It was 1966. With typical ambition Elaine Zelznick, the young drama teacher and theater director at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois had selected a noted Broadway serious drama as the class play. Look Homeward, Angel was a bittersweet but lyrical evocation of life in an early 20th Century small Southern city as seen through the eyes of a sensitive young man coming of age. Adapted from a well known novel by Ketti Frings, the play had earned six Tony Award nominations and the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The leading role of Eugene Gant naturally went to the school’s acknowledged star Murray Moss, who both he and Miss Zelznick was convinced was the next Marlon Brando. And he dazzled delivering lines of dialog that could and did move an audience to awe and tears. I was given a small part as a townsman—so small that I can’t remember who I was playing. Certainly less than six lines of dialogue. But I was thrilled to be a part of a project that everyone involved with took with high minded artistic convictions.
The Samuel French script from which we work noted that the play was based on a novel by someone named Thomas Wolfe. I had never heard of him, but I searched out the fat book. I found a paperback copy among my mother’s large collection of important or bestselling novels. One evening I opened it up the book to the prelude:
. . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
I was blown away as only a 17 year old can be blown away. Awe struck. I had never read prose like that. I read all night getting maybe 200 hundred pages into the thickest novel I had ever seen. And my life literally changed. I wanted to do that. I wanted more than anything to write with that kind of power and grandeur. I wanted to be the next Thomas Wolfe, the next Great American novelist.
I was not the only one. Wolfe had that effect on a lot of people, most notably Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and Philip Roth each of whom adored him. Pat Conroy may have summed it up for the rest of them, “My writing career began the instant I finished Look Homeward, Angel.”
Of course I never became a novelist, let alone a great one. But I did spend years writing short stories that tried to capture that eloquence in a bottle. But no one could match Wolfe, and it was fatal to try. Would-be lyrical passages were too often simply florid and excessive. It took time and a heavy dose of Ernest Hemingway’s economical and pared down prose to strip the worst of it from my writing.
But regular readers of this blog and other scribbling might sometimes detect echoes of that rich and evocative language. Forgive me. Like malaria, you never quite get over Thomas Wolfe.
Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900 in the North Carolina Piedmont city of Asheville. He was the youngest of eight children and the closest sibling to his ambitious and domineering mother, the former Julia Elizabeth Westall. She kept upscale boarding houses and dabbled, eventually successfully, in real estate. His father William Oliver Wolfe was already 50 years old when his youngest son was born, a decade older than his wife. He was a stone carver and owned a monument company. Both of them and his siblings became key characters in his autobiographical first novel.
The relationship between his parents had cooled. When Julia Wolfe returned from a successful stay in St. Louis where she had operated a boarding house serving visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair, she used the money she had earned to buy a large new boarding house she named Old Kentucky Home at 48 Spruce Street in Asheville. Julia moved in there with young Thomas while his father and the other children stayed in their old home.
The boy grew up in that house amid the mix of lodgers and visitors and the tension between his parents. He idolized his father and his older brothers, particularly Ben, his closest sibling in age who was eight years older. The boy must have been a sponge. He absorbed it all, as well as life in Ashville and many of the town’s residents.
Wolfe was precocious enough, and his family prosperous enough, to enroll him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of 15. Despite his youth he was both a popular student and an academic stand out. He was a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He was recognized as an outstanding writer as rose to the editorship of the Daily Tar Heel and was awarded a prize for philosophic writing for an essay.
After the trauma of his brother Ben’s early death in 1918, Wolfe enrolled in a play writing class. The future master of descriptive prose was inspired to become a dramatist. The Return of Buck Gavin is first one play was one of the first produced by the newly formed Carolina Playmakers. The troop also staged another of his plays, The Third Night.
Wolfe graduated in 1920 and went on to Harvard University for graduate studies that fall where he studied play writing under George Pierce Baker. Baker’s 47 Workshop, a student theatrical group which mounted plays developed in his classes, did two separate versions of Wolfe’s The Mountains in 1921.
Wolf earned his Master’s Degree in June of 1922. His father died the same month, another shattering experience for the young man. Despite the loss, he returned to Harvard for another year of work under Baker. The 47 Workshop produced his most ambitious work yet, a 10 scene Welcome to Our City in May 1923. The play drew attention beyond the University community.
In 1923 Wolfe received a modest stipend to go to New York City as a fund raiser for his original alma mater, the University of North Carolina. The job left plenty of time for the young writer to try to peddle his plays to producers. He had no luck. In ’24 he took a teaching position at New York University, which would somewhat sporadically be his academic home for the next seven years.
For a short while in 1924 it looked like the Theater Guild might be willing to produce Welcome to Our City but it was eventually rejected as too long and unwieldy. Wolfe could not bring himself to cut the script to a more manageable length.
Somewhat discouraged in October of ’24 Wolfe sailed for England and the Continent to expand his provincial horizons and on his writing. He had concluded that his talents lay not as a playwright, but as a novelist.
Sailing home to New York in 1925 Wolfe met the beautiful, sophisticated, and intelligent older “Jewess” who became a tempestuous lover, muse, mentor. Aline Bernstein was a noted costume designer for the Theater Guild and the married mother of two. She was 18 years older than her protégée. The relationship was sometimes story and always intense. But Bernstein encouraged the writer and promoted his career. She became the model of Esther Jack, and important character in Wolf’s last three novels.
With her encouragement, Wolfe returned to Europe in 1926 where he began work on his highly experimental first epic novel, O Lost. He completed a draft back in New York. Aline helped get it into the hands Scribner’s, the most important literary publishing house in the country, already the home of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. His 1,100 page manuscript landed on the desk of the most respected editor in the business, Maxwell Perkins.
