Thomas Wolfe, April 1937; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Van Vechten Trust

Thomas Wolfe, April 1937; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

The movie Genius, which recently came and went with predictable celerity, is an earnest attempt to track the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his famous editor, Maxwell Perkins, by turning it into a high-flown literary bromance: boy meets man, soul meets soul, deeply needy young writer bonds with melancholic son-less editor (he has five daughters), boy rejects man as the Oedipal dynamic inexorably has its way, boy dies, yet love and trust prevail even unto—and beyond—death. “It’s a true story,” the movie announces right at the start, and most of the “facts” are close enough to accurate, give or take a little exaggeration. Nor do we expect bio-pics to cling neurotically to mere data—the crucial thing for a commercial movie is “story,” not “true.”

But true or false, this story could never have stood much chance at the box office. Who could have believed that the relationship between Wolfe and Perkins would find an audience today? I saw Genius twice, at two different Manhattan theaters, and if there were any people in the house under sixty-five, I didn’t spot them. And there weren’t many over sixty-five, either.

The reality is that Thomas Wolfe has gone over the cultural cliff. From the 1930s through the 1950s—maybe a little longer—his Look Homeward, Angel was a rite of passage for sensitive literary adolescents (mostly boys, though some girls too). In 1957, a play based on it and starring Anthony Perkins as young Eugene Gant played on Broadway for well over a year and won the Pulitzer Prize. But by the 1960s, the sardonic Catcher in the Rye had become the go-to novel for sensitive adolescents: a very different kettle of angst from the overwrought prose of Wolfe’s famous book, and a lot shorter. Yet the myth of Wolfe’s short, dramatic life, and of his relationship with the exemplary Perkins, hung on, reinvigorated when in 1978 the young A. Scott Berg published his highly regarded biography of Perkins. (Berg, as it happens, is one of the six “Executive Producers” of Genius, and the script is officially based on his book.)

I myself came upon Look Homeward, Angel at the appropriate moment in my life—I was fourteen or fifteen—and it stunned me. No matter that Wolfe’s Eugene Gant grew up as part of a cluttered family in North Carolina, his father (like Wolfe’s) a stonecutter, and I grew up an only child in New York, my father a lawyer: we both had suffered! What’s more—and this is the embarrassing part—I was deeply affected by Wolfe’s rhapsodizing style. Can I really have thrilled to such writing as “life unscales its rusty weathered pelt, and earth wells out in tender exhaustless strength, and the cup of a man’s heart runs over with dateless expectancy, tongueless promise, indefinable desire”? What could I have made of “the earth was spermy for him like a big woman”? I take comfort in reminding myself that the nonpareil Perkins had thrilled to it as well, and Perkins was not only a great editor but an adult. Fortunately for me, within a year I had encountered and absorbed the antidote to Wolfe: Jane Austen’s Emma.

And yet, this is not totally fair to Look Homeward, Angel. Rereading it, I see real virtues—a voice that, however out of control, is sincere, rich, and, sometimes, moving; a considerable gift for descriptive prose; and a mind driven by fervent intellectual curiosity. The unendurable verbal torrent, the unbearable self-dramatizing—these are distorted reflections of the serious intentions and ardent convictions of a talented if wholly unsophisticated adolescent mentality. No wonder so many adolescents rose to the occasion. When Max Perkins first read Wolfe’s manuscript, he had no doubts about the largeness of his new writer’s talent. And as he got to know Wolfe personally (and intensely: there was no other way to know him), he grew more and more taken by the young man himself.

Wolfe was twenty-nine when Look Homeward, Angel was published after an exhausting editorial process throughout which the editor proceeded with his habitual modesty and tact and the writer (at least at first) responded with intoxicated eagerness. Describing it all to Margaret Roberts in a letter so long it might have tried the patience even of this doting former teacher, he told her that at the first meeting of editor and author, Max “began cautiously on the book” but then went on to say that the book was “new and original” and that “these people…were ‘magnificent’—as real as any people he had ever read of.” This from the celebrated editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway! Naturally, young Tom had been “wild with excitement.”


