Saturday, October 3, 2020

The last manuscript

‘There it was - a bound ledger of the kind used in simple bookkeeping; it was in just such ledgers as this that Wolfe had written his first longhand drafts of everything. The ledger was full to the last page of his almost illegible penciled scrawl, with the title, “A Western Journey,” at the beginning. [ . . .] It was the last manuscript which that large hand of the artist would ever write.’ Thomas Wolfe, one of America’s 20th century literary heroes, was born 120 years ago today. On his early death (he was not yet 40) he left behind a number of manuscripts, including a diary of his very last trip - as described above by the editor of later works, Edward Aswell.

Wolfe was born on 3 October 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children. His father was a stone carver and ran a gravestone business, while his wife ran a boarding house. He studied, from the age of 15, at University of North Carolina, where he become a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He ran the student newspaper for a while, took a course in playwriting, and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy. In mid-1920, he entered Harvard University, where he studied playwriting with George Pierce Baker - Baker’s 47 Workshop produced several of his plays.

In 1923, Wolfe moved to New York City, teaching at Washington Square University, but still intending to become a playwright. In 1924-1925, he travelled through Europe, and on the way back met Aline Bernstein, a set designer. Although she was married and some 20 years older than him, they embarked on a five year affair. Biographers say she exerted a powerful influence over Wolfe, encouraging and funding his writing efforts, now focused on fiction rather than drama.

In 1929, Scribner published Wolfe’s first novel Look Homeward, Angel, a fictionalised account of his own early experiences of family, friends, and the boarders at his mother’s establishment. It received mixed critical reviews in the US, but became a bestseller in the UK. Some members of his family and the Asheville community, however, were upset with their portrayals in the book. Wolfe then traveled to Europe for a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935. As with the first novel, Wolfe’s lengthy manuscript had been cut and shaped significantly by the Scribner’s most prominent book editor, Maxwell Perkins. It was more of a commercial success than the first, but Wolfe himself was displeased with the way it had been edited. Subsequently, Wolfe left Scribner’s and joined Harper & Brothers. Although he quickly published a memoir entitled The Story of a Novel (in which he wrote at length about his relationship with Perkins) he never published another novel in his lifetime. He returned to spend time in Germany (where his books were popular) but found he did not like the political developments and returned to the US. 

In 1938, after submitting over one million words in manuscript form to his new editor, Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the Western United States. In July, he fell ill with pneumonia, and in September he died from tuberculosis. Two long novels were edited posthumously by Aswell - The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again - as well as other short stories and plays. Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Wolfe was gifted with the faculty of almost total recall, and his fiction is characterized by an intense consciousness of scene and place, together with what is often an extraordinary lyric power. In Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, Wolfe was able to imbue his life story and the figures of his parents with a lofty romantic quality that has epic and mythopoeic overtones. Powerful emotional evocation and literal reporting are combined in his fiction, and he often alternates between dramatically effective episodes of recollection and highly charged passages of rhetoric.’ Further information is also available at Wikipedia, US National Library of Medicine, or North Carolina Historic Sites.

One of the manuscripts Wolfe left behind after his tragic early death was a diary he had kept during his last trip. It was edited by Aswell and published as A Western Journal - A Daily Log of The Great Parks Trip by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1951. The full text can be read freely online at Internet Archive. The short book starts with a ‘Note’ written by Aswell. In it, Aswell describes how Wolfe, having finished his trip, wrote him a letter in which he mentioned ‘A Western Journey’. Aswell concludes the note as follows: 

‘. . . on that sad September fifteenth, a few hours after Wolfe had died, I sat in the hospital talking with the members of his family. The question of his unpublished manuscripts came up. I asked if they knew anything about “A Western Journey.” His mother undertook to look through his bags. And there it was - a bound ledger of the kind used in simple bookkeeping; it was in just such ledgers as this that Wolfe had written his first longhand drafts of everything. The ledger was full to the last page of his almost illegible penciled scrawl, with the title, “A Western Journey,” at the beginning. There were not fifty thousand words, nothing like it. Wolfe always used round numbers loosely. When he said, “I have written a million words,” he meant: “I have written a lot.” When he said, “I have written fifty thousand words,” he meant: “I have written only a little; in fact, I have just started.” It was the last manuscript which that large hand of the artist would ever write.’ 

Here are two extracts from the diary.

20 June 1938 
‘Left Portland, University Club, 8:15 sharp - Fair day, bright sunlight, no cloud in sky - Went South by East through farmlands of upper Willamette and around base of Mount Hood which was glowing in brilliant sun - Then climbed and crossed Cascades, and came down with suddenness of knife into the dry lands of the Eastern slope - Then over high plateau and through bare hills and canyons and irrigated farmlands here and there, low valley, etc., and into Bent at 12:45 - 200 miles in 4 1/2 hours - 

Then lunch at hotel and view of the 3 Sisters and the Cascade range - then up to the Pilot Butte above the town - the great plain stretching infinite away - and unapproachable the great line of the Cascades with their snowspired sentinels Hood, Adams, Jefferson, 3 sisters, etc, and out of Bend at 3 and then through the vast and level pinelands - somewhat reminiscent of the South for 100 miles then down through the noble pines to the vast plainlike valley of the Klamath? - the virgin land of Canaan all again - the far-off ranges - infinite - Oregon and the Promised Land - then through the valley floor - past Indian reservation - Capt Jack - the Modocs - the great trees open approaching vicinity of the Park - the entrance and the reservation - the forester - the houses - the great snow patches underneath the trees - then the great climb upwards - the foresting, administration - up and up again - through the passes the great plain behind and at length the incredible crater of the lake - the hotel and a certain cheerlessness in spite of cordialness - dry tongues vain-licking for a feast - the return, the cottages, the college boys and girls who serve and wait - the cafeteria and the souvenirs - the great crater fading coldly in incredible cold light - at length departure - and the forest rangers down below - long, long talks - too long with them about “our wonders”, etc - then by darkness the sixty or seventy miles down the great dim expanse of Klamath Lake, the decision to stay here for the night - 3 beers, a shower, and this, reveille at 5:30 in the morning - and so to bed!

