The Genius of Thomas Wolfe

I wanted to see the movie, Genius, because it was about Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But it is really about Perkins’ relationship with Thomas Wolfe, who I’m embarrassed to say, I had never read. As an undergrad and grad student in English, I was never required to read him, nor had he ever been recommended to me.

Wolfe, as played by Jude Law, is a dynamo of passion, constantly adrenalized and bubbling over with extravagant ideas and enthusiasm about everything, and so bursting with the need to tell his stories that he couldn’t help, after Perkins edited and published Look Homeward, Angel in 1929, to deliver his next book to the editor in a child’s wagon, a 5,000 page overflowing mountain of paper that would eventually become Of Time and the River.

Whether or not that anecdote was true, I was intrigued and a bit ashamed to think I’d never read anything by an author whom Perkins, at least according to the movie, took more delight in than he did Fitzgerald and Hemingway, regarding him as a son and part of his family.

So I finally read Look Homeward, Angel, a thinly disguised memoir about the author’s years growing up, from 1900 to 1918, in and around the fictional Altamont (based on Asheville) North Carolina, and I discovered why Perkins was so charmed. It’s hard to imagine Angel being published as a debut novel today, as big and sprawling as it is, with little of the artifice of plot and structure we associate with the modern novel.

What Angel does have is writing—beautiful, lyrical, poetic, vivid and sensuous writing, full of color, warmth and startling, original language. And it has character—a wild, railing, bombastic, speechifying drunk of a father; a penny-pinching mouse of a mother more concerned with her boarding house and real estate dealings than in caring for her children. And it has those children, six of them, each one as distinctly and sympathetically drawn as the next. And it has scene and crackling dialogue and forward movement, though it meanders like a great, flooded river, turning back on itself and occasionally overflowing with words and emotion.

Then there’s Eugene, Wolfe’s character, who is buffeted about by his own youthful passions, a creative outlier who loves books and learning. He fits nowhere in this dysfunctional, alcoholism-prone, education-indifferent middle-class family. He moves from his father’s home to his mother’s boarding house, from public school to private, from job to job, love to heartbreak, success to disappointment and loss. It’s a page-turning book whose pages I flipped not to learn what happens next or how it would end so much as to hear how Wolfe would describe the next setting Eugene enters, the next character Eugene meets, the next fight the family has over the father’s drinking or the mother’s financial and emotional stinginess.

It’s also a fascinating depiction of its times, so authentically provincial in regards to world events. You’d never know why or where World War One was being fought for all the naive, boyish aspirations to don a uniform and prove one’s manhood. You’d never know there was a world-wide flu epidemic in 1918 for Wolfe’s focus on a few Altamont residents who happened to get sick and the matter-of-fact way their deaths are described—at least, until the flu takes Eugene’s brother, Ben, which is detailed at length in the book’s final chapters. The wide-eyed fascination and wariness with which Wolfe’s characters regard newly emerging automobiles, electric lights and silent movie houses mirrors ours with our own newfangled, seductive technologies. But it’s the depiction of Altamont, the smoky mountains that surround it, the steam-powered trains that encircle it, the father’s stonecutting shop in the town square, the mother’s tumultuous boarding house, that make the writing so authentic, rendering this American city at the turn of the 20th century with such realism I often felt I could touch it, smell it and hear it.

I wonder now if Wolfe was not required reading in my classes because of how his novel’s myopic view of the world extended to his depiction of African-Americans. The few that are mentioned in the ‘Deep South’ of Angel seldom move out of the shadows into the foreground, rarely speak or materialize into real people. One can’t help but cringe at scenes like the one where Eugene is almost seduced by a mixed-race woman on his paper route, but for the most part, these characters, mostly world-weary domestics and laborers, are treated, if not badly, than at least, carelessly, like furniture you only notice when you stumble over it.

These perfunctory depictions are disturbing and indefensible, but I kept in mind that Wolfe was a product of his time, no more aware of his own racism than a pre-Galilean European might have been that the world was round. He saw the world as it was for a southern white boy a hundred years ago—seeing it without having access to any perspective from which to grasp how wrong it was. Should we stop reading his books because, for all his genius, there were certain things about which he was ignorant? Can we not learn as much or more from books that depict the world as it really was, with all its flaws, than from historical novels and movies produced today that inaccurately depict bygone eras as we wish they were?

(Remember the scene in Hidden Figures where the white NASA supervisor bashes down the ‘Coloreds’ sign over a restroom, saying “We all pee the same color”? Much as we might wish that really happened, it didn’t.)

Genius opens with Perkins in his office warily unwrapping a six-inch high mess of papers with Look Homeward, Angel on the title page. He starts reading, “…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door,” and is immediately enthralled, turning away from the viewer, putting his feet up and leaning back to delve deeper into those pages. Jump to him reading it on the train-ride home, then during dinner with the family at the table, then on the porch with his children crawling on his shoulders.

Whether it’s true that Perkins literally could not put the book down, he had a special love for Wolfe that I could appreciate after reading Angel, even if Wolfe was a flawed man and writer. Most of the movie is about Perkins cajoling Wolfe to make his books tighter and better, to get them done. The movie suggests that Wolfe eventually left Perkins because of claims that Perkins was more responsible for Wolfe’s success than was the writer, himself.

To whatever extent Perkins influenced Wolfe, he was unable to eradicate all of his imperfections. Perhaps, he shared Wolfe’s racial insensitivity, or he thought it better for readers to see Wolfe’s world as he saw it. Regardless, he discovered an author whose uncensored, unfettered perspective on that southern world revealed truths, both beautiful and ugly, that readers need to see. And he’s an author that any aspiring novelist can learn from.

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