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Love at second sight: the successful rediscovery of Thomas Wolfe in Germany.

During his visits in Berlin, Thomas Wolfe used to check in at the Hotel am Zoo on Kurfurstendamm. A well-known photograph shows him just in front of it entering a streetcar in spring 1935. In the background appears the slim spire of the Gedachtniskirche towers, now only a broken and blackened war memorial. In recent years, whenever I passed the old hotel in the heart of former West Berlin, I looked up to its windows wondering where the "American Gulliver" might have lived. Of course, the ceiling in his room was too low for him, the bed was too short, and the porcelain washbasin with the tiny faucets was too small. German Grundlichkeit ("thoroughness") might have preserved the writer's room number. Perhaps he even left friendly words in the guest-book written in his vigorous handwriting. I never asked for it, and now it's too late.

Today the Hotel am Zoo is closed. Barriers and plastic curtains make it inaccessible. Urban renewal and the current touristic boom in the German capital have overtaken the old hotel on Kurfurstendamm. When the rebuilding is finished, nothing will be the same. Maybe the last place in the city Thomas Wolfe was personally attached to will be gone.

While evidence of his physical presence has been erased, Wolfe's intellectual presence has resurfaced in Germany. Horst Lauinger, the book-obsessed editor of Zurich-based Manesse Verlag, has made a Wolfe revival possible. Inspired by suggestions from an elderly colleague in the publishing business, he reexamined the Weimar Republic legend. Being too young to know Thomas Wolfe from his own reading experience, Lauinger was convinced as soon as he opened Schau heimwarts, Engel! (Look Homeward, Angel). However, he also learned that the eighty-year-old German translation by the expressionistic writer Hans Schiebelhuth had become obsolete. (1) Its vocabulary seemed antiquated and exaggerated; it was mannered and constrained instead of being accurate and concise from a contemporary point of view.

Wolfe's first German publishing house, Rowohlt, might have felt an obligation to republish, but the task resulted in only a few cautious interventions by Sonja Schleichert in 1986. Even Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt waved aside the idea of a new translation: "Nobody reads Thomas Wolfe," he stated in a sad and weary manner when I reminded him of Wolfe's omission at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the late 1980 s. (2)

Young Horst Lauinger, however, was not concerned with the ups and downs of literary fashion. He followed his feeling and instigated a translation of Look Homeward, Angel into modern German. Irma Wehrli from Davos, Switzerland, a specialist in English and American literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fulfilled his expectations admirably. She did brilliant work as a translator and as contributor of numerous annotations as well. Wehrli's translation of Wolfe's first novel sounds less overwrought than Schiebelhuth's torrent of words. For example, early in Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe's narrator notes that the Pennsylvania Dutch were charmed by Gilbert Gaunt's "air of travel" (3). For that phrase, Schiebelhuth chose "Air des Vielgereisten" (11), while Wehrli decided on "weltlaufigen Auftreten" (9). And during his encounter with Ella Corpening, Eugene Gant hears "laughter, rich, jungle-wild" (306), which Schiebelhuth translated as "uppig-wollustiger, dschungel-wilder Kehllaut," while Wehrli wrote "wildes Dschungellachen" (358). The new translation "lets Wolfe's masterpiece glow in the light of the present," a critic wrote about this linguistic sobering up.

But what about the old love between Wolfe and Germany? There have been times when the "Germanic berserker" was more popular in Berlin and Munich than in his home country. What Werner von Koppenfels wrote about the "postromantic" from Asheville, North Carolina, was an expression of respect but not of enthusiasm. It rehabilitated the forgotten American classic but refused to welcome the author as a member of the family. In the meantime, Wolfe--former idol of such noted advocates as Hermann Hesse, Gottfried Benn, and Klaus Mann--had gotten confused with Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities. The only living German-speaking novelist who still has affinities with Thomas Wolfe seems to be Paul Nizon. Like the American "Ego-chronicler," he alternates between autobiographical determination and narrative "objectiveness." (3) In contrast to Nizon's sympathetic understanding, most official reviewers of the new translation of Look Homeward, Angel only reproduce the old prejudices against Wolfe as the verbose and undisciplined natural talent. For example, Austrian writer Arno Geiger praises Wolfe's novel as "challenging," "provocative," and "defiant" but objects to its lack of "architecture" and "calculation."

