Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe; drawing by David Levine

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Richard S. Kennedy’s The Window of Memory, the first full study of the manuscripts, could not be published until 1962, after Aswell’s death; it revealed for the first time exactly what Aswell had done.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.”

Donald establishes the facts with great pertinacity—for example, this may be the most thorough documentation yet of any writer’s sex life. It is not edifying. Wolfe was a devoted frequenter of whorehouses from early youth; he had no sense of guilt, and took a very crude-view of sex. Even his discovery of masturbation is recorded, and the fact that throughout his life he continued to receive much satisfaction and literary inspiration from fondling his genitals. In New York he produced a long list of “Free Pieces of Cunt” he had had, noting, “I fucked these women for nothing—save the best price of all.” Later, he

took advantage of every opportunity, usually with a total absence of affection toward or even interest in his partner. He was entirely capable of going to a party, singling out an attractive young woman, taking her into the bedroom for sex—and then, an hour or so later, catching a glimpse of her across the room, he might ask “Who’s she?”

He thought “any woman who did not want to go to bed with him must have something wrong with her.” One of his lovers remarked that he “didn’t really care about and care for other human beings in the way that most of us as human beings do”; even when making love, he seemed “a kind of analyst and a scientist probing into what the human being was…. It was just as though the woman were under a microscope and being looked at by him and dissected by him,…a dissection of that species which is called woman.” Another said he was “intolerable and wonderful and talked like an angel and was a real son-of-a-bitch.” When dropped by one of his lovers, he broadcast his version of their affair

“at length and in blood curdling detail.”…He announced to all their friends that she was an absolute fool, who bored him to death; that they had had “only labial” intercourse; and that, by falsely accusing him, she had done “a thing for which any whore would get her throat cut.”

No southern chivalry here!

Nor did Wolfe have male friends, except Perkins, so obviously a substitute father; one variant of the dedication to Perkins in Of Time ends, “In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend.” He made no literary friends:

Despite Perkins’s efforts, he and Hemingway did not take to each other. He kept up a distant acquaintance with F. Scott Fitzgerald out of respect for Perkins…. It is not clear that Wolfe ever met John O’Hara, though he thought he was “a nasty writer”—as were Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He did not know Conrad Aiken or John Steinbeck; he had hearty contempt for Thornton Wilder; and he encountered William Carlos Williams only once.

He spent one evening with Dos Passos, who felt that it was like “being with a gigantic baby”; Faulkner, whom he met once, thought he was important because of the magnitude of his failure, but that was their only point of contact.

Robert Penn Warren in 1935 made a penetrating analysis (reprinted in his Selected Essays, 1958) of Wolfe’s faults, while fully granting his good qualities. (Wolfe said he learned more from this criticism than from any other.) Warren’s main point is apparent in his title, “A Note on the Hamlet of Thomas Wolfe,” and his final sentence: “And meanwhile it may be well to recollect that Shakespeare merely wrote Hamlet; he was not Hamlet.” In both of Wolfe’s novels, Warren writes,

the pretense of fiction is so thin and slovenly that Mr. Wolfe in referring to the hero writes indifferently “Eugene Gant” or “I” and “me.”

The hero feels a sense of destiny and direction, the sense of being “chosen” in the midst of a world of defeated, aimless, snobbish, vulgar, depleted, or suicidal people…. In real life this conviction of a high calling may be enough to make a “hero” feel that life does have form and meaning; but the mere fact that a hero in a novel professes the high calling…does not, in itself, give the novel form and meaning.

Wolfe’s “rhetoric is sometimes grand,” Warren writes, “but probably more often tedious and tinged with hysteria. Because he is officially writing prose and not poetry, he has no caution of the clichés of phrase or rhythm, and no compunction about pilfering from other poets.” There is

a constant quality of strain, a fancy for the violent word or phrase (but often conventionally poetic as well as violent)…. He sometimes wants it both ways: the structural irresponsibility of prose and the emotional intensity of poetry. He may overlook the fact that the intensity is rarely to be achieved without a certain rigor in selection and structure.

Warren concludes that “these books are really voluminous notes from which a fine novel, or several fine novels, might be written. If he never writes these novels, it may yet be that his books will retain a value as documents of some historical importance and as confused records of an unusual personality.” Meanwhile, his work “illustrates once more the limitations…of an attempt to exploit directly and naïvely the personal experience and the self-defined personality in art.”

