While some novelists are failed poets, a tradition that began with Cervantes in the early seventeenth century, Thomas Wolfe was a failed playwright. None of his plays was accepted for commercial production. Wolfe is most famous (his fame in the 1930’s was international) for his early novels. His first editor unfortunately persuaded him to stay away from the novella or short novel form, and the editor of his posthumous novels essentially pieced them together out of shorter pieces that Wolfe saw as short novels, not as parts of a rambling, protean novel. Hugh Holman’s collection of Wolfe’s short novels and Richard Kennedy’s study of his last editor’s stewardship are beginning to establish Wolfe’s very real talent for the shorter forms.
The best-known of Wolfe’s novels are Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Wolfe’s notebooks are also very informative, not only to scholars but also to young writers interested in the processes through which a writer refines experience (and Wolfe was more able to do this than his first wave of admirers would admit). It is particularly fascinating to see how the “real” incident that inspired one of the scenes in “Death the Proud Brother” became transformed into that scene.