Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe

David Herbert Donald, Author
David Herbert Donald, Author Little Brown and Company $24.95 (579p) ISBN 978-0-316-18952-1
Reviewed on: 01/01/1990
Release date: 01/01/1990
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)
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