Writing just after Wolfe’s death, John Peale Bishop noted (in an essay reprinted in his Collected Essays, edited by Edmund Wilson, 1948) that “from the time of Look Homeward, Angel, he was regarded, and rightly, as a young man of incomparable promise.” But Bishop did not find for Of Time and the River,

nor do I believe he could ever have found, a structure of form which would have been capable of giving shape and meaning to his emotional experience. He was not without intelligence; but he could not trust his intelligence, since for him to do so would have been to succumb to conscience. And it was conscience, with its convictions of guilt, that he was continually trying to elude.

Comparing him to Hart Crane, Bishop suggests that Wolfe found, as Crane did before him, “that the America he longed to celebrate did not exist.” He suggests shrewdly that since Eugene’s parents in Look Homeward are both compulsive talkers, so Wolfe continues this role in his writing:

He wrote as a man possessed. Whatever was in his memory must be set down—not merely because he was Eliza’s son, but because the secret end of all his writing was expiation—and it must be set down in words to which he constantly seems to be attaching more meaning than they can properly own. It was as though he were aware that his novel would have no meaning that could not be found in the words.

His “failure to understand was due to no fault of the intelligence, but to lack of love. The Gant family always strikes us, with its howls of rage, its loud hah-hahs of hate and derision, as something less than human. And Eugene is a Gant.” Wolfe, like Crane, wanted to proclaim the grandeur of America. “But both were led…, on proud romantic feet, to Brooklyn. And what they found there they abhorred.” As Crane was led to suicide, for Wolfe, isolated in his sensations, “there was no way out. He continually sought for a door, and there was really none, or only one, the door of death.” (Donald calls Bishop’s a “remarkably hostile” criticism; on the contrary, it is remarkably generous in putting Wolfe in the company of Crane and in giving his good qualities full scope. Its language is full of echoes of Wolfe’s writings, and condenses much analysis and reflection into its allusive phrases. Wolfe himself seems never to have heard of Crane, though he lived across the street in Brooklyn from the room in which Crane, and Roebling before him, had lived.)

Donald is rather misleading on the whole matter of Wolfe’s relation to the Fugitives and Agrarians. He attributes their criticism of Wolfe to the fact that they “never felt he was really a member of their movement”; but Wolfe never understood enough about the Agrarian movement to have the right to an opinion. As Hugh Holman puts it in The Loneliness at the Core2 :

One has the feeling that much of his contempt rested on ignorance of what the Agrarians were advocating, and that he would have been pretty much of their party if he had known what that party really was. However, he belonged loosely to the New South school, which saw in industrial progress the key to a new and better life and believed that the South must emerge from its retreat to the past into the reality of the modern world.

Wolfe “was the spokesman of the New South, the South which was embracing the future of industrialism and capitalism and whose sons dream of great cities and the vast nation.”

Donald concedes that the Agrarians’ objections to the formlessness and lack of restraint in Wolfe’s prose were more fundamental, and attributes this to their classicism as opposed to Wolfe’s romanticism, “and many of them by the mid-1930s were on their way to becoming New Critics, who applied fine-honed intelligence to aesthetic issues.” But Warren and Bishop, as the quotations above demonstrate, were emphatically not aesthetes; and Bishop was neither Fugitive nor Agrarian. Donald quotes Caroline Gordon’s comment in a letter, after meeting Wolfe, that he was “drunk and dumb and extremely amiable,” and another criticizing his “lack of artistic intelligence”; Allen Tate said that he “did harm to the art of the novel” and “moral damage to his readers.” These are impersonal, if severe, observations. Hemingway, no Southerner or New Critic, spoke of Wolfe’s “limited intelligence” and compared him to Primo Carnera and Li’l Abner.

Can Wolfe be resuscitated? Certainly not by this kind of study, which simply provides additional evidence for all the faults noted above. Even Look Homeward would never have been publishable without Perkins as essentially a collaborator (the manuscript had to be reduced in length by a third to a fourth). As Donald puts it, speaking of the break between them, Perkins

did not mention that, after nearly every other possible publisher had turned down “O Lost,” he had brought about the publication of Wolfe’s first novel. He did not remind Wolfe that his cutting and shaping of that manuscript had transformed it from an imperfectly executed American Ulysses into a first-rate novel about a boy’s growing up. He did not say that Wolfe had been unable to complete a second novel until Perkins helped him work out the organization of Of Time and the River…. And, most important, he did not say…that without Maxwell Perkins there would have been no Thomas Wolfe.

