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Thomas Wolfe's aborted second novel: "The [Hudson] River People".

After completing his first novel and before it was accepted for publication, Thomas Wolfe anticipated an objection that a few critics would surely voice upon its appearance: that the novel was patently autobiographical and that admirers of his work should wait to see if he would be more than a one-book author. Wishing to forestall any such charge about his second novel, Wolfe began jotting down ideas for new characters and a conventional plot. He shared his tongue-in-cheek thoughts with James B. Munn, his dean at New York University:
   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


His sister--Ducks.

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. I--Harvard

Chap. II--New York--Hotel--Summer

Chap. III--The River People--The Hudson

Chap. IV--Europe

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


Chap. XIII.

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

      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

      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

      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.

Works Cited

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
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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