In the event, some 90,000 words were stripped from the book, which nevertheless weighed in at well over five hundred pages when it was published in the fall of 1929, instantly elevating Wolfe to the higher ranks of contemporary American writers. Yes, there were blemishes on this sprawling bildungsroman, but the general view was that the talent was prodigious, the ambition immense, the future limitless. And Wolfe himself was so different—not only an unlicked provincial despite his three years spent under George Pierce Baker, the famous professor of drama at Harvard, but physically so extraordinary: unkempt, clumsy, six feet four inches tall—a mountain of a young man, a phenomenon. The notion of genius was in the air.

Actually, it had been in the air for some time. David Herbert Donald, Wolfe’s biographer, tells us that in college he was talked about as “an eccentric genius,” and Professor Baker referred to him as “a genius somewhat out of control.” Madeleine Boyd, the neophyte literary agent who steered him to Scribner’s, reading the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel for the first time, “looked up to find that it was three in the morning. Thrilled, she began to run up and down the hall of the apartment, shouting at the top of her voice: ‘A genius! I have discovered a genius!’” As for the genius himself, he wrote to his mother from Harvard, “I don’t know yet what I am capable of doing but, by God, I have genius…and I shall yet force the inescapable fact down the throats of the rats and vermin who wait the proof.”

Did Wolfe ever doubt himself? Toward the end of Look Homeward, Angel: “But what, said Eugene very slowly into the darkness, if I’m not a Genius? He did not ask himself the question often.” And at least once he ups the stakes: in a 1928 letter to his lover, Aline Bernstein, he tells her, “I must find work that I believe in, and then I must believe in my own excellence and importance as a kind of modern Christ.”

Look Homeward, Angel sold well, if not spectacularly, and Wolfe was now a famous writer and a figure. The expectations for his next novel were feverish, but it would be six years before the world would see Of Time and the River. The problem wasn’t that the author was blocked—no writer was ever less blocked than Thomas Wolfe; tsunamis of words poured from him, perhaps five thousand a day, day in, day out. The book grew and grew, but it was formless. It just piled up: genius by blogging.

Eventually Perkins insisted that Wolfe hand over the manuscript, and a few days later Tom delivered a crateful of pages, totaling 500,000 words—and a few days later, brought in another 500,000. Perkins dug in. Night after night, for many months, Wolfe would arrive at the Perkins apartment and the two men would toil over the manuscript, the editor deleting, the author coming up with thousands and thousands of new words. Finally, the dispirited Wolfe lost interest, the depleted Perkins could do no more, and Of Time and the River, in all its lack of structure and focus and with an inconclusive ending, went on sale in 1935, a mere 912 pages in length.

Maxwell Perkins, 1943

Al Ravenna/New York World-Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress

Maxwell Perkins, 1943

Critics again heralded Wolfe’s large talents, comparing him to Dickens, Rabelais, Melville, Whitman, Joyce, Proust, and more, yet coming down hard on his all too obvious flaws. Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker found his style “wondrous, Elizabethan” at its best, but at its worst “hyperthyroid and afflicted with elephantiasis.” Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic found that despite the novel’s tremendous virtues, all too much of it was “possibly worse than anything that any other reputable American novelist has permitted himself to publish.”

Wolfe had got out of town before the book was published—off on one of his seven sojourns in Europe. He was startled and relieved by the generally admiring attention Of Time and the River was receiving back home, and the fact that it was turning into a considerable commercial success (number-three fiction seller for the year). When on his return he was met by Perkins at the dock, he swept up his usually decorous editor and they rampaged through the night, actually climbing up a fire escape to break into the scruffy loft apartment in which he had written most of Angel. It was, he was to say, the happiest day of his life. And no doubt one of Max’s happiest, too. The bromance was in full bloom.

Of course this escapade features prominently in Genius, and why not? Not many dramatic incidents capable of being exploited on film punctuate the relationship between a writer and an editor. In place of drama, the movie gives us a good deal of weather. Apparently it was always raining in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with the rain that’s pouring down on young Tom as he squelches up and down Fifth Avenue, bracing himself to enter the Scribner’s building for the first time. And even when it isn’t raining, it’s dark, indoors and out—how Perkins could read in his gloomy office is a mystery.


