It is a curious nothing how people of every kind and condition, whether they know anything about anything or not, are instantly convinced that the proper thing to do with any piece of writing is to "cut". -- Thomas Wolfe

When the news hit New York last month, it promised to be one of the hottest disputes in the publishing world since Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal, a genuine four-alarm scadal featuring:

An academic underdog pitted against the literary establishment; painstaking research which charges conspiracy and fraud involving three of Thomas Wolfe's clebrated novels; a promising future blighted by Harvard University and the executors of Wolfe's estate; a young scholar trapped in a "publish or perish" nightmare who broke agreements with those two institutions to expose information of a controversial nature.

As the story crackled throught he pages of the literary press, temperatures rose and reactions ranged from flaming indignation to slow burn.

"I published without permission," the scholar, John Halberstadt, admitted in The New York Review of Books. And the resulting punishments, he said, mean that "someone else may capitalize on my discovery first."

"The whistle-blower in this case finds himself barred from professional sources," wrote Eliot Fremont-Smith, championing Halberstadt in the Village Voice, "and his career as a literary scholar and teacher possibly in ruins."

"In the 20 years I've been managing this estate," says Wolfe's executor, New York attorney Paul Gitlin, "this is the first time that anybody violated the restrictions."

"I'm unemployed and unemployable," Halberstadt says from his apartment in Charlestown, Mass. "I'd like to lecture on the subject, but I have no job, no lecture offers. I fee very sad about it."

The story begins in 1972, when Halberstadt, then a graduate student at Yale, applied to the Wolfe estate for permission to examine the novelist's papers in the archives of Harvard University's Houghton Library. He was granted access on the condition that his dissertation remain unpublished. After years of mulling through a million words of manuscript, Halberstadt concluded that Wolf's three posthumous novels -- "The Web and the Rock" (1939), "You Can't Go Home Again" (1940) and "The Hills Beyond" (1941) -- were "not realy written by Wolfe in the usual sense, but were predominantly" the work of Wofe's editor, the late Edward Aswell, engaging in unprecedented editorial malpractice."

In May of 1938, Wolfe had fulfilled the terms of a $10,000 contract with Harper & Brothers (now Harper & Row) by submitting an enormous manuscript, including duplicate chapters in variant version, unassimilated fragments, even passages from previously published work. Shortly thereafter, Wolfe died. Aswell, confronted with what he called "a mess," began work on the awesome welter of words.Halberstadt argues that Aswell not only severely restructured the 230 chapters, but also created a composite character of his own and actually wrote words attributed to the brooding genius of Asheville, N.C.

Halberstadt reached this conclusion after seven years of comparing the printed novels with the 5,000 pages -- both handwritten and typed on three different colors of paper -- in the Houghton Library. He says now that the "published texts are so corrupt" that "they ought to be labeled the way we label food: so-and-so-much natural Wolfe, such-and-such hybrid chapters, and artificial Aswell flavor added." He further argues that the alterations were made contrary to a clause in Wolfe's contract stipulating "no changes, additions or alterations in the title or text."

The 39-year-old scholar and published poet -- who in the last 18 years has earned three master's degrees and taught at a dozen community colleges and universities across the country, most recently at Boston's Northeaster -- finally received his PhD From Yale in 1980. Two years earlier, he had asked Gitlin for permission to publish. His request was denied, Gitlin says, because Halberstadt "hadn't complied with the double-barreled restricitions" which apply to all applicants: that he was not to publish the results of his research; and that if he did want to publish, he would have to submit his dissertation to the estate for approval.

But Halberstadt -- without that authorization and in violation of an agreement with Houghton Library officials, whose permission was also required -- wrote a version of his findings which appeared in the August 1980 issue of the Yale Review, titled "The Making of Thomas Wolfe's Posthumous Novels." He took a copy of the article to Rodney G. Dennis, Houghton's curator of manuscripts, who promptly banned Halberstadt from the library for a year -- the "minimum" penalty for his breach of trust -- and notified Gitlin, who says he found a "peculiar macabre humor" to the penalty.

Halberstadt, who cordially concedes that Gitlin is "serving the estate both fully and with good intention," believes that the rules are "unnecessarily rigid." Gitlin, a copyright lawyer, says they are "normal" -- and in fact, in the conservative and scrupulous realm of academe, such restrictions are commonly honored to the letter.

Halberstadt now recalls that he "forgot" to send Gitlin his dissertation as requested by letter in the early '70s. But, Halberstadt says, Gitlin "didn't remind me of it" when he asked permission to publish in 1978, and Halberstadt is not sure he would have submitted it anyway. Gitlin is "not a scholar," Halberstadt says, and "shouldn't be judging" the quality of academic work. "One man has been controlling Wolfe scholarship for 20 years," Halberstadt says. "He decides who is most perceptive."

