Getting Tom Right: Dates in Wolfe's Life.
By Elizabeth Nowell
Edited by Lucy Conniff
The Thomas Wolfe Society, 2017. xviii + 128 pp. (softcover)
Getting Tom Right: Dates in Wolfe's Life is the second edited book by Lucy Conniff, offered as the 37th annual publication of the Thomas Wolfe Society. Conniff's first book for the Society, edited with Richard S. Kennedy, revealed the mind of Thomas Wolfe at work as seen through his autobiographical outline (1991). In this new book, we are introduced to the life and mind of Elizabeth Nowell, Wolfe's biographer, agent, editor, friend, and handwriting translator.
The collection is a gem. It includes a chronology of Wolfe and Nowell's professional relationship, scholarship on Nowell, an account by Nowell of her work at Scribner's, a previously unpublished letter by Nowell to John Hall Wheelock, and, most affecting, a memory piece by Clara Stites with her mother at the St. Regis Hotel the spring of Nowell's death, 1958. I treasure Conniff's inclusion of Elizabeth Nowell's sly commentaries offered by a professional woman before her time in a white man's world. I am reminded of my own mother, also a woman in the publishing world before her time--a woman whom Elizabeth Nowell both knew and admired. I marvel at the many intuitions we see of Nowell's ability to "read" people, even at first glance, especially of famous (and pompous) men. Conniff offers the personal as well as professional side of Elizabeth Nowell, made available to us through the sheer number of footnotes on nearly every page of "Dates in Wolfe's Life (pages 19-94) that turns reading into a kind of call and response--Nowell's text in the treble clef as question, Conniff's notes in the bass clef as answer. I found myself stunned by the intricacies of fact and detail that Conniff marshalled, something for which Nowell also labored in her need to get Tom right (6). Conniff, in this collection, gets Liddy right.
Conniff's footnotes not only answer Nowell's own question marks but also supply anecdotal material as well as corrections and emendations to various texts. We learn, for instance, that Asheville, in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, sustained the "highest per capita debt of any city in the country but did not declare bankruptcy" (32-33n61)--this factoid supplied by a personal interview with Joanne Mauldin. In the next two footnotes, Conniff corrects the record of Wolfe's European trips recorded by John Terry. By cross referencing Wolfe's Letters to His Mother, Conniff interprets Wolfe's remarks about a swindling attempt on him in 1932 as "racially explicit" (40n89). She footnotes that "Boom Town" was "the first Wolfe story placed by Nowell" and then traces its subsequent republication in the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of1934 (47n112). And I found interesting Conniff's listing of other literary notables who stayed, as did Wolfe, at the Chelsea Hotel (once a literary landmark, as researched by my colleague James Lough, in his This Ain't No Holiday Inn): "Edgar Lee Masters, Virgil Thomson, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, and Ethan Hawke." She adds, "Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen there in 1978," citing a 2013 book by Sherrill Tippins (73n197). Seeking to clarify any of Nowell's "I thinks," Conniff is able to verify that Nowell did, indeed, send champagne to my father's house for Wolfe's Christmas there in 1937 (81n211).
And yes, my life--even my unborn life--is recorded in the Conniff book on Wolfe. I read again that my brother, Duncan, was fifteen months old at the time of the Wolfe Christmas visit (81n209), my not knowing his actual age; and I read that "a maid" cleaned up after Tom was "sick" (80-81), reminding me that we had, until long after my mother left the house, what was referred to by our racially dysconscious era as "live-ins." These were women of color from the city, some of whom I remember because they bathed me and told me to dry between my toes lest my toes stick together. I also remember how they could not sleep well at night because there was no noise in our neighborhood.
