Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Two Books of Thomas Wolfe Correspondence, and Some Thoughts on Scholarship

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Two Books of Thomas Wolfe Correspondence, and Some Thoughts on Scholarship

Article excerpt

Literary scholars, like teenagers and haberdashers, are subject to fluctuations in fashion. Some enterprising soul might do a tabulation of the number of items listed for various authors each year since the annual Checklist of Scholarship in Southern Literature was begun in 1969. It would be interesting to chart the ups and downs in critical favor. My impression is that of the moderns, William Faulkner may be shading off just a trifle but still dominates the field, that Eudora Welty is at an all-time high, that Walker Percy is much in vogue, that Flannery O'Connor is off somewhat, that once again Ellen Glasgow is running well ahead of James Branch Cabell, and so on.

In any event, Thomas Wolfe seems to be on the rise, after a lengthy period of lagging interest. Of the leading figures in the twentieth century Literary Renascence he has been perhaps the most neglected by scholars, but this may be about to change. This past summer the University of North Carolina Press has given us two volumes of Wolfe's letters, both of them the result of Richard S. Kennedy's continuing labors in the field. Publication of Suzanne Stutman's My Other Loneliness.' Letters of Thomas Wolfe and A line Bernstein (390 pp., $30 cloth, $14.95 paper) is a stellar happening in the Wolfe firmament. Mrs. Stutman began the project as a doctoral dissertation under the direction of Professor Kennedy, who has contributed a brief foreword to the volume. Kennedy himself has edited Beyond Love and Loyalty: The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Elizabeth Nowell (164 pp., $18.95 cloth), in which is included a hitherto-unpublished Wolfe story, "No More Rivers."

It was Professor Kennedy's The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe (1962), also published by the University of North Carolina Press, that rendered almost all the critical writings on Wolfe from the late 1930s onward obsolescent, with its detailed disclosure of how corrupt was the text of the posthumously-published "novels" entitled The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940). Nobody had realized--because Edward C. Aswell had kept the papers locked up--that Aswell had produced these two "novels" from a vast mass of text written by Wolfe over the course of almost a decade, changing names and physical descriptions of characters, moving whole episodes and parts of episodes around, and actually writing transitional passages some of which were not distinguished from Wolfe's own writing. This has made it impossible to know just what was Wolfe's, where it belonged, or what it was about, in any precise way. In a postscript to The Hills Beyond (1941), a collection of Wolfe's short pieces, Aswell did tell about his editing job, but it was only with Kennedy's detailed analysis of the published and unpublished texts that the full meaning of what Aswell had only very obliquely described himself as doing became evident. *

Kennedy has since continued his good work with an edition of Wolfe's notebooks and of the early Wolfe play Welcome To Our City, and has generally established himself as perhaps the most active and valuable of all the Thomas Wolfe scholars. Meanwhile the Thomas Wolfe Estate has, under Paul Gitlin's stewardship, become less proprietary in the handling of the manuscripts. But as long as the work remains in copyright, there is unlikely to be a definitive editing job that will make available the best of the posthumously-published manuscript in the form that Wolfe wrote it, so that scholars can write about Wolfe's work after Of Time and the River with any confidence. What would appear to be possible, however, is an edition in book form of everything that appeared in magazines.

The two new volumes of Wolfe's correspondence, with Aline Bernstein and Elizabeth Nowell, are not of course comparable in importance or interest. Wolfe was in love with Aline Bernstein; as the original of Esther Jack she became a major character in the fiction. She is thus of central biographical significance. …

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