Thomas Wolfe

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(Short Story Criticism)

Thomas Wolfe 1900-1938

(Full name Thomas Clayton Wolfe) American novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and poet.

Wolfe is considered one of the foremost American writers of the twentieth century. He is generally recognized for his four major novels—Look Homeward, Angel (1929); Of Time and the River (1935); The Web and the Rock (1939); and You Can 't Go Home Again (1940)—in which he took the facts of his own life and wove them into an epic celebration of the struggle of the lonely, sensitive, and artistic individual to find spiritual fulfillment in America. More recently, critical attention has also been focused on Wolfe's shorter fiction, a series of short stories and novellas, many of which are fragments or portions of his longer novels. These works, including the stories of From Death to Morning (1935), The Hills Beyond (1941), and two later collections, represent to many critics some of Wolfe's most refined literary expressions of urban and rural life in America in the early twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1900. The city and its inhabitants, as many he encountered in his life, would later serve as models for his intensely autobiographical fiction. At the age of sixteen, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina, where he developed an interest in drama and prepared for a career as a playwright. Upon graduation he continued his education at Harvard, studying English under John Livingston Lowes, whose theories concerning the importance of a subconscious fusion of literary influence, personal experience, and imagination had a significant effect on Wolfe's writing. Wolfe received his master's degree in 1922, and accepted a teaching post at New York University with the hope of having his plays accepted for production on Broadway. Unsuccessful in this endeavor and wearied by teaching, Wolfe resigned his position in 1925, and determined to live entirely by his writing. Shortly after reaching this decision Wolfe met Aline Bernstein. Their five-year relationship offered Wolfe the emotional and financial support that enabled him to write his first and what many critics consider his best novel, Look Homeward, Angel. In the ensuing years, Wolfe produced many pieces of short fiction and prepared to write his next "big book." Facing financial problems in the early thirties, he received a break when he was awarded a $5000 prize from Scribner's Magazine for his novella A Portrait of Bascom Hawke in 1932. Encouraged to continue in the genre, he produced The Web of Earth—drawn from discussions with his mother about her life—later that same year. Again running low on funds, Wolfe next completed his novella No Door in 1933, a work that was published in two installments in Scribner's Magazine in 1933 and 1934, and which later become part of his full-length Of Time and the River. The year 1935 saw the publication of his first collection of short fiction From Death to Morning, which failed to make the same impression as his first two novels. Following several more years of intense creative activity, Wolfe left New York in 1938 for a tour of the western United States, leaving his editor Edward C. Aswell with a mass of manuscript consisting of all of his recent writings. While in the West, Wolfe contracted pneumonia and soon after died. After Wolfe's death, Aswell honed his manuscripts to produce two more full novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can 't Go Home Again, as well as the novel fragment and stories contained in The Hills Beyond.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Wolfe's short stories and novellas reflect the same thematic patterns as his full-length works, featuring studies of loneliness and estrangement and an almost obsessive regard for time and the past, they are generally thought to demonstrate an attitude of technical experimentation and artistic control otherwise lacking in the novels. In all, Wolfe produced seven novellas and fifty-eight short stories, most of which...

(The entire section is 66,079 words.)