Oddly, Genius is a British production, not one of its stars American. Tom is played by Jude Law, who despite being short and slight rather than hulking gives the film’s finest performance, unerringly capturing Wolfe’s intensity and passion and charm. Max is efficiently impersonated by Colin Firth, but Perkins was the opposite of a dramatic personality, and his inner conflicts don’t provide Firth with much to do except sport the fedora that Max was famous for wearing even at the dinner table. Finally, and most bizarrely, Aline Bernstein—well into her forties when she first meets Tom, a warm-hearted, plumpish Jewish New York success story—is played by the Australian Nicole Kidman at her frostiest. What were they dreaming of?

When Max meets Tom’s boat on that day in 1935 he’s forced to report that Aline, whom he’d barely encountered before, had recently turned up in the Scribner’s offices and made a scene, threatening to create trouble if Tom writes about their affair to the distress of her family. During their confrontation, Aline may or may not have mentioned a gun—Max, hard of hearing, thought she may have, but went on to qualify that he wasn’t sure whether she intended to use it on him, Tom, or herself. Needless to say, in Genius the unverified gun is front and center. The bromance has become a noir triangle.

Maxwell Perkins was not a man prepared by temperament or inclination to participate in high drama. He had his idiosyncrasies, but the surface of his days was essentially unruffled: work, work, work—in the office, on the commuter train, at home. Even so, his emotional life was not unruffled. His wife, Louise, was a difficulty—he had damaged their marriage at the start by forbidding her the career in the theater that she longed for, and now she was both dabbling in the outskirts of the theater world and, to his rock-ribbed Yankee-Episcopal vexation, turning to Catholicism for comfort, while to her vexation, she was watching her husband more or less adopt Tom as a sixth Perkins child.

There were Max’s other “children,” too: fragile Scott Fitzgerald, whom Max loved and struggled to support and protect, and Hemingway, wayward and ornery, perhaps, but at first supportive of Wolfe. (Later, he would refer to him as “a glandular giant with the brains and the guts of three mice” and “the over-bloated Lil Abner of literature.”) Both Scott (Zelda in tow) and “Hem” are given embarrassing cameos in Genius. On the other hand, the happy relationship between Max and his five girls is charmingly represented in the movie, even if there’s a touch of Life with Father to their encounters. If you want to love Max Perkins as well as admire him, dip into Father to Daughter, a collection of his letters to his little girls.

The relationship between the mutually devoted Max and Tom began to fray seriously in the wake of Of Time and the River, Tom driven to break free of the mentor/father who was also the closest friend he’d ever had. A catalytic agent was a brutal attack in 1936 by the esteemed Bernard DeVoto in the Saturday Review of Literature. Wolfe, DeVoto wrote, was an “astonishingly immature” writer who had “mastered neither the psychic material out of which a novel is made nor the technique of writing fiction…. However useful genius may be in the writing of novels, it is not enough in itself.” Most shattering to Tom was the explicit allegation that it was Perkins who was really responsible for his success. Max came to think that this charge, gnawing at Tom’s precarious ego, was what ultimately led him “to believe he must prove that I was not necessary to him.”

To leave Scribner’s or not to leave—for well over a year the question hung in the air, Tom torturing both Max and himself with agonized discussions about his publishing future. The ultra-patient Perkins finally snapped: “If you must leave Scribner’s, go ahead and leave, but for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it anymore!” In November 1937, Tom formally left—signing a contract with a young editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper and Brothers, but not before sending Max a 12,000-word letter explaining and defending himself—a letter that devastated Perkins, but to which he replied with his customary understanding and sympathy. And the writer and his former editor went on spending time together, each of them repeatedly expressing the loving admiration he felt for the other. Awkwardly, in his will Tom made Max the executor and trustee of his estate, so that when he died the grieving and conflicted Perkins was left in the unhappy position of overseeing Aswell as he dealt with the mountain of material Wolfe had left behind.