When Halberstadt complained of his treatment with a long letter in the March 19 New York Review of Books, he wrote that the banishment from Houghton Library means that he cannot defend his article or pursue planned research on Henry James. Worse, "a publisher . . . is interested in bringing out a more general version of my dissertation" and "I would like to bring out a selection from Wolfe's 'enormous' last manuscript . . . As it is, however, I can't do anything . . ."

At this point, Eliot Fremont-Smith took up the cause in The Village Voice. He called Halberstadt a "whistle-blower" who exposed a "literary frau" and became a "victim." While admitting that Halberstadt acted with some disregard for the rights of the Wolfe estate and the library, Fremont-Smith concluded that "I think Halberstadt did right, or anyway what was inevitable given machinery that could not adjust to or even honor the real needs of a committed scholar who found himself in an awful bind." The soft-spoken academic had been apotheosized into a crusader-scapegoat. "The urge to be first with the facts on Wolfe," Fremont-Smith wrote, "appears to have reflected an authentic variation of the academic adage; for Halberstadt it was 'scoop or perish.'"

But there are footnotes to this thesis. For one thing, Halberstadt had begun to perish -- or at least to languish somewhat -- well before he published the Yale Review piece, his first scholarly article. He had been unemployed since last June, when his three-year nonrenewable teaching contract with Northeastern expired. Although he had no prospects for a job at another university, he was "entertaining the remote hope that positions would break." Meanwhile, he has been living in a small apartment which he shares with a roommate ("It's very cheap"), living on unemployment checks and money from "some writing." As for "publish or perish," he says that publications are "absolutely essential for one's resume, with or without a job offer.

Moreover, the Wolfe whistle had been blown before, and there is some perplexity in academic circles about the impact of Halberstadt's work. Prof. Duane Schneider of the University of Ohio, preisdent of the Thomas Wolfe Society, which met at Chapel Hill last week, says that the group (which members some 300 faculty and interested laymen) was generally "mystified as to what all the excitement is about."

It is common knowledge that when Wolfe was published by Scribner's he was heavily edited by Maxwell Perkins; and it has been known for years that Aswell (with the support of Perkins, the first executor of the Wolfe estate) had labored mightily over the posthumous manuscripts. Aswell attached an afterword to "The Hills Beyond" in which he admitted cutting "reams" of Wolfe's prose and writing some transitional material. Halberstadt calls that disclaimer "a slippery mixture of half-truths."

Although Halberstadt provied new information about how Wolfe's legacy was transformed, scholars have been writing for decades about Aswell's role in the later novels. Halberstadt himself concedes that "perhaps two-thirds of the story" had already come to light in a 1962 book by Prof. Richard S. Kennedy of Temple University, a leading Wolfe scholar. In "The Window of Memory," Kennedy wrote that Aswell's "creative editing" was "an acceptable job of editing for a commercial publication." Kennedy now says that Halberstadt's claims are "so exaggerated and misleading that it's just a bad state of affairs."

Also perturbed by Halberstadt's notoriety is Prof. Louis D. Rubin Jr. of the University of North Carolina, who in his 1963 book, "The Far-Away Country," had examined and criticized Aswell's role as an editor. Rubin says from Chapel Hill that while Halberstadt's work is "a valuable thing," he is "giving the impression that he was the first to discover that there was something wrong with the Wolfe texts." Halberstadt, who heard of Rubin's work within only the last two weeks, says he felt "very overshadowed when I found out." While blaming himself for "sloppy scholarship," Halberstadt also complains that "nobody at Harvard or Yale in all the years I worked on my dissertion brouth [Rubin's work] to my attention."

Schneider says that most members of the Thomas Wolfe Socity, "even after reading the Yale Review article, were satisfied with the novels as they stand." Not everyone agrees. Prof. R.W.B. Lewis of Yale, Halberstadt's dissertion adviser, has said that he will no longer teach the posthumous novels in his courses: "It would be teaching an unacknowledged and profoundly misleading hybrid." Rubin agrees.

Those reservations take on added significance in light of last week's announcement that the published version of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" (1900), long regarded as a watershed work of American fiction, is actually a censored misrepresentation of Dreiser's original story. University of Pennsylvania Press is publishing the novel in retored form incorporating some 36,000 words which the original publisher, Doubleday, excised on the grounds that they were too vulger, gloomy and sexually explicit. e

But Gitlin (whose law firm represented Wolfe while he was alive and became his executor following Perkings and Aswell) says, "I can't believe that Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell would conspire to pull a fraud on the public, as Halberstadt has charged." And Daniel Harvey, publicity director of Harper & Row, said that the house is "not planning to put any disclaimers or make any changes in the texts of subsequent Wolfe editions," although there "might be a change in the future."

Meanwhile, the dispirited Halberstadt says, "If I don't get any money out of this, I'm going to have to take just any job at all." He continues to hope that press accounts of his plight will bring him employment: "I have a brother who's a comedian, and he calls the articles my 'help-wanted' ads."