Re-editing You Can’t Go Home Again
Dear friends of the Thomas Wolfe Society, allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Ólafur Gunnarsson and I am an Icelandic novelist with more than 20 books to my credit, 10 of them novels. I know I should be talking about Thomas Wolfe and You Can’t Go Home Again, but I assure you that this short introduction is leading somewhere. In 1988 I began work on a novel which was published in 1992. It has been republished thrice, the last time in April of this year, and both of these new printings have received extensive revisions. In the last edition I reinstated all the cuts made by my able editor in 1992, a total of some 10 pages in a book containing some 100.000 words. I brought in sentences and a large cut which had been taken out in proof without my knowledge at the very last moment before going into print. I still remember my desperation and being totally fed up with the book after working on it for years. I wanted to show my wife a very fine paragraph only to find it was not there. It is in its rightful place in the new and latest edition. I am telling you this story because if a book by a modestly known Icelandic writer can receive such work on its text and attention by its publisher to bring out as good a version of it as possible, it is beyond belief that the work of Thomas Wolfe, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, hardly receives any attention at all in this respect. I am here talking about the books edited after Wolfe’s death: The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.
We all know the story of how Wolfe was driven away from his great five book plan mostly by the attack of a critic. In desperation he turned his attention to a new plan, writing an objective novel about a young man being educated by the world. This was something Maxwell Perkins immediately approved of after having, or so Wolfe believed, thwarted most of Wolfe’s attempts to finish the five book plan.
What Wolfe had in mind was extremely interesting. His many and various outlines for this work can be studied both at the end of Richard’s Kennedy’s volume, The Window of Memory, and in the second volume of The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Kennedy and Pascal Reeves in 1970. Wolfe wanted to write an objective work of fiction, and he was wrestling mightily with this subject. The idea suggested to Perkins is the most interesting of the lot but slowly it turns into a storehouse of everything Wolfe had ever written, the five book plan again in another version.
Edward Aswell did a credible job of organization and planning when he brought out The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. He worked on the former book for seven months and for nine months on the later volume, but he did not have the benefit of some of the resources we have today. We are richer for having these books, but the two volumes have sat untouched for seventy-three years. However, if we look at Wolfe´s work as a whole, the currently accepted concept is awkward. For those of us who love the giant fresco, Of Time and the River, it is almost embarrassingly obvious that the Esther Jack story, the love story, is a logical conclusion to Of Time and the River. When considering the four great novels, the love story sits like a baroque building in the midst of something quite different. It is a conclusion to Of time and the River and it should be given loving attention as such and published separately. Then we will have a beautiful love story and an exciting book called The October Fair. When George Webber is beating his fists bloody against the wall in a fit of madness, that is Eugene Gant. George does not behave like that. The two personas are confused. Once having removed “the Esther story” from the story of George Webber, we can turn our attention to the work of re-editing You Can’t Go Home Again. And when the love story has been published as a separate work, “The Party at Jack’s” gives a much more condensed and harmonious version of Webber’s love affair. The tone of that section fits that of the work as a whole.
Thomas Wolfe did not finish any of his plans. We are confronted with crucial questions: Which one is the most feasible to use? Which one can bring forth the greatest Wolfe possible? That is our mission. For me, The Vision of Spangler Paul would have been most interesting. The book Wolfe wished to begin in 1929 was to cover the period until 1938. But then again the Wilhelm Meister story, the bildungsroman Tom and Max spoke about in that restaurant, is clearly already there.
Aswell´s work was by no means done in vain. He was presented with an almost impossible task of editing Wolfe’s words after his death, but his editing can serve as a blueprint, a spring board to something more accurate and true to Wolfe’s intention. We can help fulfill Wolfe’s original idea as he suggested it to Perkins. We can bring forth a work which speaks to a modern audience, a work as great as Of time and the River. Of course we can keep “The Party at Jack’s” in the new You Can’t Go Home Again. We just have to change the surname of Esther, and we have alternatives such as Rebecca or Irina.
We can bring new material into You Can’t Go Home Again that was edited out for fear of libelous, making the butcher a barber again. We can allow Wolfe his own style and drop the links Aswell wrote. We do not need the final paragraph from “I have a thing to tell you” tacked onto the ending by Aswell and wrongly foretelling Wolfe´s death. “Look about you and see what he has done,” the passage Wolfe intended as his final statement when addressing the social problems of his time, fully does the job and makes even more sense today than it did in 1938.
The tone and theme of the work are superb. From the young boy growing up in North Carolina to his last stand, “The Farewell to the Fox,” we have a sweeping picture of the first half of the twentieth century.
Some say the Webber cycle cannot be edited again, but I disagree. Some of it is still in handwritten draft and difficult to decipher, but we can transcribe it. Of course it can be re-edited if the copyright owners allow. What do they stand to lose? It can be re-edited – didn’t you Americans put the Curiosity Rover on Mars?
Pat Conroy said, “When Thomas Wolfe is writing on a good day no one can touch him.” I don’t think even Wolfe knew the extent of his genius. When one reads his letters edited by Elisabeth Novell, it is shockingly clear that one of the greatest writers of all time was not fully aware of his own genius. Conroy is correct, Wolfe does not lack style. He is the greatest stylist who ever lived. He may not have had the imagination and insight of Dostoevsky, but he is without a doubt a far greater stylist–a poet who chose to write in prose.
We have a great deal of material to choose from as is detailed in Leslie A Fields’ book, Thomas Wolfe and his Editors. We must do all we can to bring forth the best Thomas Wolfe possible. We must not allow the work of this tormented genius to go to waste. If there is a greater Wolfe buried in the Wisdom Collection, it is our duty to bring him out so his whole achievement can be better judged, so he may be awarded his rightful place among the American literary masters.
The new You Can’t Go Home Again, will be an enormous volume, possibly 1200 – 1400 pages, but we must get the work done. Nothing can be lost by it. The memory of Edward Aswell and his achievement is shown no disrespect by this effort. A timeless bildungsroman could be assimilated from the manuscript, telling the story of George Webber from youth to his awareness of the social conditions of his times. The novel would indeed strangely mirror the world as it is today with all its financial blunders and fanatical politics. It could be even greater than Of Time and the River, with endless variety, beauty and thrust. Wolfe was a miracle, one of the greatest writers who ever lived, as we society members know, and the work edited in this manner would bring us a step closer to what might have been.
With new editions we would have a wholeness to the work, the George Webber cycle and the Eugene Gant story. They would not have to clash so clumsily. Of course there will be problems along the way, but they can be solved. We will have a novel busting with energy and life, and Wolfe’s body of work as a whole will be as full as it can be. I’m not going to tell you how to do it. But having re-edited my own book three times over a time span of 25 years, I know it can be done.
Consider that when Dostoevsky was finishing his novel, The Possessed, the manuscript was rejected by his publisher and he was forced to alter his plans drastically. If we had FMD’s original text today, would we not give it close attention and bring out The Possessed in a form as close as possible to the author’s intentions? Let’s show Thomas Wolfe the same respect we would show Dostoevsky.
It is my belief that Thomas Wolfe was a gift from God to humanity. Let’s treat that gift with all the respect we can. A great job awaits us in creating a new fresco as varied and great and even more fascinating than Of Time and the River.
We owe it to Thomas Wolfe. Thank you all for listening.
I would enjoy hearing from you, Olafur Gunnarsson: firstname.lastname@example.org