January 16, 2018

Wolfe, Perkins, Time and the River

On this day in 1935 Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River was published. Wolfe would die three-and-a-half years later, at the age of thirty-seven; however incomplete or over-cut Wolfe regarded it, this was the last novel that would be published in his lifetime. The legendary story of how the "Leviathan" manuscript was wrestled into publication shape is funny, poignant and full justification for editor Maxwell Perkins' initial feeling "that Wolfe was a turbulent spirit, and that we were in for turbulence."

In 1929, Perkins had edited Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe's first novel, cutting some 66,000 words. By the end of 1933, Wolfe had a sequel book that was four times as long as the uncut version of the first novel, over ten times the length of most novels, and growing at a rate of 50,000 words a month. Recognizing that there was more river than time, Perkins tried to force a halt. The first installment, delivered to him at Scribner's by "lone Wolfe" one December midnight, was a stack of typed manuscript two feet high; overall, the manuscript was at a million words. Six or seven nights a week throughout much of 1934 they met to cut and argue -- Wolfe showing up to many meetings with freshly-written material, which Perkins would read, admire, and mostly cut. He declined Hemingway's offer of a Key West fishing getaway with the kind of 'big game' sentence Papa would have liked: "I am engaged in a kind of life and death struggle with Mr. Thomas Wolfe...."

Perkins biographer A. Scott Berg makes it clear that Perkins was happiest working and that he welcomed Wolfe as a challenge, a unique talent and a friend -- one prone to errors of enthusiasm on and off the page. After one late night dinner Wolfe insisted on showing Perkins the Brooklyn Heights apartment where he had written so much of his novel. When they arrived, Wolfe couldn't find his keys, so they began their literary tour via the fire escape -- here the small refrigerator used for a writing table, there the ever-open bottle of whiskey.... They had time for several drinks before the couple who currently occupied the apartment arrived home. Wolfe had moved to a new place several weeks earlier, and whether he had broken into his old one in the grip of absentmindedness (Berg's view) or alcohol or art, he remained untroubled even when the wife went for the police. He poured the husband a drink from his own bottle and then, says Perkins, poured on the Southern charm: "That man hadn't read anything but Dodger box scores in twenty years, but Tom treated him as though he were the editor of the Atlantic Monthly...." When the police arrived the husband was telling stories of his own, and the three men sat up another hour. When Wolfe showed up for his meeting with Perkins several days later he had a 35,000-word insert for Of Time and the River, based on the night's events. This Perkins cut, too.

Neither the editing nor the friendship would sail on so smoothly, especially when Perkins decided on his own to start sending sections of the book to the printer. The disagreements were so deep and convoluted that when Wolfe, in spite of everything, wanted to dedicate the book to Perkins, he was told not to, as it would belie "your conviction that I have deformed your book." Unwilling to have his dedication edited too, Wolfe went ahead, offering the truncated 912 pages to "A great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt...."

Too nervous, and ever-driven, Wolfe sailed for Europe rather than wait for the reviews. Of Time and the River was highly praised by most, and a best seller, but the negative criticism from a few fueled Wolfe's own feelings about what had happened to his book. He broke with Scribner's and became estranged from Perkins, and the furious writing of his last three years became two novels posthumously edited and published by someone else. But his final, reconciliation letter to Perkins, written with a good "hunch" of the death from tubercular meningitis that was just a few weeks away, is full not only of "impossible anguish" for a life cut short but of thanks for the books cut long. And Perkins was there in the hospital at the end.

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