest and dismay over length and “other problems.” The dismay, already mentioned, the editing, extensive, took on a life of its own, and the book brought Maxwell Perkins into the light with the result that more has been written about his struggle and friendship with Wolfe than about his professional work with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The reviews of the book were favorable, but they do not bring to memory the affection remembered by those who first came upon it in their youth.
The phrase “O, Lost” might refer to the intense life in the street, the neighbors, the downtown stores, the undertaker, the lawyer, the fallen girl, the drunken pharmacist, the lewd old man who ran the grocery store—all lost in the present homogenization of the village by way of the malls, the motorcars in every yard, national brand-name establishments to take the place of the local enterprises long in one family. Reading Look Homeward, Angel is today a recovery of time or a visit to the bygone in the manner of nineteenth-century fiction with its blacksmiths, ragmen, people on foot for seven miles after returning from the sea. Even though it is only the 1920s and 1930s, the reading of Thomas Wolfe seems to need a shifting of mood on the part of the reader to accept the extravagant yearnings of Eugene Gant, the obsessive detail of train journeys, and the swarming challenges to the awkward young man from the mountains:
He wanted opulent solitude. His dark vision burned on kingdoms under the sea, on windy castle crags, and on the deep elf kingdoms at the earth’s core…. He saw for himself great mansions in the ground, grottoes buried in the deep heart of a hill…. Cool hidden cisterns would bring him air; from a peephole in the hillside he could look down on a winding road and see armed men seeking for him…. He would pull fat fish from subterranean pools, his great earth cellars would be stocked with old wine, he could loot the world of its treasures, including the handsomest women, and never be caught.
Thomas Wolfe is a knight on the road, threatened, but rich in armorial splendor. He will reclaim every step of the journey in book after book, an assertion of primordial selfhood. Yet, along the way, there are others who inflame his imagination as his fictional lust embraces the new private school, the owners, the mathematics teacher, the history teacher, preparation for dead-drunk frat nights at Chapel Hill. And then floating in a balloon of descriptive helium it is always back to Dixieland, “all the comforts of the Modern Jail,” and the roomers with their “blue phthistic hands”; his brothers and sisters, their mates, their misbegotten efforts, illness and deathbeds. And that fellow in the streets, the great lung specialist:
Dr. Fairfax Grinder, scion of one of the oldest and proudest families in Virginia, drove in viciously from Church Street, with his sinewy length of six feet and eight inches coiled tensely in the deep pit of his big Buick roadster. Cursing generally the whole crawling itch of Confederate and Yankee postwar rabbledom, with a few special parentheses for Jews and niggers, he drove full tilt at the short plump figure of Joe Zamschnick, men’s furnishings (“Just a Whisper Off The Square”).
The minuteness of the life around him, the voracious particulars, will battle on the pages with a gigantic abstraction, Eugene Gant:
He felt that, no matter what leper’s taint he might carry upon his flesh, there was in him a health that was greater than they could ever know—something fierce and cruelly wounded, but alive, that did not shrink away from the terrible sunken river of life; something desperate and merciless that looked steadily on the hidden and unspeakable passions that unify the tragic family of this earth.
Look Homeward, Angel was not written until Wolfe had taken a master’s degree at Harvard, where he studied playwriting with George Pierce Baker, the Romantic poets with John Livingstone Lowes, and other classes with other professors. With recommendations from Baker and Lowes, he was given a position teaching English composition at the Washington Square College of New York University. When the first term ended, yet another journey for a “poor mountain boy”: his mother was somehow persuaded to cough up the money for a trip abroad. England, Paris, Italy, Switzerland for nearly a year: the span to become Of Time and the River. On the boat coming home, he met Aline Bernstein, a successful stage and costume designer in New York who will read her story in The Web and the Rock. With her help, Wolfe was still trying to place his plays; another term of teaching, another trip abroad, paid for by Aline, and at last Look Homeward, Angel was begun. Hope, hysteria; book accepted by Scribner’s, revision, excision, grateful compliance on the author’s part punctuated by savage resistance, a bloody chapter in the history of publishing. John Hall Wheelock, poet and editor at Scribner’s: “I am not aware of any book that has ever been edited so extensively up to that point.”
