Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe

by David Herbert Donald
     
 

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Thomas Wolfe, one of the giants of twentieth-century American fiction, is also one of the most misunderstood of our major novelists. A man massive in his size, his passions, and his gifts, Wolfe has long been considered something of an unconscious genius, whose undisciplined flow of prose was shaped into novels by his editor, the celebrated Maxwell Perkins.

Overview

Thomas Wolfe, one of the giants of twentieth-century American fiction, is also one of the most misunderstood of our major novelists. A man massive in his size, his passions, and his gifts, Wolfe has long been considered something of an unconscious genius, whose undisciplined flow of prose was shaped into novels by his editor, the celebrated Maxwell Perkins.

In this definitive and compelling biography, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Herbert Donald dismantles that myth and demonstrates that Wolfe was a boldly aware experimental artist who, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos, deliberately pushed at the boundaries of the modern novel. Donald takes a new measure of this complex, tormented man as he reveals Wolfe's difficult childhood, when he was buffeted between an alcoholic father and a resentful mother; his "magical" years at the University of North Carolina, where his writing talent first flourished; his rise to literary fame after repeated rejection; and the full story of Wolfe's passionate affair with Aline Bernstein, including their intimate letters.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Supersedes all previous Wolfe biographies in illuminating detail, in empathy for its complex unhappy subject, in sympathy for what he wanted to do, and what he did, as a writer, and in its own literary distinction...A work of great subtlety and sophistication.
Gore Vidal
Easily the best biography of an American novelist.
Boston Globe
An eloquently told story and an extraordinary achievement.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
More fully than any previous biographer, Pulitzer Prizewinning historian Donald traces the life and career of the much misunderstood Thomas Wolfe. Interweaving narrative and interpretation, imposing neither moral judgments nor psychoanalytical diagnoses, he presents the novelist as a man of ambiguities and contradictions. Based on seven years' study of Wolfe's papersthe first scholar to be given access to the entire archivehe discusses Wolfe's family background, his passionate yet callous treatment of Aline Bernstein, his ambivalent relationships with colleagues, his drunken brawls and sordid liaisons with prostitutes and female admirers, his bigotry and anti-Semitism. But, since the book is primarily a study of the creative process and of Wolfe's evolution as a writer, Donald is equally open about the novelist's literary deficiencies and accomplishments. Acknowledging that his books are remarkably uneven, and that he ``wrote more bad prose than any other major writer,'' Donald deduces that Wolfe was a self-conscious writer, who thought much about his themes and symbols, drew up detailed outlines of his books and was concerned about their structure. Donald also offers a view of the publishing world and of Wolfe's unusual dealings with his literary agent Elizabeth Nowell and his editors Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell, who had to wrest his interminable manuscripts from him and try to turn them into publishable stories and novels. The biographer's opinion of Aswell's ``unacceptable'' editorial work on the later novels may shock some readers and scholars: ``Greatly exceeding the professional responsibility of an editor, Aswell took impermissible liberties with Wolfe's manuscripts, and his interference seriously eroded the integrity of Wolfe's text.'' Donald is likely to win another major prize for this biography. Photos not seen by PW. (February 4)
Library Journal
Wolfe's editor, Maxwell Perkins, argued that no writer was ever less in need of a biographer, so rich and candid was the autobiographical content of his fiction. Donald is the third biographer in 25 years to gainsay Perkinsand the most successful. Less worshipful than his predecessors, Donald has other advantages, too: full access to Wolfe's papers and the death of most of those whose feelings hitherto had to be spared. What emerges is a forthright but disciplined portrait of an explosive genius and his place in modern American letters. Wolfe's turbulent life, extraordinary learning, surprisingly conscious craft, and complex relations with his editors all affected his artistic development. Donald analyzes these matters without psychological or critical buzzwords but leaves unresolved Wolfe's ultimate literary worth. Arthur Waldhorn, English Dept., City Coll., CUNY

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674008694
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
01/30/2003
Edition description:
1ST HARVAR
Pages:
608
Product dimensions:
1.33(w) x 6.00(h) x 9.00(d)

Meet the Author

David Herbert Donald was Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization at Harvard University.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Lincoln, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
October 1, 1920
Place of Birth:
Goodman, Mississippi
Education:
Holmes Junior College, Millsaps College, 1941; M.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1942, 1946

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