Sunday, October 18, 2009

This Day in Literary History (“Look Homeward, Angel” Sparks Hometown Hell for Wolfe)

October 18, 1929—The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, by Charles Scribner & Sons on this date was eagerly awaited by the citizens of Asheville, N.C., who were bursting with pride that local boy Thomas Wolfe had just written what was being acclaimed as the best first novel in many a year. It was a far cry from the same day 11 years before, when the novelist and his family were mourning the death by pneumonia of his beloved brother Ben (an incident I recalled in a prior post).

But the people of the mountain city (renamed Altamont in the novel), along with several members of the 29-year-old author’s own family, reacted indignantly when it turned out Wolfe had based many of the 200 characters in the sprawling book on people he knew—and that he had made only the most thinly veiled attempts to disguise them.

People gossiped about the novel on street corners and front porches. Ministers denounced it from the pulpit. The public library didn’t put it on the shelves. So intense was the anger in Asheville that Wolfe did not dare return for another eight years.

For unveiling the secrets of major-league baseball in general and the New York Yankees in particular in Ball Four, knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton was so ostracized that he titled his follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. Wolfe, far less ironic and more sensitive than the former fireballer, gave a far different title to his final novel: You Can’t Go Home Again.

Morton I. Teicher’s Looking Homeward: A Thomas Wolfe Photo Album (1993) reproduces a fascinating range of local headlines reacting to the notorious bildungsroman (novel of development):

* On the complimentary side: “Stirring First Novel by Local Man Making Big Hit in Literary World” and “Amazing New Novel is Realistic Story of Asheville People.”

* Taking an objective look: “Wolfe Novel Causes Stir in This Section; Lauded in New York.”

* Then, hinting at the fury already swirling: “Wolfe’s First is Novel of Revolt; Former Asheville Writer Turns in Fury Upon N.C. and the South.”

* Finally, surveying the damage: “Claims Love for People in ‘Look Homeward Angel’; Intentions to Cast Reflections of Asheville and His Own People Denied; Will Sail Saturday for Europe.”

Among the changes wrought by editor Maxwell Perkins in transforming Wolfe’s original 1,100-page manuscript, O Lost, into the 800-page novel that would soon be acclaimed by Nobel Prize laureate Sinclair Lewis were changes in names of characters from their real-life antecedents. Even in these instances, though, the alterations were often cosmetic.

Names might have differed on the surface, but there was usually a key in what appeared on the page to alert attentive readers to the original, and for those who knew the people involved, the resemblances between reality and fiction were so overwhelming that even Wolfe’s few changes were rightly seen as mere fig leaves of protection.

Roy Dock, for instance, became Guy Doak—a three-letter first name and a surname beginning with “D” and ending with “k” remaining commonalities. Horace Williams became Vergil Weldon—another person with the first name of an ancient Roman poet and a two-syllable surname beginning with “W.” As for French Toms becoming Tom French—well, big change, right?

Perkins prevailed on Wolfe at least to change the first names of family members. Yet the impetuous first-time writer still couldn’t resist the urge to retain the names of brothers Ben and Grover and father W.O.—all of whom, conveniently, were dead and, thus, unable to take offense.

Wolfe began to have some inkling just before publication that some in Asheville might view matters differently, but he appears to have believed that his artistic seriousness, fully rounded characterizations, and—well, his genius—would quickly soothe any bruised feelings. The reaction of a trusted friend and mentor, Margaret Roberts, gave him a hint that he had inadequately gauged the consequences of his decisions.

Years before, the local schoolteacher was so taken by the raw 11-year-old’s writing ability that she persuaded her husband to make him the first student in the private school they founded. Wolfe biographer Andrew Turnbull called her “the fairy godmother” of his youth.

Roberts should, by all rights, have been thrilled by the inscription in the book she received in the mail: “To Margaret Roberts, who was the mother of my Spirit, I present this copy of my first book with hope and with devotion. Thomas Wolfe, October 15, 1929.”

But the book had already, by chance, opened it to the chapter on the school operated by herself and her husband. She’d come off fine, but Wolfe had noticed and presented to the world some unpleasant features about Mr. Roberts—his whining laugh and his chalky fingers rubbing himself and others unfortunate enough to be near him.

In a subsequent letter, the schoolteacher ended up paying due tribute to her former student’s artistry, but one sentence undeniably caused pain: “You have crucified your family and devastated mine.” It would be eight years before their friendship returned to normal—not coincidentally, on Wolfe’s return visit to Asheville and his mother’s house, The Old Kentucky Home (“Dixieland” in the novel)—and even then, the old friends didn’t bring up what had divided them in the first place.

There are at least two other novelists who sparked ferocious denunciations from townspeople in their rookie books, but neither, as far as I know, received death threats, as Wolfe was believed to have done.

John O’Hara blithely “took all the dirty laundry [of Pottsville's people], barely changed names and addresses, and wrote about them," according to Benjamin and Christina Schwarz’s March 2000 Atlantic Monthly article “The O’Hara Protectorate,” quoting one Bill O’Reilly, nephew of the real-life inspiration for Irish-American social climber Harry Reilly in Appointment in Samarra. (One hopes that Mr. O’Reilly is not related to the truculent Fox newscaster.) Pottsville did not take to this, nor to O'Hara's picturing it as a den of class and ethnic resentment, alcoholism, sexual hypocrisy, provincialism, etc. But three decades after the secrets of his hometown Pottsville became fodder for fictional Gibbsville, inhabitants, I was surprised to see a few years ago, had erected a bronze statue in his honor, and the local Quality Inn had named several of its rooms after some of his characters.

Fifty years after publication of Peyton Place, however, residents of Gilmanton, N.H., still loathe the very mention of the name Grace Metalious, according to Michael Callahan’s March 2006 Vanity Fair article, “The Real ‘Peyton Place.’” Why haven’t they, unlike the people of Asheville and Pottsville, gotten over it? Two factors, I think:

* Family members ready to keep the flame of the author alive. Whatever distress Wolfe’s mother, Julia, felt over her depiction in his novel (i.e., as a woman with such an urgent need to keep the family solvent that she spent more time with guests at her boardinghouse than she did with her children), she kept those feelings to herself and reveled in the “genius” label given her son. She survived him by a number of years, as did his older siblings, who appeared regularly at celebrations of his work. O’Hara’s daughter Wylie, according to Geoffrey Woolff’s The Art of Burning Bridges, was so fiercely loyal to her doting dad’s memory that she snubbed at least one of his critics, Brendan Gill. In contrast, Metalious's affairs, alcoholism, and household slovenliness surely left her children with divided feelings about their mother. While cooperative with biographers, they do not beat the drums in her memory as the relatives of Wolfe and O’Hara did.

* Relative levels of literary merit. The reputations of Wolfe and O’Hara have oscillated over the years, but they continue to have their defenders. Even critics wouldn' t quarrel with the notion that they were serious artists. The same cannot be said for Metalious. Yes, popular historians (e.g., David Halberstam, in The Fifties) and academics (chiefly feminists such as Emily Toth, who hail Peyton Place as “a breakthrough for freedom of expression”) have plumbed her work over the years. But it’s because of the nature of the taboos she broke rather than the quality of her prose.

No comments: