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THOMAS CLAYTON WOLFE received the first copy of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, on his 29th birthday. In it, he developed a theme: "that men are strangers, that they are lonely and forsaken, that they are in exile on this earth, that they are born, live and die alone."
Wolfe had planned to call his book O Lost. That title, however, did not appeal to Wolfe's editor, Maxwell Perkins of Charles Scribner's Sons, so Wolfe allowed Perkins to change the title, just as he allowed him to pare and reorder the text. But the theme remained.
Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe
By David Herbert Donald
Little, Brown and Co.; $24.95
Five-and-a-half years later, after the publication of his second novel, Of Time and the River, Wolfe traveled to Paris. There he met Sylvia Beach, owner of the noted English bookstore Shakespeare and Company. She thought Wolfe "indubitably a young man of genius" but "perhaps very unsatisfactory as a social being."
The irony in her flash appraisal runs through David Herbert Donald's lengthy biography of Wolfe. Where, if indeed they exist, are the proper boundaries between genius and social being? Must a person's success in one category be contingent upon his success in the other?
Wolfe today is regarded as neither literary genius nor social success. Both his writing and his behavior are seen to have suffered from gargantuan excess. Donald, however, reveals a man whose literary genius draws its very strength from social excess, from the ability to experience and emote on a grand scale. He reveals a man who, according to one of his lovers, was "intolerable and wonderful and talked like an angel and was a real son-of-a-bitch."
Meet Thomas Wolfe, anti-Semite. An early skit begins, "Enter two Jews, arm in arm, gesticulating and exhorting each other loudly. Each bears a money bag in his free hand." The Jews say, "to be bank, to de bank, to de bank." Even as late as 1935 he believed that "the Nazis were simply exhibiting what he considered normal hostility toward the Jews."
Meet Thomas Wolfe, racist. A short story portrays a Black regiment in the Civil War: `"Cavorting with glee, their black faces split by enormous ivory grins,' they gathered around their white officer 'like frantic children,' patting his shoulders `with their great black paws.'"
Are we to judge Wolfe as a product, a victim, of the rural Southern environment that bred such beliefs? Or are we to judge and condemn his standards by our own? Donald succeeds in bridging a gap between these two extreme forms of interpretation. His biography of this most autobiographical of authors never excuses Wolfe's social immaturity, but it fights to prevent Wolfe himself from fading into literary exile.
WOLFE WROTE in a ceaseless quest for a meaning grandiose enough to explain his life. This quest, argues Donald, formed the basis of his genius. It caused him to produce a tremendous output, which ranged from the admirable to the ridiculous. For example, Wolfe once wrote an account that, according to Donald:
ran to 240 typed pages--about eighty thousand words, or the size of an average novel--that, covering a period of only about five minutes, recaptured every move, gesture and word uttered in a long, and largely pointless, conversation designed to get Eliza Gant from the kitchen of her house into a car waiting in front, so that she, Luke, and Eugene could take a short ride.
It cannot be said that Wolfe spoke for an era, but--as is obvious in his fascination with the lives of the Gants, autobiographical representations of Wolfe's family--he most definitely spoke for himself.
Wolfe was unable to capture effectively the political climate of his era, unless that climate directly infringed upon his own experience. Wolfe respected the influence of Marxist critics, for example, but "found ingratiating himself with the literary Left both time-consuming and exasperating." Typically, he did not capture a moment in an effort to reform it, but rather in an effort to remember it. Function lagged far behind form, got lost somewhere in the piles of unpublished manuscripts and unsent letters.
Donald notes that "Wolfe's fundamental concern was less with political and economic conditions that with the spirit of America." And the spirit of America was, of necessity, one which he had felt in his own soul, deeply, at times abstractly if not outright vaguely, in exhortations and patriotic rumblings and sentimental dithyrambs. The difficulty with such an artistic creed is its high risk factor, its potential to bring about disillusionment.
IN THE FALL of 1937, Wolfe met Ella Winter, a political activist and the widow of Lincoln Steffens. As Wolfe spoke of his hometown, Winter asked, "Don't you know you can't go home again?" Her question struck a chord in Wolfe's dilemma. Wolfe had hoped to be the Great American Novelist, "reminding his readers of the promise of American life, of the greatness that could still lie ahead for a nation begun with an ideal of a free man's life,...fulfilling its whole purpose in an atmosphere of free and spacious enlightenment." The promise felt, the goal defined, Wolfe nonetheless was unable to realize the essence of his self-imposed task.
Wolfe was not incapable of making social statements; his fear of fascism spreading to America spurred the following passage:
When it happens if it happens, as it happens--it may not happen in any of the ways you feared, the ways you had heard about; nor speak any of the words you fear that it may speak; or say any of the things you thought it would say--
It will just speak to you the same old words--"Fellow Americans"--"freedom"--"our great people"--
And there will be no drums beat, and no grim compulsive beat--
It will just come in quietly into the yards of a silent plant--
And say "let the wheels turn"--
When it happens, if it happens, as it happens.
But Wolfe never produced a book developing such themes. This task was left for an editor, Edward C. Aswell of Harper and Brothers, who published Wolfe's last novel, You Can't Go Home Again (as well as his penultimate novel, The Web and The Rock) after his death at the age of 38. It contained pieces of social criticism, which Aswell gathered together and heavily edited, and it touched on such subjects as economic depression, social decadence and fascism.
Thomas Wolfe lived and wrote extravagantly, and his work was the reflection of an expansive emotional capacity. But effort is not necessarily enough. David Donald allows us to feel the passions that drove Wolfe to fill reams and reams of paper with his writing. Yet he leaves us with one riddle unanswered. Is genius of intent enough? Or must Thomas Wolfe ultimately be judged as a member of the society he identified as his own but never conclusively chronicled?
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