The Aswell connection continues with Nowell's and Conniff's references to Wolfe's master's degree days at Harvard, which are echoed by my mother's post-Bryn Mawr days at Harvard--both Wolfe (in the 1920s) and my mother (in the 1930s) took graduate courses from the same professor of Shakespeare, George Lyman Kittredge. In her 18 February 1932 diary entry, my mother scrawls (oh! that illegible handwriting): "Delightful class w. Kittredge on relationship btw. members of Polonius's family and Pol. himself. Very illuminating!" In an earlier entry, 8 February 1932, my mother records being with the same people Nowell mentions: Via (a fellow "Bryn Mawrter" as they called themselves) and James Agee, Via's husband, who would gain posthumous fame for A Death in the Family and other writings decades later. Mother records that "Jim was in a state as V and I read the first scene of Hamlet together--such enchantment in the very sound and movement of the words, even without the excitement of the situation and all its associations." Those were the days when people read aloud to each other of an evening. Mother sustained that early friendship with the Agees by including them in her first wedding--to my father in 1935--and later when Wolfe visited Chappaqua for Christmas in 1937.
Conniff's inclusions of Nowell's intuitions about people are priceless. In an unfinished manuscript begun by Nowell shortly before her death--originally published by Clara Stites in 2001 and wisely included by Conniff in Getting Tom Right--Nowell comments on the austere Max Perkins, upon first seeing him: "There was something virginal, repressed and shy about him, and with a flash of familiarity that verged on contempt, I thought of all the Harvard sophomores I had known" (11). This cool understanding of male privilege (misogyny?) that she felt accompanied Harvard graduates extended to my father (Harvard '26) whom she pinned as being interpreted by others as "cold and shy and formal" (Nowell, Letter 107).
Elizabeth Nowell's love for and dedication to Thomas Wolfe come through over and over again in Lucy Conniff's edited collection of material that includes not only dates in Wolfe's life (with 251 of Conniff's footnotes) but also bibliography, lawsuits, and remembrances. Of the latter, the inclusion of Clara Stites's memory piece reminds us that a life lived publicly is also a life lived privately. Referring to herself as "the girl," Stites records her stay with her mother at the St. Regis Hotel, expecting them both to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Look Homeward,
Angel starring Anthony Perkins, in spring 1958. Nowell, however, was unable to attend because the cancer was making her too weak, so "the girl" went with Miss Adele Petite alone, knowing she would have to "ride with her in a taxi to the play and try to talk to her the way Liddy would" (100). Stites says of the girl,
She has never been to New York, never seen a play, can not comprehend the difference between the actor and the role. She falls in love instantly and forever with Anthony Perkins, his lonely tragic being, his yearnings and ineptness.... She and he are preordained to love each other. (100)
The next morning on the way back to the train station, the girl's mother points out the Scribner's building: "And over there, the office of Maxwell Perkins, gone now but surely the greatest editor on earth, and John Hall Wheelock, poet, editor, dear friend. The girl sees the building, but hears only the name, another Perkins, and dreams of love" (102). The point of view shifts from third to first person as Stites narrates the coda of her story, discovering love letters between her vivacious, smart, and beautiful mother with a man the girl never knew of. If the fame of Thomas Wolfe is perhaps best caught by the phrase "O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again," I am left marveling at how the circles continue and entwine: Wolfe with Nowell with the lost love come back again.
Aswell, Mary Louise. Personal diary. Entries, 8 and 18 Feb. 1932.
Lough, James. This Ain't No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995. Schaffner Press, 2013.
Nowell, Elizabeth. Letter to Edward C. Aswell. 6 Mar. 1952. In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe: Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell 1949-1958, edited by Mary Aswell Doll and Clara Stites, Ohio UP, 1988, pp. 105-07.
Wolfe, Thomas. The Autobiographical Outline for Look Homeward, Angel. Edited by Lucy Conniff and Richard S. Kennedy, The Thomas Wolfe Society, 1991.
--. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Mary Aswell Doll teaches World Mythology and Foundations ofStory at Savannah College of Art and Design. She co-edited, with Clara Stites, In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe (1988).