Thomas Wolfe's aborted second novel: "The [Hudson] River People".
I've got a new book in mind. I thought I should not write again for several centuries, but there's no cure for my own kind of lunacy. I don't see how this one can fail--it has everything: rich people, swank, a poor but beautiful girl, romance, adventure, Vienna, New York, a big country house, and so on. Also, after a careful examination of 4,362 modern novels, I have decided to make it exactly 79,427 words long. Will you please order your copy now? But honestly, I'm excited about it. In spite of my summary, I've got stuff for a good and moving book--also, perhaps, stuff for a bad and trashy, but possibly successful book. Now what's a poor young guy to do, Dean Munn? I've got to do it one way or the other--straddling the fence is no good. (135).
In his pocket notebooks and elsewhere, Wolfe scribbled personal and place names, ideas for scenes, and a rough outline. In a ledger like the ones he had used while writing O Lost/Look Homeward, Angel, he began fleshing out his ideas.
The rich people, a big country house, and New York, subjects mentioned in his letter to Munn, were elements deriving from his friendship with Olin Dows, whose wealthy family owned a large estate bordering the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, New York. As a hopeful playwright at Harvard, Wolfe had met Dows, an art student there who later transferred to Yale. Dows attended a performance of Welcome to Our City, and asked Wolfe to sit for a portrait. Later, Dows took a teaching position at New York University and encouraged Wolfe to apply for a job there. The two spent a good deal of time together, and their friendship led to an invitation from Dows to visit him and his family in Rhinebeck. Wolfe accepted and later described his visit in a letter (25 July 1924) to his mother:
He invited me up to his fathers [sic] country place up the Hudson two weeks ago--at a colony for millionaires, a very old Dutch place, called Rhinebeck. His people are fabulously wealthy--as wealthy or wealthier than the Asheville Vanderbilts. They live on a great estate of 2000 acres [actually 500] overlooking the Hudson, with gatekeeper's lodges, and a wonderful colonial house. Next door are the Roosevelts--Franklin D.--and the Astors and Delanos are farther up. The boy's grandfather lives on a great estate adjoining and all this the boy inherits.... His people are wonderful--left me absolutely free to do as I pleased--put me at ease.... They have six thousand volumes--beautiful expensive books in their library which no one reads. Money, money! In addition, he has a sister about nineteen who is one of most beautiful and wonderful people I've ever known. (67-68)
Wolfe enjoyed the family's hospitality several times in later visits. Theirs was assuredly a different world from the ones he had known in Asheville, Chapel Hill, or Cambridge (Nowell 87-88). The potential for a far different novel from his first one seemed inescapable.
Numerous notebook entries on his hope of transmuting his Hudson River experience into fiction enable us to trace his creative processes. A selective sampling of them from 1928 (published in volume 1 of the Notebooks) will suggest the substance of the projected novel:
The River People
John comes through Vienna on way to India.
Next-to-Last Chapter--Lili's death at hands of John.
Last Chapter--Party of Friends
The River People
Chap. II--New York--Hotel--Summer
Chap. III--The River People--The Hudson
Chap. V--New York--Autumn--The River
Chap. VI--The Winter--The Garret
Chap. VII--The Spring--The Lodge--The House
Chap. VIII--The Picnic and Lawn Party--John (a cousin)
Chap. IX--Fourth of July at Astor's
Chap. IX [sic ]--Vienna again--They live together there
Chap. X--Winter--New York--He is now away from
them completely--living with her
Chap. XI--New York again
Chap. XII--The River--Reunion--The girl--Cousin
Tues. May 15:
Call the Old Man Vater.
Olin Dows. Joel (Joly) Pierce.
Portrait of Fraulein L. Picture he painted of her--one great picture--touched with love and madness-- ...
Last scene--"I have no passions. I cannot let myself go (as you can) I have only a small talent--I shall make the most of it."
Chap. I--Evening in Spring--Eugene (?) striding across Harvard yard towards Widener Library--Two young men standing there watch his approach--Grosbeak and Joel Pierce. "He's marvellous! Simply marvellous! Do you suppose I could get him to sit for me?"
(Get planted here the Man-Mountain attitude) Joel Pierce goes away leaving Grosbeak and Eugene.
"He's a Great Swell, you know--a Very Great Swell."
"He has a hole in his trousers."
Old Joly--Joel's grandfather--Grand old man, a little baroque....
