Thomas Clayton (1900-1938), was an American author who won fame for his autobiographical
novels. Wolfe claimed that all great art was necessarily autobiographical. The story of
his childhood and youth assumes a symbolic significance in his novels. His central
character, under whatever name he appears, is a sensitive, worthwhile person who is, in
essence, the author. Through this character, Wolfe treated a theme that is important to
his work--the development of the artist in America.
Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North
Carolina in 1920 and then entered the Harvard University graduate school. Wolfe taught
English at New York University between 1924 and 1930.
Maxwell E. Perkins, an editor at Scribner's publishers, was the most important influence
in Wolfe's career. Wolfe wrote long rambling works, and Perkins helped him cut and
organize the material. Wolfe's first novel was Look Homeward, Angel (1929). It was
followed by a sequel, Of Time and the River (1935). After Wolfe's death, Edward Aswell, an
editor at Harper publishers, edited his two other novels--The Web and the Rock (1939) and
You Can't Go Home Again (1940). The character of Eugene Gant in the first two novels is
modeled on Wolfe as a young man. The other two novels also draw on Wolfe's personal
experiences. They concern a character called George Webber.
Wolfe's writing has been criticized for its apparent lack of discipline and artistic
control. Some critics believe that each novel is a torrent of undigested details and that
Perkins' editing is responsible for whatever form the novels have. Wolfe seemed to support
this view in The Story of a Novel (1936), in which he critically examined his own
writings. However, later critics have stressed that Wolfe was more than a reporter. They
note that he chose details and emphasized elements that make each of the episodes in his
novels a dramatic unit.
Although Wolfe has been frequently criticized for excesses in language, at his best he
wrote powerful prose that is often close to poetry. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe (1970)
describes Wolfe's struggle to become a mature writer. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas
Wolfe was published in 1987.
Contributor: Noel Polk, Ph.D., Prof. of English, Univ. of Southern Mississippi.
Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Little, Brown, 1987.
Evans, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe. Ungar, 1984.