Inspired by the mainly positive reactions and sufficient sales of Wolfe's most famous novel, courageous Horst Lauinger two years later looked out for a second publication suitable to consolidate Wolfe's returned reputation. He chose The Party at Jack's, which German readers knew only by the shortened and falsified version from You Can't Go Home Again. Based on the 1995 edition published by the University of North Carolina Press and edited by Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol Jr., the new edition of the novella was brought into elegant German by Susanne Hobel from Hamburg, known for her excellent translations of William Faulkner, John Updike, and Nadine Gordimer.

Reviews ran in all the important German newspapers, with such headlines as "Decadent Parties, Talentless Artists," "Feast and Bonfire," "Last Gluttony before the Crash," and "If the Circus Is in Flames," giving an impression of how Die Party bei den Jacks was critically regarded. In discussing Wolfe's cutting social study, German reviewers regularly used F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby as a reference. However, Wolfe the "putter-inner" saw American society with other eyes than Fitzgerald the "leaver-outer" (Wolfe, "To Scott" 643). Wolfe's depiction of the Great Depression proved much more farsighted: it offered a prophetic view of the worldwide financial crisis of today.

In The Party at Jacks, which Wolfe believed was his "most densely woven piece of writing" ("To Elizabeth" 653), he appears not as a new author but as a different one. He replaces memory with observation; he prefers description instead of interpretation. Like a curious and uncompromising reporter, he examines the moral decline of the "beautiful people" and their blindness to the warning signs of coming financial collapse, as indicated by the "trembling, faint and instant," caused by the subway deep in the earth below them (43). What Wolfe writes about the "callousness, greed and hypocrisy of the privileged" (Stutman and Idol xiv) applies to the privileged of all times and countries.

Thomas Wolfe wasn't known for political farsightedness until the publication of The Party at Jack's. His last book may have been a turning point in his literary career. What can be said about the multifaceted content of his literary legacy also can be said about the narrative structure of this novella, an aspect that professional German reviewers totally disregarded. Instead, they continually pointed out the unfinished and fragmentary character of Die Party bei den Jacks, which they thought of as more of a lack than an advantage.

Amateur readers saw Wolfe's work in a different way. They asked themselves if the writer might have used the open form even if he had been able to finish the book. The constant change of view from one chapter to another makes it probable: "The detail-loving language artist Wolfe doesn't follow his narrative in a chronologic manner but meanders in a kaleidoscopic manner through his plot. He created a fascinating sociological x-ray picture by fine hints," we read in a small Internet paper called Tabula Rasa. An unknown customer of Amazon argues in a similar direction: "Wolfe's compositional precision is incomparable in the literature of the early twentieth century."

Professional German reviewers also overlooked strong associations with the plastic art of the modern age. Was Wolfe's Party inspired by the puzzle pictures of Picasso and Braque? Could it be regarded as a kind of literary cubism? David Radavich emphasizes allusions between Wolfe's danse macabre and the paintings of Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (148). In particular, the 1927-28 triptych Grofistadt ("Big City") by Otto Dix--with the German bohemes of the Golden Twenties in fanciful costumes--seems to illustrate Wolfe's commentary on Park Avenue dissolution. Instead of New York elevator men, we see war cripples at the roadside in the painting. If the author didn't know this work, as Radavich assumes, it was created in the same caustic and exposing spirit. (4)

In such correspondences, ordinary German readers recognized themselves. They also enjoyed the first two chapters of the book, which were regarded as extraneous material by most reviewers. (5) No critic cared about Wolfe's intimate knowledge of the German "Schulsystem" around 1900, as shown in chapter 1 ("Morning"). And no reviewer mentioned the singularity of the second chapter ("Morning: Jack asleep"), which offers a complex and ambitious mixture of dream, memory, and reflection. Nonetheless, Die Party bei den Jacks has proven to be one of the best-selling books Manesse ever published. Its hardcover version has reached three printings, and it also came out in a paperback edition and as an audiobook read by renowned actor Mathias Brandt (son of former German chancellor Willy Brandt).

This unexpected editorial success resulted not only from the widespread and controversial reception of the book but also from the recommendations of numerous little bookshops. Yes, they still exist even in small provincial towns all over Germany. Tireless ladies wipe the dust from the books and remove the dead flies from behind the shop window displays every day. They persuade gray-haired readers and prick up the ears of the Facebook generation. In other words, Thomas Wolfe is back in Germany, and his name no longer needs to be explained. His magnum opus, Of Time and the River, will come out in a new German translation from Manesse Verlag in October 2014. Irma Wehrli already has finished the Herculean task. A representative selection of short stories with a detailed explanatory essay is also in the works. This full display of the variety and richness of Thomas Wolfe's oeuvre will no doubt convince even the professional criticasters of his genius.

