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De-romanticizing a novelist's life; The Autobiography of an American Novelist, by Thomas Wolfe. Edited by Leslie Field. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 152 pp. $15 in hard cover, $5 .95 in paperback.

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) understood that being a novelist demanded a constant pummeling of the soul, yet he willingly bartered tranquillity for literary success.

''The Autobiography of an American Novelist,'' in which editor Field reprints two of Wolfe's speeches given before college audiences, focuses on the vocation that nearly devoured Wolfe. It is an account devoid of vanity, inhibition, or pretense, in which the author sought to explode the romanticism surrounding life as a novelist.

The speeches, which trace the creation of Wolfe's first two books, ''Look Homeward, Angel'' (1929) and ''Of Time and the River'' (1935), reveal him as obsessively absorbed in his writing, though keenly disappointed with the reception of the first book. Citizens of his North Carolina hometown accused him of ''plagiarizing'' their lives. Critics commended the book, but wondered whether Wolfe was artistically nimble enough to spin another. Readers who liked his writing chided Wolfe for being sluggish in producing a second book, all of which forced him to ask whether fame might not imperil his talent.

Inertia was never Wolfe's problem. He wrote 2 million words in three years, but often was troubled by doubts that he could transform the verbiage into a single coherent narrative. The manuscript of ''Of Time and the River'' swelled with minute details as Wolfe charted the boundaries of his ability. He later acknowledged that the novel suffered from ''a general too-muchness,'' for which it is still maligned.

Wolfe also emphasizes the novelist's need to integrate himself fully into his environment. While a graduate student at Harvard, he unwisely tapered his vision to encompass just himself, his academic colleagues, and their vapid banter about ''art'' and ''the artist.'' Later, in the depression, he reached the conclusion that writers must view reality and transmit all of it, unselectively.

Wolfe once wrote, ''If (a person) has a talent and learns somehow to use the whole if it, he has gloriously succeeded, and won a satisfaction and a triumph few men ever know'' - a satisfaction that must have compensated for the rigors and disappointments of a writer's life.


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