First day: 404 miles 

The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation - C “making every national park” without seeing any of them - the main thing is to “make them” - and so on and on tomorrow’

23 June 1938

‘Up at 7 o'clock in hotel at Mohave - and already the room hot and stuffy and the wind that had promised a desert storm the night before was still and the sun already hot and mucoid on the incredibly dirty and besplattered window panes - and a moments look of hot tarred roof and a dirty ventilator in the restaurant below and no moving life but the freight cars of S.P. rr - and a slow freight climbing fast and weariness - so up and shaved and dressed and gripped the zipper and downstairs and the white-cream Ford waiting and the two others - in the car - and to the cafe for breakfast - eggs and pancakes, sausages most hearty - and a company of r.r. men - So out of town at 8:10 and headed straight into the desert - and so straight across the Mohave at high speed for four hours - to Barstow - so in full flight now - the desert yet more desert - blazing heat - 102 inside the filling station - the dejected old man and his wife - and so the desert mountains, crateric, lavic and volcanic, and so more fiendish the fiend desert of the lavoid earth like an immense plain of Librea tar - and very occasionally a tiny blistered little house - and once or twice the paradise of water and the magic greenery of desert trees - and yet hotter and more fiendish - through fried hills - cupreous, ferrous, and denuded as slag heaps - and so the filling station and the furnace air fanned by a hot dry strangely invigorating breeze and the filling station man who couldn’t sign “I'm only up an hour and my hands shake so with the heat” - and Needles at last in blazing heat and the restaurant station and hotel and Fred Harvey all aircooled, and a good luncheon, and an hour here -  

so out again in blazing heat - 106° within the strolling of the station awning - 116 or 120 out of it - and so out of Needles - and through heat blasted air along the Colorado 15 miles or so and then across the river into Arizona - pause for inspection, all friendly and immediate - then into the desert world of Arizona - the heat blasted air - the desert mountain slopes clear in view and more devilish - the crateric and volcanic slopes down in and up and up among them, now and then a blistered little town - a few blazing houses and the fronts of stores - up and up now and fried desert slopes prodigiously - and into Oatman and the gold mining pits, the craterholes, the mine shafts and the signs of new gold digging - Mexicans half naked before a pit - and up and up and only up and up to Goldcrest? 

Across the Mohave the S.P. fringed with black against the blazing crater of the desert sky snakes on, snakes on its monotone of forever and of now - moveless Immediate and at last the rim and down and down through blasted slopes, volcanic “pipes" and ancient sea erosions, mesa table heads, columnar swathes, stratifications, and the fiendish wind, and below the vast pale, lemon-mystic plain - and far away immeasurably far the almost moveless plume of black of engine smoke and the double header freight advancing - advanceless moveless - moving through timeless time and on and on across the immense plain backed by more immensities of fiendish mountain slopes to meet it and so almost meeting moveless-moving never meeting up and up and round and through a pass and down to Kingman and a halt for water and on and on and up and down into another mighty plain, desert growing grey-green greener - and some cattle now and always up and up and through fried blasted slopes and the enormous lemon-magic of the desert plains, fiend mountain slopes pure lemon heat mist as from magic seas arising - and a halt for gas at a filling station with a water fountain “Please be careful with the water we have to haul it 60 miles” - 5280 feet above - and 4800 feet we've climbed since Needles and on and on and up and the country greening now and 

steers in fields wrenching grey-green grass among the sage brush clumps and trees beginning now - the National Forest beginning - and new greenery - and trees and pines and grass again - a world of desert greenness still not Oregon - but a different world entirely from the desert world and hill slopes no longer fiend troubled but now friendly, forested familiar, and around and down and in a pleasant valley Williams - and for a beer here where I thought I was 3 years ago - bartender a Mexican or an Indian or both and out and on our way again only the great road leading across the continent and 6 or 7 miles out an of turn to the left for the Grand Canyon - and not much climbing now, but up and down again the great plateau 7000 feet on top - and green fields now and grass and steers and hills forested and cooler and trees and on and on toward (levelly) the distant twin rims - blue-vague defined - of the terrific canyon - the great sun sinking now below our 7000 feet - we racing on to catch him at the canyon ere he sinks entirely - but too late, too late - at last the rangers little house, the permit and the sticker, the inevitable conversations, the polite goodbyes - and (almost dark now) at 8:35 to the edges of the canyon - to Bright Angel Lodge - and before we enter between the cabins of the Big Gorgooby - and the Big Gorgooby there immensely, darkly, almost weirdly there - a fathomless darkness peered at from the very edge of hell with abysmal starlight - almost unseen - just fathomlessly there - So to our cabin - and delightful service - and so to dinner in the Lodge - and our rudeeleven in jodphurs, pajamas, shirts, and country suits, and Fred Harvey’s ornate wigwam - and to dinner here - and then to walk along the rim of Big Gorgooby and inspect the big hotel - and at the stars innumerable and immense above the Big Gorgooby just a look - a big look - so goodnight and 500 miles today -’

No comments: