I must have picked up, abandoned and restarted Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again at least seventeen times before I finally got the rhythm of his modifiers and began to enjoy his language and insights enough to read the whole thing. I closed the book, awestruck, and in short order sought out Look Homeward, Angel and The Web and the Rock, before moving on to some other literary preoccupation.
A few years ago I opened one of his novels again and was as mystified and put off by his prose as I’d been in the beginning. It was like enduring an evening with an old boyfriend and wondering how you ever willingly spent more than fifteen minutes in his company, much less slept with him.
But if You Can’t Go Home Again and Of Time and the River were verbose as published, imagine what they would’ve been like if Maxwell Perkins hadn’t gotten his hands on them.
By early 1933 [Wolfe’s second novel] was four times as long as the uncut version of the first [which was 300,000 words] — and growing at a rate of 50,000 words a month. “I think I’ll have to take the book away from him,” Perkins told colleagues, and invited Wolfe to gather all he’d written and bring it into the office, since he was sure the skeleton was already there. Some skeleton. There were jokes about the typescript being delivered by truck. The bundle stood two feet high — more than 3,000 pages, unnumbered — and this was only the first part of the novel. They began working together, two hours a day, six days a week – then nights, from 8.30 onwards; then Sunday nights as well. It was like painting the Forth Bridge. Wolfe would be asked for a short linking paragraph — and return a few days later with 10,000 words. In the end, while Wolfe was out of town for a few days, Perkins had the typescript set — all 450,000 words. It was published as Of Time and the River, and though another of Perkins’s authors, Hemingway, said it was “something over 60 per cent shit”, it became a bestseller. Wolfe later wrote an account of its composition, “the ten thousand fittings, changings, triumphs and surrenders that went into the making of a book”.
Update: My friend Craig responds, in email:
When the Times found out that Of Time and the River was going to be nearly 900 pages long, they published a cartoon featuring a cadre of literary critics protesting the book in front of the Scribners office. Their signs said things like, “we demand shorter books” and “Wolfe’s new book too long!” Or something like that….
I’ve always felt [Wolfe would] make a great movie subject, if not the focus then at least a good supporting character. In addition to his legendary literary output, he was renowned for his absurdly huge appetite and epic sojourns through the streets of New York City. He’d work all night long and then walk all day. If he couldn’t write, then he’d walk all night.