After the new critics: reading Thomas Wolfe.
CONCERNED THAT WOLFE'S PLACE IN THE ACADEMY HAS NOT KEPT PACE with the Modernists who were his contemporaries, Robert Ensign in Lay Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen: Thomas Wolfe's Greener Modernism endeavors to redefine Wolfe's Modernism by showcasing his abiding interest in and concern for the natural world. He aligns Wolfe with ecocriticism, the school of criticism based on the premise that place, landscape, is the "omnipresent and ubiquitous medium for all human dramas" (1). Near the end of the twentieth century, ecocriticism claimed a place beside cultural studies, feminism, queer theory, and other approaches that wished to expand the study of literature in directions the New Critics never imagined. Ensign argues that the critics, wrongly, came to see Wolfe as no Modernist at all, but as a practitioner who borrowed Joyce-isms.
Because Wolfe's terrain has seemed primarily the town of Asheville, New York City, and the great cities of Europe, primary attention has gone to his vivid portrayal of character and city life. But Ensign has no difficulty demonstrating that the boy who grew up in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains saw human activity as inseparable from the natural world. Focusing on the "green" in Look Homeward, Angel, Ensign makes the penultimate chapter the high point of his study. In the final chapter, he is less successful as he returns to the competition of ranking the Modernists, showing Wolfe greener than them all. But was Wolfe more aware of the natural world than John Steinbeck? Or Ernest Hemingway? Doubtful. In these and other comparisons, readers are likely to feel incompleteness, the need for qualification, for debate. The pleasure of Ensign's book does not come from reflections on injustices on the critical front, but on affirmation of Wolfe's affinities with the natural world.
In Thomas Wolfe's Civil War, an anthology of Wolfe's Civil War writing, David Madden calls attention to another aspect of Wolfe's work that has been under-prized. He contends that Wolfe is a major contributor to Civil War literature and that had he lived longer, it is likely, even probable, that he would have written the great American novel, which would inevitably be a Civil War novel. In a long introduction, Madden defends his thesis. The national crisis of 1861-65 was omnipresent in Wolfe's perception of America and in his creative efforts. With a Southern mother for whom memories of the war and its aftermath for the South were vivid, and with a father from Pennsylvania who as an adolescent saw the Confederate forces march past the family farm en route to Gettysburg, Wolfe was positioned to consider the crisis from a national perspective, emotionally and intellectually.
Because Madden is himself an author of fiction based on the Civil War, an editor of Civil War literature, and Founding Director of the United States Civil War Center, his thesis cannot be quickly dismissed. Madden rests his case on nine selections of Wolfe's writing. The special gems of the anthology are the opening chapter of O Lost, the chapter that Maxwell Perkins had convinced Wolfe did not belong to Look Homeward, Angel, and the stories "Chickamauga" and "The Four Lost Men." (Madden declares the latter "the single greatest short story about the Civil War" 26.) Harry Potter fans will be amused to discover in "The Plumed Knight," Wolfe's satire of post-bellum military schools, that Theodore Joyner's academy is called Hogwart; Wolfe does seem to have regarded Lost Cause fanatics like Joyner as practicing a kind of witchcraft and wizardry.
There is room for debate, no doubt, about Madden's claims. Scholars and Civil War enthusiasts may wish to take him on. But there is potential for another audience, the college classroom. A paperback, Madden's book offers rich opportunities for an introduction to Wolfe (length tends to keep his novels off syllabi) or as a doorway to the experience of the war in the North and in the South. That audience will not much be interested in the introduction or speculations about reputations or the Great American Novel.
In Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin? Joanne Marshall Mauldin is less interested in highlighting a different lens for studying Wolfe's work than in revisiting his life and the life of his texts with utmost candor. Her book challenges all preceding biographies of Wolfe. She writes from an instinct that parallels Wolfe's when he found his true subject in himself and portrayed his family, his hometown, his acquaintances, and the world as he found them to be. His portraits sometimes led to lawsuits and more often to bitter resentment. For almost a decade, he was persona non grata in Asheville, his hometown. Aware of Wolfe's faults as man and writer, Mauldin is not a hagiographer. She portrays what Wolfe did to himself and what others did to him. For years she has been exploring the Wolfe archives in Asheville's Pack Library, the North Carolina Collection in Chapel Hill, and the Wisdom Collection at Harvard's Houghton Library. She has also had the advantage of being from Wolfe's home territory.
