As befits one of America's most autobiographical novelists of the twentieth century, over the years Thomas Wolfe has elicited a voluminous body of scholarly and popular writing focusing on Wolfe biography. The highlights have been Elizabeth Nowell's biography in 1960 and Andrew Turnbull's in 1967. Each of these earlier biographers was strategically positioned to produce a memorable work on Wolfe. Nowell had been Wolfe's literary agent, editor, and confidante during his last years. In 1956 she edited The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. She had access to the Wolfe papers and was a dear friend of Edward C. Aswell of Harper's, Wolfe's last editor. Turnbull was part of the Scribner's family: he was supposed to write biographies and edit the letters for Scribner's gigantic trio—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. He did not live to complete his task.
Now David Herbert Donald, the third important biographer, has come to his study of Wolfe with his own expertise. He covers all of the familiar biographical ground that his predecessors did. But he has advantages they lacked. Not only does Donald draw upon the essential repositories for Wolfe holdings—collections at Chapel Hill, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the Pack Memorial Library at Asheville—but he has had access to much new material such as the Braden-Hatchett Collection, the Aline Bernstein/Thomas Wolfe letters, and many more papers that were not available in the 1960s. Since the time of Nowell and Turn-bull, an active Thomas Wolfe Society has emerged as well as the informative Thomas Wolfe Review. Moreover, as Donald points out, people who were associated with Wolfe and who could not be mentioned earlier are now dead. In addition, we are living in a less inhibiting time, and thus much more can now be said in a biography.
Donald writes of Wolfe in the same incisive, graceful, and forceful style that won him a Pulitzer prize for a Civil War biography. As a historian he is especially well equipped to place events in perspective. As a long-time Harvard professor his probing of Wolfe's Harvard years are most insightful. As a Southerner and former student at Wolfe's own Chapel Hill, Donald manages to recapture and render Wolfe first as schoolboy in the South and then as transplant in the North.
The details of Donald's biography should be familiar to all students of Wolfe: the early years in Asheville being pulled in all directions by an unruly family, the mother's boardinghouse, the private schooling for young Tom, the turbulent and shaping years at the University of North Carolina, the Harvard years under the tutelage of George Pierce Baker at the famous 47 Playwriting workshop, the tempestuous love affair with Aline Bernstein, the many trips abroad, the teaching at New York University, and the writing.
Always the writing—and the editing. These activities early on encompass the success of Look Homeward, Angel, the torrent of words that went into Of Time and the River, and the editor-author controversies. But one should never lose sight of the fact that Donald considers Wolfe one of the great American writers of this century. He does remind us that "Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than [End Page 681] any other major writer I can think of." But then Donald hastens to add that "much, of [Wolfe's] . . . work is extraordinarily brilliant and moving."
Donald's book is not simply a fact biography. For example, he evaluates the edited literature, and even though not all will agree with his conclusions, he offers judicious reasons for his hostility to much of Perkins' editing of Wolfe's work. Donald believes that Perkins and Wolfe were clearly not on the same wavelength. Perkins was more concerned with the business side of editing, he argues. Thus the large deletions from Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River stemmed more from Perkins' sense of what...