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Thomas Wolfe’s “Old Catawba”


ISSUE:  Spring 1991

In 1929, Thomas Wolfe—whom William Faulkner described as the greatest writer of his generation—published his novel Look Homeward, Angel to rave reviews. The Virginia Quarterly Review took notice of this young writer from North Carolina and began a tumultuous courtship to bring Wolfe’s prose to the pages of the journal. This courtship spanned three editors and numerous entreaties, though neither side ever evinced the least bit of reluctance. The delay appears to lie with Wolfe, who was a furious, tinkering sort of writer, a fact evident not only in the staggering volume of work he left behind at the end of his abbreviated life, but also in his correspondence with VQR. Plagued by the pressure of pleasing others, saddled with financial woes despite his success, and never far from his next deadline, Wolfe’s brief relationship with VQR reveals a writer who was constantly struggling to balance his life with his craft, though he remained exuberantly committed through it all.

James Southall Wilson was the first VQR editor to query Wolfe, about appearing in Charlottesville at the Southern Writers Conference in the fall of 1931, an event that brought Sherwood Anderson, Allen Tate, and William Faulkner, among others, to the city. In his reply, Wolfe confided that he did not feel worthy of being included in such an august group: “I have published only one book and am sweating and agonizing over another.” He was sagging under the weight of his novel-in-progress and feared losing traction:

I’ve worked [on] my new book over a year—I had all the material for it a long time ago, but it’s been hell getting it in sequence—arranging, revising, shaping—a few months ago I got it straight in my head for the first time, and now I’m plugging away as hard as I can every day . . . It’s very hard for me to get started, and when I’m started I hate to stop until I’ve finished. Also, meeting new people has a very deep and powerful effect on me—particularly interesting and talented people: nothing excites and absorbs me more, and for this reason I go nowhere at present while I’m at work.

Wolfe, who had recently returned from a year in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship, did not explicitly decline Wilson’s invitation, he merely begged off a decision until he could be more certain of his writing schedule. In the end, his work proved too consuming, and the conference went on without him.

With the conference behind them, VQR’s new editor Stringfellow Barr worked diligently during the first half of 1932 to obtain a story from Wolfe. This proved difficult, as Wolfe could not tear himself away from what he called “the proofs” of his second novel, then titled The October Fair. They can hardly be considered proofs, as the novel was nowhere near completion at that time. He and his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins (credited with discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway), were trying to extract a manageable narrative from thousands of Wolfe’s handwritten pages, pages which covered hundreds of characters and dozens of distinct episodes, but for which Wolfe had a magnificent structure in mind. Eventually, Perkins would excavate enough material to release Of Time and the River as Wolfe’s second novel, in 1935, but the process of cutting and reshaping his plan for The October Fair was a serious blow to Wolfe—a compromise that eventually dissolved his professional ties to Perkins.

Wolfe wrote several letters to Barr during the early months of 1932, letters that read like rambling soliloquies. In one sentence he’s apologetic for his inability to deliver a story, and in the next he can’t help but express his state of anxiety and destitution. Without shame, Wolfe writes that he is “hard up,” and that he will likely be forced to send his short prose to a larger press, because “I know you probably can’t afford to pay high prices.”

Barr and Wolfe eventually came around to the possibility of publishing a piece titled “K19,” about a nighttime train ride through the Virginia countryside that Wolfe had written as part of The October Fair. In his pitch, Wolfe described “K19” as a story about “the way [a train] looks, smells, feels, the sound it makes, the great voices on the little country platforms when it stops—as well as the story of the people on the train—what they say, who they think about.” Barr was eager to publish Wolfe, and he tried to persuade him that though VQR could not offer great compensation, they could publish the kinds of artistic pieces that Scribner’s Magazine could not, due to the “the organic nature of two very different enterprises.” Still, Barr had his reservations about the length of the piece—“am I to gather it is being dickered about as a small book?” he wrote—and VQR was accustomed to publishing short stories of no more than 4,000 words. His concerns were justified; like all of Wolfe’s work, the “K19” manuscript was prodigiously long, running more than 40,000 words. There was simply no way to edit “K19” to a length that would fit in VQR. Ultimately, Wolfe published a 12,000 word version under the title “The Train and the City” in Scribner’s Magazine in May of 1933, for which he was awarded a badly needed $2,500 prize as winner of their Long Story Contest.

After a friendly meeting between Barr and Wolfe that took place in Wolfe’s Brooklyn apartment in April of 1932, which Barr proclaimed a “grand night for me,” the pursuit of a story cooled as Wolfe was consumed by his longer work and frustrated by his deteriorating relationship with Perkins. Two years passed before new VQR editor Lambert Davis was finally able to secure a commitment from Wolfe in the fall of 1934. Wolfe agreed to contribute a story to VQR’s tenth anniversary issue in the spring of 1935, “in which all the contributors are Southerners on themes growing out of Southern life and letters, to short stories by Southern fiction writers, and to poetry of Southern authorship.” The issue included work by Cleanth Brooks, Katherine Anne Porter, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.

Wolfe‘s contribution is a story titled “Old Catawba,” which reads a bit like a fable and whose subject is the people he grew up amongst in the hills of western North Carolina. VQR’s “Green Room” for the April 1935 issue says that “Old Catawba” is “a part of the one huge connected series of novels of which ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ published in 1929, was the first, and ‘Of Time and the River,’ published as this magazine goes to press, is the second.” Removed from that context, it reads a bit rough. But the story contains all of the elements of Wolfe’s prose that make him such a fascinating literary persona—his elegant lyricism, his careful attention to real speech patterns, his staggering ambition, and his propensity for excess.

In his tumultuous career, Thomas Wolfe sought to fictionalize his entire life story, with the belief that when finished, it would reveal the great truths, triumphs, and tragedies of the human predicament. He lent only a small portion of that life to the pages of VQR, but it reveals and rewards just the same.

View the original manuscript of “Old Catawba.”

Read “Old Catawba.”

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