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Of Time and the Writer

At Last, 100 Years After His Birth, the Unexpurgated Thomas Wolfe

O LOST A Buried Life By Thomas Wolfe Text established by Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli; University of South Carolina Press: 736 pp., $29.95

TO LOOT MY LIFE CLEAN The Thomas Wolfe-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker; University of South Carolina Press: 512 pp., $39.95

October 08, 2000|DOUGLAS BRINKLEY

One dull gray morning in Manhattan in the 1930s, ThomasWolfe left his tiny 1st Avenue apartment to head downtown, sharing the elevator with a woman and her unruly German shepherd. The dog kept straining at him until her grip broke, then leaped up and planted his paws flat on the chest of the tall and disheveled 6-foot, 6-inch writer with piercing eyes, a sudden celebrity then being assailed all over New York for his notorious first novel, 1929's "Look Homeward, Angel." "Wolfe! You great, obnoxious beast!" the woman cried. And thus it was that Thomas Wolfe spent the rest of that day sulking in a blustery rain, devastated that now even complete strangers were denouncing him, loudly and in public.

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

First his debut novel had turned him persona non grata in his beloved Asheville, N.C.; then the acid-tongued critics had soured things further, lampooning his lyrical but expansive and uneven prose as adolescent, self-indulgent and--by far the worst charge--pornographic. An instinctive optimist, yet thin-skinned to the point of neurosis over criticism, Wolfe fell into the grim throes of genuine despair, agonizing as only a true poet could at being so badly misunderstood by the America he adored with such an unrelenting passion. Resorting to drink only added to his paranoia. Sadly, several months passed before the writer, whom novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings later deemed a "meteor in transit," learned that the German shepherd's name was Wolf.

But Wolfe had real reasons to feel beleaguered: Since the moment he had burst upon the literary scene with the publication of "Look Homeward, Angel"--his passionate account of a young man's coming of age in "Altamont," a fictionalized version of his North Carolina hometown--he had been dogged relentlessly by controversy, mostly stirred up by establishment critics who dismissed his novels as confessional memoirs. He was born in Asheville on Oct. 3, 1900; his father, William Oliver Wolfe--like "Look Homeward, Angel" protagonist Eugene Gant's father, W.O. Gant--was a stonecutter originally from Pennsylvania, and his mother, Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe--the Eliza Pentland Gant of her son's early novels--hailed from a better-to-do family somewhat prominent in public life. Privately schooled, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at age 16, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1920. After that the young Shakespeare enthusiast enrolled in George Pierce Baker's renowned playwriting workshop at Harvard, in which he wrote and performed in several one-act plays on his way to earning a master's in 1922. After traveling throughout Europe, Wolfe was hired as an instructor of English at New York University from 1924 to 1930.

Nevertheless, with his first book, literary critics chose to ignore Wolfe's top-flight academic background in favor of painting him as an audacious hillbilly wordsmith, some rube from Appalachia whose calling card was florid prose devoid of any saving irony. Real writers, they sniffed, wrote on desks: By contrast Wolfe, who was too big for regular chairs, worked standing up, pages spread on top of his G.E. refrigerator. Although Wolfe had a far better formal education than most other serious novelists of his day--including Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John O'Hara--he complained about being stereotyped as some sort of idiot savant from the Great Smoky Mountains: "[They see me] as a great 'exuberant' six-foot-six clod-hopper straight out of nature who bites off half a plug of apple-tobacco, tilts the corn liquor jug and lets half of it gurgle down his throat, wipes off his mouth with the back of one hairy paw . . . and then wads up three hundred thousand words or so, hurls it at a blank page, puts covers on it and says, 'Here's my book!' " Wolfe bitterly complained. At least F. Scott Fitzgerald admitted publicly that the works of the rawly emotional Wolfe presented a "deeper culture" than other novels of the era, including his own. And Faulkner likewise anointed Wolfe "first" among his literary contemporaries because "he had tried the hardest to say the most."

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