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Time Marches On

The golden age of Thomas Wolfe and the Gant clan.

Oct 18, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 05 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Story of a Novel still makes fascinating reading. But it exposes private creative processes and emotions about which most novelists are cagey or silent to the glare of day. Faulkner, for instance, was so secretive that he claimed to wish to be “as a private individual abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless.” Hemingway, asked about the rain that is a morbid and obvious symbolic presence in A Farewell to Arms, legendarily said, “It rains a lot that time of year in Italy.”

By contrast, Wolfe’s confessional was elaborate and soon led to the most drastic mistake a major American writer has made—his break with the great Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, who had helped Wolfe shape the two Gant novels into publishable form. Wolfe had, in fact, told no less than the truth: He, who could write 10,000 words at a single bound between sunset and sunrise, needed Perkins’s guidance. With astonishing naïveté, he wrote, “My friend, the editor, has likened his own function .  .  . to that of a man who is trying to hang on to the fin of a plunging whale” and, “In the middle of December [1933] .  .  . the editor of whom I have spoken and .  .  . who had kept a quiet watch upon me, called me to his home and calmly informed me that my book was finished.” The announcement, he says, “filled me with stunned surprise.”

Others were stunned as well. And as might have been predicted in the cruel bull-ring of literary politics, Wolfe’s clinical depiction of the gestation and (Cesarean) birth of his novel brought on a chorus of derision and sneers. Its gist was that he lacked self-discipline and art, and that Of Time and the River was actually a paste-up job by Perkins. Bernard De Voto led the pack in a memorably scornful piece called “Genius is not Enough” in the Saturday Review. De Voto was, in his time, an important editor and critic whose own fiction is long forgotten; but his denunciation of Wolfe’s “blank verse, bombast, and delirium” was telling. Wolfe, offended and aggrieved, persuaded himself that he had to break with Perkins and prove that he was his own man. He proceeded to do so, and Eugene Gant disappeared from American fiction, yielding to the more artificial central figure of George Webber.

No one, including Wolfe, knew that he would be dead of a freakish infection in two years, or that his two succeeding novels would be—literally—pieced together by Edward Aswell of Harper’s from great stacks of raw manuscript—a great irony, given the taunts regarding editorial dependency that had driven Wolfe to change publishers.

Bernard De Voto and other detractors had their rounds, but they could not permanently damage a powerful novel which, for all its flaws, speaks for itself and is a work of genius. Seventy-five years later it lives and breathes, which is more than can be said of 99 percent of the fiction of last week or last year or last century.


Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author of the forthcoming novel, Vacancy: The Tale of a Strange Judicial Appointment.



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