No one was less surprised by Tom abandoning Max than Aline Bernstein, who in 1930 had presciently written to Tom, “Some day your friend Mr. Perkins when he suffers at your hand the way I do now, will find you out. If you can hurt a dear friend once, you will do it again.” But then Aline, even at the height of her passion for Tom, had always seen him clearly. The two of them had met on a ship returning from Europe in 1925, were instantly smitten with each other, and soon fell into the most passionate relationship either would ever experience. Yet Aline was, and remained, contentedly married to a successful and wealthy stockbroker by whom she had a son and a daughter only a few years younger than Tom.

She was also a leading figure in the New York theater world, one of the two or three most admired set and costume designers of her time, working through the decades for New York’s most distinguished directors and stars, from Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Company to Tallulah Bankhead in The Little Foxes, even Balanchine’s 1946 production of Ravel’s The Spellbound Child. She was a byword for distinction—as well as the first woman to be accepted into the tough Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers.

She was also elegant, a perfect hostess, a superb cook, and devoted to her family, whereas Tom was an indigent, unpublished, rough-mannered twenty-four-year-old, twenty years her junior. It didn’t matter: the sexual pull between them was overwhelming. Her love for him was total, open, and distressingly self-abnegating, while he adored her—and abused her. During the years in which he was becoming a novelist, she helped him stay financially afloat, slept with him, made his meals, and revealed herself to him completely, fully aware that he would one day use her life (and her) as “material.” When Look Homeward, Angel was published, the dedication read “For A.B.”

But by then he was already withdrawing. The next years were terrible for her, as she yearned for him physically and then for his mere presence in her life. He avoided her, wrote ugly letters to her, yet couldn’t make a conclusive break—the emotional dependency was as strong as the original sexual impulse had been. In 1931 he wrote to her, “I shall love you all the days of my life, and when I die, if they cut me open they will find one name written on my brain and on my heart. It will be yours. I have spoken the living truth here, and I sign my name for anyone to see. Tom Wolfe.” He wouldn’t return to her, though. In the three works of fiction Aline wrote during the 1930s, she gives three versions of their relationship, one of them—the first-rate The Journey Down—a powerful and moving account of her slow and painful recovery from a failed suicide attempt.

The ugliest, sickest aspect of the relationship was Tom’s obsessive vision of Aline as “my Jew.” He both found it sexy that she was Jewish and hated and feared her Jewishness. From The Web and the Rock, about the Aline character, Esther Jack:

Fixed in an arrogant power, her face as he saw it then flamed like a strange and opulent jewel…he saw a dark regiment of Jewish women in their lavish beauty, their faces melting into honey, their eyes glowing, their breasts like melons…. They were the living rack on which the trembling backs of all their Christian lovers had been broken, the living cross on which the flesh and marrow of Christian men had been crucified.

Aline was not the only Jew he struck out at. His New York is filled with Jews—it’s Jew-ridden. In the short story “Death the Proud Brother” we find “a little gray-faced Jew, with a big nose, screwy and greasy-looking hair, that roached backward from his painful and reptilian brow”; “an assertive and knowing-looking Jew, with a large nose, an aggressive voice, and a vulturesque smile”; and more. Yet not all Jews are caricatured or derided; indeed, one of his most effective stories is “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” a barely fictionalized account, published in The New Republic, of a horrifying incident he had witnessed in Nazi Germany when a middle-aged Jewish man was torn from a railway car while trying to leave the country.

Although as the 1930s progressed Tom’s social consciousness was expanding, his personal behavior was deteriorating. We learn from Carole Klein’s revealing biography of Aline (1979) that one night in 1937 she was summoned to the lobby of the Gotham Hotel where Tom, wildly drunk, was demanding to see her. “He started the most awful row about the Jews,” she wrote to her great friend the playwright Bella Spewack (Boy Meets Girl, Kiss Me Kate), denouncing the entire race who “should be wiped off the face of the earth” and shouting “Three cheers for Hitler! Three cheers for Hitler!” “Bella…do you know what I did? I landed out [sic] and punched Tom in the nose!” He was so drunk he fell to the floor, and Aline had him thrown out of the building. “It was the most sickening experience of my life.” His rabid anti-Semitism, you won’t be surprised to hear, is not featured in Genius.

