- Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin?
Just over halfway through a book that begins as a minutely documented account of the last twenty-one months of Thomas Wolfe's life, Joanne Marshall Mauldin commits a narrative act that only the boldest-or most foolhardy-of storytellers will attempt: she eliminates her colorful, larger-than-life protagonist.
The understated though richly detailed manner in which Mauldin accomplishes this act by only page 166 of her study will clarify for the reader her purpose, still unstated by that point, in writing Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin? Apparently it was never her intention to position Wolfe exclusively in the foreground of her text; indeed, after having dispatched Wolfe in chapter seven, Mauldin is free to address more fully the true subjects of her study: the family, friends, business associates, artists manqués, and other shameless hangers-on whom she considers responsible for the current sad state of Thomas Wolfe studies.
Even after Wolfe is written out of the narrative, however, evidence of his influence lingers in Mauldin's remarkable prose style. Clearly she has internalized Wolfe's tendency, especially as demonstrated in Look Homeward, Angel, to be distracted by scores of minor characters, each requiring his or her own succinctly and often scandalously sketched biography. Some of those minor figures permit Mauldin some name-dropping on Wolfe's behalf since his acquaintances included such literary contemporaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Lee Masters, Clifford Odets, Hamilton Basso, Sherwood Anderson, Paul Green, and Olive Tilford Dargan. Other more humble figures allow Mauldin to relish, in a gossipy insider sort of way, the extent to which Wolfe raided the populace of Asheville to people Look Homeward, Angel's Altamont. Because of details such as these, scholarly and non-scholarly readers alike will recognize Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin? as a guilty pleasure and, having once taken it up, will have difficulty putting it down unread.
On the other hand, not so poetically Wolfian is Mauldin's tendency to certain infelicities of expression throughout her account. Consider as examples her readings of three of the most important women in Wolfe's life: his mother, Julia Wolfe, his teacher Margaret Roberts, and his lover Aline Bernstein. The first she characterizes as "the burr under his psychic saddle" to whose "prolapsed womb" Wolfe had no desire to return (11, 69). The second is portrayed as the "blessedly" wise woman who, though devastated by Wolfe's portrayal of her and her family, "clammed up for six years" after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel; "subsequently, when she dished up crow, [Wolfe] dutifully carved it up and swallowed it-feathers, entrails, and all" (23, 24). Finally, in references to a fictionalized Aline Bernstein, Wolfe revealed [End Page 134] in "Party at Jack's" that he had a "killer bee in his bonnet" (43) regarding her, no doubt forgetting that she was responsible in part for his success with the opposite sex: "He was fun. He was smart. He was simpatico. Aline Bernstein had trained him to be a first-rate lover" (100). According to Mauldin, Bernstein's singular weakness was "her unwillingness to loosen her half nelson of love on Tom Wolfe" (117).
Aside from capitalizing upon the drama inherent in the short, sad story of Thomas Wolfe's personal and literary lives, Mauldin's purpose ultimately centers on her insistence that the critical insufficiencies, if not downright machinations, of three people-Maxwell Perkins, Elizabeth Nowell, and Edward Aswell-are responsible for Wolfe's current diminished stature in the American literary canon. This is one conclusion toward which Wolfe scholars have been steadily gravitating since his death in 1938, achieving confirmation of their suspicions with the 2000 publication of the original unabridged version of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe's O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, which was edited by Arlyn and Matthew Bruccoli.
And yet, even with the textual revelations made available in O Lost and the additional revelations of editorial chicanery made by Mauldin...