Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Beyond Myth and Memory: Ghostwriting Wolfe

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Beyond Myth and Memory: Ghostwriting Wolfe

Article excerpt

"If the wolf understands the sheep, he'll die of hunger."

--Henri Michaux (1)

My father, Thomas Wolfe's posthumous editor, has been called many things: cold, forbidding, fulsome, pompous, presumptuous, perverse. Author William Styron did an anagram of the name Aswell by calling him "the Weasel" (15). David Herbert Donald called his textual interference in the posthumous works of Wolfe "unacceptable" (482). Joanne Marshall Mauldin, in the most recent Wolfe biography, described him as "a tormented, tight-lipped cipher to the end" (289). By his own admission, my father called himself "a sheep in wolf's clothing." We could interpret this remark, as Mauldin does, to mean that Ed Aswell was nothing more than a pretender (275). I interpret it differently, as a play on words, a witticism spoken in the spirit of one who saw himself as a little man in the big man's game. And as with all playings on words, they ring around a circle, saying more in the doubling; for inside that saying lies another: about the problem of "sheepherding" Wolfe.

Without apology I have to agree that my father's heavy editing of the posthumous manuscripts of the great man Wolfe was egregious: he inserted material, made up passages, wrote sentences as if they were the author's. He disguised himself as Randy Shepperton inside You Can't Go Home Again. But from the mess of the two-million word manuscript left by Wolfe--complete with broomsticks and banana peels (Hardesty 17)--my father wrangled three books (The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond) within the span of four years, thus finishing the unfinished work of a writer whose promise was cut short by death, thus prolonging the writer's memory. Of course, nothing is finished, and that will be my focus in these pages. My discussion will revolve around memories and around thoughts about my father the ghostwriter.

Looking at me you could see my father, for we share the same wiry eyebrows, the same eyes, the same full lips, the same paunchy jowls. And just as he could be mistaken for anyone's uncle, I am frequently mistaken for anyone's anyone, once even for the lady greeter at Wal-Mart. My memories of my father are colored by sadness, for he drank himself to death and lived in the bitter belief that he was nobody, still the boy McCoy from a hardscrabble life in Tennessee. As a graduate of Hume-Fogg high school in Nashville, McCoy Aswell had dreams of becoming a lawyer. But his family, earning $2,600 a year, could not afford the boy's higher education, so McCoy cut out from the hick South and sold shoes in Ohio ("two is better than one," he would say) in order to earn full scholarship for college. Harvard would give him the blossom his roots could not. "I want a college," he would write in his scholarship application, "whose prestige will in some degree attach itself to me." I speculate: the drive to erase the shame of poverty and the sting of a stern Scotch Presbyterian lifestyle was a strong one for McCoy Campbell Aswell.

Aswell's disgust at what the rural South represented to him is clearly echoed by Eugene Gant's rant in Look Homeward, Angel that his feeling of the South "was not so much historic as it was of the core and desire of dark romanticism" (155). Richard Wright called the South "the dark underworld of American life" (370). Faulkner's tormented Quentin Compson is even more fierce. In response to his Harvard roommate's question "Why do you hate the South?" his denial speaks volumes: "'I dont hate it,' Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately. 'I dont hate it,' he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!" (303). No wonder that my father, the Harvard-educated editor, renamed himself Edward, erasing McCoy. No wonder he sought out southern expats like Thomas Wolfe, like Richard Wright; or writers from near-poverty like Eric Knight--all of whom would write to write away the stains and disgraces of impoverishment. …

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