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.
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 appeared in periodicals in the 1930s and were not published in book collections until decades after Wolfe's death. Among his most highly esteemed shorter works, the novella A Portrait of Bascom Hawke demonstrates Wolfe's exploration of the disparities of youth and age as an old man, weakened by time, looks back upon his childhood. "The Lost Boy," which appeared in Wolfe's collection The Hills Beyond, begins with the loss of innocence experienced by Grover Gant at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and ends with the return of his brother, Eugene, to the same place decades later, where he experiences an intense loneliness and nostalgia for what has been lost. Late in his career, Wolfe frequently used his short fiction for the purpose of social commentary. Prompted by several visits to Hitler's Germany in the 1920s and 1930s—particularly his last in 1936, during which Wolfe was welcomed with immense respect and adoration—I Have a Thing to Tell You is nevertheless a scathing commentary on the atmosphere of suspicion, racial hatred, and distrust created by the Nazi dictator. Set in New York City, The Party at Jack's (written in 1937 and first published in 1939) critiques the indifferent rich whose sterile lives of luxury contrast sharply with the stark poverty—but enduring hopefulness—of Brooklyn's lower classes.
Criticism of Wolfe's fiction has in many ways been dominated by the pronouncements of Bernard DeVoto in his 1936 essay "Genius is Not Enough." In the article, DeVoto decried Wolfe's extensive reliance on editors, his heavy use of autobiographical material, and—citing the aesthetic failings of Look Homeward, Angel—his inability to form a tightly-structured novel. While these ideas have become commonplace in regard to Wolfe's novels, many scholars have since dismissed charges of prolixity and formlessness in Wolfe's writing when focusing on his shorter fiction. Critical consensus in the latter half of the twentieth century has identified many of Wolfe's short stories and novellas as among his most brilliant and artistically controlled work. Scholars have noted, in particular, his more economical style in many of his shorter works, as well as a tendency toward experimentalism in narrative form. In addition, many commentators, led by C. Hugh Holman in his 1961 introduction to The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, have perceived in these writings a tight aesthetic unity, brought about not only by Wolfe's overarching theme of the individual's loneliness in time, but also by the extraordinary narrative craftsmanship of his fictional works written on a smaller scale.