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Calling a Classic Into Question

A newly edited version of 'Look Homeward, Angel' arouses a debate over literary archeology.

October 10, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a lot going on between the two greatly separated covers of "O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life" (University of South Carolina Press), the first draft of Thomas Wolfe's first novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." In this 736-page book, there are 60,000 more of Wolfe's words, lovingly restored by literary scholars Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli, who are given the unusual frontispiece credit "text established by." There are also pictures of the author, his family and his Asheville, N.C. home, as well as a lengthy introduction by the Bruccolis explaining why this "complete text" of Wolfe's semi-autobiographical tale about the life and struggles of an aspiring small-town writer has been assembled, and almost 20 pages explaining how.

Emerging from these 40-odd pages that preface Wolfe's own prologue are characters and subtext other than those found in Wolfe's famous fictional town of Altamont: The new editors and the original editor are very much a part of this book, as are questions about creative responsibility and what consideration is owed the dead. There is meticulousness bordering on obsession--it took the Bruccolis (she is an independent scholar, he is an English professor at University of South Carolina) more than three years to reconstruct this book, three years of deciphering handwriting and cross-outs and marginal notes, of reading the text aloud again and again.

And, by implication, there is condemnation. Of the original editorial process, and of Maxwell Perkins, a man who is perhaps the most prominent editor in American history.

In literary circles, the editing of "Look Homeward, Angel," published in 1929, is almost as famous as the book itself. Rejected by several publishers, Wolfe had sent his mammoth first novel to Charles Scribners Sons, where it eventually made its way to Perkins. Champion of many young writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ring Lardner, Perkins came to his first meeting with this unknown with a stack of painstaking notes on the 1,100 pages that were at the time Wolfe's novel. "I was so moved and touched to think that someone at length had thought enough of my work to sweat over it in this way," Wolfe wrote later, "that I almost wept."

During the arduous process that followed, more than 20% of the novel was cut and the story was refocused and reshaped. It debuted to great acclaim, and Wolfe's own praise of Perkins' work fueled rumors that the original novel had been unpublishable, that Wolfe-the-writer had been a Perkins creation.

This is what Bruccoli, as graduate student, then scholar of English literature, had heard for years--that Thomas Wolfe was not capable of writing a novel on his own. And this was why he dug up the original version, on microfilm, at the Houghton Library at Harvard. Not only was it publishable, he says, "it was a far richer work than 'Look Homeward, Angel.' "

His wife agreed, and together they began a three-year project, Matthew Bruccoli says, to "publish the book Thomas Wolfe expected to be published."

Despite this mission, Bruccoli is adamant that the publication of "O Lost" (Wolfe's original title) is not a criticism of Maxwell Perkins.

"Perkins did what he did so he could publish the book," Bruccoli says, referring to the deletion of passages that were deemed too radical for the time. "If he hadn't, there would have been no 'Look Homeward, Angel,' and if there had been no 'Look Homeward, Angel,' there would have been no Thomas Wolfe. He would have become enraged, he would have gone crazy."

Furthermore, he says he hopes the media will not try to manufacture a literary fight between the Bruccolis and Perkins, who died in 1947.

Which is of course what the media have already done, in book reviews, on editorial pages.

Controversial Editing Questions

It is impossible to undo one of the most famous edits in American letters without risking being accused of casting aspersions on the original editor. And some passages in the Bruccolis' introduction are less than generous toward Perkins.

"This edition of the complete text of Thomas Wolfe's 'O Lost'--the novel that was reduced to 'Look Homeward, Angel'--enables readers and even critics to judge the previously unpublished novel."

Reduced.

Elsewhere in the introductory text, the Bruccolis use pejorative phrases to describe the editing of "Look Homeward Angel," phrases such as "truncated and butchered," "injures the artistry of Wolfe's narrative." This "overdue edition," they write, "is an act of resurrection and preservation."

For many, it is difficult to interpret such words as anything other than criticism of Perkins. And Wolfe himself, some argue. According to letters and legend, Wolfe not only approved of Perkins' cuts and changes, he often had to be reined in by Perkins from making more.

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