Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe

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...

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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.

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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.
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674008694
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST HARVAR
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 1,127,801
  • Product dimensions: 1.33 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

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

Biography

David Herbert Donald is the author of numerous books, including Lincoln's Herndon, Lincoln Reconsidered, and The Civil War and Reconstruction. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biography: in 1961 for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War and in 1988 for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe.

The Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University, he has also taught at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Oxford, and Columbia. A native of Mississippi and the past president of the Southern Historical Association, he received his graduate training at the University of Illinois. He lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • I. A Secret Life
  • II. The Magical Campus
  • III. By God, I Have Genius
  • IV. I Shall Conquer the World
  • V. Must Spin Out My Entrails
  • VI. Like Some Blind Thing upon the Floor of the Sea
  • VII. A Miracle of Good Luck
  • VIII. Penance More
  • IX. A Miserable, Monstrous Mis-begotten Life
  • X. The Famous American Novelist
  • XI. Almost Every Kind of Worry
  • XII. Unmistakable and Most Grievous Severance
  • XIII. A New World Is Before Me Now
  • Afterword: The Posthumous Novels of Thomas Wolfe
  • Acknowledgments
  • Sources, Abbreviations, and Notes
  • Index

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