The spindly bones of biography cannot explain why Thomas Wolfe with mad conceit and energy began to compose a voluptuous memorial to his own life, beginning with himself as an infant. In London, in New York, in Brooklyn, wherever he may be, he goes ever back to excavate the cemetery of his remains. Look Homeward, Angel, pure in ambition, dressed in the ornaments of his vast reading, rich, almost burdened with a grand style of adjective and metaphor, and homely enough in catching the diction, the pauses, the pretensions and evasions of the strangers and family that explode in the pages. Look Homeward, Angel is a pastoral of memory, a graveyard of youth and not a recording but a strange magnification shaped by an untamed imagination.
Of Time and the River, almost nine hundred pages, a farewell to home, a brother dead, a father dying, the train chugging north through Confederate states: “nothing by night but darkness and a space we call Viriginia through which the huge projectile of the train is hurtling onward in the dark.” Wolfe sees himself always in a humbling shape: awkward, provincial, haunted, too large and cumbersome for his fragile, trembling inner life. Now he is stumbling through the magical doors of the Widener Library at Harvard: “He pictured himself as tearing the entrails from a book as from a fowl,” and claims that “within a period of ten years he read at least 20,000 volumes—deliberately the number is set low—and opened the pages and looked through many times that number.” It is no wonder he piled up manuscript with the same gluttony for numbers. At night through a “hundred streets,” looking into the faces of a “million people”; “rivers, plains, and mountains and 10,000 sleeping towns; it seemed to him that he saw everything at once.” Such is his plot in the novels, himself a numerical grandiosity, at the same time also grossly unhappy, ravenously uncertain and suffering.
The books are rescued by other people, a great talent for vignette, the novellas within the novel. In Boston Uncle Bascom Pentland-Hawke, a curiosity, a local eccentric in the Dickens mode. Once a minister with a Harvard theology degree, he is now in a grimy antique of a building as Conveyancer and Title Expert for the Brill Realty Company. A scarecrow, a miser, in old clothes turned green from wear, a food nut eating only chopped-up carrots, onions, turnips, and raw potatoes, daily in an office of colleagues fashioned in a similar peculiarity. At home with Uncle Bascom in a mock rant against women:
O, I feel so sick! O, dreary me, now! I think my time is coming on again! O, you don’t love me any mo-o-ore!… O, I wish you’d bring me something nice from ta-own! O, if you loved me you’d buy me a new hat!
“A Portrait of Bascom Hawke” was published in Scribner’s Magazine and tied for first place in the $5,000 Short Novel Prize. However, in Of Time and the River Perkins and Wheelock thought it a digression and sliced it into sections interspersed here and there.
Professor Baker-Hatcher’s playwriting class and student dialogue: “…The play is nothing…. It’s the sets—the sets are really quite remarkable.” Wolfe’s portrait of the celebrated professor is impudent and never more so than when he is being respectful to a figure he was aching to impress. “All the professors thought he looked like an actor and all the actors thought he looked like a professor.” He would advise the students to brush up on their French and look in on De Musset’s “charming trifle.” Very casually and without pretense, his lectures were enlivened by “The last time I was in London, Pinero and I were having lunch together one day at the Savoy” and “I have a letter here from ‘Gene O’Neill which bears on that very point. Perhaps you’d be interested in knowing what he has to say about it.”
Again, he once came back from New York with an amusing story of a visit he had paid to the famous producer, David Belasco. And he described drolly how he had followed a barefoot, snaky-looking female…through seven gothic chambers mystical with chimes and incense. And finally he told how he had been ushered into the presence of the great ecclesiastic who sat at the end of a cathedral-like room beneath windows of church glass.
