When Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and The River was released in 1935, it was met both with generous praise and searing criticism. On the one hand, the novel was instantly recognized as an early indication of Wolfe's myriad talents and prolific genius, the ne
xt logical step in a career that had already produced the likes of Look Homeward, Angel. On the other, it was a novel described by many critics as something of a delinquent, rambling, unstructured failure that felt too much like a cheap autobiography and
which by no means brought to bear the full aspect of it's author's latent abilities. But it was surrounded by controversy from every angle; disagreements between Wolfe and his first editor, Maxwell Perkins, concerning the book's structure, length, sub
ject matter, and focus crippled their relationship and fueled Wolfe's own disappointment with the published product; the author's frustration with his inability to accomplish in the novel that which he had set out to produce alienated Wolfe and was a so
urce of constant pressure on the young novelist. Still, the novel was an instant success in American popular culture, especially since Wolfe's work had become greatly anticipated and highly lauded following the release and popularity of Look Homeward, A
ngel. Of Time and The River, wrought with struggles and strains on its long journey to publication, emerged into an American culture which, in 1935, wanted and needed a story of the American condition. Nestled in the throes of the Great Depression that
1929 had unleashed on the unwary nation, in an era plagued by international unrest and the encroaching threat of eminent war, it was a story that fell on eager ears in the United States; a story of home and hearth and exploration and frustration; a story
close to the hearts and minds of its ready audience. It was a novel perfectly congruous with its time, and it enjoyed rampant public success as a result.
For Wolfe, Of Time and The River was a struggle from its very conception. What he had originally envisioned for the novel and what it turned out to be, however, were two very different things. Wolfe's vision for his second novel was nothing if not ambi
tious. The thing that had consumed his thoughts for so long, it seems, was the strange dichotomy of existence; the "hunger" that had mystified him for most of his intellectual life. It was this dichotomy - and specifically the role it played in the live
s of Americans in particular - which was to be the central theme of his new novel. In Wolfe's own words, his condition was one of constant struggle "between a hunger for isolation, for getting away, for seeking new lands - and a desire for home, for per
manence, for a piece of this earth fenced in and lived on and private to oneself, and for a person or persons to love and possess" (Donald, 239). Desperate to get a hand on his own vision, Wolfe reached for some tangible means of effectively portraying h
is immense project. His original idea was in effect to catalogue the vast American experience by creating "a portrait of America made up of numerous vignettes linked only through theme or leitmotifs" (Donald, 278). It was to become a struggle that he wo
uld never fully comprehend or conquer, and it mangled him psychologically and physically: "I am aching with a new one - it's got to come out of me. I loath the idea of not writing it, and I loath the idea of writing it - I am lazy, and doing a book is a
gony - 60 cigarettes a day, 20 cups of coffee, miles of walking and flinging about, nightmares, nerves, madness - there are better ways, but this, God help me, is mine" (Nowell, 196). Only through the controversial influence of Maxwell Perkins, an editor
for Charles Scribner's Sons, was the novel ever publishable.
Perkins was Wolfe's first editor, and he played a significant role throughout the young author's career. Theirs was a rocky relationship, one of mixed emotions that alternated between mutual respect and sharp criticism. Early on, Perkins had recognize
d Wolfe as a superb writer with unbounded potential, and Wolfe came to consider Perkins to be the most brilliant of all editors, although he scarcely knew another one. As the two worked to finish Of Time and The River, their relationship grew to include
those more personal aspects that often characterize the affection felt between a father and a son. "For Perkins," says Donald, "Wolfe became in a sense the son he never had - a son more dear because he exhibited the extravagant impulses, the excessive ap
petites, the torrential loquacity in which Perkins would never allow himself to indulge" (Donald, 204-5). And the editor's respect and affections for Wolfe were certainly requited. Perkins's ability as an editor - his unwavering support, generosity, a
nd helpfulness towards Wolfe - made his seem, to Wolfe, "almost like a father." In a letter to Perkins Wolfe wrote, "young men sometimes believe in the existence of heroic figures, stronger and wiser that themselves, to whom they can turn for an answer t
o all their vexation and grief?You are for me such a figure: you are one of the rocks to which my life is anchored" (Donald, 205). But the details concerning the publication of this second novel were cause for serious tremors in the otherwise affectionat
e relationship. Wolfe's original vision continued to elude him as the frustration of writing the momentous text mounted, and Perkins, who knew all too well the pitfalls that often accompany such indecisiveness, urged the young writer to make some import
ant changes. First off, he reasoned, Wolfe's idea for the "series of vignettes" was not feasible, especially considering the author's apparent inability to provide any sort of coherent connection among the stories. If this novel was going to work, Per
kins reasoned, it would need to be more conventional. But for Wolfe, such a fundamental change in the work's structure and composition amounted to nothing short of complete annihilation of his vision, and his attitude towards Perkins began to verge on m
istrust and frustration. Since their relationship had by this time developed on a personal level, the two often had difficulty separating fondness from professional disagreement. In his letters to Perkins, Wolfe echoed his intense despair at the forces
that were driving the two apart. "Are you - the man I trusted and reverenced above all else in the world - trying?to destroy me?" (Austin, 187) But Wolfe's most earnest concern was that the novel was being crafted, against him wishes and his better jud
gement, in terms of its value to Scribner's as a publishable - and sellable - entity. Vast sections were being cut by Perkins and Scribner's, sections that Wolfe had taken particular care in writing and which he thought were crucial to the books overar
ching themes, and Wolfe thought that his novel would be, if nothing else, discombobulated. Which it was, according to many of its critics, and which the author had specifically tried to avoid, considering the great pains he had endured to organize his th
oughts in the first place. On a professional level, Wolfe and Perkins were quickly parting company; yet they maintained that personal intimacy that had bound them for so long, so much so that even while Wolfe eventually refused to work with Perkins - or
Scribner's - after the publication of Of Time and The River, he was adamant about maintaining his friendship with Perkins and his family. "He refused to stop by Perkins' office in the afternoons," says Austin, "but he was still a frequent visitor in hi
s home" (Austin, 186).
