YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN AT 75
We begin the 2015 edition of "Notes" by celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Thomas Wolfe's second posthumous novel, You Can't Go Home Again (Harper, 1940). The book was published during the last week of summer, amid nationwide talk of war. Two days earlier, President Roosevelt signed into law the Selective Training and Service Act, thereby imposing the first peacetime draft in US history. The number one song in the country at the time was "I'll Never Smile Again." On the other side of the Atlantic, Nazi bombs were falling on London.
Wolfe's novel didn't make as big a literary splash as Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, published by Scribner's a month later, but there's no accounting for taste. Speaking of Scribner's, F Scott Fitzgerald--the other member of the triumvirate that Matthew Bruccoli called "the sons of Maxwell Perkins" (borrowing from a 1938 Fitzgerald-to-Perkins letter)--suffered a heart attack and died in Hollywood on 21 December, leaving behind an unfinished novel about Hollywood that would be published as The Last Tycoon (1941). The very next day, Nathanael West, who was a friend of Fitzgerald's and author of his own novel about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust (1939), was killed in a car crash. Four weeks prior to the publication of You Can't Go Home Again, poet Ernest Thayer died, leaving no joy in Mudville. And on 15 July Robert Wadlow died at the age of 22. The 6'6" Wolfe towered over almost everyone he encountered, and he even wrote stories about his height ("Gulliver: The Story of a Tall Man" and "No Cure for It"), but he was tiny compared to the 8'11" Wadlow, whose hypertrophic pituitary gland caused him to be the tallest man who ever lived.
Not all the literary news of 1940 was morbid. Among the books published that year were Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Wright's Native Son, Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave, and Theodor Seuss Geisel's Horton Hatches the Egg. The year also saw the release of John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda. In July a zombie-less adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (with a screenplay by Aldous Huxley) was released. Laurence Olivier portrayed Mr. Darcy--a role that Colin Firth would play in the 1995 BBC miniseries. Firth, of course, would later portray Maxwell Perkins in Genius. The complete lack of zombies in the 1940 version of Jane Austen's novel was probably due to the fact that George A. Romero, Godfather of the Dead, was only five months old at the time
In addition to Romero, writer Russell Banks (who, like Wolfe, is an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill) was born in 1940, as was Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country). Other writers who began breathing that year include Thomas Harris and Peter Benchley. The movie adaptation of the former's 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs, forever changed the way we think about fava beans and a nice Chianti, while the latter is responsible for an entire generation being afraid to swim in the ocean. It was also a good year for the birth of actors and musicians, including Al Pacino, Raquel Welch, Frank Zappa, Richard Pryor, Smokey Robinson, half of the Beatles, a captain of the USS Enterprise (the bald one), Jiminy Cricket, the second Professor Dumbledore, and the only American member of Monty Python.
Upon the publication of You Can't Go Home Again in September 1940, the book's title immediately began its journey toward catchphrase status. To this day, it is part of the American lexicon and is just eight weeks younger than another well-known, if not as symbolically significant, saying. That other iconic phrase entered popular culture when Warner Brothers released the animated short A Wild Hare, considered to be the first Bugs Bunny cartoon (although he would not be so named until later). It is in this film that the snarky rabbit first asks Elmer Fudd, "What's up, Doc?" The easily befuddled Elmer usually responds that he is hunting "wabbits," but his woeful skill as a marksman, despite using a shotgun at point-blank range, allows Bugs to survive their many confrontations and to continue to ask "What's up, Doc?" for decades to come.
The great animator Chuck Jones, whose career with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies began at about the same time that Wolfe's fame was soaring with Of Time and the River, and perhaps peaked with the Wagnerian Bugs Bunny cartoon, What's Opera, Doc? (1957), would later create a new character, named Thomas T. Wolf. (And you thought it would take at least six degrees of separation to make a connection between Bugs Bunny and Thomas Wolfe.) The T stands for Timber, and every time Thomas says it (stuttering, of course), a tree falls on his head. Thomas has a large, remarkably refined vocabulary, and he speaks with a cultured southern accent. All thirteen episodes of Thomas Timber Wolf (2001)--or Timberwolf, as both are used in the cartoons--are available at http://frededison.free.fr/. Warning: The theme song, composed and performed by Riders in the Sky, is a powerful earworm. Viewers of even one episode will soon be subjecting their loved ones to aural torture, similar to Thomas Wolfe's treatment of his traveling companions from Purdue, who, on a trip to Chicago after his speech at the university in May 1938, grew weary of his incessant singing of one particular song from a Disney movie that had been released nationwide just three months earlier. As William Braswell recalls in the October 1939 issue of College English--reprinted in Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech: "Writing and Living" (1964):
He took part in all the group singing, whether he knew the words or not.... But the song that delighted him most was the dwarfs' "Heigh-ho" song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was to be his "theme song" for the week-end. He sang it even walking across a quiet street in Chicago, and, for his mediocre voice, with a ludicrously serious look on his face. And he kept singing it after some of its original charm had worn off. (125)
Like an earworm, the phrase "you can't go home again"--seventy-five years after Wolfe posthumously popularized it--runs on a continuous loop in the minds of many writers and bloggers. They find it so irresistible and use it so often that we have limited ourselves to a mercifully short sample of recent appearances (see pages 164-65).
The novel itself has remained relevant through the years, and writers still quote from it in their own work, as the three examples below demonstrate. So, Happy 75th Anniversary to You Can't Go Home Again.
* E. J. Dionne, nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist, quoted from You Can't Go Home Again in his commentary about Thanksgiving, "The Discipline of Gratitude" (in many newspapers on 29 November 2015): "The novelist Thomas Wolfe called Ecclesiastes 'the noblest, the wisest and the most powerful expression of man's life upon this earth' ..." The quotation is part of George Webber's letter to Foxhall Edwards in chapter 47, "Ecclesiasticus." Dionne's only error was his decision to omit the serial comma after "wisest"--or perhaps his AP-style overlords removed it for him. In the novel, Webber's comment on Ecclesiastes continues, after an em dash:
and also earth's highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could only say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound. (732-33)
* Physics for Poets, by Robert H. March (1934-2015), is one of the best books on the market for explaining complex physics issues and topics in plain language for nonscientists. First published in 1970, it was reissued numerous times (the fifth edition was published in 2002), has been translated into at least eight languages, and is still in print. Each chapter features a quotation from a poet as an epigraph. One of those poets is Thomas Wolfe. The epigraph to chapter 4, "The Moon and the Apple," is "He lives below the senseless stars and writes his meanings in them." That line is from chapter 27 of You Can't Go Home Again, near the end of the "For what is man?" section (page 436 in the first edition of Wolfe's novel). Thomas Wolfe Society life members Gerry and Carole Max, friends of Dr. March's, attended a wake for him on 13 September 2015. Gerry Max writes, "[Physics for Poets] is used worldwide in the classroom. To find Thomas Wolfe quoted in it certainly shows that, via the science train, [Wolfe] is reaching physicists, young and old, throughout the globe."
* An English translation of Karin Wieland's Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Der Traum von der neuen Frau (Hanser, 2011) was published in 2015 as Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (Liveright). In her book, Wieland writes about these two famous women and their very different reactions to the rise of the Third Reich. In the translation by Shelley Frisch, Wieland says that, in 1936, "The National Socialists had put on a show for the Olympic games, but they had no intention of changing. Thomas Wolfe described the situation in his 1940 novel You Can't Go Home Again" (301). The 145-word passage she uses is from chapter 38, "The Dark Messiah" (625-26), and contains only one error--in the second sentence, Wolfe's word in was silently changed to about.
The sheer pageantry of the occasion was overwhelming, so much so that he began to feel oppressed by it. There seemed to be something ominous about it. One sensed a stupendous concentration of effort, a tremendous drawing together and ordering in the vast collective power of the whole land. And the thing that made it seem ominous was that it so evidently went beyond what the games themselves demanded. The games were overshadowed, and were no longer merely sporting competitions to which other nations had sent their chosen teams. They became, day after day, an orderly and overwhelming demonstration in which the whole of Germany had become schooled and disciplined. It was as if the games had been chosen as a symbol of the new collective might, a means of showing to the world in concrete terms what this new power had come to be. (301-02)
A Sense of Place
The four items in this section were brought to our attention by Jim Privette, who is a scholar and sometimes a gentleman. He also wrote some of the text, but it was all run through the Notes machine, so he probably won't recognize his work now. We tend to be wordier than necessary and take great pleasure in finding odd connections to Wolfe mentions that the submitter of said Wolfe mention had no earthly reason to consider. Any errors and all of the vulgarity in what follows belong to us.