Scattered throughout the pages, more novellas trapped between the impassioned trips back to North Carolina for his father’s death and his own drunken nights in Boston. Francis Starwick, an assistant to Professor Baker, invites the bumbling titan Eugene Gant to dinner at the Cock Horse Tavern on Brattle Street. Starwick has the appearance of “those young Englishmen painted by Hoppner and Raeburn”: his speaking voice is refined, free from identifying regionalism. He is a dandy, clever in finding the right place to live: fluent, sophisticated in a way that causes Eugene to see him as a rich boy pampered from birth. It will turn out that Starwick is a self-creation of the accumulated flair that took him away from an ordinary family in Illinois, from humiliation as the teacher’s pet, a local affected “aesthete.”
Starwick has his secret Italian restaurant, Pothillipo’s, far from Harvard Square, where he negotiates the dinner in restaurant French and Italian with the bowing waiter Nino:
When this great ceremony was over, Frank Starwick had done nothing more nor less than order the one-dollar table d’hôte dinner which Signor “Pothillippo” provided for all the patrons of his establishment and whose order—soup, fish, spaghetti, roasted chicken, salad, ice-cream, cheese, nuts and bitter coffee—was unchangeable as destiny, and not to be altered by the whims of common men, whether they would or no.
Years later, after Harvard, the narrator will meet Starwick in the Louvre in Paris and join him and the two attractive Boston women with whom he is traveling for over one hundred pages of youth abroad; their trips, quarrels, sightseeing, money problems, jealousies, and at last a fierce finale. Along the way, Starwick picks up a young Frenchman, Alec, with whom he disappears for days, and also along the way Eugene is seized with recognition of his friend’s nature and falls into an almost biblical rage against the infidel, the faithless enemy. The word, the “foul word was out at last”—“you dirty little fairy.” He catches Starwick by the throat and slams him against “the facade of a building with such brutal violence that Starwick’s head bounced and rattled on the stone”:
And at that moment, Eugene felt an instant, overwhelming revulsion of shame, despair, and sick horror…. He thought he had killed Starwick…. Starwick’s frail body retained its langorous dignity and grace…the buckling weight of the unconscious figure slumped in a movement of terrible and beautiful repose—the same movement that one sees in a great painting of Christ lowered from the cross…. There are some people who possess such a natural dignity of person—such a strange and rare inviolability of flesh and spirit…. If such an insult be intended, if such violence be done, the act returns a thousandfold upon the one who does it…he will relive his crime a thousand times in all the shame and terror of inexpiable memory.
Wolfe always remains a yokel despite his travels, his learning; and he will struggle with the common heritage of response, seeming so clear and ordained, the many notions brought from home that will be blurred and challenged by the world his shaky fame will leave on his doorstep.
The spectacular, torrential talent races on in Of Time and the River; it is a contest with the impossible flood of experience, the maelstrom years of youth, the overwrought competition to outpace the threatening limits of language. The homeward-bound ship itself, a construction of 60,000 tons, is a dreamlike apparition to be given shape by words: “sucking continents towards her, devouring sea and land; she was made to enter European skies like some stranger from another world…to pulse and glow under the soft, wet European sky.”
Of Time and the River received many favorable notices and many snarls of fatigue, as if reading the crowded, everlasting pages were an overtime, unpaid chore. More travels abroad, lawsuits, the affair with Aline Bernstein, and a break with Scribner’s. Of Time and the River was the last of the long books published in Wolfe’s lifetime. The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again were published from manuscript by Harper’s and edited or pieced together by the editor Edward Aswell. The break with Scribner’s and Maxwell Perkins is a tangle of murky emotions and conditions: no contract for subsequent books, challenged financial terms, and most of all perhaps Wolfe’s chagrin over the gossip that claimed Perkins as the coauthor or at least the instrument by which chaotic, unpublishable pages were shaped into a book. The publication just now of O Lost, the original typescript of Look Homeward, Angel, shows that the editor has not been born who could write a book of this kind; what he could do was to cut it like a tailor.
The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, each near to seven hundred pages when published, were left in the hands of Edward Aswell at Harper’s. David Herbert Donald’s 1987 biography of Thomas Wolfe gives an accounting of Mr. Aswell’s exuberant combat with the manuscripts. Aswell’s wife noted, “Theirs was to be the Great Collaboration—Tom’s genius combined with Ed’s power of organization.” The howlings by agents, editors, and reviewers that the books were “too autobiographical” had led Wolfe to transform Eugene Gant into George Webber, as the narrator. A horrible mistake, as Maxwell Perkins noted later.