Tom’s deep confusion about Aline was exacerbated by his identification of her with the sophisticated New York literary and theater worlds that enraged him and that he clearly also envied, and about which he threw vicious tantrums in his fiction. But the heart of his anguish about her lies in his conflicted psyche. He is insanely in love, sexually besotted, and in Oedipal terror. She is Helen of Troy, she is Penelope, but she is also, he tells her, “my grey haired wide hipped timeless mother.” In his draft for The Web and the Rock, the Tom character asks the Aline character, “Am I your child?” “Yes,” she answers, “yes.” “Are these my breasts?” “Yes,” she replies. “Have you any milk there for me?” When she tells him no, he snorts, “Hah,…if you really loved me, you would have milk for me.” “My heart is smothering in its love for you,” he writes to her. “You are the most precious thing in my life, but you are imprisoned in a jungle of thorns, and I cannot come near you without bleeding”—surely a textbook lesson in psychopathology.

David Herbert Donald in his biography comments:

In some ways he always remained an infant—as an adult, a gigantic infant, to be sure—unwilling to give up its mother’s breast…. Even as a man he felt great satisfaction when he had a bowel movement…[and] he continued to play with his genitals.

Crucially, “his sense that his mother and father had failed him produced in Wolfe, as it does in other narcissistic personalities, an urgent ‘need to reunite with a powerful and nourishing figure’ who could take their place.” And so he adopted Max and Aline as alternative parents to his larger-than-life but distant father and his tenacious, grasping mother, only in the long run to reject them too.

After dismissing Max and depositing at least a million words with Aswell, Tom started traveling—south to home, west to explore. By the time he was roaming around the Northwest, his health had utterly collapsed: he had pneumonia on top of a dangerous tubercular condition. Brought east by train, he was admitted to Johns Hopkins, where it quickly became clear that he was dying, although in a final (futile) gesture, the doctors trepanned his skull. He died shortly before his thirty-eighth birthday, in September 1938. At the hospital were his mother, two of his siblings, Aswell, his agent Elizabeth Nowell, and Max. Aline had been told that her presence would outrage the family, who loathed her. Afterward, Aswell tried to assuage her grief by reporting that Tom’s last words were of her. His eyes searching the room, he had whispered, “Where’s Aline…. I want Aline…. I want my Jew.” “I told him you were coming,” Aswell said, “and he smiled, and lay down again.”

Tom’s farewell to Max was in a letter—the last he ever wrote. “No matter what happens or has happened,” he wrote,

I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below. Yours always, Tom.

This letter was written from a hospital in Seattle some five weeks before he died in Baltimore. The Genius people improve on this scenario: Tom is in a final coma from which he’s not expected to emerge, yet to the astonishment of the nurse attending him, his eyes flutter open and he signals her to bring him paper and pencil. Slowly, laboriously, he strives to scrawl the final loving words…

What are we left with of Thomas Wolfe, other than the vanishing legend and the vanishing books? The sense of a monstrous prodigy, on the one hand possessed of immense energy and kindness (the Perkins girls, for instance, adored him), generous to his family, brilliantly read, but on the other hand tormented by demons, alcoholic, vainglorious, both self-destructive and destructive of others. Everything about him was huge, from his physical frame to his appetites to his emotions, and—yes—to his talent. That was real. There are splendid stories, novellas, stretches of the novels—but only when he escapes from his narcissism and looks outward rather than inward. The portrait of his mother that constitutes the somewhat Joycean novella “The Web of Earth,” the portion of Look Homeward, Angel dealing with the death of Eugene’s brother Ben, the historical sections of the unfinished The Hills Beyond—these justify or at least explain the fuss that was made about him, and the high expectations.

As Wolfe grew older, his writing grew less ornate and rhapsodic, more focused and disciplined. If he had lived, he might, someday, have warranted the praise heaped on him by Sinclair Lewis, who when interviewed on winning the Nobel Prize singled him out as having “a chance to be the greatest American writer,” and indeed, “one of the greatest world writers.”

Even, perhaps, a genius?