BOOKS

The art of a flawed man

LOOK HOMEWARD: A LIFE OF THOMAS WOLFE By David Herbert Donald

John Bemrose March 2 1987
BOOKS

The art of a flawed man

LOOK HOMEWARD: A LIFE OF THOMAS WOLFE By David Herbert Donald

John Bemrose March 2 1987

The art of a flawed man

LOOK HOMEWARD: A LIFE OF THOMAS WOLFE By David Herbert Donald

(Little, Brown and Company, 579 pages, $35)

At six-foot-five, the American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was so tall that he used to do much of his writing on the tops of refrigerators. Almost everything about Wolfe was oversized: his appetites, his hates, his loves and his gargantuan, lushly written novels, including Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. Ernest Hemingway called him “a glandular giant with the brains and the guts of three mice” and “the overbloated L’il Abner of literature.” That cut was extremely unfair, but it underlines the disapproval many critics—and readers—have heaped on a writer whose reputation is in eclipse. Now, Prof. David Herbert Donald of Harvard offers a more balanced view in his seductive and thorough new biography, Look Homeward. While Donald concedes that Wolfe “wrote more bad prose than any major writer I can think of,” he also urges his readers to reconsider Wolfe as one of the “very great American authors.” Look Homeward may not change the minds of those who find Wolfe’s prose too rich. But it is bound to pique new interest in Wolfe’s complex personality. Born in 1900 in Asheville, N.C., Wolfe slept in the same bed as his mother until he was 8. That, and his alcoholic father’s bullying, fostered a deep insecurity in Wolfe. Donald contends that it also drove him into a lifelong search for older friends and mentors who could give him the nurturing he never had at home.

One of his most important liaisons was with Aline Bernstein, a middleaged New York set designer who became his lover when he was an unpublished novelist of 25. At first Wolfe blossomed under her mothering care, but after the 1929 appearance of Look Homeward, Angel he felt suffocated and fled to Europe. Aline pestered him with letters and even threatened suicide. Then her sister arrived in London and told Wolfe that Aline was just “an emotional woman” who might “think she meant these things for five minutes or so.” Disgusted, Wolfe rushed to the bathroom and vomited for two hours.

But Donald’s most fascinating tale concerns the friendship between Wolfe

and Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s publishing company. Perkins genuinely cared for the young, undisciplined writer: it was he who painstakingly cut and shaped Wolfe’s sprawling manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel, turning it into a classic coming-of-age novel. His involvement with Wolfe’s second book was even deeper. Wolfe could create wonderful characters and incidents, but he found it difficult to mould them into a coherent pattern. By the fall of 1933 he was in despair, believing his half-a-millionword work-in-progress was a failure. Perkins took charge, cut the manuscript in half and published the severely edited first portion as the 1935 novel Of Time and The River.

Debate has raged for decades now about whether Perkins served Wolfe’s talent as well as he might. Donald treats the matter with commendable fairness. He criticizes Perkins for never giving Wolfe the detailed, word-by-word editing that his overflowing style could have profited from. And he suggests that Perkins was wrong in encouraging Wolfe to write big books instead of the novella-length stories in which his true strength lay. But he also makes clear that without Perkins’s devotion, there might have been no novels at all. Wolfe broke with Scribner’s in 1938—over what he called Perkins’s editorial conservatism.

But Donald is much harder on Edward C. Aswell, the young Harper & Brothers editor who later dealt with Wolfe. When Wolfe died suddenly in September of that year—of previously undiagnosed tuberculosis—he left a chaotic manuscript from which Aswell created two posthumous novels: The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. Donald shows how, in the second book especially, Aswell’s editing was unpardonably bold: he dramatically rewrote Wolfe’s sentences and even introduced some of his own.

Like the country he explored in his fiction, Wolfe veered to extremes with an impulsiveness both hypnotic and worrying. There was something in Wolfe’s character that was peculiarly American—at once magnanimous and egocentric, full of generous talk, yet deeply prejudiced against Jews and blacks. He was a fundamentally childlike man who dreamed of a greater maturity for his nation. His novels have always aroused heated debate. In a 1935 poll, the readers of Saturday Review magazine voted Of Time and the River both the best and worst novel of the year. Thomas Wolfe often seemed less a personality than a force of nature, one that Look Homeward has managed to contain—and understand.

JOHN BEMROSE