‘A Monstrous Prodigy’


a film directed by Michael Grandage
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,…

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