First up is Paul Theroux's Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Privette says the book is not, contrary to implications in the subtitle, a seasonal exploration of the South. Theroux is focused mostly on contemporary black oppression. On his initial journey into the southern states, he detours into Asheville, ostensibly in pursuit of a story told to him by a friend, Asheville-born painter and Black Mountain College alumnus Ken Noland (1924-2010). Noland, who left Asheville for the North without losing all of his southern culture, had declared to Theroux, "I had a paper route. I went all over, even delivered papers in Niggertown." Theroux teased him, asking, "Who lived there, Ken?" Noland responded rhetorically ("Who do you think lived there?") and then provided a straightforward, odious one-word answer. So Theroux asked, "What did they call that part of town?" Noland "frowned in bafflement and began gabbling." Theroux adds, "He had no idea, but quickly saw the absurdity of a black person in Asheville identifying this district that way" (32-33; emphasis in orig.).
Theroux wanted to see the place, especially in light of Wolfe's frequent use of that term as the district's name in Look Homeward, Angel (as in a line from chapter 40, which Theroux quotes). He writes, "The town is of course the obsessive subject of Thomas Wolfe, who was born there and is buried there. In my travels it was, or so it seemed to me, one of the happiest, most habitable and well-heeled towns I saw in the South" (33). Upon arrival in Asheville, Theroux locates the area and encounters a man painting a mural on a city wall as part of an urban art project honoring local black history. They are joined by another man who proudly points out his own image in another part of the mural. "This we call the Block," the man tells him. "Or the East End," says the artist. "Everything below Eagle Street and over to Valley Street" (34).
Theroux writes that, in Look Homeward, Angel, the area was "a forbidden and sultry aspect of Asheville's underworld" and that it "figures often in the narrative." He notes that "one of the dramas in the novel concerns Eugene Gant's paper route" in the district, "which was also Thomas Wolfe's paper route." Recalling his old friend's comment, Theroux writes, "What a coincidence! It occurred to me that in claiming to have delivered papers in this part of Asheville, Ken Noland--habitual teller of tall tales, casual assumer of other artists' experiences--might have been appropriating a bit of Wolfe's personal history" (33-34).
In a book in which the author rarely misses an opportunity to critique southern writers and writing, Theroux says nothing about Wolfe, positive or negative. If he had, we suspect it would have been negative. Theroux does not like long sentences. Faulkner and Harper Lee are repeat targets for his literary superiority. He compliments, without reservation, only two southern writers, Mary Ward Brown and Charles Portis. In that context, his silence regarding Wolfe may constitute the closest thing to praise.
A recurring theme in Deep South is the use of the N-word. One entire essay is devoted to it in addition to the questions asked of most of the African Americans interviewed for the book. The chapter about Asheville, Wolfe, and the Block is where this theme is introduced. Of course, segregation and the use of a demeaning name for the black section of town was not just an Asheville phenomenon. According to the appropriately named David W Southern in The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900-1917 (Wiley, 2005), "Almost every town or city in the South with a sizeable black population had a section the whites called ..." (81). Southern offers six examples of insulting names, including the one under discussion here. In fact, this term was so widely used and accepted that nobody at the prestigious New York publishing firm Charles Scribner's Sons, including Maxwell Perkins, felt the need to expurgate it.
Scribner's was, however, squeamish about certain other words Wolfe used in his original manuscript of O Lost. For example, four of the seven words deemed unsuitable for broadcast on the public airwaves--a list famously lampooned by comedian George Carlin in 1972--appear in O Lost, but not in Look Homeward, Angel. In one scene in chapter 18 of O Lost, Fred Gant (the character's name would be changed to Luke in Look Homeward, Angel) writes a letter to his father about his bad experience at college: "The b-b-b-bastards who r-r-run this place have it in for me. I've been f-f-f-fucked good and proper. They take your hardearned m-m-money here and screw you. I'm g-g-g-going to a real school" (288).
One might be tempted to think that the absurdity of Fred's actually spelling out his stuttering in a letter would be reason enough to omit the passage, but that doesn't seem to be the case. In their "Substantive Emendations" appendix, Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli, who established the text of O Lost (University of South Carolina Press, 2000), state that they left this passage as is because "even in non-oral verbalizing, Fred's personality requires the stammer" (683). Most likely, Perkins and other executives at Scribner's felt that "fuck," stammered or not, was inappropriate. Evidently, they were even nervous about the euphemistic "frig," changing one character's line in chapter 11 of O Lost, "Frig 'em all if you like" (180), to "Jazz'em all if you like" in chapter 14 of Look Homeward, Angel (166). It's also clear that they were offended by "fart." Wolfe, like George Carlin decades later, found flatulence funny, but all five appearances in O Lost were carefully removed from Look Homeward, Angel--even the innocuous one that popped into W. O. Gant's head during his streetcar ride across town upon his return from California. Seeing the chairs at the entrance of a hotel, Gant thinks, "Many a fat man's fart upon the leather" (188). The delicate snowflakes at Scribner's persuaded Wolfe to change the foul word to "rump," ruining not only the humor but the alliteration of the original.
To sum up, in the eyes of Charles Scribner's Sons in 1929, "fuck" and "fart" bad; "Niggertown" OK. Times change.
In "Last Panther of the Ozarks" (Oxford American, online 23 September 2015) Elkins Ansel writes about a new edition of poems by Frank Stanford, What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford:
Like an old lover, the poet's myth had been cast in my memory, and now I risked breaking it open and finding not flaming poems but smoke. I was afraid to confront the possibility that my love for his work had faded. "There's nothing cold as ashes," sings Loretta Lynn, "after the fire is gone." Some say this about Thomas Wolfe, that you can only really read him when you're young. That only the young can be swept away with that language of exuberance, so enchanted with those endless sentences, that boundless energy and vigor that is intoxicated by itself. When I checked my mailbox that day, it had been eight years since I'd read a poem by Frank Stanford. ... Before I read Stanford, my love of Southern literature came mostly from fiction--Faulkner, O'Connor, Capote, Hurston, Welty, Wolfe--but I had not yet met a kindred spirit in verse, whose voices and views of the South resonated with my own.
The 13 October 2015 installment of "Eyes on the South," a series by Jeff Rich for Oxford American, is "The Earth's Pivot," which discusses the work of Hickory, North Carolina, photographer Aaron Canipe. Rich notes that Canipe's Plateau series "examines North Carolina's Piedmont region," and that his "Inspiration for the series comes from Thomas Wolfe's novella The Lost Boy: '... the earth's pivot, the granite core of changelessness, the eternal place where all things came and passed, and yet abode forever and would never change.'" The passage is not actually from the novella (UNC Press, 1992), where the final wording is slightly different. It's from the version in The Hills Beyond (1941).
Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers, edited by Marianne Gingher (UNC Press, 2015), presents a collection of essays about the role place, specifically North Carolina, has played in the writing lives of twenty-two authors. The mix is refreshing, with the renowned (Fred Chappell, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, and Robert Morgan) alongside some fine, if lesser known, writers such as Monique Truong, Randall Kenan, and Ben Fountain. In a North Carolina-focused collection, it is not surprising that Wolfe's presence is felt throughout. In fact, Gingher, wastes no time--concluding her introduction, "'But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home,' wrote Thomas Wolfe in You Can't Go Home Again. 'Why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter ...?'" (8; ellipses in orig.). The passage is from chapter 5, and other than splitting Wolfe's single sentence into two, it is accurately quoted.
In the opening essay, "Fertile North Carolina," Robert Morgan lists Wolfe first among factors "that have contributed to the bumper crop of writers" from the state:
I have been asked many times by people in the North why there are so many outstanding writers associated with North Carolina. The flippant answer is: because there ain't nothing else to do down there. But the more serious answer is: because of Thomas Wolfe. Once Wolfe became such a celebrated writer and international celebrity, and his fiction made such an impact on young readers, inspiring passionate admirers, it was inevitable that the talented youth of North Carolina would think of following his career path. The state became, from the 1930s on, a seedbed and hotbed for young writers, and UNC-Chapel Hill was the forcing house. (8)
About his discovery of Look Homeward, Angel, Morgan writes, "I was so enthralled by Wolfe's story, I thought I was Eugene Gant and his family were my family." And, he continues, "I knew he had grown up in Asheville thirty miles away [from Morgan's home], and I began to think that if Wolfe could write a book about Asheville and sell it to Yankees, maybe I could write something and get it published" (14).
When discussing place in the context of North Carolina, we cannot escape talking about the state's diverse topography. Fred Chappell, a native of the mountains and a resident of the piedmont, claims that the eastern part of the state "confuses" him.