Mauldin tells the story of Thomas Wolfe's career compellingly. The account holds us the way a good novel does. Mauldin chronicles a saga of errors and cruelties that makes her subtitle (we don't meet that question until Chapter Six) wonderfully apt. At a lecture at Purdue University on May 18, 1938, Wolfe had joked about the possibility of selling his work to Hollywood, and likened himself to the Belgian virgin who asked on the night the Germans invaded, "When do the atrocities begin?" For Wolfe, the answer was very soon, but the impending atrocities had nothing to do with the motion picture industry.
Mauldin commences her narrative with Wolfe's visit to Asheville in 1937, the first return of the prodigal since he outraged the town with Look Homeward, Angel (1929). The return permits reminders of earlier "atrocities" of various sorts and reminders of Wolfe's intense family. For many reasons, Wolfe realizes that he needs distance from the home territory in order to write. Back in Manhattan, he completes the break with editor Maxwell Perkins and the Scribner's publishing firm and takes Edward Aswell as his editor and Harper & Brothers as his publisher. He labors on a re-imagined version of himself as George Webber. With new Whitman-like vision, Wolfe now seeks to embrace the totality of America, and in May 1938 he embarks on a westward journey that will climax in a grand tour of national parks and monuments in the West. Soon after its completion, the tubercle bacillus that had lain dormant for years begins the "atrocities" on his brain and body. Treatment in Seattle failing, in September he travels by train across the continent to the experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where on September 15 he dies. Her protagonist, not yet 38 years old, dead, Mauldin is but half way through her narrative. The story--Wolfe's story--is far from ended.
When an artist dies prematurely, his admirers inevitably ask "what if?." Probably for none of our major writers has "what if' loomed larger than for Wolfe. If Wolfe had lived, he might have put to rest the indictment levied by Bernard DeVoto that he was dependent on the skill of an editor to shape his work. But now an editor would have to shape Wolfe's work-in-progress. From the mountains of material in his possession, Aswell would produce three books. For The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, he had to write bridges between sections; these were printed in italics. But increasingly he quietly made other changes, and by the time he was working on The Hills Beyond, he had become careless about preserving manuscript material. It is now impossible for a later editor to create authoritative editions. As executor of the Wolfe Estate, Maxwell Perkins was also party to posthumous mismanagement. Aswell could publish nothing without his approval. Perkins was concerned about the satire of the Scribner's firm that he knew Wolfe's manuscript contained. Though he let the satire of himself stand, he vetoed depictions based on Charles Scribner, Sr., and two editors. The mandated alterations, Mauldin argues, further weakened You Can't Go Home Again. Also looming large in the mounting toll of "atrocities" was the conduct of John S. Terry, the family's choice to write Wolfe's biography. Styling himself as Wolfe's best friend, Terry obtained much primary material, some of which he destroyed. When Terry died in June 1953, he had written nothing of that biography. He had managed to edit Thomas Wolfe's Letters to His Mother (1943), but carelessly--so carelessly that in 1968 C. Hugh Holman and Sue F. Ross published a new edition, correcting Terry's numerous errors and omissions. To Aswell's credit, he declined to let Terry take on the project of editing The Letters of Thomas Wolfe.
Eventually, full-length biographies of Wolfe were published: Elizabeth Nowell's in 1960, Andrew Turnbull's in 1968, David Herbert Donald's in 1987. But the one that would have served Wolfe's career best was the one that Richard S. Kennedy never got to write. Just back from World War II, Kennedy wrote a Harvard dissertation on Wolfe and wished to build on that. Refusing Kennedy access to documents and permission to quote, Aswell effectively barred the way, a monumental atrocity. Aswell died in 1958. In 1962 Kennedy's The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe established his credentials as a major Wolfe scholar.
Mauldin's renditions of these stories (and many others) stem from her devotion to Wolfe's creative genius. She can't erase his mistakes, or those of his family, his editors, those who loved him, or those who took advantage of him, but her research and care over many years honor his genius with this indispensable addition to Wolfe scholarship.
JOSEPH M. FLORA
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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|Author:||Flora, Joseph M.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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