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Thomas Wolfe and the Soviet Union

While the Soviet Union (USSR) only existed from 1922 to 1991, it has had an enduring reputation as an oppressive regime that controlled everything its citizens could do, say, and even read. These tight restrictions on life relaxed after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. At least one Thomas Wolfe short story, however, was printed and available in the USSR even during the period of the tightest restrictions. His works were eventually studied by Soviet literary scholars, and numerous articles published in the Russian language. Such interest in Wolfe’s work in the countries of the former Soviet Union provides evidence of the author’s long-standing global appeal.
Given his reverence for America and the personal freedoms the country stood for, at first glance, it may seem odd for the USSR to have favored Wolfe. He was a loud critic of American society, and frequently decried capitalism in his letters and writings. As a young man in 1922 Wolfe wrote “There are three ways, and only three, to gain distinction [in the U.S.]: 1) money, 2) more money, 3) a great deal of money. And the manner of getting it is immaterial.” In the 1930s, Wolfe became increasingly aware of the suffering brought to millions of Americans by the Great Depression, and his views strengthened. He identified himself as a working man and genuinely sympathized with the working masses.
His first editor, Maxwell Perkins, feared Wolfe would be influenced by the Communist party. As his fame spread various leftist groups courted Wolfe’s favor. Thomas Wolfe received invitations to serve on leftist committees, participate in demonstrations, and sign petitions for left-wing causes. But he was not someone who tended to join groups. He thought of American Communists as a fashionable cult with too much influence over writers.
Pressured to take a political stand Thomas Wolfe declared himself a social democrat, “a man who believes in socialism but not in communized socialism, and in democracy, but not in individualized democracy.” This in part likely prompted the FBI to eventually open a file on Wolfe. In 1987 author David Herbert Donald was informed that the FBI “never opened a file on Thomas Wolfe.” Yet, in 2004 historian Herbert Mitgang acquired a censored 123-page file now housed at the New York Public Library. Evidently most of the pages were written after Wolfe’s death. They were concerned with the fact that Wolfe’s writings had become part of the required reading lists in schools thought to be influenced by Communists.
Wolfe never visited nor wrote about the Soviet Union, and aside from being courted by leftist groups he had no association with the country whatsoever. His work was first published in Moscow in 1950. The novella “The Lost Boy” was translated in 1958, with other stories following. A Russian translation of Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1971. Today Russian translations of Wolfe’s writings are hard to find in the United States. Searches of several online book sellers including Amazon, eBay, and AbeBooks yielded only a few Russian translation of Wolfe’s work available for collectors. If you have copies of Wolfe’s work in Russian, we would love to hear from you.

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Younghill Kang and Thomas Wolfe

Younghill Kang and Thomas Wolfe

An April 2020 issue of The New York Review of Books recently reminded us of the friendship between Korean born Younghill Kang and Asheville’s native son Thomas Wolfe. The article by Ed Parks, written after the republication of Kang’s second novel East Goes West (1937) by Penguin Classics in May 2019, recounts the fascinating life and career of Kang.

Another reminder is in the collection at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site. Kang gifted Julia Wolfe an inscribed copy of his first novel The Grass Roof (1931) for her 80th birthday in 1940. The inscription reads “A Happy Birthday to the dear mother of Thomas Wolfe-whose enormous vitality, joy of life, magnificent poems and sincere friendship helped me so much. Very sincerely yours Younghill Kang 16 February 1940.”

Thomas Wolfe did not consider himself a literary critic and was very sensitive to all criticism of his own work. He only wrote one book review in his lifetime. Thomas Wolfe’s review of Kang’s first novel, The Grass Roof was titled “A Poetic Odyssey of the Korea That Was Crushed.” It appeared in the New York Evening Post April 4, 1931. Like Wolfe’s own work Kang’s novel exhibits a poetic writing style and is largely autobiographical. Kang’s work was based on his early experiences and subsequent efforts to escape them in distant lands. Wolfe described his friend’s work in glowing terms. Wolfe wrote “Kang is a born writer, everywhere he is free and vigorous; he has an original and poetic mind, and he loves life; again and again in his book a person, a scene, and an action are described in a few words of rich and vivid brevity.”

