Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe’s second novel, and I came into the world within months of one another 75 years ago. But infants know nothing of stories and it would be years before I began to gulp down Wolfe’s fiction and couple my destiny, in imagination, with that of his gangling hero, Eugene Gant. I followed Gant to Pulpit Hill (as Wolfe calls Chapel Hill) and became his remote successor as editor of the student paper and European wanderer. For aspiring literary adolescents, Wolfe was a dangerous intoxicant, as I recalled some years ago in an anniversary piece on Look Homeward, Angel, the first of his Gant novels:
[I was] mesmerized by the Joycean and Homeric mannerisms of his ripe rhetoric. I shall not forget—it was one of those traumatic events that loom large at 17—the astonished indignation with which a college English instructor scored the Wolfean apostrophe to the Mojave Desert which I handed in as a freshman theme: Embarrassing! Really! No, no! D-plus. It was a chastening experience.
I hadn’t, until recently, reread Of Time and the River since my youthful binges and rather shied away for fear of finding the book cloying. It cannot be boyish prejudice at this late date to say that I found it an indisputably great novel—and, notwithstanding its episodic structure, one of the greatest in our language. Of course, some critics never learn that writers needn’t jump through the hoops they devise. Tolstoy, one of Wolfe’s models and heroes, refused to call the sprawling War and Peace a novel since it did not conform to conventional fictional patterns.
The same may be said of Of Time and the River. Its weaknesses (not least its 902-page length) are obvious. Its strengths include a nearly unrivaled power of characterization drawn from life, a capacity for such set pieces as the powerful description of Eugene’s stonecutter father’s illness and death, and a memorable evocation of the sights, sounds, and scents that assail a young man on a vision quest, a “hungry Gulliver” as one critic called Wolfe.
There is no “plot,” strictly speaking, save for the epic experiences of Wolfe’s self-conscious hero. That hero, having finished his undergraduate study in Old Catawba (North Carolina) proceeds to graduate study at Harvard, where he aspires to read his way through the Widener Library and become a playwright. Still struggling to sell a script, Gant takes a bread and butter job teaching the children of recent immigrants at NYU (as did Wolfe himself). He confronts and befriends a contentious Jewish student, Abe Jones, meets Jones’s family, and observes the travails of the Lower East Side. He pays a dazzled visit to the very different and very rich Pierces at their Hudson Valley seat, then sets off on a European pilgrimage with colorful stops in Oxford and Paris, and he begins to write a novel.
In France, he renews his Harvard friendship with the foppish Francis Starwick (whose identifying tag is the word “ace” for yes), now in the company of two women. Gant falls in love with the younger, the beautiful, taciturn Ann (“Oh, you b— . . . you sweet, dumb whore, if you only knew how much I love you . . . God-damn you”). But alas, she is smitten by Starwick, who isn’t sexually attracted to women.
Disaster and disillusion! Starwick’s role as Eugene’s Mephistophelean tempter to the sybaritic life destroys his friendship with Gant; and Eugene, at his most provincial, dismisses his old friend as a “fairy.” Intermittently, Gant explodes into poetic rhapsodies, often about train travel, whose appropriateness to the novel has been a problem for some readers.
Bismarck is supposed to have said that it is a mistake to look too closely into the making of laws and sausages. Wolfe would have been well advised to apply that wise maxim to the making of his book. He did not; in fact, he did the very opposite, so that the March 1935 debut of this monster novel precipitated a drastic break in his life, one of the famous sagas in American publishing.
With Of Time and the River, a raging critical success in the spring and summer of 1935, Wolfe accepted an invitation to speak at a writers’ conference in Boulder. There, in a guileless account of the novel’s stormy making, he admitted the enthralled audience to his personal workshop. His agent, Elizabeth Nowell, arranged the talk’s publication as The Story of a Novel in the Saturday Review of Literature and later, by Scribner’s, as a short book. The fat was in the fire.
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  . . . 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.