Have Joel paint portrait of Lili (Greta)--one great (?) picture? of what kind? Touched with struggle--(Madness (?)) (136-38)
There follows a passage of passionate conversation between Joel and his friend in which they recognize irreconcilable differences in their lives and sadly part.
Later that year, during his fourth trip to Europe, Wolfe continued making notes about his new novel. Here are selected phrases from a long notebook entry for 1 August:
Story: From first time in Paris on--woman at hotel is Greta Weinberg-- ... Come to Vienna--He goes to Vienna--Six weeks in Vienna--Vater--Munich--Germany--Home Again. New York--Joel--the Boys Club--Parting--up the River--The University--Arrival of Greta--The hotel--Late in the spring, Joel meets her--Vater--the trip up the river--Weinberg--Scene at Rhinebeck--John--Summer passes. Hugh goes abroad again--Four months pass--Cable from Joel--in Munich--Meet them in Vienna. He meets them there--gets apartment for them--Arrival of John on way to India--Arrival of Margaret & Mother--Agreement to divorce and marriage. Weinberg paid off--Eugene to act as witness (with John?) Back to New York again--the garret--divorce proceedings--Final papers--up the river--the last scene. Character of Greta: Lightness and gayety and sensual quality over everything else--but great profundity and sorrow beneath. What does she do--something very clever, with her hands--something light, trivial and lovely--Vater her nemesis--like old man of the sea--make her only half-Jew--Vater a Christian. (149-50)
Just over two weeks later, Wolfe now in Bonn, began the opening chapter of his new work in a ledger, dating his start "Friday-Sat. Aug. 17-18--Bonn, Germany 1:10 A.M." That opening scene presents two young men watching the approach of a third young man coming toward them across Harvard Yard "at a high bouncing stride, muttering savagely to himself, and using his long arms like pistons ..." (Notebooks 163).
The two young men at the foot of the library steps watched all this quietly and without laughing: their faces were bent forward eagerly and they watched every movement he made with the rapt attention people give to a strange and interesting animal at the zoo. "Frank, he is marvellous! Simply marvellous!" one of them said in a whisper full of eager curiosity and good breeding. "Do you suppose he'd let me paint him?" (164)
During this European sojourn, while he awaited word about the fate of his first novel, Wolfe pressed on with "The River People," continuing with entries in his notebooks and fictionalized scenes in his ledger. Rather than present them piecemeal, and for the sake of a coherent understanding of where Wolfe was headed, I now turn to the late Richard S. Kennedy--in The Window of Memory--for a plot summary:
Roughly the story seems to have been this: While at Harvard, Oliver Weston meets Joel Pierce, a young painter who asks him to pose for a picture. The two become friends, and Joel invites Oliver to his father's estate on the Hudson River. When Oliver gets to Europe, he meets Greta Weinberg, an Austrian girl who nurses him when he is ill. After his recovery, he wanders over Europe, then returns to America. Later that year, Greta and her husband visit America, Oliver meets her again, and he introduces her to Joel. The two fall in love, but certain problems must be faced before they can marry--first, a divorce for Greta and, second, the heated objection of Joel's cousin, John. The couple travel to Vienna, where Oliver finds an apartment for them and divorce proceedings are begun. Back in America once more, they plan a marriage when final divorce papers are granted. In a last scene on the Hudson River, Greta meets a violent death at the hands of cousin John, and the griefstricken Joel is left with only his memories and a single magnificent painting of her. At the conclusion the two friends, Oliver and Joel, part, and each has something to say about love, life, and art. (165-66)
Cogent and generally accurate as Kennedy's summary is, it doesn't take into account some entries and ledger passages concerning Oliver Weston, Wolfe's rechristened fictional surrogate. Three instances bear comment: First, the River People ledger has Oliver leaving Cambridge before Joel completes his portrait to return home for his father's funeral. The account would later be expanded for the death of Gant episode in Of Time and the River. Second, Wolfe's fight in Munich with some Oktoberfest revelers was worked up as one of Weston's experiences and was obviously intended to be an episode in "The River People." Instead, it would later appear as Chapter 48 of The Web and the Rock. Third, Wolfe foreshadows the satiric scene in The Web and the Rock with publishers Rawng and Wright in a scene involving Oliver in conversation with publishers Gilbert and Erskine Hoyt, who prove themselves ignorant of books and knowledgeable only of the names of celebrated authors (Notebooks 171-72).
