Thomas Clayton Wolfe (3 Oct. 1900-15 Sept. 1938), novelist and short story writer, was born in Asheville, the eighth child of William Oliver, a stonecutter from Pennsylvania, and Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe, a native North Carolinian. In 1904 he went with his mother and some of the other children to St. Louis, where his mother kept a boardinghouse during the World's Fair and where his brother Grover died, an event that he was to use with distinction in his fiction. In 1905 he began attending public school in Asheville and in 1912 moved to a private school operated by Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Roberts. Margaret Roberts was a major influence on his life and work.
In 1916 Wolfe entered The University of North Carolina as a freshman. In the summer of 1918 he was a civilian war worker in Norfolk; that fall he enrolled in Professor Frederick H. Koch's playwriting course at The University of North Carolina. On 14 and 15 Mar. 1919 his one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed with Wolfe in the title role on the first bill of the Carolina Playmakers. Wolfe edited The Tar Heel, The University of North Carolina student newspaper, and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for an essay, "The Crisis in Industry." Another of his plays, The Third Night, was performed by the Playmakers in December 1919.
In June 1920 he was graduated from the university with a B.A. degree and in September entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University to earn an M.A. in English and to study playwriting under George Pierce Baker. Two versions of his play The Mountains were performed by the 47 Workshop at Harvard in 1921. In 1922 he completed the requirements for the M.A. degree, and in June of that year his father died in Asheville, another event of great importance in his fiction. Wolfe continued to study with Baker in the 47 Workshop, which in May 1923 produced his ten-scene play Welcome to Our City. In November 1923 he went to New York City, where he solicited funds for The University of North Carolina. In February 1924 he began teaching English as an instructor at the Washington Square College of New York University, a task that he continued to perform intermittently until January 1930. According to student reports, he was a conscientious and successful teacher.
In October 1924 he sailed for England on the first of what proved to be seven European trips. He traveled in France, Italy, and Switzerland, and on his return voyage in 1925, he met Mrs. Aline Bernstein, who was eighteen years his senior, a scene designer for the Theater Guild and the wife of a successful stockbroker. In October 1925 she became his mistress. Their affair was stormy, but Aline Bernstein was one of the powerful influences on his life. In the summer of 1926 he returned to Europe and there began work on the first version of his novel Look Homeward, Angel. In the summer of 1927 he made his third European journey, traveling in France, Austria, and Germany.
On 31 Mar. 1928 he completed the manuscript for the novel Look Homeward, Angel. That summer he made his fourth European trip, was injured in a fight at the Oktoberfest in Munich, and received news of Scribner's interest in Look Homeward, Angel, which was accepted for publication in January, beginning his long, close, and sometimes painful association with the editor Maxwell Perkins. The amount of editing done of the manuscript by Perkins has been greatly exaggerated. The novel, when published on 8 Oct. 1929, was of all Wolfe's long works the one closest to his original plan. It sold only moderately well, but it was a great critical success, and Wolfe was hailed as the most promising young American novelist.
In 1930 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and made his fifth European tour. On his return in the late spring of 1931, he began living in Brooklyn. The following year his tempestuous affair with Mrs. Bernstein ended. Perkins, after first putting it into production, withdrew his second novel, K-19, which remained unpublished. His short novel, A Portraintof Bascom Hawke, appeared in Scribner's Magazine, and it was co-winner of the $5,000 Scribner's Short Novel Prize. In July he published a second short novel, Web of Earth, one of his best works.
During the period between 1932 and 1935 Wolfe prepared three books for publication, K-19, No Door, a short novel, and a collection of three short novels. Perkins, however, insisted that Wolfe must come forward with a long work continuing his saga of Eugene Gant, the protagonist of Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe was having difficulty with the large book although he was publishing excellent short stories and short novels. In 1933 Perkins began to work with him daily on the "big book" and finally, in July 1934, over Wolfe's protests, sent the manuscript of Of Time and the River to the publishers. On its publication Wolfe was bitter about the shape of the book, declaring that had he been allowed to, he would have made it much better. The critics, although generally approving, did find the work to be sprawling and ill organized.
In 1935 he participated in the Writer's Conference at Boulder, Colo., and his speech made there was published as a serial in the Saturday Review of Literature and as a book, The Story of a Novel. This work recounts his struggle to produce Of Time and the River. In November 1935 From Death to Morning, a collection of short novels and short stories, was published.
