Thomas Wolfe

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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.


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It can be argued that Thomas Wolfe did not write short stories at all and that his “stories” were only fragments torn from the single great body of his life’s work. Even Francis E. Skipp, the editor of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, acknowledges that Wolfe or his editors cut and shaped these fragments into discrete units to suit monetary or publishing needs as opportunities presented themselves. Since Wolfe seldom if ever seriously applied himself to writing individual stories rather than pieces belonging to the grand epic of his own self-expression, it is unfair to hold him rigorously to the standards of the modern story.

Wolfe’s reputation was at one time enormous both at home and abroad. He has often been the writer that young writers read; age and artistic maturity, however, usually dampen that youthful enthusiasm. Although many critics praised his work, a reaction against Wolfe set in even during his lifetime. Among his detractors was Bernard De Voto, who, in a 1936 essay called “Genius Is Not Enough,” attacked Wolfe, citing his first two novels as books full of “long, whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction, badly if not altogether unacceptably written. ” The controversy continues. Wolfe’s real strength, formerly obscured by the hands of his editors, may indeed lie in the novella or short-novel form. Whatever the critical opinion, Wolfe will always have supporters. William Faulkner said, “My admiration for Wolfe is that he was willing to throw away style, coherence, all the rules of preciseness, to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin. ”

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During his lifetime, Thomas Wolfe published four major works: two novels, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River; a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning (1935); and his description of his life as a creative artist, The Story of a Novel (1936). In addition to his major works, he also sold a few lengthy stories to magazines; Scribner’s published “A Portrait of Bascom Hawke” (April, 1932) and “The Web of Earth” (July, 1939). Both of these have since been republished as short novels in The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe.

Because Wolfe viewed each piece of his writing as only a part of some larger design,...

(This entire section contains 275 words.)

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he frequently adapted past material to meet a present need. For example, he modified “A Portrait of Bascom Hawke” for later inclusion inOf Time and the River, and “The Child by Tiger” (1937), a short story he published in The Saturday Evening Post, appeared two years later with changes in point of view in The Web and the Rock. After his death, Wolfe’s editor at Harper’s, Edward Aswell, put together three posthumous books from two large packing cases of unfinished manuscript that Wolfe left behind. Two of these books—The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again—are novels; the third is a volume of stories titled The Hills Beyond (1941).

Wolfe began his career (unsuccessfully) as a playwright with The Mountains, which he wrote in 1920 but which was not published until 1940 by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Wolfe’s alma mater. Wolfe’s letters and notebooks also have been published, allowing for firsthand insight into his personal and creative life.


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Thomas Wolfe captured the essence of what it meant to be young in his time with the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. He further influenced readers of the Depression-plagued 1930’s with stories he published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Scribner’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. Widely read in the United States and abroad, Wolfe was a well-respected author during his lifetime who in a very real sense lived the part of the driven artist. Wolfe is still read, even if not to the extent of his more significant contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In retrospect, Wolfe’s achievement is especially remarkable when one considers that his literary life spanned little more than a decade. In 1957, Faulkner ranked Wolfe above all of his contemporaries when he wrote the following: My admiration for Wolfe is that he tried the best to get it all said; he was willing to throw away style, coherence, all the rules of preciseness to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin.

Wolfe’s weaknesses are now recognized, but he is still praised for his strengths. A balanced view of his work has emerged, and his reputation as an important figure in twentieth century American literature is secure.

Discussion Topics

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Thomas Wolfe wrote in a letter to his editor that he felt that he “belonged to the land.” How do his novels confirm this feeling?

How much of an impediment to the reader is the wordiness of which Wolfe has often been accused?

Which of Wolfe’s two protagonists—Eugene Gant or George Webber—most resembles Wolfe?

Consider Wolfe’s evocation of childhood in his novels.

Wolfe’s last novel is titled You Can’t Go Home Again. Are the reasons for this assertion embodied in the novel? If so, what are they?


Critical Essays