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Critical judgments about Wolfe are perhaps more varied than about any other major figure of American letters. Some will tell you with a note of awe that he is the long-awaited Great American Novelist who has encompassed and canned the whole realm of human experience. The opposing school brands him as ridiculously undisciplined, wordy, extravagant and completely adolescent in tone and approach. His voluminous correspondence, the greater part of which is presented in the present Scribners tome, does little to illuminate this dilemma, if indeed an artist's private life is really relevant in interpreting his art.
For perhaps the most striking thing about the personality of the man as reflected in these letters is this very dichotomy--the disparity between marvelous flights of eloquence and perception on the one hand, and recurring strains of adolescent petulance, and oversensitivity to criticism.
Worshipfully edited and annotated by Elizabeth Nowell, his literary agent, many of the letters are filled with denials of literate autobiographical intent, and concern law suits brought by individuals who felt themselves so pilloried. Yet the letters seem to point more clearly to how closely Wolfe did live his novels. The germs of so many incidents appear with the natural infelicity of statement characteristic of correspondence that make one wonder by what marvelous transformation his life was so skillfully wrought into art. And on another level, the letters wonderfully reveal the feeling and personalities of the time. Particularily interesting is his correspondence and flighty friendship with the decaying F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Wolfe's adult life was built largely around three relationships which he allowed to become very close and then successively broke, with Harvard's Prof. Walter Pierce Baker, with Aline Bernstein, a married woman many years his senior, and with Maxwell Perkins, his editor and mentor. The first two relationships remain somewhat cloudy, from lack of material in the case of Prof. Baker, and from Mrs. Bernstein's failure to release his letters to her--she plans to edit them herself; one suspects with less than complete frankness. But Wolfe's dealings with Maxwell Perkins are explored in almost painful and certainly verbose detail.
An American Prophet
Perhaps more than any other American author of stature, Wolfe seemed to feel a complex love for and desire to express the spirit and meaning of America, and particularily the part from which he came. He never seemed to have escaped boy at heart (who p the attitude that he was just a small-town boy at heart (who just happened to read Joyce on the side, as well as Greek, Latin, French, and German) being taken advantage of by wily city slickers. But his real sensitivity and concern for the land itself--although one may disagree with his views of Americans seeking to return to the soil and to find a father image--is very moving.
To an extent, Wolfe stands alone in this attitude of affirmation, which is partially tragic and essentially "realistic," but on the whole, optimistic about the value of living and the inward strength of his country. "You know that I am no Pollyanna now, or that I think God's in his heaven. I don't and I agree with Ecclesiastes that the saddest day of a man's life is the day of his birth--but after that, I think the next saddest day is the day of his death."
The letters reflect an incredible enthusiasm for forging experience in the smithy of his soul, and sense of artistic mission that seemed to tear him apart and to make him a perpetually driven and tormented man. "It just boils down to the fact that there is no rest, once the worm gets in and begins to feed upon the heart. Somewhere long ago...the worm got in and has been feeding ever since and will be feeding till I die. After this happens, a man becomes a prisoner; there are times when he almost breaks free, but there is one link in the chain that always holds; there are times when he almost forgets...but there is one tiny cell that still keeps working, working even when he is asleep, one lamp that will not go out, that is forever lit."
But if Wolfe's reach ultimately did exceed his grasp, he had the courage to dare the universe, to seek for the meaning of human life in human terms, and not be misled by the economic explanations or shallow cynicism of so many of his contemporaries. These letters make a fascinating Journey through the byways of a complex and at times over-whelming personality, "all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life."
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