“An amazing new novel is just off the press which is of great and unique interest to Asheville. This community in fact, is going to be astounded by it. Some few well known residents may be shocked into chills. Others probably will be annoyed. Many others will snicker and laugh.
“The reason is that the book is written about Asheville and Asheville people in the plainest of plain language. It is the autobiography of an Asheville boy.”
So proclaimed page one of the Asheville Times on Oct. 20, 1929, accompanying the first review of Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, which has since become an American literary classic. These same words could just as well announce the impending publication of O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life (University of South Carolina Press), due for release on Oct. 3 in conjunction with the Thomas Wolfe 100th Birthday Celebration in Asheville. O Lost is the gargantuan book Wolfe originally wrote. It was pared down by nearly one-fourth to become Look Homeward, Angel — and its publication should spark renewed interest in the book, its author and his mountain home.
Matthew Bruccoli, an editor with a series of scholarly editions to his credit, worked with his wife, Arlyn, for three years to establish the original text of Wolfe’s book — which was, they claim, “cut for all the wrong reasons.” O Lost, they assert, is the text “that should have been published in 1929 by Charles Scribner’s Sons after necessary editing, house styling and proofing.” O Lost includes all the material that had been, well, lost when Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who’d brought Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald into print, cut “great hunks” from Wolfe’s huge original manuscript.
According to early — and misleading — reports, Wolfe had produced a 5-foot-high mass of paper when he finally stopped writing his first novel; it was rumored that a truck had been needed to deliver O Lost to Perkins’ office. Unfortunately, such apocryphal stories undermine Wolfe’s reputation as a skillful writer. In fact, according to Bruccoli, the 1,100-page typescript of O Lost would have stacked no more than about 6 inches high, and if published in book form in its entirety, would have numbered some 200 pages fewer than Margaret Mitchell’s opus Gone With the Wind, which appeared in 1936.
Furthermore, Bruccoli contends that Wolfe’s masterpiece, in its original form, is “a better, richer book” — is indeed “a greater work” — than what was published as Look Homeward, Angel.
Thomas Wolfe left Asheville when he was 16 years old to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he developed a talent for the theater and set about becoming a playwright. After returning from Europe in 1925, Wolfe met Mrs. Aline Bernstein, a woman who became his lover and benefactor –and who would indelibly influence both his personal life and his career. Bernstein moved successfully in the realm of New York City theater, but Wolfe’s own hopes for success as a dramatist met with frustration.
Recognizing his talent nonetheless, Bernstein helped provide Wolfe’s living arrangements in London the following summer, and one night in September (students, take note: Wolfe believed that the best American writing was done at night), the young writer sat down with a large ledger pad and, in pencil, began to write:
“In the great processional of the years through which the history of the Gants was evolving, few years had borne a heavier weight of pain, terror, and wretchedness, and none was destined to bring with it more conclusive event than that year which marked the beginning of the twentieth century.”
With these words, Wolfe embarked on the lightly fictionalized account of his years growing up in Asheville. A year-and-a-half later, the finished novel filled 17 ledgers — some 294,000 words. Wolfe wrote to his mother back in Asheville that he had produced “a huge book, but not too long, I hope, for publication.” He also assured her that “whether this book succeeds or not, I think we can both have this hope — I have always finished any job that I have begun.”
But Wolfe’s work, as he was soon to discover, was far from finished. In anticipation of potential publishers’ objections, Wolfe had affixed a note of apology to his novel that read, in part, “I believe it would be unfair to assume that because this is a very long book it is too long a book. … There are some pages here which were compelled by a need for fullness of expression, and which … may now be excised. But their excision would not make a short book.” The handwritten novel was converted into a typescript and, after refusals at several publishers, came into the hands of Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s.
Perkins wrote the young author that he did “not know whether it would be possible to work out a plan by which it might be worked into a form publishable by us, but I do know that, setting the practical aspects of the matter aside, it is a very remarkable thing.”
With the flushed excitement of a young writer spirited by his first acceptance in the often-heartless world of publishing, Wolfe was eager to make any changes — including cuts — that Perkins suggested. Wolfe, who lived in New York City at the time, initially established his own plan to cut 10 “not essential” words from each page until 10,000 words were excised, and to eliminate or shorten many scenes within the novel. The task proved impossible for him, though, as he frequently stared at his sentences for long periods before he could bring himself to strike out even a word.
As Wolfe wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald years later, he was a “putter-inner” rather than a “taker-outer.” So he entrusted the task of cutting the work to Perkins, and the two men established a regimen of working into the night, long after Scribner’s had closed for the day. Wolfe again wrote to his mother (a central character in the novel), “We have cut great hunks of the original book — hated to see it go, but had to.” He confided to her that “the book is now in Scribner’s hands. … It is their place to advertise it, sell it, and to do whatever is necessary to put it forward.” Still, Wolfe admitted to a New York interviewer that even if the cuts and revisions were necessary, “every word they sheared away hurt like the dickens.”