Donald’s chief criticism of Perkins is that he didn’t give his manuscripts

the close, line-by-line editing that they badly needed. Since Wolfe did not learn, either at the University of North Carolina or at Harvard University, to criticize his own work, he sorely needed an expert, trusted editor who could show him how to eliminate repetitious, redundant, inappropriate, and badly written phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

But this is to ask that the prose be corrected as if it were in a Freshman English theme. It is a new view of an editor’s responsibilities to suggest that he should teach his authors the basic essentials of how to write, or himself make up constantly for their deficiencies.

This kind of detailed pruning and correction is in fact exactly what Aswell did with Wolfe’s posthumous novels, and Donald criticizes him for taking “impermissible liberties” and eroding the integrity of Wolfe’s text. Presumably it would have been all right if Wolfe had been sitting there and had agreed. At any rate, Wolfe never learned to do it himself, any more than he learned to shape his novels into coherent form. These are, of course, highly debatable assertions: many of Wolfe’s admirers argue that he did progress toward a more objective and restrained style and toward coherence in form, as he certainly intended to do. But the additional material that Donald has consulted seems to provide no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. We must, then, take our Wolfe either straight—in the form of multiple incoherent manuscripts (with a few fortunate exceptions, as in the long stories)—or adulterated, as shaped by two remarkably intelligent and devoted editors, Perkins and Aswell.

Wolfe was, in the true Romantic line, an inheritor of unfulfilled renown, but this was not the fault of his editors. He was, in fact, remarkably lucky all his life in finding people to help, encourage, support, and indulge him: not only these and other editors (such as the devoted Elizabeth Nowell), but his mother, who supported him for years, his teachers, from Margaret Roberts to George Pierce Baker, and his mistresses, from Aline Bernstein to Belinda Jelliffe—all these little people helped Gulliver unstintingly.

Perhaps I should confess that even in my youth Wolfe was never my kind of writer. He seemed to me overheated, overwritten, and rather crude; I preferred a subtler romanticism. But neither this kind of prejudice, nor the excesses of his admirers, should obscure the fact that Wolfe, with all his defects, was and is an entertaining, powerful, and important writer. He was not the towering genius he thought he was; but his talent was genuine, if rather small. Though he could not shape a novel without help, Look Homeward remains a unique and notable achievement.

As Hugh Holman has cogently argued, the short novel is where Wolfe is at his best. (Donald agrees.) Holman reprinted five short novels from the Scribner’s Magazine versions in The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (1961): “A Portrait of Bascom Hawke,” “The Web of Earth” (which Wolfe thought his best work, and of which Perkins said he would not change a word), “No Door,” “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” and “The Party at Jacks.” He cites as less successful, but good, examples, “Death the Proud Brother,” “The Train and the City,” “Boom Town,” and “The Lost Boy.” I would agree that these are Wolfe’s best work, and his alone; and Skipp’s editing of the short stories, restoring the cuts to bring more of them close to the short-novel length, reinforces the position that this is where Wolfe is at his best. In addition, many of the shorter stories, such as “The House of the Far and Lost,” “The Child by Tiger,” the remarkable “Four Lost Men,” about Presidents Arthur, Garfield, Harrison, and Hayes, and “Chickamauga,” are very powerful, as are numerous scenes in the novels. I can’t myself go for the lyric dithyrambs, which seem to me too much like low-grade poetry spilled over abstractions; but Donald and others admire them.

As some critics have argued, Wolfe is like Faulkner in producing individual works that collectively compose a legend or saga or myth. But there is a vast difference. Wolfe does it through expressing one self or personality, while Faulkner creates and expresses a whole mythical social order and region; Wolfe tries to express the whole nation while Faulkner sticks to his region; Wolfe’s central symbol is the city while Faulkner remains rural; Wolfe searches for escape from isolation while Faulkner expresses a community. Most important, Faulkner does shape individual novels into coherent and self-sufficient form. Hugh Holman, in The Loneliness at the Core, discusses these matters illuminatingly and makes the best case I have seen for Wolfe’s movement outward from self to world, from isolation to community, and for his work as a kind of American epic.

This Issue

September 24, 1987