For those who do not know Kang’s story, Younghill Kang was born about 1903 in the Hamkyong province of northern Korea. Between 1910 and 1945 The Korean Peninsula was occupied by Japan. As a boy Kang spent several years living in Japan before returning to Korea in 1919 only to be arrested for participating in protests calling for Korean independence. Two years later he escaped Korea arriving in San Francisco with four dollars in his pocket. Through years of hard-work he pursued an education and in 1927 received a master’s degree in English at Harvard University. In 1929 he began teaching at New York University where he first met Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe was on the verge of publishing his book Look Homeward, Angel. The two connected as aspiring writers and prolific readers and regularly had dinner together. Kang recalled spending many hours of conversation in Thomas Wolfe’s apartment. Over dinner one evening Kang showed Wolfe the beginning chapters of his novel in progress and agreed to loan Wolfe the chapters to review. Wolfe shared the manuscript with his editor Maxwell Perkins, who gave Kang a $500 advance to finish it. The Grass Roof received international acclaim. It was eventually translated into ten languages and is still considered a pioneering work in Asian American literature. Kang’s second novel in 1937 was the sequel titled East Goes West. He received an honorary doctorate from Korea University in 1970. He continued teaching, writing, translating other works, and even farming until the end of his life in 1972. Today he is considered by many to be the father of Korean American literature.

Strange, David. “Thomas Wolfe’s Korean Connection.” The Thomas Wolfe Review (Spring1994) 36-41.

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Oktoberfest by Ellen Brown

Thomas Wolfe’s “Oktoberfest”
By Ellen Apperson Brown

*Ellen was scheduled to appear at Thomas Wolfe Memorial for the monthly discussion of a Thomas Wolfe short story on April 9th, 2020 sponsored by the Wilma Dykeman Legacy. She has offered us a written version of the discussion from her selection of the story Oktoberfest, found in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, ed. Francis E. Skipp (pp. 308-315).

My initial motivation for selecting this story was to have another look at Wolfe’s attitudes and opinions about German culture, a subject of special interest to me, a student of German language and literature. I can remember my first impressions of German (and Austrian) culture from my trip abroad, when I was fresh out of college, and spending time in Vienna and Salzburg. I, too, remember going to Munich, in October 1973, and watching with awe and amazement as several hearty young women carried out 3-4 steins of beer in each hand.

Remembering his own time spent at Munich’s Oktoberfest, in late September of 1928, Wolfe described a scene when “…a peasant woman bore down upon us, swinging in each of her strong hands six foaming steins of the powerful October beer. She smiled at us with a ready friendliness and said, ‘The light or the dark?’ We answered, ‘Dark.’ Almost before we had spoken, she had set two foaming mugs before us on the table and was on her way again.”

According to Wolfe’s story, the narrator did not initially enjoy the crowded festival, but dismissed it as a sort of second-rate Coney Island. “My first feeling as I entered the Fields was one of overwhelming disappointment. What lay before me and around me seemed to be a smaller and less brilliant Coney Island.” Oktoberfest also reminded me of an amusement park, at Myrtle Beach, or perhaps even of a rock concert, like Woodstock. Wolfe’s character, George Webber, was content to tag along with his friend, Heinrich Bahr, who thoroughly enjoyed the dizzying rides. This harmless fun turned a little sour, however, when he paused to watch the spectacle of a young man, an escape artist, being hoisted above the crowd “…a young man whose body and arms were imprisoned in a sleeveless canvas jacket and manacled with a chain. Presently the barker stopped talking, the young man thrust his feet through the canvas loops, and he was hauled aloft, feet first, until he hung face downward above the staring mob. I watched him as he began his desperate efforts to free himself from the chain and jacket which fettered him, until I saw his face turn purple, and the great veins stand out in ropes upon his forehead.” A disturbed Thomas Wolfe writes “…this last exhibition, coming as a climax to an unceasing program of monsters and animal sensations, touched me with a sense of horror. For a moment it seemed to me that there was something evil and innate in men that blackened and tainted even their most primitive pleasures.”