Wolfe practically lived at Scribner’s as he participated in the drudgery of the editing process — the correcting of page proofs and the various details of book-making. The result of Perkins’ and Wolfe’s sweat was, of course, Look Homeward, Angel — which Scribner’s published in 1929. (Wolfe eventually selected the title from Milton’s “Lycidas,” after Scribner’s Promotion Department nixed the original title. Though the author always maintained that the title was not a direct reference to the angel which stood on the porch of his father’s marble shop in Asheville’s center square, Wolfe fans have traveled far to visit Hendersonville’s Oakdale Cemetery, where that figure now rests.)
Bruccoli believes that Wolfe’s reputation has suffered as a result of Perkins’ zeal for brevity. For one thing, he feels that the writer is funnier and bawdier than he comes across in Look Homeward, Angel — and also that he was more in control of his material than critics have traditionally given him credit for. Bernard DeVoto, a well-respected literary critic, unleashed a scathing attack on Wolfe in 1935, claiming that, rather than being the fruits of a disciplined writer, Wolfe’s books were products of a Scribner’s assembly line. In response to such criticism, Wolfe told an interviewer, “Honestly, I think I’ve got more sense of form than they think I have.”
O Lost allows readers to judge Wolfe’s abilities on their own merits, pre-Maxwell Perkins. This is not to say that Wolfe relinquished control of his book entirely during the editing process. “Not one word was excised without Thomas Wolfe’s cooperation,” notes Ted Mitchell, the author of Thomas Wolfe: A Writer’s Life and an interpreter at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitors’ Center in Asheville. “So that means [Scribner’s] book is Thomas Wolfe’s work.”
Mitchell does not believe that O Lost should supplant Look Homeward, Angel — rather, he feels that both books deserve readers’ attention. O Lost, said Mitchell, is “Wolfe’s symphony of life. It’s more raw, and it’s a symphonic piece of literature.”
Readers familiar with Wolfe’s novel will notice changes immediately. O Lost begins with a lengthy account of W.O. Gant’s early years, from his youth in Pennsylvania through his arrival in Asheville (renamed Altamont in both books). But the rhapsodic opening passage that Wolfe had inserted later — which included the line “our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cutpurse went unhung” — is gone. In addition, readers have come to know Eugene (Thomas) and his family by their fictional names; when Wolfe originally wrote the manuscript, though, he used their real names (with a few significant exceptions, such as changing the family name to “Gant” and his own to “Eugene”). In O Lost, Julia, Fred and Mabel take the stage instead of their fictional counterparts Eliza, Luke and Helen — and the effect on the readers who know Wolfe’s life story can be stunning. For this reason, Ted Mitchell finds the restored version “more personal — more lethal almost.”
Finally, readers simply get more stuff, more Wolfe at his wild, rangy best — before the effects of fame and personal difficulties had started siphoning off his writing energy. Readers often wish for their favorite author’s next book, but rarely do they get to read the first book again!
O Lost brings readers closer to the writer — and, combined with the book’s introductory material, closer to the process of composition. Now, readers can almost hear the scratch of the pencil on the ledger pages.
Wolfe once said about the negative response of Asheville’s citizens to his first book, “Their outrage and anger, although mistaken, were unmistakable: There is no doubt that from the moment of the book’s publication I became an exile in my native town.”
Maybe now, with his full story laid out at last, the writer finally can come home again.
Hometown boy makes good
Asheville will celebrate the 100th birthday of its most famous native son in high style through Tuesday, Oct. 3 (Wolfe’s actual birthday). Below is a list of highlights:
• Asheville Community Theatre will present Ketti Frings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Look Homeward, Angel Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 3, 6, and 7 at 8 p.m., and at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 and 8. ACT veteran Ralph Redpath directs. Oct. 3 marks the Gala Performance, featuring appearances by noted authors Wilma Dykeman and Fred Chappell. Call 254-1320 for ticket prices and more information.
• On Monday, Oct. 2, Pack Memorial Library will honor Asheville’s foremost literary hero with Thomas Wolfe Day. Beginning at 1 p.m., it will include a discussion of O Lost and To Loot My Life Clean (the correspondence of Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins) moderated by Philip Banks; a talk by O Lost editor Dr. Matthew J. Bruccoli; plus music, free refreshments and readings. Call 255-5203 for more info.
• The Thomas Wolfe 100th Birthday Celebration begins Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 9 a.m. at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitors’ Center (52 Market St.). Highlights include the first-day issue of the Thomas Wolfe Commemorative Stamp at 11:30 a.m.; live musical selections from Pfeiffer University’s production of the musical Angel at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. (at the Visitors’ Center) and 7 p.m. (at Asheville Community Theatre, preceding the Gala Performance of Look Homeward, Angel); and a reception and book signing for O Lost and To Loot My Life Clean, featuring editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker, beginning at 2 p.m. Call 253-8304 for more info.
• Carol Baker’s black-and-white photography exhibit, Abiding Presence: The Thomas Wolfe Angel in Asheville, will show at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe through Tuesday, Oct. 3. Call 254-6734 for more info.