In 1935 and 1936 Wolfe made his sixth and seventh European trips, spending much time in Germany, where translations of his works had made him a very popular figure. In 1936, leaving Berlin on a train, an incident with a Jew trying to escape Germany forced him to recognize the cruel nature of the Nazi state, and on returning home he wrote one of his most powerful short novels, "I Have a Thing To Tell You," a strong indictment of Germany, which was serialized in the New Republic. Like many of his short novels, it was later incorporated in expanded form in one of his novels, in this case You Can't Go Home Again.
In 1936 his quarrel with his publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, began; it grew out of his sense that Perkins was preventing him from writing what he truly wished to write, and it was exacerbated by what he felt was Scribner's unwillingness to defend him in a libel suit and by his unhappiness about the reputation that Of Time and the River and The Story of a Novel gave him of being a prodigious but formless writer whose works were shaped by his editor. This struggle with Scribner's continued throughout 1937, until in December he signed a contract with Edward C. Aswell, of Harper and Brothers, for the publication of his later work. However turbulent this period was emotionally, it was one of the most fruitful for Wolfe in terms of short publications in such journals as the New Republic, the New Yorker, Scribner's, American Mercury, Harpers Bazaar, the Yale Review, and the Saturday Evening Post.
In 1938 he left New York for a western tour, depositing the large body of manuscript materials that he had with his new editor, Edward C. Aswell. On the way west, he stopped by Purdue University and gave a lecture, "Writing and Living" (published in 1964). In July 1938 he became ill in Seattle and on 6 September he was sent to the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where he died of tuberculosis of the brain, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday.
After Wolfe's death, Edward Aswell assembled from the manuscripts the novels The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, which were published in 1939 and 1940. A collection of short stories and sketches and fragments of a novel were published as The Hills Beyond in 1941. In assembling these works, Aswell worked from Wolfe's outline and organized the material in the huge but incomplete collection of manuscripts that Wolfe had left. The Web and the Rock, which deals with a new protagonist George Webber, is pretty much the novel that Wolfe would have produced, although the latter two-thirds would certainly have been greatly revised. You Can't Go Home Again, also about Webber, is largely a collection of materials, with narrative links written by Aswell to bridge the gaps. Thus only in his short stories, short novels, and Look Homeward, Angel does Wolfe's work survive in a a form in which he himself was the principal agent of organization. Of Time and the River carried too much of Maxwell Perkins intention rather than Wolfe's, even to being in the third person when Wolfe had written most of it in the first person. The last two novels had to be given their present shape by Aswell with only Wolfe's outline to assist him.
In 1991 The University of North Carolina Press and Paul Gitlin, administrator of the estate of Thomas Wolfe, brought out The Good Child's River, an unfinished novel "based loosely on the early life of" Aline Bernstein, edited and with an introduction by Suzanne Stutman. According to the jacket, "Some sections of this work were heavily edited and published after Wolfe's death. Here for the first time is The Good Child's River, as Wolfe wrote it, along with some fragments, contained in two appendixes, that Wolfe may have intended to include in the finished work."
Thomas Wolfe was a writer of enormous energy and imaginative force, marked by a richly rhetorical style and powerful command of language. The subject of the bulk of his writing was his own experience as an American. He was in the tradition of Walt Whitman, attempting through the record of himself to explain and define what it meant to be an American. His work is marred by excesses and exuberance, and of his novels, only Look Homeward, Angel has the firm shape that he himself gave it. Out of these facts has grown the legend that Wolfe was an uncontrolled and excessive writer, blessed with the gift of language but unable to control the structure of his works. But his thiry-two short stories and his seven short novels indicate quite clearly that this was not true. In the short length of the story and the intermediate length of the short novel, he was able to write tightly organized, powerful, and convincing stories, and it was only when he began to assemble these works into large structures, such as those that Perkins imposed on him in the early 1930s, that his lack of artistic control became apparent.
Wolfe's subject was always himself and his experiences, transmuted by the imagination and elevated by the power of his rhetoric. His effort to put a person, himself, fully "on record" through the guise of fiction was a major and masterful accomplishment in the American novel, and at the time of his death he was ranked amongh the top three or four twentieth-century American novelists. His critical stock has fallen severely since his death in 1938, yet his command of language, the strength of his characterizations, and the power with which he could describe the experiences and feelings of youth were all such that his place as a permanent figure in American writing seems assured.