Name changes out of fear of libel, constructing “a pastiche out of several drafts, rearranging the episodes in the love story”; transitional passages written by Aswell himself; the inclusion of an introduction to The Web and the Rock taken from a letter written by Wolfe but unfinished and never mailed. In You Can’t Go Home Again, the creation of a character named Randy Shepperton entirely from the brain of Mr. Aswell.
The biographer’s conclusion: “Aswell moved on to modifying the rhythms of his [Wolfe’s] prose, altering his characterizations, and to cutting and shaping his chapters,…and his interference seriously eroded the integrity of Wolfe’s text. Far from deserving commendation, Aswell’s editorial interference was, both from the standpoint of literature and of ethics, unacceptable.”
As a composition, The Web and the Rock is an effort to outwit editorial and critical objections. Halfhearted narrative disguises; George Webber, called Monk in youth and persisting; a new family, the Joyners, to replace that of Eliza Gant in the previous books and to avoid the anger of the family and that of certain Asheville citizens. “About 1885, John Webber met a young woman of Libya Hill named Amelia Joyner…. In the next fifteen years they had no children, until, in 1900, their son George was born.” So, Eugene Gant has now become an only child. His mother dies and he goes to live with Joyner relatives, to be raised by Aunt Maw, a spinster, “a rusty crone of fate.” Along the many pages, he will attend not Chapel Hill but an “old, impoverished backwoods college” called Pine Rock and mostly interested in the football team. Much was invented, but again living persons saw themselves caricatured in the Eugene Gant-George Webber overwhelming passion to leave a record of the flow of his actual days and nights.
Before death overtakes, he will have his one love affair to scorch the pages of The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. Aline Bernsteinmet Wolfe on the boat coming home from Europe, parted with him at the dock; they united when Wolfe wrote a letter asking to see her again. Aline Bernstein was the daughter of a well-known actor, Joseph Frankau, and had spent her childhood in a theatrical boarding house on West 44th Street. When the meeting took place she was an established costume and set designer, married to a successful stockbroker, the mother of two children, eighteen years older than Thomas Wolfe, and Jewish. She will be Esther Jack in the novels:
She became the most beautiful woman that ever lived—and not in any symbolic or idealistic sense—but with all the blazing, literal, and mad concreteness of his imagination. She became the creature of incomparable loveliness, the creature with whose image he would for years walk the city’s swarming streets.
They go to a theatrical performance down on the East Side in Manhattan and Thomas Wolfe, still a hopeful dramatist, is immediately overcome with a contempt for the audience, for sophisticated people who are suddenly his enemies and “who would really undermine and wreck his work if he allowed them to.” Twitches of paranoia are a natural companion to the self-aggrandizing soul of Thomas Wolfe in New York, where everyone caught alone is a mouse. As for the loved one, Mrs. Jack, “this flushed, rosy, and excited little person…, she seemed almost to belong to another world, a world of simple joy…, of sweetness and of naturalness, of innocence and morning.”
Esther Jack is cheerful, energetic, and a convicted “prisoner of love.” The place in which George Webber is living is a squalid dump and she will find a large floor in an old house on Waverly Place, “send a man in tomorrow to wash the windows and to scrub the floors” and furnish the place with things from her own house. She knows the best butchers and greengrocers and cooks huge meals like a farm wife, while working and coming back with stories of famous people and grand parties, which will cause her lover to think of half the population living “in filth and squalor.” “How could she be a part of it?… It whipped his spirit to a frenzy, it made him turn on her at times and rend her, bitterly accuse her with unjust and cruel words.”
George Webber describes his destruction of love with chilling credibility; jealousy, accusation, maniacal demands, monstrous envy, pages and pages of domestic argument blasting through the walls:
He: Do anything you damn please—just leave me alone, that’s all!
She: He got what he wanted from her…used her for what she was worth to him…. Now she’s no use to him anymore!
He: Used you! Why, you—you—you hussy, you—what do you mean by used you! Used me, you mean!
