In May, 1938, having broken with his first editor and mentor Maxwell Perkins (“Foxhall Edwards” in the novel), Thomas Wolfe deposited an unfinished manuscript of perhaps a million words on the desk of his new editor, Edward C. Aswell of Harper and Brothers, and left for a tour of the West. In Vancouver, he contracted pneumonia, in Seattle it worsened, and finally, after he had been moved to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, it was found that the illness had triggered the release in his lungs of previously latent tuberculosis bacteria, which had gone to the brain; he died on September 15, 1938.
It was thus left to Aswell to assemble, organize, and edit Wolfe’s admittedly unfinished material into publishable works. The major results of Aswell’s efforts were the two massive novels that chronicle the life and artistic development of George Webber, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again. Consequently, the episodic, fragmentary, sometimes even arbitrary structure of these books and the unevenness and occasional excessiveness of the writing must in part be the result of the compositional problems—though these flaws also exist in Wolfe’s two prior works. There is no way of knowing what the final forms of the novels would have been had Wolfe lived to complete them to his own satisfaction.
It has been said that Wolfe wrote only one book during his career, a thinly disguised autobiography. In a sense this is true, but, like Walt Whitman, the American author who seems most like Wolfe in artistic intention and attitude, Wolfe saw his own experience as the focal point for the experience of a nation still in the process of becoming. Thus, as the major character in Wolfe’s novels strives for experience, personal meaning, and a means of artistic expression, he is also trying...
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