On this anniversary of Thomas Wolfe’s death, I’m reminded that every few years I turn around and he’s there again. Whether in influencing Ferlinghetti or Kerouac, or anecdotes about his editor Maxwell Perkins trying to beat his holy mess novels into some more coherent shape, or just his own troubled life, Thomas Wolfe always shows up. I still haven’t read anything by him beyond the first page of Look Homeward, Angel; and for years now I’ve been planning on stealing another of his titles, Of Time and the River, for a book of my poetry; but as I’ve said elsewhere, nowadays I am just as likely to be more interested in an artist’s life than their art—or, more interested in how they wrote or painted or composed, than in what they actually produced. So below is Harold Bloom’s review of a biography of Wolfe, first published in The New York Times in 1987. Despite Bloom’s preferences and easy judgments, something of Wolfe’s desperation and energy shines through, and it’s is worth giving a few minutes of your time. (And as a side note—it’s doubtful The New York Times even publishes essays or reviews like this anymore; does it seem they’ve been dumbed down a bit in the last thirty years?)
PASSIONATE BEHOLDER OF AMERICA IN TROUBLE
by Harold Bloom
LOOK HOMEWARD A Life of Thomas Wolfe. By David Herbert Donald. Illustrated. 579 pp.
THOMAS WOLFE died in Baltimore on Sept. 15, 1938, about two weeks before what would have been his 38th birthday. He is remembered for his novels, the first two severely edited by Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, ‘‘Look Homeward, Angel’’ (1929) and ‘‘Of Time and the River’’ (1935). His two posthumously published novels, ‘‘The Web and the Rock’’ (1939) and ‘‘You Can’t Go Home Again’’ (1940) were even more fully edited by Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers. Though many novelists have owed considerable literary debts to their editors, Wolfe is notoriously unique in this regard. It is rather clear that both editors greatly improved their author’s manuscripts, and that Aswell, in particular, was a better writer than Wolfe, paragraph for paragraph. We have been threatened with scholarly publication of Wolfe’s original manuscripts, and doubtless the threats will be fulfilled, but the originals are most unlikely to revive Wolfe’s almost dead reputation as a novelist.
Wolfe’s definitive biographer, the distinguished historian of the Northern experience of our Civil War, David Herbert Donald of Harvard, seems to me rather harsh when he sums up his view of Aswell: ‘‘But I believe that it is equally misleading to speak of Aswell’s work on Wolfe’s posthumous novels as simply that of an editor. From standardizing the names and the tenses of Wolfe’s manuscript, Aswell moved on to modifying the rhythm of his prose, to altering his characterizations, and to cutting and shaping his chapters. Greatly exceeding the professional responsibility of an editor, Aswell took impermissible liberties with Wolfe’s manuscript, and his interference seriously eroded the integrity of Wolfe’s text. Far from deserving commendation, Aswell’s editorial interference was, both from the standpoint of literature and of ethics, unacceptable.’’
I am not prepared to argue ethics with Mr. Donald (or with anyone else), but from ‘‘the standpoint of literature’’ just what is the ‘‘integrity’’ of bad writing? What are the literary values of the rhythm of Wolfe’s prose, as compared with Aswell’s? The sample contrasts provided by Mr. Donald in parallel columns indicate, to me, that Wolfe’s Byronic blank verse (very blank) masking as prose, left pretty much unaltered by Maxwell Perkins, is less tiresomely obtrusive after being worked over by Aswell. But then Mr. Donald, an admirable biographer and skilled historian, ought to have avoided writing literary criticism of Wolfe. A valuable portrait of Wolfe, that adolescent titan whose only appeal may still be to adolescents (perpetual and otherwise), is marred only by too frequent descents into what Mr. Donald intends to be esthetic evaluation of his subject.