The trouble is, North Carolina is many places, and most of us can know only a few of them well enough to write about. Wolfe knew the mountains well and treated them beautifully; he knew the piedmont area pretty well and treated it in a more than satisfactory fashion. The eastern counties he hardly touched upon, and I have wondered if he might not find that area as strange as New York City. He wrote about the Big Apple rather as a tourist might write in letters to his sister back home in Spruce Pine. (27)
[Where did Spruce Pine come from? For a summation of that town's residents with the facility of a poet, consult the beginning of Doris Betts's story "The Ugliest Pilgrim."]
Michael McFee is a child of the mountains, but he left. "I couldn't wait to escape the mountains, once I approached college age.... Maybe reading Look Homeward, Angel at the hormone-addled age of sixteen (perfect timing) planted this seed, or helped water it." And yet, he too recognizes the effects of the mountains as place in a way he cannot escape or evade: "I could put the mountains behind me, in the rearview mirror, but I hadn't grasped an unexpected physiological fact: they were somehow inside me, deep in my body and mind" (49).
When Lee Smith reminisces about her romantic history in Chapel Hill, a place she describes as "a town of trees and visions," she quotes from Wolfe's campus description in chapter 28 of Look Homeward, Angel: "the rare romantic quality of the atmosphere." And she muses how Chapel Hill as place might be affected by Wolfe: "Maybe the quiet, leafy streets themselves are still informed by his giant spirit, that wild young man from the mountains who raged through them in his archetypal search for identity" (70).
Bland Simpson, of Red Clay Ramblers fame, has described the eastern counties and the surrounding country better than anyone, but it is a place far removed from Wolfe, and in his essay ("Water Everywhere") his reference reflects the distance. On a trip west with his Boy Scout troop, he sees "the astonishing high blue hills of western Caroline [sic], Wolfe's Old Catawba ..." (204). A coastal boy, Simpson associates the mountains with Wolfe. He understands how the place affected Wolfe because he was himself affected in similar ways by the coastal plain.
In "Niece-ly Done: A Carolina Escape for Three Generations, with Cool Pursuits for All" (AARP The Magazine, February-March 2015), Melba Newsome reports on a trip to Asheville by the author, her niece, and her grandniece:
... it would be criminal to leave Asheville without seeing the birthplace of its most famous son, literary giant Thomas Wolfe, so I was grateful my nieces indulged my inner novelist with visits to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and the turn-of-the-century boardinghouse where he grew up. We forgot all about the real-life, author, I confess, upon learning we had just missed the handsome actor Jude Law, in town to research his role as Wolfe in the biopic Genius. (56)
The fifth Asheville-based Sam Blackman Mystery by TWS member Mark de Castrique is A Specter of Justice (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). As usual, de Castrique has produced an enjoyable and eminently readable novel. Local legends and landmarks play major roles in the mystery. "Helen's Bridge is up on Beaucatcher Mountain near where College Street ends. It's a stone arch bridge that once was a carriage road for the old Zealandia Mansion." So says Shirley, office manager for an Asheville attorney. She goes on to tell private eye Sam Blackman about past efforts to preserve the bridge, and Sam says, "I take it the bridge is old." She responds, "1909. Thomas Wolfe mentioned it in Look Homeward, Angel. How he would shout beneath it to hear the echo." Sam then asks, "Did he call it Helen's Bridge?" and Shirley answers, "Not that I remember" (17-18). Shirley clearly knows her Wolfe. In chapter 30 of Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene and Laura go on a picnic:
They turned from the railing, with recovered wind, and walked through the gap, under Philip Roseberry's great arched bridge.... As they went under the shadow of the bridge Eugene lifted his head and shouted. His voice bounded against the arch like a stone. (450-51)
Shirley's memory is better than Sam's--he can't remember her last name and secretly calls her "Shirley the Strange" because of her sartorial and cosmetic choices (2). After reading Sam's description of her appearance, one is tempted to say, "Surely you can't be serious." RIP, Leslie Nielsen.
Later in the story, Asheville's begargoyled neo-Gothic skyscraper is mentioned: "Built in 1924 on the site of the monument shop of Thomas Wolfe's father, the Jackson Building was capped with an ornate tower that was used in the 1939 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (72-73). In real life, the first part of that sentence is undeniably true. The second part--every thing after the word tower--is an urban legend that has pretty much been debunked.* Finally, describing the attorney's "inner sanctum," Sam Blackman notices the old photos on the walls, including "an iconic shot of the W.O. Wolfe monument shop where Thomas Wolfe's father dealt in cemetery markers, the most famous of which became the starring title for Look Homeward, Angel" Sam then looks out the window "at Pack Square and the Jackson Building now towering on that very spot Thomas Wolfe spent much of his childhood. In a few more years, it would be a hundred years old" (147).
The "Today in History" column in the Asheville Citizen-Times for 19 October 2015 notes that Wolfe's brother Ben died on that date ninety-seven years ago during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and it features a quotation from Look Homeward, Angel. Curiously, given Wolfe's celebrated memory, his dedication in From Death to Morning (1935) to his brother cites October 20th as Ben's date of death. Ben's death certificate confirms the date as 19 October.
Wolfe is mentioned twice more in "Today in History" during 2015. On 11 November it is noted that the Thomas Wolfe house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on that date in 1971, and the 2 December installment commemorates developer L. B. Jackson's announcement on 2 December 1922 of his plans to construct a skyscraper on the site of Wolfe's father's monument shop. The reporter does not say if Jackson ever received a call from Hollywood. We have a hunch that he did not.
The Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar in the Grove Arcade hosted an evening of dramatic readings by Randi Janelle on 23 May 2015 titled Literary Howlings: Readings from Wolfe to Woolf. The free event featured pieces by Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, Virginia Woolf, and Beverly Hungry Wolf.
Although not related to Asheville, the following factoid just seems to belong here: A reader who requested anonymity (actually, she demanded it) recently informed us that director Joe Dante packed his 1981 werewolf movie The Howling with inside jokes and visual puns. Two of the more literary gags are a scene in which a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl is seen on a desktop near a telephone and a scene in which a character is reading a copy of You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe.
EDITORS AND EDITING
"As another southern writer once said, 'you can't go home again.'" So begins Maureen Corrigan's largely negative review of Go Set a Watchman for National Public Radio's Fresh Air on 13 July 2015, the day before the release of Harper Lee's controversial novel. On that same day, in "The Invisible Hand That Nurtured an Author and a Literary Classic" (New York Times), Jonathan Mahler writes about Harper Lee and her editor, Theresa Von Hohoff Torrey (Tay Hohoff), who helped shepherd To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way he observes:
Publishing lore is filled with stories of famously headstrong editors imposing their will on authors. Maxwell Perkins, the longtime editorial director of Charles Scribner's Sons, told Ernest Hemingway to "tone it down," and cut 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe's debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel. (C5)
Another NPR report, "What Exactly Does an Editor Do? The Role Has Changed over Time" by Lynn Neary on All Things Considered (29 December 2015), also mentions the work of Harper Lee's editor (without naming her). The report features interviews with A. Scott Berg, author of Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books. Neary describes Perkins as "the legendary editor ... who shepherded the works of such greats as F Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway." Berg discusses how Perkins worked with authors, how he changed the role of editors, and how that role has changed in modern times (he says editors now spend more time marketing than actually editing). Saletan disagrees with Berg and discusses her own editorial work as an example.
The original audio segment is available on the NPR website, as is a considerably different text version. Neary's byline is the only on-screen credit for the text version, so it is not known if an editor was involved. However, given that an error made by Neary during the original broadcast has been corrected in the text version, the hand of an editor--even if it was Neary herself--is apparent. At the conclusion of her on-air report Neary said, "writer and author" when she meant to say "editor and author." That has been fixed in the text version. And because the text version opens with a brief discussion of Harper Lee's editor, including her name, an extra three words have been added to the closing to tie the entire text piece together--which also sounds like the work of a good editor: "There is ... an intimacy that inevitably develops between an editor and author as they work together on a book. And in that way, things haven't changed all that much since the days of Max Perkins and Tay Hohoff."
James Salter's final novel, All That Is (Knopf, 2013), is about the life of an editor. In an interview with Dexter Cirillo (Aspen Sojourner, online 1 May 2013), Salter--who died 19 June 2015 at age 90--said:
The book is really about a journey through life, in this case, of an editor. It's also a story of what we now regard as a golden age in publishing, from 1920 to 1980, when there were legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins, Thomas Wolfe's editor, and publishing houses like Scribner's, where publishing was more familial than it is today.
In that same interview, Salter also said, "When I was young, I was influenced by the American writers of the time, especially Thomas Wolfe. I've gone back and read him, even though he hasn't remained popular. He also influenced Jack Kerouac...."