They soon turned to drinking and eating, essentially the main event. “Our savage hunger was devouring us; we called loudly to the bustling waitress…in another moment she sent another woman to our table who was carrying an enormous basket loaded with various cold foods. I took two sandwiches, made deliciously of onions and small salted fish, and an enormous slice of liver cheese, with a crust about its edges. Heinrich also selected two or three sandwiches, and having ordered another liter of dark beer apiece, we began to devour our food.”

Wolfe described the German crowd as being frightening and powerful. He felt trapped “not only in another world but in another time.” Happily, he is rescued from his fear, at least in part, by music, singing “Ein Prosit” along with “the roar of those tremendous voices, swinging and swaying.” He soon felt welcomed into the crowd. Everyone was laughing, smiling and talking. The evening wore down, and the two men walked back toward the railway station, happy and contented. “The fumes of the powerful and heady beer, and more than that of the fumes of fellowship and affection, of friendship and of human warmth, had mounted to our brains and hearts. We knew it was a rare and precious thing, a moment’s spell of wonder and joy, that it must end, and we were loath to see it go.”

In order to discover more about Wolfe’s experiences in Germany, I looked up “Oktoberfest” in my search engine and was shocked to find a letter Wolfe had written to Aline Bernstein, dated October 4th, 1928. Describing his violent return to the fairgrounds, having consumed about 8 liters of beer, he got into a drunken brawl. He tells about this “drunken, hapless experience,” and admits to having received a “concussion of the brain, 4 scalp wounds, and a broken nose.” The awful account went on to include a trip to the police station, and eventually to a hospital, where he had surgery and stayed for several days.

It is fascinating to try and ferret out from these two very different accounts of a German Oktoberfest, what was going on in Wolfe’s heart and head. He seems to be conflicted about whether to admire or embrace, or to reject and fear, his German heritage. Toward the end of his letter to Aline, he writes: “In these places you come to the heart of Germany, not the heart of its poets and scholars, but to its real heart. It is one enormous belly. They eat and drink and breathe themselves into a state of bestial stupefaction – the place becomes one howling, roaring beast, and when the band plays one of their drinking songs, they get up by tables all over the place, and stand on chairs, swaying back and forth, with arms linked, in living rings. The effect of these heavy living circles in this great smokey hall of beer is uncanny – there is something supernatural about it. You feel that within these circles is somehow the magic, the essence of the race – the nature of the beast that makes him different from the other beasts a few miles over the border.”

Pamela Hansford Johnson, in The Art of Thomas Wolfe (1963), dives into the character of George Webber, and of the book Thomas Wolfe was composing, originally called The October Fair. She quotes this passage from what would become The Web and the Rock.

“Again there had been the roaring tumult of the people rising from their tables, linking arms together with their mugs upraised, the rhythmic swinging, the rocking back and forth to the blaring of “Ein Prosit!” Again the ritualistic spell of all those human rings in swaying, roaring, one-voiced chant there in that vast and murky hall; again the image of the savage faces in the old dark forest of barbaric time; again the sudden fear of them that froze his heart. What happened then he did not know. In that quick instant of his drunken fear, had he swung out and smashed his great stone mug into the swine like face, the red pig’s eyes, of the hulking fellow next to him? He did not know, but there had been a fight – a murderous swinging of great mugs, a flash of knives, the sudden blindness of fury of red, beer-drunk rage.”

I wonder to what degree Wolfe may have felt frightened by his own German heritage, and realize that he was, one might argue, part of the German race. I also wonder whether Wolfe recognized the same sort of bestial behavior in 1936, when he attended the Olympics amidst the masses (of Fascists) at the stadium.