— The Thomas Wolfe Collection
Relire Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe, terrassé le 15 septembre 1938, à 38 ans, par une tuberculose cérébrale, aurait eu 110 ans cet automne... Le géant de la littérature américaine reste assez méconnu. Traduit à Lausanne, il mérite amplement d'être (re)découvert.
Pour ceux qui ont accompli, déjà, la grande traversée des quelque six cents pages de L’Ange exilé, inaugurant en 1982 la réédition des œuvres de l’écrivain dans la première traduction française qu’on puisse dire recevable, la seule mention du nom de Thomas Wolfe (à ne pas confondre évidemment avec Tom Wolfe !) est évocatrice d’une légende fabuleuse et, pour ce qui concerne les œuvre, de grands espaces romanesques peuplés de personnages inoubliables.
Thomas Wolfe incarne la tentative inégalée de restituer, dans un maelström de mots et d’images, l’inépuisable profusion du vivant. Tout dire ! Folle ambition de l’adolescence transportée par sa passion généreuse…
Or il y a de l’éternel adolescent chez ce grand diable d’à peu près deux mètres, né avec le siècle et fauché par la sale mort à l’âge de 38 ans, après qu’il eut arraché des millions de mots de ses entrailles, constituant la matière de quatre immenses romans, de nombreuses nouvelles et de pièces de théâtre, notamment. Là-dessus, à ses élans juvéniles à jamais inassouvis, Thomas Wolfe alliait des dons d’observation tout à fait hors du commun et une profonde expérience du cœur humain, ayant vécu précocement toutes les contradictions et les souffrances de l’individu accompli.
Il y a la légende de Thomas Wolfe. Celle du jeune provincial d’Asheville (Caroline du Nord) quittant l’univers confiné de sa ville natale pour débarquer dans la galaxie fascinante de New York, décrite avec un lyrisme sans égal. La légende de l’écrivain solitaire travaillant debout à longueur de nuit dans de gros registres posés sur un réfrigérateur, faute de bureau à sa taille, tout en se cravachant à la caféine. Et celle du forcené des errances nocturnes dans la ville immense, dont nous retrouvons des échos bouleversants dans les nouvelles de De la mort au matin. Ou celle, aussi, de sa rencontre providentielle avec l’éditeur Maxwell Perkins, qui eut le double mérite de parier pour son génie et de l’aider à transformer ses manuscrits torrentiels et désordonnés en ouvrages publiables.
Mais l’essentiel de la légende de Thomas Wolfe, c’est évidemment dans son œuvre que nous le découvrons, transposée et magnifiée sous la forme d’une autobiographie incessamment recommencée. Est-ce à dire que l’écrivain s’est borné à se scruter le nombril et à raconter sa vie ? Tout au contraire : car nul n’est plus ouvert à toutes les palpitations du monde que ce « récepteur » ultrasensible, lors même que les faits et toute la geste humaine se parent, sous sa plume, d’une aura mythique.
À la mythologie, Le temps et le fleuve emprunte les titres des huit sections qui le composent, sans pour autant que les noms cités d’Oreste, de Faust, de Télémaque ou d’Antée, notamment, correspondent très strictement au récit et à ses péripéties. Plutôt, il s’agit d’indications poétiques qui signalent peut-être, en outre, l’influence de Joyce sur l’auteur. Avec celui-là, comme le précise Camille Laurent, traducteur, Thomas Wolfe partage la conviction que « ce qui est fascinant, c’est le quotidien, et l’extraordinaire, ce qu’on a sous les yeux ».
Ce qui tisse ainsi les huit cents pages du deuxième livre de l’écrivain américain, qu’on pourrait dire une autofiction épique, c’est l’expérience quotidienne qui fut la sienne entre 1920 et 1925, ponctuée par son arrivée à Harvard, la rencontre déterminante d’Aline Bernstein et un voyage en Europe.
Cela précisé, l’autobiographie se fait poème et roman dès les premières pages du livre, avec la scène des adieux du protagoniste à sa mère, et la prodigieuse évocation de son voyage en train.
Eugène Gant, double romanesque de Thomas Wolfe, et qui était déjà le héros de L’Ange exilé, quitte donc Altamont (Asheville en réalité) pour Harvard, non sans faire étape auprès de son père en train de mourir du cancer. Or, tout le livre sera marqué, conjointement, par le thème joycien de la quête du père et par la recherche d’une identité personnelle et nationale à la fois – car ce voyage au bout de soi-même, à travers les circonstances de la vie, les passions et les vices, les émerveillements et les désillusions, engage de surcroît la destinée de tout un peuple.