To begin "Trollope Uncut" for the New York Times Book Review on 11 October 2015, Charles McGrath writes:
Scholars are always fossicking around in libraries and emerging with the original manuscripts of novels supposedly superior to the mangled versions subsequently created by dimwitted editors. In 2000, for example, Matthew J. Bruccoli and his wife, Arlyn, convinced themselves that the suitcase-sized version of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel" was better before Maxwell Perkins did us all a favor and took his scissors to it. (29)
Whatever one thinks of McGrath's opinion in this case, one has to appreciate his use of a word that he surely knew was unfamiliar to a majority of his (American) readers. A trip to Webster's reveals that fossick is a "chiefly Australian and New Zealand" term meaning "to search about"; to "rummage."
In Zachary Leader's The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 (Knopf, 2015), Bellow is quoted about the literary conversations he had with a friend during his brief time as a graduate student at Wisconsin: "We were big on Theodore Dreiser, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe and Faulkner" (199). Leader's book also offers considerable discussion about Bellow's agent, Henry Volkening, including these comments:
... Volkening went to Fordham Law School and worked in real estate, which he did not enjoy. He was literary and managed to get a post teaching English literature at night school at New York University. There in 1927 he befriended a fellow instructor, "a huge, black-haired man at a desk nearby," the novelist Thomas Wolfe, about whom he wrote a large profile in 1939 ["Tom Wolfe: Penance No More"]. It was Wolfe who introduced Volkening to Maxwell Perkins, who was his editor at Scribner's, midwife to Look Homeward, Angel, the enormous novel Wolfe was working on at the time, and Perkins who told Volkening he ought to consider becoming an agent (after first telling him that he had no editorial openings at Scribners). (332)
Leader explains that Diarmuid Russell, "a young editor recently fired from G. P Putnam's Sons" (332), had also sought out Perkins, and he received the same advice, along with Volkening's name. The two men then founded a literary agency in 1940. "Their list was small and distinguished. Thomas Wolfe eventually joined it as did Wright Morris, Peter Taylor, J. F. Powers, May Sarton, A. J. Liebling, Barbara Tuchman, and Ann Tyler" (333). Wolfe, who died twenty months before the firm of Russell and Volkening was formed, did not join their list.
We conclude this section on editors and editing by reporting the death of a translator (and translators are editors). Arpad Goncz, "playwright, translator and anti-Communist dissident who became the first president of post-Communist Hungary" (1990-2000), died 6 October 2015 at the age of 93. Margalit Fox, in her New York Times obituary (10 October 2015), writes:
Mr. Goncz, who taught himself English during his six years in prison, produced Hungarian translations of a string of English-language writers, including Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, William Faulkner, William Golding, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Susan Sontag, William Styron, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Updike, Alice Walker, Edith Wharton and Thomas Wolfe.
The Hungarian edition of Of Time and the River was translated by Goncz. Malaprop's Bookstore owner, Emoke B'Racz, whose father was an exiled Hungarian diplomat, confirms Fox's portrait of Goncz as a humane and gifted literary political figure. The obituary ends with a quotation from Goncz evidencing his wit: "'Certainly ... a bad translator can cause less trouble than a bad president."
HAMNER AND WOLFE
Earl Hamner, author of Spencer's Mountain (1961)--which was the basis for the 1963 movie of that title as well as the TV series The Waltons (1971-81)--begins his introduction to Generous Women: An Appreciation (Cumberland, 2006) by describing his inspiration for writing the book:
One of my favorite books is Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. It is a very personal book to me because it tells the story of a boy from the Southern mountains who leaves home to realize his passion to become a writer, but in all of his journeys he returns home, to the place and people he left behind, for his inspiration and his strength. I have reread the book from time to time, and not long ago I came across this sentence: "But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives--all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it." And it prompted me to count some of the influences on my life and how they led me to become the man I am today. (13)
The quoted passage is from "To the Reader," which precedes the proem to Look Homeward, Angel (page vii in the first edition), and it evokes the novel's well-known second paragraph: "Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas" (3). Reflecting on this idea--which he calls "Thomas Wolfe's theory" (14)--inspired Hamner (who died in March 2016 while this issue of the Review was in editorial production) to write about the many women who influenced his life.
One of his chapters is titled "The Gift of Literature: Mabel Wheaton--Thomas Wolfe's Sister." In it Hamner explains how he first came to love Wolfe's work. As a young GI riding on a troop train across Kentucky in 1943, he noticed that the young soldier seated next to him was reading a book. Suddenly, the man "emitted a shrill bleat-like scream." Seeing the shock on Hamner's face, the soldier, Paul Nusnick, calmly explained that it was his "goat cry." He asked Hamner if he had read any Thomas Wolfe, and, learning that he had not, said, "Then you'd better get started." Nusnick then handed him the copy of Look Homeward, Angel he had been reading (123). Hamner writes, "When I read the book I learned the origin of Nusnick's 'goat cry.' Wolfe wrote about such a cry that would come out of the depth of his being when he was deeply moved by an experience or a memory" (123-24).
His reaction to reading Wolfe seems to have been very similar to Pat Conroy's. Hamner writes, "The copy of Look Homeward, Angel was the beginning [of] a lifelong love of everything that Thomas Wolfe has ever written" (124). He then expands on his thoughts from the introduction:
From the very first I felt a kinship with another child of the hills who is destined to go far beyond the horizons, the prejudices, and the ignorance that hemmed him in during his growing up. While the circumstances and structure of our families were different, the feelings of kinship were very similar. (124)
Hamner adds that You Can't Go Home Again (which had been published only three years before he discovered Wolfe) "would continue to resonate throughout [his] life," and he writes, "I became a serious reader of Wolfe's works, collecting modestly priced copies of most of them, and even visiting the home in Asheville, North Carolina ..." (125). He met Wolfe's sister while he was a staff writer for NBC, working on the radio series Biography in Sound. Hamner's description of his work with her on the production of an episode titled "They Knew Thomas Wolfe" (first broadcast 1 November 1955) is enlightening, as is the rest of his text about his friendship with her (125-28).
Hamner also mentions Wolfe in relation to his learning that Random House was going to publish his first book, Fifty Roads to Town (1953). Standing in front of the publisher's building, he was "in a state of complete euphoria," and, he writes, "...if someone passing by heard a strange, guttural cry of utter happiness they might have heard my version of Thomas Wolfe's 'goat cry!'" (133). Finally, in his chapter on Harper Lee, Hamner quotes from a letter Lee wrote to his editor about Spencer's Mountain: "At first glance, I must confess to a sinking feeling that Mr. Hamner might be another sheep in Wolfe's clothing. He is nothing of the kind. His gifts are strictly his own ..." (142).
Wolfe is mentioned a few times in J. Michael Lennon's edition of Selected Letters of Norman Mailer (Random House, 2014). In his introduction, Lennon says that Mailer "returns many times to the novelists he read at Harvard: James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and D. H. Lawrence" (xvi). On 11 March 1945 Mailer wrote Beatrice Mailer that "to expect catharsis from Maugham is to demand sophistication from [Thomas] Wolfe or elegance from [James T.] Farrell" (25; brackets in orig.). And five days later he wrote her of reading The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters by Joseph Stanley Pennell, "which is good, the war scenes are as Wolfe might have done them, and it is an awful temptation to let go with all the stinks and sights" (58). Pennell's book was edited by Maxwell Perkins and published by Scribner's in 1944. As A. Scott Berg noted in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, Pennell "had been inspired by Wolfe, and his book bore many similarities to Wolfe's work" (424).
Mailer's 24 April 1953 letter to Philip Allan Friedman tells of his meeting Sinclair Lewis in 1948:
I thought his personality to be almost a replica of Thomas Wolfe's portrait of Lloyd McHarg, and I said as much to him. Red was not altogether pleased. He said, "Well, you know Tom was a great story-teller, but he loved to exaggerate, that's part of being a story-teller of course, but I don't think his portrait of me was very accurate. I mean, you remember, he portrayed me as being very sloppy, and the fact is I'm a neat man. Look at my desk. Does that look like the desk of a sloppy man?" And indeed, his desk was clear while he spoke. (136)
He wrote Diana Trilling on 10 August 1960 about critics and misreadings: "The only one any critic ever got right in his infirmities was [Thomas] Wolfe, and that was because Wolfe gave the show away" (268; brackets in orig.). To Ronald L. Johnson on 7 May 1973 Mailer wrote:
... I read all of Steinbeck, Farrell, Wolfe, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald that I could get my hands on at Harvard in the early forties and so certainly The Grapes of Wrath was one of the books which had a major influence on The Naked and the Dead. (434)
He wrote Edward Meadows on 12 May 1974 of being in Washington, DC, with Robert Lowell in 1970: "We thought we might go there for Auld Lang Syne but it was a boring fucking afternoon for me and I took off before the evening, thinking of Thomas Wolfe and his titles" (447). On 16 January 1988, Mailer wrote Helen Morris of The Reader's Catalogue listing ten favorite American novels. Look Homeward, Angel is on his list (618).
