Literary daybook, Sept. 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published September 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Sept. 18, Tim Cranmer leaves Priddy Pool unsure if he has murdered Dr. Lawrence Pettifer.
-- "Our Game" (1995)
by John Le Carré

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1940, Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again" was published, two years after his death from tubercular meningitis at the age of 37. Earlier novels in his four-book, autobiographical series included the bestselling "Look Homeward Angel," and the lesser-known middle books, "Of Time and the River" and "The Web and the Rock." Wolfe's legendary style of writing, like that of his life, was flowing and impassioned, and an editor's worst nightmare. The first two books in the series were reworked by Wolfe under advisement by Max Perkins at Scribner's, and the last two were culled by Harper's editor Edward Aswell from the mammoth manuscript which Wolfe left behind in jumbled piles and boxes -- some 1.5 million words, about a dozen novels of ordinary length. "I've got too much material," says the central character, writer George Webber, about halfway through "You Can't Go Home Again." "It keeps backing up on me until sometimes I wonder what in the name of God I'm going to do with it all ..."

Wolfe's self-chronicling and wasteland-wandering was cast as a mission from start to premature finish. "I am inevitable," he wrote in a 1923 letter home from Harvard:

"And I intend to wreak out my soul on people and express it all. This is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing and I will do it or die ... I will go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotions I am able, and I will write, write, write ..."

Perkins would call him "lone Wolfe," and his nomadic, lyrical howl would speak loudly to the Kerouac generation. Even at the end of "You Can't Go Home Again," as editor Aswell constructs it anyway, the calling continued:

"Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: 'To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth -- '-- Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending -- a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.'"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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