The most significant sentence in Mr. Donald’s biography comes in the preface: ‘‘Later, as an adolescent, I really read ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ and was certain that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.’’ Growing up in rural Mississippi, the young David Herbert Donald fell in love with Wolfe’s novels, lost that love in the 1950’s, and found it again later on. It was, he observes, not uncommon for an adolescent in the 1940’s to be deeply affected by reading Wolfe, but the return of such enthusiasm is rare.
Insisting as he does that ‘‘Wolfe’s books must be judged as literature, not as history,’’ Mr. Donald admits that Wolfe ‘‘wrote more bad prose than any other major writer I can think of,’’ but then proceeds not only to admire the prose at its most abominable, but to print choice chunks of it as verse, explaining cheerfully that ‘‘to stress the poetic quality of these passages I have presented them here in verse form’’: October is the richest of the seasons: The fields are cut, the granaries are full, The bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, And from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The Bee bores into the belly of the yellowed grape, The fly gets old and fat and blue, He buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, The sun goes down in blood and pollen Across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
The echoes here of Keats’s ‘‘To Autumn’’ are quite unfortunate, and one line in particular is a candidate for that great anthology, ‘‘The Stuffed Owl’’: ‘‘The sun goes down in blood and pollen.’’ Mr. Donald quotes this, and then declares his appreciation: ‘‘There are dozens of these passages. Among my favorites are Wolfe’s magnificent recreation of locomotives snaking their way north through the Southern mountains, his lament on the frigidity of New England (‘Oh, bitterly, bitterly Bos-ton, one time more’), and his evocation of the spine-tingling first sight of New York, ‘far-shining, glorious, time-enchanted.’ These are not the work of a cautious writer or of a conventional writer, and they have their faults. But they help to explain why so many of Wolfe’s contemporaries thought him a genius. Rereading them makes it clear that Wolfe deserves to rank among the very great American authors.’’
Faulkner, our best novelist since Henry James, once set Wolfe first among his contemporaries, but based this judgment upon the magnitude of Wolfe’s failure, that being Faulkner’s sublimely perverse test for greatness. What, if anything, can we do with Thomas Wolfe now, except to read his life story as composed by the devoted Mr. Donald? We cannot read Wolfe. I mean this literally, having just attempted ‘‘Look Homeward, Angel’’ for the first time in 40 years. There is no possibility for critical dispute about Wolfe’s literary merits; he has none whatsoever. Open him at any page, and that will suffice.
How could a writer so hopelessly mawkish, however shrewdly edited, ever have achieved so major a reputation, even for a time? Mr. Donald hardly sets out to ask or answer that question, but I think the largest value of his work is that he provides materials for an answer. He quotes Alfred Kazin’s judgment that Wolfe was an alert analyst of Depression America, an estimate that I can understand if ‘‘analyst’’ means chronicler, both voluntary and involuntary. Mr. Kazin would thus be confirming Faulkner’s remark: ‘‘Among his and my contemporaries, I rated Wolfe first because we had all failed but Wolfe had made the best failure because he had tried hardest to say the most.’’
Trying hardest to say the most need not be accompanied by any authentic literary talent, and would not in itself make you into a good novelist, but your strong will might have made you into a very full chronicler of the cultural and social sorrows of that bad American decade, 1928-1938. Though he thinks that Wolfe was a great novelist, Mr. Donald is actually persuasive in showing us Wolfe rather as a cultural and social journalist, a passionate beholder of America in trouble. Whether Wolfe possessed any analytical understanding of the economic and social crisis is disputable, but his intense love for his own region, however ambivalent the love may have been, and for what must be called the idea of his country, gave him a curious kind of apprehension, neither cognitive nor esthetic, that remains of human value in understanding his era. HUMAN, all too human however, poor Wolfe was hardly a sage or even a particularly rational person. Mr. Donald does not try to defend Wolfe’s ghastly case of anti-Semitism, which was augmented by his long and bitter love affair with the theatrical designer Aline Bernstein. As Mr. Donald says, Jews in Wolfe’s fiction are marked by ‘‘arrogance and aggressiveness, extravagance and sensuality,’’ this being a vision of them ‘‘so much more flattering than his own personal assessment of Jews’’ that ‘‘he was both angered and baffled by critics who found his novels anti-Semitic.’’