A slightly different report on Wolfe's late-night attempt to visit Mabel Dodge Luhan at her salon in Taos, New Mexico, in 1935 is reported in Selected Letters of Langston Hughes (Knopf, 2015). In a 31 August 1935 letter to Noel Sullivan, Hughes writes:
And the town is full of stories about how badly she has been receiving guests lately (Edna Ferber, for one; and more recently, Thomas Wolfe, who it seems, never did get in the house (after having been especially invited) so from the outside, he flung all sorts of bad words at her through the bed-room window, enlivening the night and out Jaime-ing Jaime D'Angulo! He came back to Santa Fe, feeling that America's greatest novelist had been outraged! [)] (181-82)
Footnotes identify Ferber: "prominent novelist and playwright" (181); de Angulo: "anthropologist as well as a novelist, linguist, and specialist on Native Americans in California" (182); and Wolfe: "Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) of North Carolina wrote the acclaimed novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and the posthumously published You Can't Go Home Again" (181).
More Book Mentions
TWS member John Halberstadt wrote to inform us about a passage in Joseph Bathanti's powerful and poignant essay "Provolone" in the January 2016 issue of the Chapel Hill magazine The Sun. During a visit with his parents in Pittsburgh--while his ailing mother is in the hospital--Bathanti is in their apartment, and his father has gone to bed. He finds himself with a moment to think.
Out of habit I amble into the kitchen and open the refrigerator. There is a scene in Thomas Wolfe's novel Of Time and the River in which Eugene Gant, Wolfe's alter ego, stands transfixed in front of the Pierce family's legendary refrigerator: "The great icebox was crowded with such an assortment of delicious foods as he had not seen in many years: just to look at it made the mouth begin to water, and aroused the pangs of a hunger so ravenous and insatiate that it was almost more painful than the pangs of bitter want." He goes on to enumerate the mythic inventory of the Pierces' larder. Wolfe's button-busting prose also describes my parents' refrigerator when I was growing up. (44)
The quoted passage is from chapter 61 (page 541 in the first edition of Wolfe's novel).
In Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning 2010 memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, she writes about getting a job at Scribner's Bookstore in the winter of 1968: "It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins" (55). Smith and Mapplethorpe move to the Hotel Chelsea, and she describes the El Quixote bar and restaurant adjoining the hotel, noting that "Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O'Neill, and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there" (105). Of the Chelsea itself, Smith says it was here that "Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can't Go Home Again" (112). And in a section of unnumbered pages in the back of the book, a photo of the hotel's entrance shows a portion of the commemorative plaques for Wolfe, Arthur Miller, and Dylan Thomas.
By the way, the Wolfe plaque can also be seen in a 1971 photo of Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper that accompanies Dwight Garner's 16 December 2015 New York Times review of Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern (Antibookclub, 2015). Southern was a co-writer of the film Easy Rider, which featured Hopper in a major role. The plaques are also mentioned in "Chelsea Dreams" by Richard Kreitner of the Nation (online 18 June 2014):
The commemorative plaques surrounding the Chelsea's entrance attest to the sacred status reserved for it in our officially sanctioned cultural history: it has been home and haven to the likes of Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Lee Masters, Arthur Miller, Arthur Clarke, Shirley Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
And the Beats Go On: In Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve, 2014), Barry Miles writes that William S. Burroughs "met Kerouac through Lucien [Carr], who told him all about this good-looking, hard-drinking, literary seaman who could quote Thomas Wolfe" (104). And, once again, Miles reports on the famous and oft studied "Night of the Wolfeans and the Non-Wolfeans." To describe the events of that 1945 evening in this book, Miles simply copied much of the text he used in his 1989 biography of Allen Ginsberg, including the same Ginsberg quotations and the same descriptions of other activities--"games of charades where the Wolfean and non-Wolfean roles were acted out" (135). The event has also been discussed in the Review at least three times--see the spring 1994 issue (47, an excerpt from Miles's 1989 Ginsberg biography used as a filler item); the 2006 issue (190-91, a "Notes" entry about Bill Morgan's 2006 Ginsberg biography); and the 2012 issue (186, a brief mention about Joyce Johnson's book on Kerouac). But for those new to this story, here is an excerpt from Miles's description of the evening:
It was around this time that one of the set-piece Beat Generation events occurred, later known as "The Night of the Wolfeans and the Non-Wolfeans." Kerouac was enormously influenced by Thomas Wolfe and talked constantly about his overlong celebrations of American provincial life. In the Benzedrine-fueled discussions at 115th Street this evolved into a split in the household between the Wolfeans and the non-Wolfeans. The Wolfeans were the heterosexual all-American boys, Kerouac and Hal Chase, and on the other side were Burroughs and Ginsberg, characterized by Allen as "the sinister European fairies, me and Burroughs, fairy-Jew-communists non-Wolfean cynics who didn't believe in the wideopen dewy-eyed lyrical America that they did and who were always trying to make it with the Wolfean boys." ... [Ginsberg] felt the non-Wolfeans were being discriminated against. "Homosexuality was one of the at tributes of non-Wolfeans, and among other things, intellectuality and fear of the body and manipulativeness and Jewishness. International concern rather than appreciation of America and homeyness and family and normal values." ... In many ways, the roles and relationships defined by them that night determined how they saw each other for the rest of their lives. (134)
Concerning the role-playing games, Miles points out (as he did in 1989) that "Ginsberg played 'The Well-Groomed Hungarian.' ... Burroughs would play his shill.... Kerouac borrowed his father's straw hat and played the wide-eyed innocent American in Paris." When Kerouac, in character, said he had a date with his girl, Burroughs broke character and said "You want to stay away from those, Jack. Those ladies got poisonous juices. Your cock falls off and sometimes they got teeth up there!" Burroughs later remembered his role as "an Edith Sitwell part," and he said, "I got in drag and looked like some sinister old lesbian" (135). For another 1945 event, Kerouac began "writing a massive Wolfean bildungsroman, The Town and the City ..." (139). And "the final manuscript was indeed Wolfean, with over twelve hundred manuscript pages and more than 300,000 words" (139-40). Finally--not for the first time--under "Thomas Wolfe," the index reference to page 453 is about Tom Wolfe.
Another recent Beat publication is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Writing across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2013 (Liveright, 2015). The entry for 1 April 1960 (from New York) includes, "With Jack Kerouac at midnight.... what am I doing with him here anyway, sometime in eternity? ... All the while remembering Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, one of our favorite books"(16). On 8 April 1960, aboard the Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco: "Nothing but moon, stars, night flashing by ... lost in night of America____Thomas Wolfe's, Whit man's, Kerouac's, yours, Ferlinghetti's America" (17; second ellipsis in orig.). In Paris, his entry for 1 June 1963 includes, "See myself on the balcony, with sheaf of copy paper, pale blue or green, now in cardboard carton attic San Francisco ... thought I was the American Proust in love with Thomas Wolfe, fucking Europe's Great Woman" (61; ellipsis in orig.). Finally, an end note about Ferlinghetti's choosing to attend UNC (1937-1941) explains that he "had been drawn there because it was the alma mater of Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel, which influenced Lawrence greatly" (449n4).
Brett L. Abrams writes about Wolfe's descriptions of "sexually adventurous people at a big private party" in Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream (McFarland, 2008). He says that, in The Party at Jack's, Wolfe "roundly condemned the theatrical and Wall Street figures who attended a party within an elegant New York City apartment on Fifth Avenue." Abrams is wrong about the address of the apartment; in The Party at Jack's, as in real life, it was on Park Avenue. Wolfe, writes Abrams, "viewed his characters' actions and attitudes as the degradation of society that capitalist culture promoted" (82). And he continues:
Several characters crossed sexual boundaries as a result of their decadence and boredom with all the elements of life. A sculptor who made crude and aggressive sexual advances to all the women and a scandalous socialite who could not speak a complete sentence appeared as shallow, tasteless, and talentless people. Both characters lacked any redeeming qualities. Wolfe also included negative depictions of one male and one female homosexual character at the party. However, the editors of the magazine that serialized the story and the editor of You Can't Take It with You [sic!] (the novel in which the story appeared) removed them. This removal of these homosexual characters signaled that readers interested in Wall Street and Broadway parties could or would not accept the characters' presence and/or that the editors themselves could not accept them. Thus, in one of the rare instances in which an author of a non-Hollywood novel included homosexual characters at a private party, the characters disappeared before publication. The censoring of materials that featured Hollywood private parties did not appear to occur very often. (82)
The magazine Abrams refers to is Scribner's, which published a trimmed-down version of "The Party at Jack's," edited by Elizabeth Nowell, in May 1939 (the last issue of Scribner's Magazine). Edward C. Aswell used a portion of "The Party at Jack's" text in You Can't Go Home Again (1940).