He rages against “the whole damned crowd of million-dollar Jew and Gentile aesthetes” who despise him. She: “They neither love nor hate you. Most of them have never heard of you.” The affair is broken and he is off again for the seventh trip abroad, where in a drunken brawl at the Oktoberfest in Munich he gets badly beaten up.
You Can’t Go Home Again returns to Esther Jack and the long, crowded pages of imagined and lived scenes are as brilliant as any to be found in Wolfe’s writings. It begins with a curious evocation of Mr. Jack, the husband, waking up in their apartment on Park Avenue a few days before the 1929 stock market crash. The bedroom “was one of modest and almost austere simplicity, subtly combined with a sense of spaciousness, wealth, and power.” The bathroom where we will find Mr. Jack shaving has creamy porcelain and polished silver fixtures. “He liked the tidy, crowded array of lotions, creams, unguents, bottles, tubs, jars, brushes”; he mixes the hot and cold water, does a few exercises—all a wild presumption about the husband of the loved one.
Mr. Jack in the portrait is a solid, comfortable man of Wall Street, neither “cruel nor…immoderate,” who likes the social swim, is kind and generous to a friend in need. He is driven to his office by his chauffeur, who is reckless and a swindler in the matter of bills for gasoline, oil, and tires, which Mr. Jack can accept as the way of the world. He will help people down on their luck, friends, relatives, and superannuated domestics, but in the false world of speculation such men did not see themselves as gamblers, but as “brilliant executives of great affairs.” Thus a double edge, not quite so pleasing to the piercing sense of exclusion George Webber is born with as Mr. Jack is born with his distance from George’s furious, “envenomed passages of night.” The moral superiority of his own distress, madness, and longing is a dogma, a sacred oil or unguent in all of Wolfe’s encounters with riches or power.
Esther Jack wakes up in the Park Avenue apartment where she is planning a great party that evening which George will attend. She is usually glowing, jolly, filled with “immortal confidence”; and then again somber and brooding:
She was three parts a Jewess, and in her contemplative moods the ancient, dark, and sorrowful quality of her race seemed to take complete possession of her…. This look…had always troubled George Webber when he saw it because it suggested some secret knowledge buried deep within the woman whom he loved and whom he believed he had come to know.
However, this morning she is struggling with her drunken Irish maid, Nora, in scenes of bright household comedy. In a section called “Service Entrance” the doorman, the man on the front elevator, and the one on the service elevator are introduced with their squabbles, complaints, and doorman obsequiousness, each to play his part in the disaster of the coming evening party. A face, a brief encounter or thicker association with the hundreds that appear in the fictions are magically enlivened by individ-ual patterns of speech, psychological quirks, private history the writer could not have known. “Autobiography” is merely the outer skin, tags of character, not what is accomplished by the imagination in the unaccountable, unrelenting scribbled flood.
At the party, “The hour has now arrived for Mr. Piggy Logan and his celebrated circus of wired dolls.” The puppet show, a fleeting rage in the city, appears to be an inspiration created by Alexander “Sandy” Calder:
There were miniature circus rings made of rounded strips of tin or copper which fitted neatly together. There were…an astonishing variety of figures made of wire to represent all the animals and performers. There were clowns and trapeze artists, acrobats and tumblers, horses and bareback lady riders.
The trapeze act was the first failure when the two flying dolls failed to catch hands. The sword-swallowing act, a hatpin to go down the mouth of a rag doll, only succeeded in tearing the stuffing out, but the cheerful Mr. Piggy went on. Friends of his, which included some young women that had the “unmistakeable look of having gone to Miss Spence’s school” crowded the devastated living room and turned the lavish evening party into a New York item of gossip. And then outside the roar of a fire truck.
Smoke is filling the halls and the guests rush out, but downstairs the elevator men are struggling to get up to an old lady on a high floor. She has made her way out, but the two elevator men on their mission of rescue are stuck when the power goes out and will die of smoke inhalation. For George: “He has sensed how the hollow pyramid of a false social structure had been erected and sustained upon a base of common mankind’s blood and sweat and agony.” It is the signal for a break with Esther Jack:
And to make it easier, for her as well as for himself, there was one thing he would not tell her. It would be surer, swifter, kinder not to tell her that he loved her still, that he would always love her, that no one else could ever take her place.