Qui sommes-nous, Américains ? se demande aussi bien Thomas Wolfe. Et la question ressaisira toute l’énergie de l’écrivain, persuadé de cela que l’œuvre à faire participe d’une aventure propre au Nouveau-Monde.
Peu connu des lecteurs de langue française, et d’abord parce qu’il fut exécrablement traduit, Thomas Wolfe demeure également, aux Etats-Unis, le grand oublié de la littérature contemporaine. Evoquez son nom dans les universités ou les milieux intellectuels américains et vous verrez quelle petite moue supérieure on opposera à votre enthousiasme.
C’est qu’il est assurément problématique, pour ceux qui accoutument de disséquer les textes, de se faire à ce titan romantique et fort indiscipliné dans ses constructions, dont les élans ne vont pas toujours sans emphase ou répétitions. Au demeurant, seul l’aveuglément ou la méconnaissance peuvent expliquer le terme de « logorrhée » dont on a parfois taxé son style, d’une fermeté et d’un éclat où nous voyons surtout, pour notre part, l’expression de la meilleure vitalité, au temps où le rêve américain faisait encore rêver…
Editions L’Age d’Homme, Le temps et le fleuve, 582p.
— Passion de lire
Thomas Wolfe In Asheville: "Surely he had a thing to tell us."
At some stage of life we seem to make an unconscious choice between sticking close to our roots or becoming uprooted wanderers. Home or permanent exile? It usually comes down to one or the other. Home is sweet but in the words of Omar Khayam, "there is nothing more delightful than to be a stranger." Once land - locked, it is hard to wander. But in your dreams, in your fantasy, in your imagination, you will always wonder what it's like out on the edge. On the other hand, even if the willing exile becomes bitter at his loss—and he has lost something of himself—there is never a real return home and he is condemned to remain a stranger. A stranger in exile, a stranger at home.
One of the most curious moments of my journalistic life was a two - day interview I did some years ago with the Russian - French writer and former KGB officer, Kirill Chenkin, at his summer home on the southeast coast of France. The Cold War was still on. Spies were everywhere. Chenkin had defected to the West and had just published a book about disinformation and the role of double and triple agents, titled in Russian, Ochotnik Vverkx Nogami, The Upside Down Hunter. Imagine my surprise when it came out that Chenkin, in his complex life of wandering through Europe, Soviet Russia and America—including fighting in the 13th International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War—had taught French literature at Asheville's Black Mountain School of Arts in 1939 - 40.
A few moments talk about my native Asheville and we were already into Thomas Wolfe, who had died only shortly before Chenkin arrived there. Thomas Wolfe too, like Chenkin, like myself, was a wanderer and a stranger, but different from many wanderers in that his home in Asheville in the mountains of North Carolina remained forever the center of his world.
"I think no one could understand Thomas Wolfe who had not seen or properly imagined the place he was born and grew up," wrote Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe's friend and editor at Scribner's Sons. "Asheville is encircled by mountains. The trains wind in and out through labyrinths of passes. A boy of Wolfe's imagination imprisoned there could think that what was beyond was all wonderful—different from what it was where there was not enough of anything for him."
Thomas Wolfe's fictional town of Altamont, that is, Asheville, was a town of 50,000 people, at an altitude of 2,100 feet, ringed by the Blue Ridge, Pisgah and Newfoundland mountains. That Asheville, today number one on many polls of tourism and retirement sites, has always had a magic attraction. Every other house in Wolfe's time hung out a "tourist rooms for rent" shingle. Sumptuous hotels like the Grove Park Inn overlooking the city, the Biltmore Castle modeled on those of Bavaria's "Mad Ludwig," the East's highest peak of Mount Mitchell, the Cherokee Indians, trout-filled rivers and a four seasoned climate make it special. Surprisingly cosmopolitan, it is a major arts and cultural Mecca, once labeled "Little Paris."
In Wolfe's time, that Black Mountain school became an internationally famous arts school under the direction of Josef Albers, attracting teachers like Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Kirill Chenkin. As one could imagine, local people considered teachers and students alike of this unique school as looneys.
Yet, Wolfe's Asheville was sophisticated also. It attracted visitors from the Antebellum plantations of the Deep South, rich people from Florida, and puzzling visitors from New York. Scott Fitzgerald, then from Hollywood, visited his wife Zelda confined in the Highlands Hospital and with his drunken antics titillated guests at the plush Grove Park Inn where he lodged, while Glenn Miller played swing in the Battery Park Hotel. Asheville was a hidden "in" place.