Wolfe is frequently mentioned in My Generation: Collected Nonfiction by William Styron, edited by James L. W. West III (Random House, 2015). All of the essays that mention Wolfe--except one--are reprinted from an earlier collection, This Quiet Dust and Other Writings (Random House, 1982), and have been discussed before in the Review or in bibliographies. So we will provide just a sample of Styron's Wolfean comments. The chapter "Lie Down in Darkness" begins, "When, in the autumn of 1947, I was fired from the first and only job I have ever held, I wanted one thing out of life: to become a writer." Styron says he left his "position as manuscript reader at the McGraw-Hill Book Company with no regrets" and that "when I left the McGraw-Hill Building for the last time I felt the exultancy of a man just released from slavery and ready to set the world on fire" (363). There is no mention of Edward Aswell, who fired Styron, and would later be pilloried as "the Weasel."
On trying to become an original, Styron writes, "It was not only Faulkner. I had to deafen myself to echoes of Scott Fitzgerald, always so easy and seductive, rid my syntax of the sonorities of Conrad and Thomas Wolfe, cut out wayward moments of Hemingway attitudinizing, above all, be myself" (366).
"'O Lost!' Etc." first appeared in Harper's (April 1968) and was reprinted in Louis D. Rubin's Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1973) as "The Shade of Thomas Wolfe." It is largely a review of Andrew Turnbull's biography of Wolfe, and we here observe Styron's conclusion:
Wolfe would have to be cherished if only for the power he exerted upon a whole generation. But even if this were not enough, the clear glimpses he had at certain moments of man as a strange, suffering animal alone beneath the blazing and indifferent stars would suffice to earn him honor, and a flawed but undeniable greatness. (425)
In his review of Malcolm Cowley's A Second Flowering (New York Times Book Review, 6 May 1973), Styron writes:
With Wolfe alone I felt I had been captured by a demon, made absolutely a prisoner by this irresistible torrent of language. It was a revelation, for at eighteen I had no idea that words themselves--this tumbling riot of dithyrambs and yawping apostrophes and bardic cries--had the power to throw open the portals of perception, so that one could actually begin to feel and taste and smell the very texture of existence. I realize now the naivete of so many of Wolfe's attitudes and insights, his intellectual virginity, his parochial and boyish heart, his inability to objectivize experience and thus create a believable ambience outside the narrow range of self--all of these drastically reduce his importance as a writer with a serious claim on an adult mind. However, some passages--including the majestic death of old Gant in Of Time and the River--are of such heartrending power and radiant beauty that for these alone he should be read, and for them he would certainly retain a place in American literature. (438-39)
Styron continues by calling Cowley's commentary in A Second Flowering "the most clear-headed brief analysis of Wolfe and his work that I have seen in print." Styron says that Cowley's portrait of Wolfe is "unsparing in its details about all that made the man such a trial to himself and others--his paranoia, his nearly fatal lack of self-criticism, his selfishness and grandiosity, all the appurtenances of a six-foot-seven-inch child writing in his solipsistic hell ..." but that it is "nonetheless enormously sympathetic and filled with respect." He quotes Cowley on Wolfe:
He had always dreamed of becoming a hero ... and that is how he impresses us now: perhaps not as a hero of the literary art on a level with Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but as Homo Scribens and Vir Scribentissimus, a tragic hero of the act of writing. (439)
Calling him "the baroque writing phenomenon of the Thirties" (248), Paul Johnson quotes Wolfe twice about the Depression era in a revised edition of Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Harper Perennial, 2001). Citing a passage from chapter 27 of You Can't Go Home Again, Johnson says that Wolfe "described the public lavatories outside New York's City Hall, where an astonishing proportion of America's two million derelicts congregated" (248). Johnson's transcription of the passage contains two silent emendations that seem to be intentional (i.e., not typos). The second "quotation" is from a 1936 letter to Jonathan Daniels in which Wolfe describes the reactions of his fellow passengers when he informs them that he intends to vote for Roosevelt. In this brief passage a dozen silent, substantive, and clearly deliberate editorial changes have been made to Wolfe's original letter.
Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003; paperback 2004) reports Caroline Gordon's first reaction to seeing Walker Percy's early manuscript "The Charterhouse": "My heart sank when I saw it." Elie writes that Gordon "recognized it as a Southern bildungsroman, a la Of Time and the River, and 'feared a wolfe had gotten into the fold'" (195). Elie, noting that Percy adapted his "Three Existential Modes" for his own purposes, asks, "What is the alienated commuter to do to unalienate himself?" He offers several possibilities, one being that Percy "can stage a repetition deliberately, going home again on the train like Thomas Wolfe's overwrought protagonists" (250). He also writes that, in "switching from fiction to philosophy," Percy's ideas "were still repetitions of Kierkegaard and Marcel, the way his novels had been repetitions of Thomas Wolfe and Thomas Mann" (253).
Bernard, the first-person narrator in My Elegant Barnyard (a 2001 novel by Kacy Curtis) explains that one of his reasons for wanting to return to Oregon after living on Maui for several months is the "urgent need for an education." He says that, while on the island, "I read the likes of Kerouac, Kesey, London, Steinbeck, Huxley, Shakespeare, Thomas Wolfe"--writers who seemed to say to him, "Boy, if you want to make it in this world, you got to have an education." He goes on to say, "They all had their own unique way of pursuing it, they all walked an individual path ..." (16). Later, after experiencing "a black towering wave of loneliness and desolation" (117), Bernard says:
It was right at that moment, while I stood on the brink of destruction that a passage I had once read resurfaced, and with it came liberation, a sensation of deliverance. The passage was from Thomas Wolfe, from his essay "God's Lonely Man." In it he says, "The whole conviction of my life now rests on the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence." Those words saved my spirit, the concept replaced my apprehension with a pure, cordial security. What Thomas Wolfe felt was no different from what every human who has walked the earth felt at one point or another in their lives. But, in my opinion, never has someone described loneliness as poignantly as Wolfe did in "God's Lonely Man." He attempts to show the unity inherent in sadness and joy, how one cannot exist without the other. When that passage came to me, my worries were extinguished. (117-18)
"God's Lonely Man" first appeared in The Hills Beyond (Harper, 1941), and a magazine version titled "The Anatomy of Loneliness" was published in the October 1941 issue of the American Mercury. In quoting from the essay, Curtis makes only one minor transcription error, changing upon to on. Others who have used this passage--on T-shirts and in movies--have silently truncated it. Paul Schrader, for example, omitted "peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men" when he used the passage as the epigraph to his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976)--the Martin Scorsese movie in which Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) famously says in a voice-over, "I'm God's lonely man." Well, we think it's famous. If you can think of some other line from Taxi Driver that's better known, then I guess we're not talkin' to you. An even more truncated version of the Wolfe passage is read by Samuel L. Jackson in 187, a 1997 movie in which he portrays a teacher who encounters gang trouble in Los Angeles ("187" is police code for murder).
MORE ACTORS READING WOLFE
In "What's Sonia Manzano Reading?"--an interview with the Tampa Bay Times (posted 19 August 2015)--the recently retired TV star noted that "I'm also reading Look Homeward[,] Angel by Thomas Wolfe." When Manzano, best known for her longtime role as Maria on Sesame Street, was asked by the interviewer "Why Thomas Wolfe?" she replied: "I'm interested in books that have a theme of going home. So I'm reading that, and I just finished The Great Gatsby, and I finally understood that one. But, with Look Homeward[,] Angel, I'm struggling. He's quite vicious when he describes black people and Jews, but I'll try to stick with it."
Kim Novak reports that she once received a gift of Wolfe books from Frank Sinatra. Interviewed in 2013 by Geoffrey Macnab for the Independent (London), Novak says that, during the filming of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), "[Sinatra] was so kind and so gentle.... I was very new in the business and he was so understanding. I remember I was sick for a couple of days and he sent me a box of the complete works of Thomas Wolfe." The interview with Novak, "'There were paparazzi hiding under my bed': Vertigo Star Kim Novak," was posted online 21 June 2013.
Stephen J. Gertz's 8 October 2010 post for his Booktryst blog ("Marilyn Monroe: Avid Reader, Writer & Book Collector") lists books owned by Monroe that were auctioned at Christie's on 28-29 October 1999, including The Story of a Novel; Look Homeward[,] Angel; A Stone, a Leaf, a Door; and the Terry edition of Thomas Wolfe's Letters to His Mother. Gertz isn't the first to report that the blonde bombshell was intellectually curious (see the spring 1996 and 2013 issues of the TWR).
