A Breach in the Wall

A Review of: Look Homeward by David Herbert Donald, Little, Brown, 1987.

When David Herbert Donald recalls his youthful reaction to Look Homeward, Angel, he describes a magic that many of us felt upon encountering Thomas Wolfe as adolescents: “I was convinced-without any just cause-that I too was misunderstood by my family and unappreciated in my community, and, like Eugene, I enjoyed writhing in romantic agony.” Prof. Donald’s subsequent disenchantment in the 1950s reflects not only an era that had grown tired of Wolfe’s “gigantism, his rhetorical extravagance, and his lack of form,” but might also call to mind our own adult reassessment of Wolfe’s work. Nevertheless, two decades later, after reading again Wolfe’s novels and stories, Dr. Donald comes full circle as he concludes that “Wolfe deserves to rank among the very great American authors”—an assertion that was reinforced for him during his following six-year study that included all of Wolfe’s papers. With this conviction, the biographer states that the purpose of his book is to tell the story of Wolfe’s life more completely than has been done heretofore, to present Wolfe in a historical literary context, and, most importantly, to show Wolfe’s “evolution as a writer.” Thus, Look Homeward is not simply a homage to a boyhood idol, but an attempt to clarify Wolfe’s literary merit and defend his right to rank as an equal among Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.

Donald’s biography is a thoughtful study of Thomas Wolfe-thorough but not cluttered, accessible but not simplistic. Donald, a senior member of the history department at Harvard and a Southerner himself, writes with assurance and perception. In addition to his exhaustive research and clear prose style, Dr. Donald is successful because of his determination to offer a balanced portrait of the man, the writer, and the times. His efforts to rectify what he believes to be Wolfe’s undervalued status as a writer notwithstanding, Donald remains judicious in his rendering of Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses.

Throughout the book, Dr. Donald juxtaposes and counterbalances the positive and the negative, and this technique is well suited to his subject. For Wolfe, a temperamental man subject to extreme and unpredictable mood swings, turmoil and conflict accompanied and virtually extinguished every close relationship. In a moment of accurate self-disclosure, he tells a lover, ” ‘I am ugly, cruel, and mad in a way you know nothing about; if anyone loves me I torture them, curse and revile them, and try to drive them away.’ ” He had behaved this way with Aline, ” ‘the only person who ever loved me with all her heart,’ ” and this is the way he would treat his editor and best friend, Maxwell Perkins, ” ‘one of the rocks to which my life is anchored.'”

Unfortunately, Wolfe’s life was most often unmoored, and the results were devastating. The following episode was all too common. While staying at a hotel in Montreux, Wolfe, upset by his relationship with Aline, ” ‘went on a spree, broke windows, plumbing fixtures, etc. in the town, and came back to the hotel at 2 A.M., pounded on the door of the manager and on the doors of two English spinsters, rushed howling with laughter up and down the halls, cursing and singing.’ ” A man of voracious appetites for food, alcohol, and sex, and emotionally volatile, Wolfe was given to frequent and outrageous bouts of drunken cursing, quarreling, and brawling. Yet, despite such dissipation of his creative energies and the toll extracted by long, exhaustive hours of nonstop writing, Wolfe retained a child-like enthusiasm and receptiveness exhibited not only by the mere volume of his work but in the indisputable quality of rich lyricism and grand precision of the best of it.

Prof. Donald’s inclusion of numerous anecdotes brings Wolfe to life for the reader, and not all reveal him in an unfavorable light. Although Wolfe disparaged the exaggerated image of himself as “a great ‘exuberant’ six-foot-six clod-hopper right out of nature who . . . wads up three-hundred thousand words or so, hurls it at a blank page, puts covers on it and says ‘Here’s my book,’ ” he was very much an authentic larger-than-life caricature. The following incident, which took place as Wolfe strolled with F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrates perfectly one humorous result of Wolfe’s great height and playfulness:

One evening as they were walking together in Montreux, Wolfe found that he could reach up and touch the electrical wires above the street and, delighted as a child at his discovery, began to pull on them “with the casualness of a conductor ringing up fares,” while he produced a blackout in the city.

And we can easily understand the irresistible charm so many found in “the exuberant child” when we read of Wolfe’s reaction to the publication of his first book:

On publication day the Scribner Book Store devoted one of its Fifth Avenue windows to a display of Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe could hardly tear himself away from it. He walked back and forth in front of it so frequently and ogled the display so intently as to alarm passersby and to alert the policeman on the beat. He stopped in other bookstores to ask whether people were buying his novel.

But for all his charm, which won him both male and female admirers, Wolfe failed to gain the deep respect of most other writers of his generation. Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald tolerated Wolfe, but deplored his excesses. Hemingway called him “glandular”; Dos Passos called him a “gigantic baby.” The Southern Agrarians criticized his lack of control and form.

Look Homeward traces Wolfe’s lifelong emotional disorientation and instability to a lonely and insecure childhood. The youngest in a large, chaotic family, Wolfe apparently suffered permanent psychological trauma from the inconsistent treatment he received from his unhappily married and bitterly antagonistic parents and his confused siblings. Early on Wolfe sought escape. An omnivorous reader and a promising student throughout the years of his formal education at North State Fitting School, the University of North Carolina, and Harvard, Wolfe’s greatest release came through writing. Yet it wasn’t until he turned from composing plays to writing autobiographical fiction (what was to become Look Homeward, Angel), that Wolfe began to resolve his anger and bitterness toward his family and the unhappy circumstances of his youth and thus ” ‘to find a breach in the wall somewhere.'”

