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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.

1.

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.

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