Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life.
By Thomas Wolfe
New York: Scribner, 2006. xxx + 512 pp. ISBN 0743297318 (softcover), $17.00.
"A sense of the fundamental [textual] decencies is parceled out unequally at birth." The Simon & Schuster Scribner imprint has again rejected an opportunity to repair the text of a classic Charles Scribner's Sons work.
In 1930 Louis N. Feipel, a reader whose hobby was proofreading published books, sent Thomas Wolfe a list of 31 "(?) Misprints or Editorial Lapses" (of which 3 deserved the "?"; Feipel was probably in error), and more than 500 "Orthographic Inconsistencies" ("whisky ... vs. whiskey"; "plumtree ... vs. plumtree ... vs. plum tree"), "Other Debatable Orthographic Forms" ("arm-pit, "honey-dew"), etc. (1) Dismayed, Wolfe shared the list with Charles Scribner's Sons editor John Hall Wheelock, who had been responsible for seeing Look Homeward, Angel through publication. Wheelock replied on 23 July 1930:
I don't doubt that one of the tribe who make a profession of this sort of thing [a category that might have included Wheelock but does not apply to Feipel] could find a great many errors, typographical and other, if he went over the book with a fine-tooth comb.... Unless author and publisher are willing and prepared to devote the rest of their natural lives to the ideal of absolute letter-perfection as regards every semicolon and spacing, there must always be errors. (2)
(Although Scribner's did not make use of the list, they did keep it; it is now in the Charles Scribner's Sons Archives at Princeton.)
In October 2000 (after the publication of O Lost), Charles Scribner III was sent a list of 194 substantive emendations for Look Homeward, Angel, of which 151 are restorations of manuscript readings and 43 are editorial emendations. (3) He replied on 11 October: "At this stage in the book's history we are not likely to change the text: too expensive & burdensome for the general public. As Pilate replied to Caiaphas (in the Vulgate): 'Quod scripsi, scripsi.'" (4)
Though the editing at Scribner is inconsistent, their editorial policy is not. When TWS president Rob Ensign notified Society members that the publisher had solicited advice about assigning the new introduction, we provided them with the Feipel and Bruccoli lists. No acknowledgment. One of us subsequently phoned Scribner editor Samantha Martin and asked about the fate of the errors and emendations lists. On 7 June 2006 she stated that the lists would not be used because the new (completely reset) edition was intended as a textbook, and therefore textual corrections were unnecessary.
Of the 28 indisputable errors pointed out by Feipel, the new Scribner edition corrects 9; 19 errors on Feipel's list remain uncorrected--for example, "Prosperine" has been changed to "Proserpine" (225), but Tobias Smollett's name is still misspelled "Smollet" (344). All except one of the corrections--"threshold" (147)--are carryovers from the 1952 Scribner Library edition. (5) All of the 19 remaining errors repeat the original readings except one, which is either a miscorrection or a simple misprint or a misprint of a real correction: "minutia" is on page 440 of the 1929 first printing and on page 367 of the Scribner Library edition; it should be "minutiae"; it appears on page 359 of the new edition as "minutae."
Attempts have been made--coincidentally, it would seem--to correct 2 of the 194 errors for which we supplied alternative readings; both introduce new errors. One is "minutae," above; the other is "copprous" (149). The original misspelling, "coprous," retained in the Scribner Library edition, should have been emended to "cuprous"; Wolfe's manuscript reading is correct. (6)
The title-page epigraph, missing since 1952, is still missing. Sandy Duncan, one of the boys who taunt W. O. Gant the summer before Eugene's birth (22), still dies in 1896 (58). The "romantic abundance of the earth which filled [Eugene's] pocket ..." in Wolfe's manuscript, (7) remains--incomprehensibly--"the romantic structure" (94). Eugene "withered" (121), when he "writhed" in manuscript. (8) Ben's "thin bony shoulders" (in manuscript) (9) remain "thin long shoulders" (92). Altamont is still protected by reeking hills (60) that "raked protectively" in manuscript. (10) John Dorsey Leonard, in manuscript and typescript, might have had difficulty "construing a page of Latin prose and verse," (11) but Look Homeward, Angel still requires him to "construct" one (180).
The buyer of the latest edition of Thomas Wolfe's first novel gets a foul text, a new introduction by Robert Morgan (an essay reprinted from the Thomas Wolfe Review), a "Reading Group Guide," and a cover that deserves mention. It shows, from the rear, a dark-haired man wearing a snug T-shirt and tight pants, carrying a suitcase, and stepping along the crossties of a railroad track. The landscape is flat and nearly empty. It is difficult to imagine a bookstore patron who would be attracted to the picture sufficiently to buy the book, but if he exists, he will be disappointed to have spent $17 for a novel in which there is no such character. Perhaps he will save the cover and give the rest of the book to someone who will enjoy it. More than 200,000 of the words in Look Homeward, Angel are the words a genius wrote.
(1.) "Errors and Inconsistencies in the Published Text of Look Homeward, Angel," To Loot My Life Clean: The Thomas Wolfe-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000) 313-27.
(2.) John Hall Wheelock, letter to Thomas Wolfe, 23 July 1930, To Loot My Life Clean: The Thomas Wolfe-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000) 48.
(3.) Arlyn Bruccoli, "Emendations for Look Homeward, Angel," Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 2000 (Detroit: Gale/Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2001) 313-18.
(4.) Charles Scribner III, letter to Matthew J. Bruccoli, 11 Oct. 2000.
(5.) This text was reprinted in the "Scribner Library," the "Hudson River Editions," and the "Scribner Classics." It was in print for fifty-three years without benefit of necessary emendation.
(6.) Thomas Wolfe, O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, ed. Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000) 203.
(7.) Wolfe, O Lost 127.
(8.) Wolfe, O Lost 164.
(9.) Wolfe, O Lost 125.
(10.) Wolfe, O Lost 185.
(11.) Wolfe, O Lost 247.