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Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe’s “Old Catawba” in VQR

July 8, 2009

[caption id="attachment_2524" align="alignright" width="192" caption="Thomas Wolfe, 1937 (photo by Carl Van Vechten)."]Thomas Wolfe, 1937 (photo by Carl Van Vechten).[/caption]

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.


Why the Southern Renaissance?

Why the Southern Renaissance ever occurred is still something of a mystery. All that is attempted here is an analysis of some explanations that have been offered by others and a few additional speculations. Before turning to the critical why, however, it is necessary to determine just what it is we are talking about. In the first place, we are stuck with a misnomer in the very word "renaissance." For neither in its literal sense nor in its classic historical usage is this French word really applicable to what happened in the South.