Although he produced several plays, numerous short stories, and other miscellaneous works, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is best remembered for four lengthy autobiographical novels. Look Homeward, Angel (1929), based on the author’s youth in Asheville, North Carolina, chronicles the life and early education of its hero, Eugene Gant, in a small town. Of Time and the River (1935) portrays a restless, questing young hero, also a persona of the author, who attempts to find himself through extensive foreign travels and numerous personal encounters. In The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), both published posthumously, Wolfe’s hero and persona, George Webber, experiences genuine love, disillusionment, frustration in becoming a writer, and optimism for the future.
David Herbert Donald, a distinguished American Civil War historian, has undertaken a challenging subject for biography—challenging because of Wolfe’s complicated, conflicted life and the huge amounts of material that a biographer must examine. Yet Donald enjoyed an advantage denied earlier biographers in that he could write with greater candor, those closest to Wolfe now being deceased. The first two-fifths of the text concerns Wolfe’s life in Asheville, his education at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard University, and his life in New York until his first novel found a publisher—the first twenty-eight years of his life. The remainder chronicles the final decade of his life—the period of his literary achievement and fame.
In his preface, Donald sets forth what he hopes to achieve in the biography: to narrate a straightforward, biographical account without being unduly judgmental or intrusive, to relate Wolfe to his literary milieu, and to trace his evolution as a writer. All three objectives are accomplished with painstaking care, an abundance of documented detail and analysis, and illuminating insights. For the narrative, he draws heavily on Wolfe’s letters, manuscript records, and papers or manuscripts of those who corresponded with him. At times Donald relies upon passages from Wolfe’s autobiographical fiction, though he explains that he took care to corroborate fictional passages in other sources.
As for his relationships with other writers, Wolfe felt few lasting or deep influences, and these were likely to occur during rather brief periods of his life. Thus Donald incorporates these accounts in their proper chronological place, clarifying Wolfe’s literary indebtedness to James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others. To clarify the development of Wolfe as a creative writer, Donald explains not only Wolfe’s methods of writing but also the reactions of numerous others—teachers, editors, and writers—to his work as it was produced or published. What stands out, what always stands out with Wolfe, is his life as a remarkable individual and his brief and turbulent career as a writer.
As a person, Wolfe has always seemed larger than life, a view that he himself encouraged. At six-and-a-half-feet tall, weighing 250 pounds, he was physically commanding. His appetites for food, drink, and sex were in proportion to his size and his considerable stamina. His intellectual exertions were equally impressive: He claimed that some days he read twelve or fifteen books, and on one occasion he wrote ten thousand words in a day. Eminently likable, with considerable charm, he could usually make a favorable impression, particularly on those who could help him advance his career. He was restless, an inveterate traveler who made numerous trips to Europe and traveled widely in the United States.
Despite his expansive personality and strong physical presence, Wolfe was insecure, moody, highly vulnerable. Sensitive to slights and criticism, subject to phobias and paranoid fantasies, dependent upon alcohol for much of his life, unable to maintain lasting relationships, untidy, unmannerly, negligent of personal hygiene, he lived a restless, troubled existence for his brief thirty-eight years. His parents were a classic mismatch, strong willed but very different. The youngest child in the Wolfe household, he bore the brunt of his parents’ antagonism. His mother, Julia, feeling no affection for her husband, looked to him for emotional support, and until he was twelve years old he slept in her bed. Significantly, when he later formed a serious but turbulent love relationship, it was with a woman more than seventeen years his senior. Few readers will disagree with Donald’s conclusion that Wolfe was basically a narcissistic personality. Always in need of money, though never seriously deprived, he was willing for others, including his long-suffering, generous mistress Aline Bernstein, to support him. Those who knew him best treated him as a child who never quite grew up. At the University of North Carolina, where his father supported him, he received the money in small amounts upon request, for W. O. Wolfe did not...
(The entire section is 2058 words.)