The finished product, as it turned out, was for Wolfe a marked departure from his early hopes for Of Time and The River. His most poignant complaint was that it was indeed unfinished when Perkins insisted on publishing, although Wolfe knew that six more
months of writing, added to the already voluminous text of over 500,000 words, would yield a book that would literally be to large to publish. But Perkins had effectively taken the unfinished manuscript out of the author's unwilling hands, and Wolfe, de
spite encouraging early sales figures, was keenly disappointed in his novel. As Donald puts it "though every word of that book was his, he knew that it bore astonishingly little resemblance to the book that he had planned. He could not repress his unhap
piness that Perkins had insisted on taking the manuscript from him in December 1933" (Donald, 307). It was, according to Wolfe, "written too fast, with frenzied maddened haste, under a terrible sense of pressure" (Donald, 317). And while the author did
believe that this was the best work he'd yet done, he also worried that the tremendous rush that accompanied its publication may have shirked some of the novel's true value. "I would be troubled by it," he wrote in a letter to Perkins, "to know I had
written a best seller, was a best-seller kind of writer: I would worry then to know what was wrong with my book, whether you and I had done something to cheapen it and make it popular" (Nowell, 437). Prophetic words, as it turned out; for when he returne
d from Europe in late 1935, Wolfe found Of Time and The River an impressive success.
Of the myriad changes the novel underwent on its path to publication, the most fundamental - and the most disturbing for Wolfe - was its eventual transformation into something more like an autobiography than an original text. In the end, Of Time and The
River more or less picked up where Look Homeward, Angel had left off; it had become a sequel, an addendum to a novel that Wolfe had written as a barely fictional account of his coming of age in America. Early critics of the novel dwelled upon this aspect
of its composition, citing Wolfe's inability to produce anything truly original without sacrificing power and meaning. "Tom's problem," says Austin, "was not a lack of inventiveness which made autobiography necessary. Part of the problem was that he
could not resist mining the rich ore of his own experience" (Austin, 153). But once he had settled on what he knew - at the stringent behest of his publishers - would ultimately be an autobiographical novel, Wolfe was insistent that his plan was not an e
asy way out, but rather an important method of developing his novel in terms of the American perspective. He had an "increasing tendency to identify himself with all American experience" (Austin, 153), and Wolfe defended his mode of writing to the last.
As the author wrote in his "statement of purpose" before the novel's publication, "he [the author herein refers to himself in the third person] intends for this to be the most objective book that he has ever written?He has constructed a fable, invented
a story and a legend; out of his experience he has derived some new characters who are now compacted not so much from specific recollection as from the whole amalgam and consonance of seeing, feeling, thinking, living, and knowing many people" (Field, 36)
. Wolfe was obstinate: this was a novel about being an American; about how experience shapes us and how the hunger never disappears. And as it turned out, it was a novel for which America was hungry.
For whatever reasons, Of Time and The River was famously successful, almost an instant bestseller. Said one Scribner's executive, "I do not recall any book during my quarter of a century with the House [of Scribner's] which has been greeted with such o
verwhelming admiration, enthusiasm, and excitement" (Donald, 317). If nothing else, the book was published at the most appropriate time; for the mid 1930s in America was a torrential historical moment. As the Great Depression laid waste to the nation's
economy, so did the earliest murmurings of World War Two begin to threaten the dilapidated nation. What the country needed in terms of an artist was one willing and able to produce an accurate portrayal of the American condition, and Thomas Wolfe was mo
re than equipped for that task. He could capture - he did capture - the odd dichotomy between a longing for exploration and experience and an ever present yearning for home. Of Time and The River was a novel keenly aware of its moment and intricately fa
shioned in American terms.