The vagaries of literary fashion are hard to anticipate, but here’s a prediction for the summer reading season that’s probably a safe bet: Although he’s dramatized in a new motion picture, there won’t be a stampede of more readers for Thomas Wolfe.
Wolfe (1900-1938) figures largely in “Genius,” a recent summer release starring Colin Firth as the legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. Jude Law plays Wolfe, whose 1929 novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” Perkins guided to print.
These days, the story of that book’s publication is better known than the book itself, a natural consequence of Wolfe’s peculiar literary sensibility. Wolfe was a prolix writer, and Perkins struggled heroically to pare down the North Carolina author’s fillibuster prose. Read “Look Homeward, Angel” today, and you can be forgiven for concluding that poor Perkins didn’t cut out enough. It’s a long-winded thing, not a leading candidate for the summer beach bag.
When a friend of Wolfe’s suggested to Perkins that “Look Homeward, Angel” might have some promise, he agreed to give it a look, though the project was offered with an unusual disclaimer; someone would have to come with a truck to collect it. The text was so thick that it couldn’t easily be delivered otherwise.
“This new manuscript of hundreds upon hundreds of pages was easy to ignore in favor of smaller proposals and first drafts of books that crossed his desk every week,” biographer A. Scott Berg writes of Perkins. Even so, Perkins accepted the challenge, whittling the novel to something that a reader could lift to his lap without herniating his spine.
The result is the more-than-500 page story of the young Eugene Gant’s coming of age in the fictional mountain town of Altamount near the dawn of the 20th century. It’s largely autobiographical, based on Wolfe’s own youth in Asheville, North Carolina.
The novel so closely paralleled Asheville’s real-life residents, often portraying them as narrow-minded and provincial, that “Look Homeward, Angel” was banned from the Asheville public library. Wolfe famously fictionalized his estrangement from Asheville in a subsequent novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Asheville long ago made its peace with Wolfe. His childhood home is open for tours, which is where, some years ago, I bought a copy of “Look Homeward, Angel” in the gift shop.
The book remains in print, a testament to Wolfe’s committed following. Charles Frazier, the acclaimed author of “Cold Mountain,” praised “Look Homeward, Angel” for language “as rich and ambitious and intensely American as any of our novelists has ever accomplished."
Suffice it to say that Wolfe’s expansive – some would say indulgent – style is an acquired taste. It opens with a lengthy account of the Gant family lineage, rendered in biblical tones. No turn of plot seems to escape Wolfe’s penchant for elaboration. There’s a three-page description of the Gant family diet, a level of detail that seems digressive even for a food-centric Southern family. I still remember the exhaustion I felt in coming to the last page of “Look Homeward, Angel,” reaching the summit of a literary mountain I’ll probably not climb again.
“I don’t know yet what I’m capable of doing,” Wolfe wrote when he was 23, “but by God, I have genius – I know it too well to blush behind it.” His signature novel, audacious and overblown, can make one wish that he’d had a little more literary modesty.