Sooner or later nearly every major world figure is destined to be represented by a volume of his collected letters, whether or not there is a reason for publishing them. In THE LETTERS OF THOMAS WOLFE there is enough fresh material to show Wolfe’s personality in some new lights if not in a different perspective, particularly in such matters as his early efforts as a playwright, complicated family relationships, his conduct under pressures of the literary life, friendships that usually ended badly or in uneasy reconciliations, restless wanderings that were journeys of both discovery and escape, and on several occasions the touch-and-go combination of attraction and wariness that marked his relations with women.
There were in effect two Thomas Wolfes. One was the Asheville stonecutter’s son who inherited his father’s giant frame, his tremendous appetites, his taste for invective and rhetoric, the awkward mountain boy who grew up in his mother’s boarding house, the Old Kentucky Home, among swarming, bickering brothers and sisters who had little time for the youngest of the brood. Because he was the youngest, he was often the outsider looking on in this household of divided loyalties and grudges—at his father and mother who were always in the middle of some bitter, unresolved conflict of wills, at the boarders who came and went season after season.
This was the Wolfe who developed a sharp eye for the eccentricities and contradictions of human nature and a keen ear for the idioms of American speech; the richly talented novelist who filled the death scene of old Gant with symbolic meaning and plumbed the disillusionment and disappointment the big city holds for the provincial mind; the remorseless realist who wrote with love and hate about his violent, ranting father, his scolding grasping mother, his frustrated sister Helen, his pathetic brother Ben; the regional chronicler of mountain life and legend in tales about Pentlands and Joyners in the hills of Old Catawba; the satirist who touched with comic exaggeration George Webber’s experience as a teacher among students with the souls of certified public accountants in “The School for Utility Cultures”; the moralist contemplating George’s discovery of the emptiness of fame. His gift for character was unsurpassed in his generation, and figures like old Gant and his wife Eliza are permanent properties of our imagination.
The other was the Wolfe who dramatized his every thought and action and made himself the hero of the books he wrote. Although he was to call himself Eugene Gant and George Webber, he was always the same autobiographical character who also grew up in his mother’s boarding house, knew the loneliness of the misunderstood child in a house full of older brothers and sisters, revolted against the narrowness and pettiness of their meager lives, found his escape in poetry and adolescent dreams of fame, went away to college, failed as a playwright, and then in his novels tried to capture the vastness and energy of the whole American continent in a net of rhetoric. He projected himself in the romantic image of the eternal “I” against an indifferent, materialistic world, and when his vision failed he tried to sustain himself with a torrential flow of words. This was the master of lush prose, a lover of swollen rhetoric pilfered from the classics he ransacked to feed his hunger for the living word. In loneliness and despair, in a hundred rented rooms in London, Paris, New York, and Berlin, he wrote ceaselessly in his ledgers about all that he had ever known of the land and its people.
In THE LETTERS OF THOMAS WOLFE, superbly edited by Elizabeth Nowell, these two figures meet and often merge. As a letter writer Wolfe exhibits the same intensity found in his fiction, the same straining and melodramatic, uncontrolled super-energized prose to be seen in LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and OF TIME AND THE RIVER, and if there exists doubt that his novels are nearly pure autobiography, one need only look to this book to clear that doubt away. Wolfe says again and again that he does not want to edit his own work; he seems obsessed with the flat reporting truth of his life and insists that cutting and “polishing” would not could destroy his complete project. From many of the letters one learns at first-hand, as though peeking through a keyhole, of Wolfe’s dependence upon his various fiction editors. Had it not been for the forceful and wise editing efforts of Scribner’s editors John Hall Wheelock and, more importantly, Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s work might have remained in manuscript form, closed off forever from the world because of his insistence on describing every detail of his life, whether important, trivial or irrelevant, in the fullest possible manner. The charge critics made that Wolfe’s books were in reality the work of collaboration, that he was not...
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