Gregarious but solitary, Wolfe was always somewhat an anomaly. In literary circles, he hung on the periphery. Repelled by the pretentiousness of the New York literati, Wolfe was also unsympathetic to the thinking of the Lost Generation and to that of the Southern Agrarians. Even his interest in socialism in the 30s was by and large mere flirtation. Thus, while Wolfe always thought of himself as quintessentially American, he defied all other labels. Interestingly, Wolfe’s failure to form strong group allegiances suggests that his “identity” was to a large extent created artificially for him by others. For, as Dr. Donald says, “Until he came to Harvard he never considered himself a Southerner-any more than he had thought of himself as a man from the mountains until he was so labeled at Chapel Hill.” In other words, Wolfe only became Southern when he left the South just as he only became a mountain man when he left the mountains.

Donald’s analysis of what Wolfe faced as a Southerner in the North is sensitive and equitable, and it could only have been written by someone who has been there himself. Perhaps Wolfe’s reaction to H. L. Mencken’s description of the South as “the Sahara of the Bozart” best captures the paradoxical position Wolfe found himself in:

His problem was not so much with Mencken’s ideas as with the way his Northern classmates used Mencken’s invective and denunciation to ridicule the social and political backwardness of the South and to condemn Southern whites for their uncivilized treatment of the Negroes. Like the man himself, Wolfe’s work does not easily lend itself to classification. Although it was criticized for its lack of form, distance and restraint, Donald proposes that Wolfe’s writing was experimental and as such it was not meant to conform to prescribed conventions. Wolfe pointedly referred to his works as “books” rather than “novels.” His motivation naturally struck a chord with Faulkner. The creator of Yoknapatawpha admired Wolfe’s attempt ” ‘to do the greatest of the impossible … to reduce all human experience to literature,’ ” even though he later commented that ” ‘it’s like an elephant trying to do the hoochie-coochie.'”

In some respects, Faulkner’s offhand derision is an accurate assessment. Wolfe’s aim was much higher than even his extended reach, and much of the time the results are inferior-sometimes they are indeed ludicrous. Yet a precise evaluation of Wolfe’s achievement is extremely difficult to ascertain. The greatest difficulty arises with the posthumous novels. When Wolfe died unexpectedly and prematurely, Edward Aswell, his new editor at Harper’s, had to undertake the task of getting Wolfe’s papers into book form. Because Wolfe left nothing that closely resembled a finished product-just huge bundles of loose manuscripts in various stages of rough draft-Aswell was forced to take inordinate liberties with the text. Besides sorting, cutting, splicing, and rewriting, Aswell even added whole sentences in some places. In “After-word: The Posthumous Novels of Thomas Wolfe,” Dr. Donald provides a passage from You Can’t Go Home Again and the corresponding excerpt from Wolfe’s typescript in dual columns that reveal the extent and nature of Aswell’s changes. Yet even the work published during his lifetime reflects the influence of others. Wolfe was extremely dependent on Maxwell Perkins, his Scribner’s editor, and Elizabeth Nowell, his agent; and both made considerable contributions to getting his work in publishable form. Thus it is sometimes difficult to know where Wolfe stops and others begin. Donald convincingly argues that the author’s purpose was often misconstrued, his efforts thwarted, and his work damaged by such “aid,” but there seems to have been no alternative to the intrusion of others. For one reason or another, Wolfe was incapable of seeing most of his projects through to the end by himself.

Moving frequently from one apartment to another and never looking settled in any of them, Thomas Wolfe lived a haphazard, transient life that manifested itself in both his personal and professional habits. From a pile of clothes on the floor of the closet, Wolfe would randomly select individual items to put on, taking no notice of whether they matched or not. Similarly, from the large open crate that housed his loose papers, Wolfe, or sometimes Miss Nowell, would extract portions of the manuscripts to be revised or pieced together for publishing. Few, if any, of these pieces, which ultimately resulted in books, short stories, and lectures, were originally intended to be whole entities. Usually conceived as parts of something larger, these manuscripts document Wolfe’s repeated attempts to write (or rewrite) his own history as well as testify to his “hunger to devour the whole of human experience.” In a sense they are the fragments with which Wolfe hoped to create for himself a permanent home and a coherent identity. His search for a home ended when he realized he could not return to North Carolina to live: ” I could never go back there to live, back there or any other place for long. I have to move. My home is in my work, now.’ ” The contemplation of death, however, seemed to bring him a different kind of understanding. During the last few months of his life when he was gravely ill, Wolfe took comfort in being nursed by Annie Laurie Crawford, a native of Asheville, because she was ” ‘one of us,’ somebody he could talk to.” In using the expression “one of us,” Wolfe indicates that he had at last discovered an authentic identity and sense of community in being a Southerner.

Prof. Donald does a particularly nice job in detailing and analyzing Wolfe’s relationship with Maxwell Perkins and those sections are perhaps the strongest in the book. He also is adept at creating vivid cameos of lesser figures such as Frederick H. Koch, or “Proff,” Wolfe’s drama professor at Chapel Hill, and the spirited Belinda Jelliffe, a Southern compatriot, friend and lover. Less satisfying, however, are his evocations of Wolfe’s mother, Julia, and Aline Bernstein. These women played major roles in shaping Wolfe’s life, yet they remain underdeveloped and vague. But with so few shortcomings and so many strengths, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe is by far the most comprehensive and provocative discussion of this puzzling figure. While we may not yet be ready to accept Dr. Donald’s proposal that Thomas Wolfe was a “great” writer, we are, nevertheless, inspired to take a second look

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