"YOU CAN'T": A SMALL SAMPLE
At halftime of the nationally televised Thanksgiving night game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (26 November 2015), the Packers conducted a ceremony to retire the number of quarterback Brett Favre. As the ceremony took place on the field, television announcer Al Michaels said on the broadcast, "You can go home again."
The Wolfe Society met in Albany in 2015 where many members enjoyed touring the New York State Capitol on State Street. Later in the year, while Assemblyman Sheldon Silver was being tried on corruption charges in federal court, Jesse McKinley (in "Colleagues Ponder Ex-Speaker's Role in Albany If a Jury Acquits Him," for the New York Times, 27 November 2015) writes:
"There is an old adage: 'You can't go home again,"' said one veteran lawmaker who, like many other Democrats interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the uncertainty over Mr. Silver's fate and legacy. "When it's over, it's over." (A25)
They needn't have worried; Silver was convicted.
Popular blogger Dave Pell (NextDraft.com), noting that millennial aren't the only generation "returning to the nest," opens his 2 September 2015 posting with "You can go home again."
Samantha Falabella discusses visits to her hometown and her father's hometown in "The Importance of Remembering" on the website of the Cardea Group (2 March 2015). She writes, "Some say you can't go home again."
Writing for the Leader Voices blog on the website of the American Academy of Family Physicians, Dr. John Meigs titled his 19 February 2015 post "Thomas Wolfe Had It Wrong: You Can Go Home Again." Concerning where to start his medical practice, Meigs writes, "Not to gainsay Thomas Wolfe's compelling novel You Can't Go Home Again.... but [my wife and I] couldn't find anything we liked better than my hometown."
Kevin D. Williamson's "If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go" (National Review, online 6 October 2015) prompted a twitter exchange on its website. One reader tweeted that Williamson "is more You Can't Go Home Again than Look Homeward, Angel," to which a second reader replied, "I love Look Homeward, Angel, but I don't think we should try to organize the real world around Thomas Wolfe novels."
An article in the "Adventure and Travel" section of the weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal (25-26 July 2015) concerns journalist Charles Passy's return to the Spring House, a nineteenth-century hotel on Block Island, Rhode Island, where he summered as a child. "The Island That Time Forgot" features this subtitle statement: "You can't go home again, but on Block Island, R.I., Charles Passy was able to very nearly relive his childhood family vacations" (D4).
In Love Is a Choice: The Definitive Book on Letting Go of Unhealthy Relationships (Nelson, 1989), authors Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier write:
The homing instinct in human beings is not geographic. It operates totally within the distant vistas of our minds. Rather than seek out physically the place of our birth and childhood, we seek to reconstruct it in our present lives. Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again." You don't have to. We bring the home to us. We all possess a primal need to re-create the familiar, the original family situation.... (58)
CRAZY COLLECTORS CORNER
Using Wolfe quotations on tchotchkes and knickknacks, as well as for more artistic objects, isn't a new phenomenon. But over the past couple of years some of Wolfe's lesser-known passages have been borrowed by craftspeople for their wares, sending Wolfeans deep into the novels to locate the originals. For example, Ashlee Forquer (dba AshFork's), creates interesting artwork by transferring original photographs onto wood. The finished product resembles a painting on wood, and some of them include quotations. The made-to-order "True Knowledge" (first offered for sale in 2014 for $14 on Etsy) is a colorful image of a hedged-in grassy area with a large statue in the foreground. Printed on the right side of the piece is this:
This is what knowledge really is. It is finding out something for oneself with pain, with joy, with exultancy, with labor, and with all the little ticking, breathing moments of our lives. Thomas Wolfe.
The passage is from chapter 23 ("Esther's House") of The Web and the Rock (page 380), and it is accurately transcribed.
Another seller on Etsy, Heather King (dba IcedTeaAndSunshine), offers digital downloads (PDFs and jpegs) for $5. Customers are encouraged to suggest customization of the images before ordering and to then print them for framing. One image is a clip-art-like stylized sun and clouds, with these words appearing in quotation marks on the clouds beneath the sun:
"Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going."
The on-screen description reads, "INSTANT DOWNLOAD Inspirational Literary Quote by Thomas Wolfe--You Can't Go Home Again--Typographic Print Poster--Customizable Sizes!" Initial response by one of your "Notes" writers/editors was that King had misread something somewhere; that this line didn't sound like Wolfe. Perhaps the situation was analogous to the late-1960s poster that featured a close-up photograph of a parking meter (presumably indicating that one's time is running out), along with the phrase "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" and the name "Thomas Wolfe." That Thomas Wolfe, it turns out, was a graphic artist who specialized in such posters, and he had not intended to imply that Wolfe-the-writer was the creator of that phrase--a phrase that epitomized an era of such hippy-dippy philosophies (as certain members of the adult generation of that time referred to them).
But that "Notes" writer/editor was wrong. Fortunately, before writing anything on this subject, he checked the facts. The "keep on going" passage was indeed written by Thomas Wolfe. It's from You Can't Go Home Again--specifically, chapter 35 ("A Guest in Spite of Himself")--and it is accurately transcribed. What the seller does not mention is that the speaker of these words is Wolfe's character Lloyd McHarg, based on Sinclair Lewis. McHarg has just praised George Webber's abilities: "Good God, man, you've got a hundred books in you! You can keep on turning them out as long as you live. There's no danger of your drying up. The only danger is of freezing up" (574). Webber focuses only on that last phrase and asks, "How do you mean? Why should a man freeze up?" (574). McHarg's lengthy response about writers who lose their nerve concludes with "So for God's sake, get going and keep going. Don't let them slow you down. Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don't freeze up" (575).
This bit of research led down an interesting path: one would think that a logical way to find the parking meter poster online would be to Google the words parking meter and poster. But that search instead found multiple references to the 1965 movie Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy. Newman's character ends up on a chain gang after cutting the heads off of several parking meters in a drunken attempt to defy authority. As with the Bugs Bunny item (see pages 138-39), the reader may well wonder what possible connection to Thomas Wolfe could be found in this research tangent. If you think there is none, then (in the voice of Strother Martin): "What we've got here is failure to communicate."
Playing the role of Luke's dying mother in Cool Hand Luke is Jo Van Fleet, who made a nice living late in her career playing elderly domineering characters, most notably Eliza Gant in the original Broadway cast of the Ketti Frings adaptation of Look Homeward, Angel. So there's your Wolfe connection. And we remind readers that Van Fleet's character in the play also has a son named Luke. On the other hand, she--Eliza Gant--isn't dying, at least not right away.
Would you like another dark miracle of chance? As we reported in "Notes" in 2010, the original choice to play Eliza Gant on Broadway in 1957 was Bette Davis--according to several sources, including Charlotte Chandler in The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2006). But Davis fell down some stairs in Los Angeles, severely injuring her back, so the role went to Jo Van Fleet. At this point, it almost doesn't need to be said that Van Fleet was not the first choice to play Paul Newman's mother in Cool Hand Luke, but we'll say it anyway. She got the role after it was turned down by Bette Davis. And now you know the rest of the story.
A 1980 autograph note on a "Historic Preservation" postal card from Shelby Foot was recently offered for $200 by a dealer in Galena, Illinois. The note afforded Foote another opportunity to step on Thomas Wolfe. Responding to Civil War scholar Arnold F. Gates, Foote--who made his dislike of Wolfe's work clear in interviews--writes:
The Wolfe notion is Louis Rubin's, a UNC professor of English who is also a distinguished critic of Southern literature. His belief is that TW's novels are constructed of narrative "blocks," each a unit on its own. Read this way, the books present a different aspect; so he says. I can see some truth in it, but don't think it matters much to any nonacademic over 30, who tend to find Wolfe unreadable anyhow....
SPEAKING OF CRAZY COLLECTORS ...
An editorial "Thumbs-up" for Aldo P Magi: Following a front-page feature article--with photographs--on Magi in the 20 October 2015 issue of the Sandusky Register (see "Bibliography," page 136), the newspaper's editorial staff offered congratulations in the "Viewpoint" column in the 23 October issue:
Thumbs up to Sandusky resident Aldo Magi, 91, who is doing his part to keep the legacy of famed American novelist Thomas Wolfe alive and well. Magi, one of the founders of the Thomas Wolfe Society, says interest in the author has waned in recent years. But Magi's many published works on Wolfe will surely keep the author's place in American literature safe for generations to come. (A4)
"Rare Books Can Equal Big Bucks--If You Have an Eagle Eye" by Lisa Ianucci (Poughkeepsie Journal, 3 January 2015) discusses the possibility of great finds when buying used books. The article does not mention Wolfe, but it is illustrated with a photograph of Aldo Magi's 1978 keepsake publication, A Prologue to America, which prominently features on its cover the author's name, "Thomas Wolfe." That booklet was published by Croissant & Company (the late Duane Schneider's imprint) in an edition of 100 copies. Schneider wanted to do a run of 300, but Magi insisted on limiting it to 100 in hopes of creating a collectible. Magi reports that the serendipitous choice of A Prologue to America to illustrate Ianucci's article (as well as the fact that copies of the keepsake have recently been offered by booksellers for as much as $300) is gratifying.