The virtues of Aline Bernstein come to be seen as a smothering shroud from which the genius is determined to free himself: she clings, threatens suicide, imagines Maxwell Perkins has aided the collapse of the stormy love. In fact and in written elaboration, Thomas Wolfe brings wretchedness to Esther Jack, but she at least triumphs in being the single moment of happiness, romantic love, surrender of his own shroud of self-love:
After all the blind, tormented wanderings of youth, that woman would become his heart’s centre and the target of his life, the image of immortal one-ness that again collected him to one, and hurled the whole collected passion, power, and might of his one life into the blazing certitude, the immortal governance and unity, of love. (Of Time and the River)
Anti-Semitism: he longs, in his notebooks, for letters from his “little Jew” and in the same notebook, before they had met and when Wolfe dreamed of success as a dramatist:
Artistically, at any rate, the Jew is a menace. He controls the theatre in New York…. The character of New York audiences is itself determined, in large measure, by the members of his race…. In our small towns, we see our small tradesmen steadily driven to the wall, outwitted and out-reached on every side by their Jewish competitor…. His botanical selection is ever the sun-flower, never the violet. Indeed, I am becoming convinced that he gained his title of “chosen of God” because of the many good things he had to say of himself, oft-repeated before the Lord.
Wolfe, ever to remain in many ways a bumpkin from the South, grew up at a time when the local Jews ran clothing and jewelry stores on Main Street and were respected but apart, with little social mingling until the later years when they became lawyers, judges, doctors, and professors if there was a local college. In New York City it will be otherwise indeed; perhaps they are the “web” on the rock in that title.
And yet, a diversion in Of Time and the River. While teaching at New York University, Abraham Jones, an A student, arrogant, begins to haunt Eugene Gant as an enemy, a critic never satisfied with the chosen texts, a smirking judge, a nightmare of unendurable superiority. The combative, outraged teacher throws him out of the class, only to have the young man burst into tears and say, “Why, that’s the best class that I’ve got.” Jones will become the “first man-swarm atom he had come to know in all the desolation of the million-footed city,” a loyal friend.
Wolfe takes on the whole family, hears the story of the name “Jones” from the old Polish, Yiddish-speaking father, the story of sister Sylvia and her illegitimate child raised by the student, Abraham; another sister, Rose, “a dark, tortured and sensitive Jewess with a big nose and one blind eye.” Abe himself transformed from “an obscure and dreary chrysalis, and yet a dogged, loyal, and faithful friend, the salt of the earth, a wonderfully good, rare, and high person.”
You can find what you will in Thomas Wolfe, every dated cliché and skinhead notion and folly and “niggertown”; and then turn the page for a contemplation that might be in the words of a Boston abolitionist:
The South: …the whole fantastic distortion of that period where people were said to live in “mansions,” and slavery was a benevolent institution, conducted as a constant banjo-strumming, the strewn largesses of the colonel and the shuffle-dance of his happy dependents…and the Rebel horde a company of swagger, death-mocking cavaliers. Years later… when their cheap mythology, their legend of the charm of their manner, the aristocratic culture of their lives, the quaint sweetness of their drawl, made him writhe—when he could think of no return to their life and its swarming superstition without weariness and horror,…he still pretended the most fanatic devotion to them, excusing his Northern residence on grounds of necessity rather than desire. (Look Homeward, Angel)
Thomas Wolfe, a maw, gulping his family, the streets, the citizens, the Civil War, World War I, the Dempsey- Firpo fight, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Europe, America. He is too much, too many rhapsodies, an inundation. Not a man you’d want to deal with. Drunken pages and drunken he often was as he prowled the midnight city. And yet the mystery of the books is that they are written with a rich, fertile vocabulary, sudden, blooming images, a murderous concentration that will turn everyone he meets into words. The books are all in print; fresh, beckoning paperbacks, American literature. Whether the new millennium with its gifts will include the time to read them is another question.