Works Cited

Geiger, Amo. "Die Wunden der Kindheit" ["The Wounds of Childhood"]. Rev. of Schau heimwarts, Engel, by Thomas Wolfe, trans. Irma Wehrli. Die Welt 9 May 2009. Print.

Koppenfels, Werner von. "Vom Gewitter mitgerissen" ["Swept away by the Thunderstorm"]. Rev. of Schau heimwarts, Engel, by Thomas Wolfe, trans. Irma Wehrli. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 9 May 2009. Print.

Nizon, Paul. Das Drehbuch der Liebe: Journal 1973-1979. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004. Print.

Radavich, David. Rev. of Die Party bei den Jacks, by Thomas Wolfe, trans. Irma Wehrli. Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 146-49. Print.

--. "Thomas Wolfe's Expressionism and The Party at Jack's." Thomas Wolfe Review 37.1-2 (2013): 7-22. Print.

Rudenauer, Ulrich. "Wenn der Kater um den Champagner schleicht" ["When the Hangover Creeps around the Champagne"]. Rev. of Die Party bei den Jacks, by Thomas Wolfe, trans. Irma Wehrli. Suddeutsche Zeitung 16 July 2011.

Schiebelhuth, Hans. Gedichte, Ubertragungen, Prosa, Briefe, Theaterkritike. Ed. Manfred Schlosser. 2 vols. Darmstadt: Agora, 1966-67. Print.

Stutman, Suzanne, and John L. Idol Jr. Introduction. Wolfe, The Party at Jack's ix-xxv.

Wolfe, Thomas. Die Party bei den Jacks. Trans. Susanne Hobel. Manesse-Random, 2011. Print.

--. "I Have a Thing to Tell You (Nun Will Ich Ihnen 'Was Sagen)." New Republic 10, 17, 24 Mar. 1937: 132+. Print.

--. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner's, 1956. Print.

--. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. New York: Scribner's, 1929. Print.

--. The Party at Jack's. Ed. Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol Jr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1995. Print.

--. Schau heimwarts, Engel! Eine Geschichte vom begrabenen Leben. Trans. Hans Schiebelhuth. 1932. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1954. Print.

--. Schau heimwarts, Engel: Eine Geschichte vom begrabenen L eben. Trans. Irma Wehrli. Zurich: Manesse, 2009. Print.

--. "To Elizabeth Nowell." 22 Aug. 1937. Wolfe, Letters 651-54.

-- "To Scott Fitzgerald." 26 July 1937. Wolfe, Letters 641-45.

--. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940. Print.


(1.) Hans Schiebelhuth (1895-1944) translated Look Homeward, Angel (1932), Of Time and the River (1936), and From Death to Morning (1937). Wolfe liked his pioneer performance very much and praised "the poetry and beauty in the translation itself" in a letter from Copenhagen on 21 June 1935. Schiebelhuth's own expressionistic poetry is totally forgotten today (see Gedichte, Ubertragungen, Prosa, Briefe, Theaterkritike). In 1944 this commendable cultural mediator died of heart failure in East Hampton (Long Island). It is said that a contributing cause of his cardiac insufficiency was the countless cups of coffee he drank during his nocturnal work of translation.

(2.) Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt (1908-92) was one of the most influential publishers of postwar Germany. The illegitimate son and successor of the legendary "book patriarch" Ernst Rowohlt had a special preference for American literature. He published the works of Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, and many others. He was Thomas Wolfe's constant companion during the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and drew his attention to the darker side of the Third Reich. Ledig-Rowohlt was the model for Franz Hartmann in Wolfe's masterly story "I Have a Thing to Tell You" in the New Republic (in the expanded version appearing in You Can't Go Home Again, the character's name is Franz Heilig).

(3.) In the second of his famous literary journals, Nizon poses a question that could also have been formulated by Thomas Wolfe: "How is it possible to go on writing if development, history and growing old is rejected?" (246).

(4.) Also see Radavich, "Thomas."

(5.) Ulrich Rudenauer writes, "As being no real part of the book, in the first chapters we learn something about Frederick Jack's descent."
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Author:Darsow, Kurt
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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