LOTS OF ONES AND ZEROS
Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" is available for free on the website of the New Yorker (the magazine that originally published the story in the 15 June 1935 issue). The online story also features an interesting illustration by Roman Muradov.
The Open Syllabus Project ranks texts assigned in college classrooms by "crawling and scraping" publicly accessible university websites. The project has collected more than a million syllabi, extracting citations and other metadata from them. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, Look Homeward, Angel receives an overall rank of 5,922, an assignment count of 81, and an overall teaching score of 10.3. (For definitions of these terms and an explanation of what all the numbers mean, visit opensyllabus project.org.) It should be noted that some tweaking of the algorithms might be needed, as the project has separate entries--with different statistics--for Look Homeward, Angel and Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. (Just to be clear, it's the same book.)
Simon and Schuster announced in November 2014 that it had launched the new online Scribner Magazine. In "Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wharton and Wolfe: 10 Classics You Should Never Live Without" (posted 20 November 2014), staff writers for the Off the Shelf website state that the new Scribner Magazine "features behind-the-scenes insights on reading, on writing, and on living from one of the most storied Publishing Houses in the business." And they continue: "The first incarnation of Scribner Magazine, then called Scribner's Magazine, was launched in 1887 and flourished until 1939." Wolfe is listed as a writer published in Scribner's. Readers of the Thomas Wolfe Review may be aware that his first appearance in Scribner's was "An Angel on the Porch" in the August 1929 issue, and his final appearance was the posthumously published "The Party at Jack's," which appeared in the final print issue published in May 1939 (vol. 105, no. 5). To celebrate the launch of the online magazine, the staff of Off the Shelf "gathered a selection of ten titles ... which we still treasure as unforgettable classics." Included in that list of ten is Look Homeward, Angel.
One of the questions Tyler Malone asks Tom Muir (Site Manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial) in his extensive interview posted 14 April 2015 on the website Full Stop is "I've always wondered if you ever have people arriving at the museum thinking it is [a] museum for Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities fame?" Here is Muir's response:
We have had a few folks get to the end of our 50-minute tour of the old boardinghouse before they realize we are not talking about the guy in the white suit. As a tour guide it is rewarding for us anytime we see the light bulb going on and someone finally making connections and coming to a basic understanding and appreciation of our work, but you do have to wonder where they were over the last 45 minutes.
Garrison Keillor included a nice segment about Wolfe on his 115th birthday (3 October 2015) on NPR's The Writer's Almanac. The entire text is available on the The Writer's Almanac website.
YouTubing: Spending too much time watching videos (and listening to audios--which, to be consistent, should be a thing) is detrimental to one's productivity, but here are a few that are actually worth your time:
* Luke: A Tribute to Fred (1979), the remarkable documentary by Frank Eastes Jr. that was awarded the first Thomas Wolfe Society Citation of Merit, was posted 21 August 2015. There's really no need to comment on this delightful video except to say that if you want to see a Look Homeward, Angel character come to life, watch Luke: A Tribute to Fred.
* A Story of the Buried Life: The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a seventeen-minute promotional/educational video shot on location at the Old Kentucky Home. It features three onscreen narrators/interviewees: Site Manager Tom Muir, Todd Bailey, and Terry Roberts. This is an outstanding professional production, offering interesting and insightful commentary. (Yes, one of us is in it, but not the one who is writing this comment. Trust me, it's a wonderful video.)
* TuneTrek, a series of videos produced by and featuring the narration and music (guitar and vocal) of MikelParis, who is the touring keyboard player for O.A.R. He visited the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in November 2014 and posted a four-minute TuneTrek episode on 17 March 2015. His visit to the Memorial was also covered by Alli Marshall in an article for Mountain Xpress (posted 15 November 2014).
* WLOS-TV ABC channel 13 in Asheville, aired four segments on the 14th anniversary of the arson fire at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial--reported live from the Wolfe house by Victoria Dunkle on 24 July 2012. The segments also feature interviews with Chris Morton.
* Another favorite is a gentle--almost soothing--no-narration video from thebluebanner.net (1:14; uploaded 22 September 2010), titled simply "Thomas Wolfe" (or, on the first screen, "Thomas Wolfe Memorial Asheville, NC"). It consists of a lovely rendition of "Clair de Lune" played over a video tour of the Wolfe house interior.
* Julia Wolfe's appearance on the Breakfast in Hollywood radio show in 1945 is a seven-minute audio segment in which the 85-year-old mother of Thomas Wolfe is interviewed by host Tom Breneman. Mrs. Wolfe had traveled to California to serve as a consultant to the producer and the scriptwriter of a proposed movie of Look Homeward, Angel (see John Idol's "Look Homeward, Angel and Hollywood" in the 2004 issue of the Thomas Wolfe Review [26-33]). The movie was never made, but "For Julia, the Hollywood outing was a triumph, feted and celebrated as she was by filmmakers" (Idol 30). Throughout the interview, a still-photo image of a record label from the Recording Laboratory of the Division of Music, Library of Congress, is shown on screen. The label has been inscribed by Mabel Wolfe Wheaton. (FYI: On the record label, the Library of Congress misspelled Breneman's name.)
One YouTube video that should be avoided (unless you need an emetic) is a digital inanity titled Southern Heritage: Thomas Wolfe. According to lettering appearing over a stereotyped "southern" photo, this amateurish schlockfest is part of "Nick's Southern Heritage Series." The narrator, presumably "Nick" (aka SoleMan 117), reads those words using the worst fake southern accent since Londoner Leslie Howard forgot that Ashley Wilkes is from Georgia. Uploaded on 22 June 2015, Southern Heritage: Thomas Wolfe is 5+ minutes of silly pseudo snark narrated by Nick in his normal voice, which sounds something like a cat hocking up a hairball. At one point, he refers to Wolfe's "standin" as "Oliver Grant." Before one can pass that off as a simple mistake, Nick compounds it by calling him "Eugene Oliver." He also informs viewers that, in You Can't Go Home Again, George Webber returns home to attend the funeral of his mother. The slipshod research is compounded by the appearance of visual non sequiturs--a photograph of Marshall McLuhan and his wife, Corinne, and a photo of Dylan Thomas--that randomly pop up, unidentified, during the video. So you can skip this one and find a less painful way to spend your time--perhaps schedule a sigmoidoscopy.
Blogs for Your Consideration: Readers of the Thomas Wolfe Review might find the following three blogs informative:
* HeardTell: Pack Library North Carolina Room (on the website of Asheville's Pack Memorial Library). Example: The entry for 2 February 2015 is titled "Samuel Alonzo McCanless Wins a Marble Angel from W.O. Wolfe in a Poker Game." The posting discusses a story told to newspaper columnist Bob Terrell and published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on 2 September 1984.
* North Carolina Miscellany (on the website of the University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill). Example: An entry for 5 June 2015 by Lew Powell is "Thomas Wolfe, 'the most surprised person in the world,'" concerning an excerpt from Wolfe's 8 July 1935 letter to J. G. Stikeleather.
* Historic Riverside Cemetery. Examples: "Answer Man: Where Is the Real Thomas Wolfe Angel? (13 April 2015) and "Thomas Wolfe's Asheville--A Map of Look Homeward, Angel in Riverside Cemetery" (16 June 2015).
The Thomas Wolfe Society Facebook Page: To conclude the "Lots of Ones and Zeros" section, as well as to wrap up "Notes" for another year, we offer praise for Deborah A. Borland and her work on the TWS Facebook page. To quote Francis Starwick in Of Time and the River, "The whole thing's quite astonishing, it really is, you know" (277). We highly recommend that you visit the page to see what Deb has added recently and to get an idea about what the rest of the world thinks of Thomas Wolfe.
With thanks to Deborah A. Borland, Emoke B'racz, Christopher Bruno, John Halberstadt, Jan G. Hensley, Joseph B. Joyce, Margie Kashdin, Aldo P Magi, Gerry & Carole Max, Catherine L O'Shea, John R. Pleasant Jr. (via David A. Moreland), James A. Privette Jr., James A. Ritz, Steven B. Rogers, Connie Strange, and Nate Tibbits
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again"|
|Author:||Bailey, J. Todd; Strange, David|
|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
|Next Article:||Thomas Wolfe Society Meeting (May 22-24, 2015; Albany, New York).|