The lesson is clear: Next time you do not like an edit to your work, sway like a polar bear in the heat.

This post was written by guest blogger Carrie Frye.

One of my favorite stories about Thomas Wolfe, as reported in an excellent biography by David Herbert Donald (and roughly, nay brutally, summarized here):

Wolfe arrived in Cambridge in the early 1920s to do some postgraduate work at Harvard. He weaseled his way into a playwriting workshop with Professor George Pierce Baker, who described Wolfe as a “crazy, wild, six-foot-seven southern boy.” Wolfe wrote a play for Baker’s class called “Welcome To Our City” and a prestigious spring production was planned.

First, Wolfe drove Baker’s secretary mad. He failed to meet any of the deadlines set for revisions and cutting (his original script had 34 named characters, plus numerous extras). As Donald reports: “If you find me a raving maniac upon your return,” Miss Munroe wrote Baker, who was out of town for a few days, “please remember it was in a good cause! Absolutely nothing makes an impression upon him, threats, tears or rage, or smiles of kindness.”

Then rehearsals began, and Wolfe proceeded to drive Baker mad. Wolfe fought, protested and let out “tormented yells” about every suggested cut to his play. On hearing a cut read to him, Wolfe would, one bystander noted, “[weave] back and forth in his chair like a polar bear suffering from the heat.”

Donald writes:

“[One] time, feeling harassed because Wolfe lay in wait for him after every class, full of new reasons why every cut in his play had to be restored, Baker expressed the hope that somebody would tie a rock around his neck and drop him off a bridge over the Charles River. ‘Tell me if he gurgles much,’ he requested.”

I like to imagine Baker sending a telegram to Maxwell Perkins. Like: “Hear you’re working with Thomas Wolfe. Stop. Hope you have access to the Hudson. Stop.” Or maybe just: “Hear you’re working with Thomas Wolfe. Stop. Stop. Stop.”


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