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Genius, the Movie

Several efforts have been made to bring a major work by Thomas Wolfe to the movies.

October 4, 1953, on NBC, the Hallmark Hall of Fame series aired a portion of the novel Of Time and the River concerning the death of W.O. Gant. Another TV movie was released on NBC February 25, 1972. This time based on Ketti Frings Pulitzer Prize play based on Look Homeward, Angel. The movie was nominated for a Golden Globe award in the category for Best TV Special. On April 25, 1979 CBS aired the TV movie “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  It was originally intended to be a pilot for a six-part TV series. One TV Guide reviewer wrote: “They say Wolfe’s genius begged editing, but goodness, CBS must have put You Can’t Go Home Again through a blender.

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

'Genius' the Movie

Jude Law and Colin Firth star in the movie ‘Genius,’ portraying novelist Thomas Wolfe and renowned book editor Max Perkins.

Now, for the very first time, Thomas Wolfe played by actor Jude Law, will be a character in a movie based on the biography by Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Screenwriter John Logan noted that in the early 1990s he met with Scott Berg about making the movie,

“I knew this would be a very difficult movie to set up. A period film about a book editor is the least sexy Hollywood pitch ever.”

Tell Us Your Thoughts

Have you seen the movie? Do you want to talk about it? That’s what the Comments section is for! Leave us a comment below, and tell us what you thought about the movie Genius.

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Thomas Wolfe in NYC

Thomas Wolfe grew up in Asheville, North Carolina but spent many years of his adult life in various hotels and apartments throughout New York City. Tom visited New York City in May 1923 hoping to sell his ten-scene play Welcome to Our City to the Theatre Guild. Months later he was asked to shorten his work to make it more manageable for the stage. Wolfe wrote “You can teach me no balance, equipoise, or moderation. Nothing will be gained by putting a fence around me: I will burst forth the more intemperately at the end.” By early November he was back in New York. He shared an apartment with four University of North Carolina classmates, and worked soliciting funds for the University of North Carolina, still trying to sell his plays to produce on Broadway.

In February 1924, in need of money, Wolfe accepted a teaching position in the English department at New York University, Washington Square College. He promised to be a faithful and efficient professor, despite his lack of teaching experience. He moved to a room in the Hotel Albert. He was paid $1,800 for his first seven-month teaching contract and continued teaching for the next seven years. With his initial savings, he left in October 1924 for Europe, the first of seven trips overseas.

Returning in August 1924, Tom met patroness Aline Bernstein. Although a married woman, the two soon began a serious relationship, and in January of 1926 the pair moved into a loft at 13 East 8th Street. She encouraged him to work on a novel instead of playwriting and supported him when he was not teaching. In October 1927 they moved into a larger apartment at 263 West 11th Street. Tom, with his teaching salary, insisted on paying for his portion of the expenses. With the first draft of his novel O Lost complete, but yet unpublished, Tom’s relationship with Aline became strained and Wolfe, seeking his freedom, left New York for Europe alone in June 1928. Returning New Year’s Eve 1929, Wolfe moved into an apartment at 27 W. 15th Street.

In March 1930, Tom was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and planned to travel in Europe for the next year to complete writing a second novel. The following March, Tom moved to 40 Verandah Place in Brooklyn to provide a further separation from Aline, who lived in Manhattan. Tom resided in Brooklyn until September 1935 when he moved to 865 First Avenue in Midtown. In 1937, he gave up this address and lived in various hotels throughout the city until moving October 1937 into room 829 at the Hotel Chelsea. Tom lived in this three room corner suite until leaving in May 1938 for a speaking engagement at Purdue University and then continued on a westward journey. While on this trip, Tom became ill in Seattle. After a month without improvement, the doctors sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. Tom died of tubercular meningitis on Sept. 15, 1938 at the hospital.

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