Wolfe's town of the 20s, 30s and 40s was divided among the rich who lived in exclusive areas along the lakes, in the forests and on the mountainsides; the middle class and poor whites who lived in wood frame houses in town; and blacks who lived segregated in wood shanties in niggertown in the downtown.
That's the town Wolfe seemed to attack in his masterpiece, Look Homeward Angel, published in 1929 when he was 29 years old. His more than 200 characters of Asheville were hardly disguised. Ashevillians of the day were furious if they were identified or chortled about the others if they escaped notice. Wolfe anticipated their anger and never returned home again until 1937—while the book was officially banned in Asheville.
As one of the most autobiographical writers of the 20th century, two Wolfean images remain in literary memory: trains and niggertown. Marvelous descriptions of one, racism in the other. Wonderful trains of escape out of the mountains that carried him first to Chapel Hill, then later to New York. And trains like the Carolina Special and the Asheville Express that brought him back. His niggertown, the black ghetto in the Asheville just behind the police department and the city jail, instead earned him a racist label for all the things said or left unsaid, a reputation from which he never escaped. He didn't need Nazi Germany to feed his inbred racism, the kind that was in him as a result of his place and time. As a product of his upbringing. Not a racism based on racial hatred, but a society of two separate races symbolized by the two water fountains, one for "white", one for "colored", that once stood on Pack Square near his house.
Six feet six and 240 pounds, Wolfe ate and drank and consumed life in huge portions. He wrote the same way. There is little tranquility in his works. Life was a desperate affair. He attacked life. He shouted his art at the top of his lungs. His favorite words are "furious" and "savage." His world reeled about him. Life was a demonic dance. Of his own creative process, he wrote: "The words were wrung from him in a kind of bloody sweat, they poured out of his finger tips, spat out of his snarling throat like writhing snakes; he wrote them with his heart, his brain, his sweat, his guts; he wrote them with his blood, his spirit; they were wrenched out of the last secret source and substance of his life."
His work has been called "a vast but incomplete saga of one man's pilgrimage on earth, a saga so formless that the term novel can be applied to its parts only with extreme caution and so monumental that it exploded the covers of four vast books in which its portions were imprisoned."
It is true. For Wolfe the separate parts of his writing formed portions of a great whole. He wanted to put one man on record and through that person represent America. Yet, his central theme was eternally the loneliness of the individual—the stranger, the wanderer, lost in the complex currents of time. Wolfe himself said he was dealing with 150 years of time, 2000 characters of every racial and social class of America.
In a letter of 1932 he wrote: "The book on which I have been working for the last 2 - 3 years is not a volume but a library." He was always shuffling around the parts. In 1934 he wrote two long novels, really the same book, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time And The River, and five short novels.
In 1936 he traveled to Germany, a country he loved. But once there his eyes were opened to Nazism. His stay in a Munich pension in Amalienstrasse and the beating he took at the Oktoberfest left an imprint on him. He then wrote the truth about Hitler's Germany in his novella I Have A Thing To Tell You [Nun Will Ich Ihnen Was Sagen], written in the crisp Hemingway style that he admired.
Between 1936 and his death in 1938 he wrote a huge manuscript from which his then editor, Edward Aswell of Harper's, assembled two novels: The Web and the Rock [the South and the North, the feminine and the masculine] and You Can't Go Home Again [published posthumously and for me at least difficult to digest today!], seven short novels and many short stories. In a way, the latter have been lost even by those who know Wolfe well, although they contradict anti-Wolfe criticism that he had no control. In these shorter works as in his letters that read like perfect short stories he showed his craftsmanship, focus and artistic control.
His were nonetheless gigantic works. In the first scene of Of Time And The River at the Asheville railroad station he held the suspense for over 30,000 words. Yet he recognized the need for cuts and always agreed: he knew he had no time for revision.
Wolfe's voice was less southern than it was 19th century English romantic. Of all the Southern writers Thomas Wolfe was not trying to come to terms with the South. He was a prisoner between a search for a tradition and his attempt to escape from any limitations at all. His goal was to describe all of American society. The South was only the flavor. The result of his attempt was violent and explosive just as his South was violent and explosive.[...]
— Southern Cross Review
— Thomas Wolfe Memorial
— NC Historic Sites