Thomas Clayton Wolfe (1900-1938) was an American novelist of prodigious talent and equally formidable failings. His highly autobiographical novels are notable for fervent energy, uninhibited emotion, and grandly rhetorical language.
Thomas Wolfe achieved critical acclaim for his unabashed romanticism and visionary faith in the inherent greatness of America and the heroism of its people. He possessed an extraordinary ability for portraiture and a gift for visual detail and sensory impressions, but his brilliance is often diminished in a diffuse sea of inflated irrelevancies and ranting incantations and exhortations. Modern critics have grown less infatuated with his prose and become more aware of the lack of thematic focus, structural cohesion, and controlling artistic intelligence in even his most disciplined work.
The most striking irony in Wolfe's work is that despite his spontaneous emotionalism there is an absence of compassion for any character other than his self-identifying protagonist, and despite his mystic exaltation of sex there is little credible sexuality and even less love.
Wolfe was born on Oct. 3, 1900, in Asheville, N.C. His mother had been a schoolteacher before marrying William O. Wolfe, a stonecutter and a man of towering assertiveness and drive. After the parents split up, Wolfe's lonely childhood was spent shuttling between the two. The death of his older brother Ben, whom he idolized, left an emotional scar from which he never recovered.
After an outstanding scholastic record, at the age of 15 Wolfe was admitted to the University of North Carolina, where he became active in various publications and theater groups. Two plays were produced: The Return of Buck Gavin (published 1924) and The Third Night (1938). Upon graduation the embryonic author continued at Harvard University, eventually earning a master of arts degree. His involvement with the famous Playwright Workshop led to Welcome to Our City (produced at Harvard, 1923) and to work on Mannerhouse (published 1948), concerning the disintegration of a southern family. His professors' enthusiasm encouraged Wolfe to move to New York in 1923 to seek success in the theater. Failure forced him to accept a position as English instructor at New York University. In 1924 in Europe he met Aline Bernstein, a married mother of two, 16 years his senior, with whom he had a brief but intense love affair.
In 1926 Wolfe began work on an enormous novel which would explore and explain "the strange and bitter magic of life." After some 20 months of furious writing, Wolfe left the huge, sprawling manuscript with Maxwell Perkins, editor of Scribner's. Though impressed with the author's genius, Perkins would not publish the novel until it was considerably revised and drastically cut. After a great deal of reworking and editing, Look Homeward, Angel appeared in 1929. Opening with a 90-page account of the early lives of his father and mother, the novel is a thinly disguised autobiographical record of the author's early years in the person of Eugene Gant.
In contrast to the critics' instant praise, Wolfe earned the hostility of many relatives and friends who easily recognized themselves in the novel. Though recent critical judgment of the work has been tempered by the recognition of its romantic and at times adolescent pretentiousness, Look Homeward, Angel contains vigorous prose and sequences of unquestionable power, such as the chilling conversation between Eugene and the ghost of his brother Ben, and the graphic description of his father's struggle against cancer. It is Wolfe's major contribution to American literature.
Wolfe resigned from New York University in 1930 and returned to Europe for a year on a fellowship. He had in mind a vast novel of several volumes which would range in time from the Civil War to the present and would replace Eugene Gant with a less autobiographical protagonist. After nearly five years of grappling with this conception—while living in extreme loneliness and near poverty in Brooklyn Heights, New York City—Wolfe recognized his inability to achieve a structural unity for the work.
Perkins insisted that Wolfe return to his previous autobiographical mode. Despite Wolfe's bitter protestations, a mammoth, haphazardly organized novel, Of Time and the River, appeared in 1935. Here the story of Eugene Gant continues, from his journey to Harvard University, through his period of personal turmoil in Europe, including an unhappy love affair, concluding with his return to the United States. The work's two outstanding sections are a vivid description of Eugene's ride to Boston and the horrifyingly effective account of the death of Gant's father.
Alternating between hysterical affirmation and maudlin self-pity, the novel's young protagonist is a rather unpleasant individual whose heroic conception of himself is never sustained by objective facts. Most of the other characters are sketchily drawn, with the exception of the friend Starwick, who, like Eugene, is endowed with a tragic dimension, whose basis is never made clear. Eugene's relationship with Starwick and his horror at discovering his friend's homosexuality are psychologically ambiguous and absurdly melodramatic. The study maintains a strange effectiveness, however, because of its frequent insights into the abyss of human loneliness and the sterility of self-love.
Several months after publication of Of Time and the River, Perkins collected several short stories and sketches extracted from Wolfe's earlier uncompleted novel. Under the title From Death to Morning, the uneven work was severely attacked by critics, although it included two of Wolfe's finest pieces of controlled narration—"Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "Death the Proud Brother." In 1936 Wolfe terminated his association with Perkins, largely to quell the rumor that the editor had acted as a near collaborator in the creation of his fiction, and signed with Edward C. Aswell, editor of Harper and Brothers.
Forgiven by his family and friends in North Carolina, for the first time in many years Wolfe returned home, where he spent several months writing and discovering that "you can't go home again." He presented a voluminous manuscript to Aswell, the working outlines for a new series of novels. On vacation in the West, Wolfe suddenly contracted pneumonia, which activated a tubercular condition. He died on Sept. 15, 1938, in Baltimore.
From the eight-foot pile of manuscript left him, Aswell compiled two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940), and a volume of short stories, The Hills Beyond (1941). The novels are no less autobiographical than Wolfe's earlier ones, and despite some impressive prose in The Web and the Rock, there is no indication that Wolfe had begun to achieve mastery of his medium or to discover fresh thematic material. Wolfe's other posthumous writings include Letters to His Mother (1943), Western Journal (1951), and Letters (1956).
The only biography of Wolfe is Andrew Turnbull, Thomas Wolfe (1968). An intimate but adulatory view emerges from the reminiscences of Robert Raynolds, Thomas Wolfe: Memoir of a Friendship (1965). Critical studies are Pamela Hansford Johnson, Thomas Wolfe (1947); Herbert J. Muller, Thomas Wolfe (1947); Louis D. Rubin, Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth (1953); Richard G. Walser, Thomas Wolfe (1961); and Bruce R. McElderry, Thomas Wolfe (1964).
Collections of critical opinion on Wolfe are Richard G. Walser, ed., The Enigma of Thomas Wolfe: Biographical and Critical Selections (1953), and Thomas Clark Pollock and Oscar Cargill, eds., Thomas Wolfe at Washington Square (1954). For briefer discussions see the relevant sections in Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction, 1920-1940 (1941); Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The American Novel between Two Wars (1942); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942); Edwin B. Burgum, The Novel and the World's Dilemma (1947); and Frederick J. Hoffman, The Modern Novel in America, 1900-1950 (1951). □