Groundbreaking literary biography of author Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, by David Herbert Donald. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown & Co. 704 pp. $24.95. This richly informative literary biography goes well beyond the familiar outline in previous biographies of Thomas Wolfe and in his own autobiographical fiction.

Here again is the roistering young man from the South whose mother runs a boarding house and whose ambitions know no bounds. He reaches out for all of life and gains international fame as a writer by way of the University of North Carolina, Harvard, and New York.

But here also is the kind of context and detail that have not been brought together before in the half century since the end of Wolfe's brief lifetime (1900-1938). David Herbert Donald has had unrestricted access to all Wolfe's papers. He can be a putter-inner instead of a leaver-outer, to use Wolfe's terms in an argument with fellow writer F.Scott Fitzgerald. But what Donald skillfully puts in are facts and findings, not the cascading words and images that Wolfe put in - and that make so much of his fiction out of fashion today.

It was not in fashion in its own day, either, at least at first. Publishers doubted the public was ready for such seemingly formless abundance lavished on a young man's memories. His first novel, ``Look Homeward, Angel,'' was cut by 90,000 words before it was issued by Charles Scribner's Sons.

Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, became Wolfe's editor. He was one of the people whom Wolfe abjectly depended upon and then turned against - in the kind of cycle Donald traces to Wolfe's long dependence on his mother and its accompanying rage to be independent. Wolfe's dependence on stage designer Aline Bernstein, with whom he had a long, adulterous affair, is another and notorious example.

Unsparingly, Donald amasses testimony about Wolfe. For example, what Sylvia Beach said after meeting Wolfe at the Paris bookshop where she published James Joyce, whose work had influenced Wolfe. She found him ``indubitably a young man of genius'' and ``perhaps very unsatisfactory as a social being.'' This seems to be putting it mildly in light of the record of boorishness, drunkenness, prejudice, and sexual exploits that becomes more grating in the detail and language that Donald is the first biographer to quote.

But Donald gives evidence of the towering author's likeable side, too. If he is too kind to Wolfe's poetic prose, he plausibly suggests that his celebratory tone ``helped American literature make the transition from the disillusionment of the 1920s to the affirmations of the 1930s.''

Donald shows how Perkins tried to minimize the extent of his labors on Wolfe's great untidy swatches of narrative. But critic Bernard DeVoto charged that Wolfe's lava flow of words had been turned into something resembling a novel only by ``Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribner's.'' Thus he tore open the controversy over who really wrote Wolfe's books, which intensified after Wolfe changed to Harper & Brothers and another editor, Edward Aswell.

Aswell was left with Wolfe's massive legacy of manuscripts. He put together three posthumous books - ``The Web and the Rock,'' ``You Can't Go Home Again,'' and ``The Hills Beyond.'' The question has been whether he destroyed Wolfe's work in order to save it.

David Donald sets the controversy in perspective. He gives examples of just what Aswell did and suggests why. Then he gives his own view as someone who has read ``every draft, and every carbon copy, of all of Wolfe's manuscripts.''

Donald concludes it is absurd to call Aswell the ``author'' of Wolfe's posthumous novels. The writing, structure, and themes are essentially Wolfe's; according to Donald, Wolfe was generally careful about such things, far from the image of ``simply dashing off what first came to mind.'' Yet Aswell went unacceptably outside an editor's role in such matters as altering Wolfe's characterizations; he ``seriously eroded'' the integrity of Wolfe's text.

By this point, toward the last of some 500 pages, Donald's scholarship and straightforward, unpedantic prose have persuaded a reader to accept his judgment on the issue. But the editor/writer strand is just one in which Donald offers more than the two main earlier biographies, each of which has its own strengths.

The 1960 book by Elizabeth Nowell has the cachet of being written by a participant in the Wolfe story, his literary agent; the 1967 book by Andrew Turnbull provides additional personal background on Perkins.

The context Donald adds is in keeping with his professorial fields of history and American civilization at Harvard. For example, he notes that Wolfe began writing without knowing about the big literary debate then going on. Other aspiring writers were being influenced by Henry James and by Percy Lubbock's ``The Craft of Fiction'' to turn toward objective and carefully planned novels - just what Wolfe was not doing. And Donald brings a thorough sense of the times to Wolfe's later effort to turn away from self-centered excess in his writing and toward social concerns. Perhaps, if Wolfe had gone further along these lines, more readers would be opening his books today.

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