Rediscovered writings show Wolfe in top form

November 03, 1991|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

"O lost and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again."

I never read those words from "Look Homeward, Angel" without a sigh for the man who wrote them.

In fact, when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s I occasionally would visit the stone marker on campus dedicated to Thomas Wolfe, who was a student there in the 'teens, and read the words aloud. At that time, Wolfe was my all-time favorite writer and "Look Homeward, Angel," in all its youthful rhapsody, my favorite book. What I hated was that Wolfe had died in 1938 just before his 38th birthday. There would be no more novels.

Well, I was wrong -- sort of. The University of North Carolina Press has just issued "The Good Child's River," which it calls a "previously unpublished novel" by Thomas Wolfe. To call it a novel is stretching it a bit. It's really a series of related stories, narratives and fragments centering around the character of Esther Jack, who appeared in Wolfe's posthumous novels "The Web and the Rock" and "You Can't Go Home Again." Esther corresponds to New York stage and costume designer Aline Bernstein, who was the great love of Wolfe's life, and the stories in "The Good Child's River" are loosely based on her early life.

The whole has been assembled by scholar Suzanne Stutman, who found three 500-page handwritten ledgers bearing the title "The Good Child's River" in Harvard's Houghton Library.

But as she explains in her lengthy and illuminating introduction to the book, "The Good Child's River" can be considered a work in progress, part of the huge, epic manuscript known as "The October Fair" that consumed the last eight years of Wolfe's life.

About 20 percent of "The Good Child's River" has been published previously in different form and out of context. For example, the section titled "The Time That Is Lovely" was renamed "Penelope's Web" and placed in "The Web and the Rock."

By restoring the material to its original context and condition, Ms. Stutman has done Wolfe a great service. For while "The Good Child's River" may not be a complete novel, it is an exhilarating rebuttal to two charges that have tarnished Wolfe's reputation over the years: One, that he could write only about himself. Two, that his writing was not really his own but a collaborative effort between Wolfe and his editors, first Maxwell Perkins and later Edward Aswell.

Wolfe was a 25-year-old struggling writer when he first became involved with Bernstein, who was 44, successful and married. Their relationship spanned 12 years, during which time the lovers entertained one another with stories of their early years.

And so it is that we meet Bernstein's past and family in "The Good Child's River": her Shakespearean actor father, whom Wolfe fictionalized as Joe Barrett; her exotic Aunt Nana, who corresponds to the vital Bella of the book; and another Victorian aunt, who wrote romance novels but who had liberated ideas about "the sensual woman."

Then, of course, there is Bernstein/Esther, the good child losing herself in the river of time and memory: "Long, long into the night I lay awake, thinking how I should tell my story."

Even if it doesn't all hang together, much of the writing in the novel is terrific. "My Father on Tour" includes observant and poignant passages about the traveling actors, "grateful in their hearts even for the shabby insecurity of the road." In "My Father's Youth," Wolfe recounts Joe Barrett's adventures as a circus worker with customary intensity and lyricism:

"My father awoke at morning in three hundred towns with the glimmer of starlight on his face: he was the moon's man, then he saw light quicken in the east, he saw pale stars drawn, he saw the birth of light, he heard the lark's wing, then the bird tree, the first liquorous liquified luting, the ripe-arred trillings, the plum-skinned birdnotes, and he heard the hoof and wheel come down the streets of the nation."

Wolfe would have been 91 this month. One can't help but sigh. "Time! Where are you now, and in what place, and at what time?"

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