Among the scenes from "The River People" not salvaged for later works is an episode describing Oliver's visit to the home of Beethoven in Bonn. The omission is sad, because, as Kennedy and Paschal Reeves say, Wolfe's treatment of the visit is "an emotionally heightened parallel to his own experience" (Notebooks 185). Wolfe was profoundly moved by his realization of the joy Beethoven surely missed because of his deafness.
The major portions of the salvaged episodes intended for "The River People" appear in the last sections of book 4 in Of Time and the River (500-96). Those portions undergo a necessary change because in that novel Wolfe returns to Eugene as his central character. The text's focus is now on Eugene's response to the beauty of the Hudson River; the lifestyles of rich families living along the Hudson; and Eugene's realization that, as a proletarian, he is both out of sympathy with his hosts and out of his element, even though he comes to understand, and appreciate, the high value the Pierce family places on art and artists.
In his narrative account, Wolfe collapses several visits into three days, starting with an encomium on the Hudson River, a richly poetic passage that in its response to light, darkness, and color becomes a sort of companion piece to paintings of the Hudson by such artists as Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Frederic Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and a dozen or more of the celebrated members of the Hudson River School:
The Hudson River is like purple depths of evening; it is like the flames of color on the Palisades, elves' echoes, and old Dutch and Hallowe'en. It is like the Phantom Horseman, the tossed boughs, and the demented winds, and it is like the headed cider and great fires of the Dutchmen in the winter time. The Hudson River is like old October and tawny Indians in their camping places long ago; it is like long pipes and old tobacco; it is like cool depths and opulence; it is like the shimmer of liquid green on summer days. (506)
What follows this full-blown prose poem at the beginning of material extracted from "The River People" are scenes of Eugene being introduced to Joel Pierce's family; a couple of elaborate meals; a walk around the estate; Eugene's reading of an unpublished play, Mannerhouse, which Wolfe partially deconstructs for Joel and his sister, Rosalind; a trip to a neighbor's estate to watch the Fourth of July fireworks; a visit with an opinionated neighbor, Miss Telfair; Eugene's survey of the family's well-stocked library; and the parting of the two friends, both of them realizing that they live in separate worlds and must go their separate ways. To Aline Bernstein, who knew Olin Dows and how supportive of Wolfe he had been, Wolfe described their parting:
We had some terrible arguments. I suppose it is wrong to say that one cannot believe in the Astors and enter the kingdom of heaven--but I think it is true--I don't even believe one can go to hell by believing in them. One gets what he deserves--if he believes in the Astors it ends up by the Astors believing in him. O[lin] talked to me a good deal about "good form" the "right thing to do," and called a lot of things "incredibly cheap and vulgar..." I think this is his trouble--the thing he really thinks important is to do nothing that would seem ill bred or offensive to the Astors. The feeling is far deeper than his feeling for painting--although he works very hard and earnestly.... He's a fine fellow, and good and true at heart. I like him and respect him so much, and hate to see him so full of feeling for fake traditions and false cultures, and so empty of feeling for real ones. (294)
That Wolfe had misjudged his friend or at least failed to see his potential as a contributing member of society and as an artist capable of serving his country is evidenced by Franklin D. Roosevelt's choice of his neighbor to direct the Treasury Art Relief Project in Washington, D.C., an agency formed to provide work for struggling artists during the Great Depression, and by Dows's World War II achievement as an artist accompanying American troops during their European campaign.
Judging from those portions in Of Time and the River describing and narrating the life of the Dows family and their neighbors (in their fictional guises), Wolfe had materials that could have resulted in "a good and moving book" and not "a bad and trashy" one. The book that might have come from carrying his idea to completion could have given Wolfe footing as a novelist of manners and linked him to such American masters of that form as Henry James and Edith Wharton. But he needed to get on with his career as a proven autobiographical novelist, and Maxwell Perkins's advice that he return to the adventures and misadventures of Eugene Gant put Wolfe back on track.
Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Wolfe, Thomas. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves. Vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
--. Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. New York: Scribner's, 1935.
--. [To Aline Bernstein]. 9 July 1929. Letter 103 of My Other Loneliness: Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein. Ed. Suzanne Stutman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. 293-95.
--. "To James B. Munn." 21 May 1928. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner's, 1956. 135-36.
--. [To Julia E. Wolfe]. 25 July 1924. Letter 36 of The Letters of Thomas Wolfe to His Mother. Ed. C. Hugh Holman and Sue Fields Ross. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 66-69.
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|Author:||Idol, John Lane, Jr.|
|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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