Look Homeward

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2058

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.

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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 trust him to handle larger sums. At Charles Scribner’s Sons, Maxwell E. Perkins set up an account for Wolfe, paid his royalties in small portions, and saw to it that company accountants filed his income-tax returns.

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No more able to commit himself to a creed or ideology than to a person, Wolfe developed intellectual interests as his experiences led him. During the ideological ferment of the 1930’s, he was first attracted to Fascism, then repelled by it; later attracted to Communism, he was unwilling to attach himself to the movement. The Agrarians, his contemporaries who championed his region, found in him no Southern nostalgia.

Yet, as Donald makes clear, a few intellectual currents influenced his fiction. Always a voracious reader, he especially liked the Greek and Roman classics, a source that invited him to see ordinary human life in mythic terms. At Chapel Hill, he assimilated from his philosophy professor Horace Williams a kind of popularized Hegelianism, a view that disparate forces could be synthesized. Under John Livingston Lowes at Harvard, he first encountered the literary criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose view that the imagination could produce a powerfully integrated artistic unity from widely diverse impressions, ideas, and experiences was especially congenial to his nature. He first felt the impact of the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung after Bernstein introduced him to modern psychoanalysis.

Perhaps the most pervasive influence on Wolfe’s fiction was his early interest in drama. At Chapel Hill, where he wrote his first play, and at Harvard as a member of Professor George Baker’s celebrated play writing class, he was ambitious for a career as a dramatist. He possessed a talent for grasping the power of dramatic encounters and an ability to write both description and dialogue. He became familiar with movements in modern drama, notably Expressionism, which advocated the portrayal of inner conflict through manipulation of external reality. Although he was unsuccessful as a dramatist, his efforts brought his talent to the attention of people who would later be of assistance to him.

Turning from drama to the novel, Wolfe sought to produce the epic work of American fiction. An autobiographical work of many volumes, it would depict the culture and history of the nation through the experiences of a single questing individual. He produced millions of words in prose—often vital, charged with metaphor, sparkling in its diction and cadenced with rhythmic grace. He achieved intensities of emotional experience and psychological depths reached by few writers, and the effects of Wolfe’s prose at its best are overpowering. Further, his characters were strongly drawn because he copied them from life, often providing only a thin disguise.

Wolfe’s first two novels brought him wide acclaim as a serious artist. Although informed critical opinion was somewhat divided, many critics predicted a bright future for him. Others, however, called attention to his artistic weaknesses, which, as Donald points out, were all too apparent. Perhaps because he sought to depict powerful emotional scenes and employed expressionistic techniques, his characters did not develop to any significant degree. A more glaring flaw surfaced early and was never adequately overcome, despite the fact that he himself recognized it: Wolfe lacked a sense of form, of archetectonics. Professor Baker commented after seeing the revised script of Wolfe’s play Welcome to Our City (1983), “Your gift is not selection, but profusion.” Wolfe had written too many words and created too many characters to produce a successful drama. With the novel, he had to rely, reluctantly, on editors who knew how to cut and arrange his prose—hence the fascinating story of his tortuous relationship with his two editors, Perkins and Edward C. Aswell.

After numerous publishers had rejected Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Scribners accepted the work, and Perkins became Wolfe’s editor. At the time he was serving as editor for, among others, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. As Wolfe acknowledged, Perkins became much more than an editor—he was father figure, friend, confidant, and “collaborator.” The manuscript, which previous editors had judged too long and diffuse to publish, ran to 330,000 words, longer than four average novels of the time. Under Perkins’ direction, ninety thousand words were cut. Although some of the reductions were made for reasons of taste, most of the cuts represented an effort to bring about greater unity. The novel was successful when published, though not sufficiently so to provide Wolfe an adequate income.

Between the end of 1929 and December, 1933, when he delivered the manuscript of his second novel to Scribners, Wolfe supported himself with a Guggenheim Fellowship, obtained with Perkins’ help, and the sale of his short stories to magazines. In its original form, Of Time and the River ran 750,000 words, an indication that Wolfe had not been able to profit from Perkins’ skill in organization and compression. After examining the work, Perkins persuaded Wolfe that the huge work should be made into two separate novels, the romantic plot (based upon Wolfe’s relationship with Bernstein) to be reserved for later publication. This division and other reductions left 344,000 words. For the remainder of 1934, Wolfe worked, with increasing irritation, under Perkins’ direction to reduce the size of his book and to impose a kind of unity on the material. Finally, Perkins made the decision to send the book to the printer. Of Time and the River received a generally favorable reception and was commercially successful, though a few respected critics attacked it for its verbosity and loose organization.

Disappointed by the criticism and nursing a host of grievances, real and imaginary, Wolfe resolved to take charge of his own career and leave Scribners. After a period of indecision and searching, he decided to sign with Harper and Brothers where Aswell, a junior editor, had favorably impressed him. With similar regional, educational, and personal backgrounds, the two men took an instant liking to each other. For a generous advance of ten thousand dollars, Wolfe agreed to write for Harpers, signing the contract on the final day of 1937. Before Harpers could publish any book from his pen, indeed before any manuscript could be completed, Wolfe died in September, 1938, of a recurrence of tuberculosis that spread to his brain.

Answell was left to perform the role that Perkins before him had assumed, though without the author’s assistance. From the huge bundle of manuscripts Wolfe left behind, Aswell assembled two novels—The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again—and a volume of short stories, The Hills Beyond (1941). Donald shows that Aswell went further than Perkins as editor, though he followed essentially the same methods. To forestall lawsuits, he changed the names and descriptions of characters. He also provided transitional passages between episodes of the novels, organized the episodes on the basis of a general plan left by Wolfe to form a smooth narrative, and pruned the luxuriance of Wolfe’s style. Aswell’s editorial alterations have made these final works highly questionable to modern critics. Although Donald shares some of their reservations, he is inclined to doubt that another editor, confronting the same challenges that Aswell faced, could have done better.

During the postwar years, common judgment named as the four great modern American novelists William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Wolfe, in no particular order. Through the winnowing of time, Faulkner has emerged the front-runner, while Wolfe has dropped to a distant fourth. He is now regarded as a writer whose promise remained substantially unfulfilled, though a reassessment is conceivable. Donald has made a significant contribution to our knowledge of Wolfe as an artist, clarifying his strengths without concealing his weaknesses.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Booklist. LXXXIII, October 15, 1986, p. 298.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, November 15, 1986, p. 1697.

Library Journal. CXI, December, 1986, p. 111.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 22, 1987, p. 4.

Maclean’s. C, March 2, 1987, p. 49.

The New Republic. CXCVI, March 23, 1987, p. 30.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, September 24, 1987, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, February 8, 1987, p. 13.

Newsweek. CIX, February 2, 1987, p. 69.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 19, 1986, p. 38.

Time. CXXIX, March 16, 1987, p. 80.

The Wall Street Journal. February 24, 1987, p. 28.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, February 1, 1987, p. 3.

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