Mr. Donald shrewdly traces the ambivalent relationship between Wolfe and the Southern Agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, among others). An apolitical man, neither of the left nor the right, Wolfe was scarcely more acceptable to the Agrarians than he was to literary Marxists. His Byronic prose and general formlessness were of little appeal to the disciples of T. S. Eliot. Mr. Warren, now our leading poet, with a sublime voice wholly his own, was in the 1930’s a follower of Eliot in both verse and critical prose, and condemned ‘‘Of Time and the River’’ in colorful terms that were accurate then and seem quite definitive now: ‘‘Chaos that steams and bubbles in rhetoric and apocalyptic apostrophe, sometimes grand and sometimes febrile and empty; . . . a maelstrom, perhaps artificially generated at times . . . [ with ] the flotsam and jetsam and dead wood spewed up; iridescent or soggy as the case may be.’’
There are two previous biographies of Wolfe: by Elizabeth Nowell (1960), his literary agent, and Andrew Turnbull (1967). The Nowell book affirms that Wolfe was the greatest of all American novelists, and provides material not then available, but little more can be Continued on next page said of it, let alone for it. Mr. Turnbull’s work is less intimate, and shrewdly avoids making esthetic and human judgments. Mr. Donald’s book deserves to be called a critical biography, is very well informed, and clearly surpasses its predecessors.
Perhaps any good biographer has to grow fond of his or her subject, and a touching care and concern for Wolfe increasingly permeates Mr. Donald’s pages. He is able to invest even the scene of Wolfe dictating a novel to a secretary with a memorable pathos. What he cannot do is to make Wolfe very likable, though he certainly helps us to understand why Wolfe became a really difficult and unpleasant personality. The son of a Pennsylvania tombstone cutter and a Blue Ridge Mountains boardinghouse keeper in Asheville, N.C., Wolfe suffered his parents’ bad and violent marriage. The youngest of seven surviving children, he seems to have absorbed the horrors of his own family romance with a particular receptivity. Educated at Chapel Hill and at Harvard, living in New York City and in Europe from 1924 until 1938, Wolfe famously never left home. His tormented relationship with Aline Bernstein was an overdetermined nightmare; the lady was 20 years older than Wolfe, married, with two children, half Wolfe’s size, and a Jew to his anti-Semite. Loving Wolfe, she remarked many years later, was like a ‘‘Japanese maiden’s self-immolating leap into a volcano.’’ A SIX-and-a-half-foot, hard-drinking monomaniac who believes himself to be the Great American Writer would appear to be fiction rather than fact, but Mr. Donald’s Wolfe is very real. He is something like a parody of Nietzsche, not the Nietzsche of ‘‘The Genealogy of Morals’’ but of ‘‘Ecce Homo.’’ Some of Mr. Donald’s chapter titles, drawn from Wolfe, approximate Nietzsche’s: ‘‘By God, I Have Genius,’’ ‘‘I Shall Conquer the World,’’ ‘‘I Must Spin Out My Entrails.’’ Though Mr. Donald keeps telling us that Wolfe got along amiably enough with the writers who were his contemporaries, none of them became his friends, and his only literary relationships were with his editors and his agent. But Wolfe seems to have had no real friends anyway. Mr. Donald depicts a man marked by violence, jealousy, paranoid mood shifts, sudden lusts quickly satiated and a remorseless necessity to be his own worst enemy.
Wolfe’s credo was the famous: ‘‘I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found.’’ Whatever that metaphor of being lost in America meant to Wolfe, it is not at all clear what he could have meant by ‘‘we shall be found.’’ By whom? By what? Mr. Donald, remarkable historian as he is, cannot be expected to answer such questions. Wolfe evidently got lost in childhood, and never quite found himself again by or through writing.