THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF THOMAS WOLFE Edited by Francis E. Skipp Foreword by James Dickey Scribner's. 622 pp. $24.95
THOUGH EVERYBODY remembers Thomas Wolfe for his immensely long novels like Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again, he also published 36 short stories before his death in 1938. Subsequently about 20 more were mined from Wolfe's cache of manuscripts. Few of these pieces were originally written as short stories, for the form was not one with which Wolfe ever felt entirely comfortable. Most were segments of the vast autobiographical novels on which he worked for nearly all his adult life, and after magazine publication they were usually incorporated, with minor changes, into his big books. Others, like "Only The Dead Know Brooklyn," were originally intended for these novels but were dropped because Wolfe or Maxwell E. Perkins, his editor, considered them too long or discursive.
Wolfe himself collected 14 of his stories in From Death to Morning (1935), and Edward C. Aswell, the editor of his posthumous books, included 10 more in The Hills Beyond (1941). Now Professor Francis E. Skipp of the University of Miami has brought together all 58 of Wolfe's short stories in one large volume, which is certain both to exasperate and please Wolfe fans. On the negative side, Skipp fails to indicate when and where these stories were originally published. His decision to exclude from this collection most of Wolfe's long short stories, or novellas, is a puzzling and capricious one; he includes Wolfe's "No Door" but omits some of Wolfe's best stories, like "The Web of Earth" and "I Have a Thing to Tell You." And his surprisingly perfunctory preface tells much too little about his editorial problems in choosing the best of the variant versions of Wolfe's stories. Still, despite these problems, Skipp has performed a useful service in bringing together this new collection, which makes available dozens of pieces up to now buried in the files of obscure and often defunct periodicals. The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe deserves an important place in any Wolfe collection, for it offers endless enjoyment to those who care for Wolfe's writing.
Whether it will reach a general public is not clear. From the outset both readers and critics were baffled by Wolfe's stories, which were unlike any others published during his lifetime. Early Wolfe stories did not, in any conventional sense, have plots, and they rarely showed development of character. Some of them, like "Gulliver, The Story of a Tall Man," hardly pretended to be fictional; they were segments of Wolfe's autobiography. Others, like "The Names of the Nation" and "The Train and the City," were chants in praise of "the huge and everlasting earth, the American earth, wild, rude, and limitless, scarred with harshness, filled with emptiness, unfinished and immemorable." Even friendly reviewers were uncertain that these early pieces by Wolfe should be called short stories and preferred, like John Chamberlain, to describe From Death to Morning as a "collection of rumination and reverie." Following this lead, generations of narrow academic critics have joined in ridiculing what they consider the excesses of Wolfe's rhetoric and have deplored passages like his invocation of Sleep in the final paragraphs of "Death the Proud Brother": "Oh, daughter of unmemorized desire, sister of Death, and my own stern comrade, Loneliness, bringer of peace and dark forgetfulness, healer and redeemer, dear enchantress, hear us . . ."
The hostility of critics baffled Wolfe, who was certain that his early stories contained "as good writing as I have ever done," but under pressure from reviewers and from Perkins he decided to "cut out this kind of writing entirely." The stories that Wolfe published after 1936 have, therefore, a different tone. In them he used shorter and more direct sentences, made fewer mythological references and increasingly relied on satire as his principal literary device. The last half of Skipp's collection consists mostly of stories written in this new vein, and they show greater attention to form and far more awareness of social problems. "Child by Tiger," the story of a black man who went berserk and, after a murderous spree, was shot down by a white mob, is the most famous of these. By conventional fictional standards, as James Dickey notes in his admiring introduction to this collection, this is the best story in the book, but, he adds perceptively: "The paradox that one must note is that it is not the best Wolfe."
The best Wolfe is a writer who took enormous risks to show both the highest range of human hopes and the lowest depths of despair. That Wolfe, as Dickey notes, was the author who could take as his motto D.H. Lawrence's promise: "I will show you how not to be a dead man in life." And that Wolfe was the author of the early stories in this collection, which still have the power to send shivers down a reader's spine. ::
David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University, is author of the recently published "Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe."