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  • In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe—Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958
  • Leslie Field
Mary Aswell Doll and Clara Stites , eds. In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe—Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958. Athens: Ohio UP, 1988. 256 pp. $27.95.

Edward Aswell was Thomas Wolfe's last editor; Elizabeth Nowell, Wolfe's literary agent, biographer, and editor of his letters. In the last decade of their lives, from 1949 to 1958, both Aswell and Nowell were immersed in the life and writings of Thomas Wolfe even though Wolfe had been dead since 1938.

At the outset of this significant correspondence between Aswell and Nowell, the former had already edited three major posthumous Wolfe books: The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond. Nowell would go on to edit The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and to write his first full-length biography. She was planning to edit Wolfe's notebooks at the time of her death. When Maxwell E. Perkins died in 1947, Aswell became the literary executor of the estate of Thomas Wolfe.

Among the hundreds of letters in the Houghton Library Collection at Harvard concerning Thomas Wolfe, some of the most revealing are those between Aswell and Nowell. From the earliest letters one feels the enthusiasm, the zest, as the two shared their Wolfe experiences.

Much of the correspondence between "Ed" and "Liddy" reveals that they always kept one thought in mind: how best to edit Wolfe and to write about him so as to capture him exactly. Consistently, it seems, they tried to get Wolfe "right." To this end they studied his writings and tried to fathom his genius, his creativity, to be able to render it faithfully.

The letters are a treasure trove, showing the true affection and respect each had for the other. The correspondence is not only informative but also poignant as one becomes chillingly aware that Nowell was rapidly losing her battle with cancer and that both, bound in life by their dedication to Wolfe, would soon be dead. Nowell died toward the end of August, 1958; Aswell two months later, on November 5.

The Aswell-Nowell letters provide insight into their editing judgment, and the long exchange between the two concerning John Skally Terry's possible role in the editing of the Wolfe papers (he had botched the editing of Wolfe's letters to his mother earlier but still wanted desperately to do more editing on Wolfe) reveals something of the proprietary, even obsessive or paranoid interest that Aswell and Nowell eventually took in their roles of seeing that Wolfe's posthumous works, his letters, and writings about Wolfe should be published in their "pure" form, untainted by "outsiders" who could contaminate Wolfe's writings and his reputation.

Earlier, both knew the other famous Wolfe editor, Maxwell Perkins. But Nowell's relationship with Perkins and the Charles Scribner's Publishing House had been much longer and more substantive than had Aswell's. Thus in the Nowell letters to Aswell one also gleans much of the Max Perkins' era of the Wolfe editing.

During her lifetime Nowell was meticulous in her filing of letters, and thus between 1949 and her death in 1958 she accumulated many boxes of the Aswell-Nowell letters concerning Wolfe. Shortly before her death the letters were sent to the Houghton Library at Harvard, where they are listed as bMS m 1883.3 (157).

The letters assembled here have been used earlier by Richard S. Kennedy [End Page 287] in The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe and more recently by David Herbert Donald in Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, and by my own Thomas Wolfe and His Editors: Establishing a True Text for the Posthumous Publications. Nonetheless, this present collection, chronologically arranged, gathers together the bulk of the letters for the first time.

Mary Doll and Clara Stites, daughters of Aswell and Nowell, respectively, in preparing the letters for publication have provided their own meaningful context for their parents and their involvement with Wolfe. For each of the ten years covered by...


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