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Look Homeward: A LIFE OF THOMAS WOLFE by David Herbert Donald (Little, Brown, $24.95; 558 pp.)

February 22, 1987|Charles Champlin

It was one of the college legends, along with Prof. Kittredge throwing chalk at dozing students and the president's sister, Amy Lowell, sitting on the curb in front of an outlying police station smoking a cigar and waiting for someone to come fetch her.

But this was in some ways the most alluring legend of all: Thomas Wolfe, striding night after night into Widener Library, stopwatch in hand, seizing a book from a shelf, allowing himself a minute flat to check its introductory material, glimpse and (it seemed) commit to memory snatches of its prose, put it back, seize the next, and on and on into the night, unslakably athirst for all knowledge, all experience, all life.

Was Wolfe not then the model for us all, out of the hinterland and eager to see the world? The books we already knew: "Look Homeward, Angel" (1929), "Of Time and the River" (1935), "The Web and the Rock" (1940) and "You Can't Go Home Again" (1941), the latter a phrase that went into the language, as Catch-22 did a few years later, freestanding and needing no reference to its source.

Wolfe, born in 1900, died in 1938, and his early death only sped his ascension into myth--a myth of admittedly uncertain duration, subject to backlash and correction.

Yet for a certain time and to certain generations, Wolfe's monumental and ceaseless rhetoric in celebration of sex, the city, America, Europe and above all himself (in all his torturing turmoil en route to some dream of fulfillment) was as much a goad and inspiration as, let us say, Hemingway's mannered spareness, the high and lovely nonsense of Robert Benchley, the candle-burning intensity of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

There are, just possibly, other collegiate notebooks fat with fading passages of echt -Wolfe accounts of train rides, subway rides, feverish desire and loneliness. I could lay hand to a few.

Yet time must have a correction. Scott Berg's fine biography of Wolfe's supremely patient and loyal first editor, Maxwell Perkins, left no doubt of the debt Wolfe owed to Perkins for his friendship and his relative equanimity when confronted with manuscripts measured not in words but in heights.

Now, in his painfully judicious, minutely researched, contemplative and tough-minded new biography of Wolfe--it is not easy to believe there will ever be a better, fuller one--historian David Herbert Donald brings the Wolfe of myth back to earth-size, and makes a hard and disturbing analysis of the even heavier and more intrusive editing done by the late Edward C. Aswell of Harper & Row on the inchoate, eight-foot pile of wordage Wolfe left at his death.

Donald is an American historian whose particular province is the Civil War. But he is also a Southerner (from Mississippi) who felt from childhood a particular kinship with Wolfe's origins. He read "Look Homeward Angel" as a boy (seeking the scandalous words he heard Wolfe had used). Later, as a teen-ager, Donald felt that Wolfe spoke to him because "I was convinced--without any just cause--that I too was misunderstood by my family and unappreciated in my community, and, like Eugene (Gant, Wolfe's alter ego), I enjoyed writhing in romantic agony." But later still, when the critical tides had turned against Wolfe, Donald, too, was turned off by Wolfe's "gigantism, his rhetorical extravagance, and his lack of form."

Yet, in maturity, rereading Wolfe for other purposes, Donald found his dismissal of Wolfe had been premature, that the prose was, at a minimum, a rich slice of American social history. And it was, at least intermittently, impressive as literature.

"Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major writer I can think of," Donald notes candidly. "But much of his work is extraordinarily brilliant and moving."

Some of the prose-poem passages, Donald argues persuasively, retain their eloquence, grandeur and freshness. Wolfe was influenced by what he read as well as by what he experienced, and among his discoveries at Harvard were James Joyce and Marcel Proust. And Wolfe was, Donald suggests, influenced by both. Wolfe was in Donald's view not simply an original, he was an experimenter, in an era when all the best young writers were impatient with traditional forms.

He was also a triumph over adversities. The home life around his mother's mean boarding house--Donald can reveal this now that the nearest kin have all died--was if anything even grimmer than Wolfe made it sound in the books. His search for a nourishing parent figure never stopped.

Wolfe exploded out of the constraints of Asheville into protean promiscuity, borderline alcoholism (at least) and a generalized untidy unconventionality that led him to brawls, boorishness, an unfeeling cruelty to those around him, and yet also to sudden acts of kindness and charm.

He brought a virulent anti-Semitism out of the South with him, and yet the great and life-changing (if stormy and finally bitter) love affair of his life was with Aline Bernstein, who was Jewish.

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