Perking immediately recognized that the book needed significant paring. Despite Wolfe’s anguish, he cut well over half of the text, eliminating most of the most experimental elements and concentrating on the autobiographical character of Eugene Gant. Despite the ruthless editing, Wolfe grew close to Perkins and came to regard him as a surrogate father. Perkins returned the affection and treated Wolfe like a son.
And not everything cut was lost. Much of the material became the core of a second novel.
The book was published under the new title of Look Homeward, Angel just days before the stock market crash of 1929. That might have affected sales. The initial publication was only a modest commercial success. But it was a critical triumph. Praise was almost unanimous and unusually effusive, although some critics like Bernard DeVoto would come to praise Perkins’s editing over Wolfe’s undisciplined genius. DeVoto later described the book as “hacked and shaped and compressed into something resembling a novel by Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribner’s.”
The publication certainly changed Wolfe’s life. He was shocked by the angry reaction of his hometown of Asheville where over 200 of his family members and neighbors recognized themselves as characters in the novel. Most were not pleased. It caused a rift in his family, especially with his prickly mother. Only one sister remained supportive. He was the target of such invective that Wolfe was afraid to return to Asheville for eight years.
He dedicated the book to Bernstein, but broke off his relationship with her shortly after it came out. Depressed and drinking heavily Wolfe left for Europe supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. There he found a warmer reception with the public. The book was a best seller in England and its dense style meshed with German literary styles and tastes.
Upon return using unpublished fragments of the first book and lots of new material, he produced another massive manuscript The October Fair continuing the story of Eugene Gant as he establishes a literary career and proximately featuring Esther Jack. It was an arduous, four year process. Wolfe worked in his Brooklyn apartment, writing long hand on legal tablets standing up and using the top of his refrigerator as a desk.
Once again Perking wrestled a single, managed to wrest a single volume, Of Time and the River. The book was not only a critical success this time, but a popular one as well. It shot to the top of the best seller lists in 1936. Wolfe was acclaimed as one of the great writers of his generation, if not the greatest. Peers like Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner joined in the chorus of cheers.
When the book became a success, Wolfe heard once again from Ashville. It turned out that people this time felt snubbed that they were left out of the new book. And there were still whispers that Perkins was the Svengali behind the writer.
Despite their continued personal affection and friendship, this caused a professional rupture. Wolfe abandoned Scribner’s for Harper Bros. and a new editor, Edward Aswell.
While working on a new manuscript with his autobiographical doppelganger’s name changed to George Webber, Wolfe returned to Europe, spending significant time in Germany where his work was especially admired. But on this trip Wolfe became alarmed by the open persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime.
Unlike other writers, Wolfe had never been very political, but on his return from Europe he felt compelled to speak out. He published a widely read and influential short story I Have a Thing to Tell You in the mildly leftist The New Republic.
In 1938 Wolfe delivered another huge, amorphous manuscript about George Webber on Aswell’s desk. He then embarked on a western train tour that began with a lecture at Indiana University and continued on a long dreamed of tour of western National Parks and Monuments.
My friend and fellow worker Utah Phillips quoted Wolfe’s longings in the spoken word introduction to his railroad song masterpiece Starlight on the Rails.
Oh, I will go up and down the country and back and forth across the country. I will go out West where the states are square. I will go to Boise and Helena, Albuquerque and the two Dakotas and all the unknown places. Say brother, have you heard the roar of the fast express? Have you seen starlight on the rails?
It was a trip of a life time and Wolfe was taking copious notes and writing sketches for the inclusion in a future book. But he fell ill with a serious repertory infection and was hospitalized in Seattle. Pneumonia filled his lungs and he did not respond to treatment.
His worried sister Mable closed the boarding house she was running in Washington to be with him. She brought him back across the country for treatment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore where doctors were planning emergency surgery to relieve pressure on the brain from fluid buildup. Before slipping into a coma Wolfe dictated a last fond message to Perkins.
The brain operation reviled significant damage to the right side of the brain from miliary tuberculosis. On September 6, 1938 Wolfe died less than a month before his 38th birthday. His body was returned at last to Ashville where it was laid in a family plot beside his parents and siblings.
At Harper’s Aswell carved two novels from Wolfe’s final manuscript, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again published in 1939 and ’40 respectively. Both were critical and popular successes.
Aline Bernstein also had a large number of Wolfe manuscripts, mostly short stories and fragments of planned longer works that he had abandoned with her following their break-up. Much of that material was published posthumously over the years in various forms.
Despite the high esteem in which he was held when he died, by the ‘50’s his reputation was in steep decline with harsh criticism by Hemingway characterizing him as “the over-bloated Lil Abner of literature.” Former admirer Faulkner also became critical. Academic writers could not neatly place him in a continuing tradition, expect acknowledging him as a pioneer of autobiographical fiction. His elaborate style seemed passé.
Wolfe had nearly disappeared from college literature surveys and anthologies.
But many of us will always love him. And there are signs of a critical reassessment. Matthew Bruccoli, best known as a Fitzgerald Scholar recreated as far as possible from surviving manuscripts the original version of O Lost, the book from which Perkins extracted Look Homeward, Angel. Many now understand Wolfe’s original vision, and some have even come to consider the sprawling experiment greater than the familiar novel.
Back in Asheville, Wolfe’s childhood home, the boarding house his mother called Old Kentucky Home, is now a state owned monument and museum. A Thomas Wolfe Society keeps his memory alive in an academic journal, with frequent conferences, and by making awards for Wolf scholarship.