Thomas Wolfe's Lost Novel
'THE Good Child's River," a recently recovered lost novel, shows Thomas Wolfe at his boldest, richest, and most poetic, still riding the crest of critical good favor received by his first novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."Written around 1930, this novel-length fragment was once part of a huge cyclic novel series called "The October Fair." It was meant to be part of "Of Time and the River," which was a kind of dark Mahlerian symphony in that series. But the fragment fell outside the final scope of "Of Time and the River" (1953) and, mostly, was never typed up from the three 500-page ledgers in which it was composed. This material lay untouched until discovered by Suzanne Stutman, a Wolfe scholar who edited the manuscript. It was part of the huge William B. Wisdom Thomas Wolfe Collection housed at Harvard University's Houghton Library. The manuscript's history is complex. But, simply put, about one-fifth of it was typed up and printed in bits and pieces as short stories during Wolfe's lifetime or as part of his posthumous novel "The Web and the Rock" (1939). Wolfe died in 1938, not yet 38 years of age, leaving behind a packing case of unpublished manuscripts. Many Wolfe admirers say Wolfe's numerous works are discovered and consumed by readers in adolescence but do not bear much rereading in adulthood. I've thought that myself. "The Good Child's River" springs full-blown from Wolfe's ripest years, the rhapsodic Wolfe that many of us loved most. To this billowing flow of spirit is added an experimental Joycean framework that succeeds until the novel breaks off. Expect no plot. This is a portrait of the life and mind of Wolfe's great heroine Esther Jack, the flushed and rosy-faced Jewess first met on the very last pages of "Of Time and the River," the first sight of whom leaves Wolfe's hero Eugene Gant "impaled upon the knife of love." Esther is drawn from Wolfe's mistress, stage designer Aline Bernstein, who gave him a big batch of notes about her childhood, youth, and early womanhood, from which he fashioned the present work. Bernstein also drew from this material when writing her highly praised memoir, "An Actor's Daughter," and a novel about her affair with Wolfe, "The Journey Down." Other than the figures of Eugene Gant's parents in "Look Homeward, Angel" and "Of Time and the River," Esther Jack is his most richly drawn, most intelligent and attractive character. She's a heroine equal to her creator's heroic self-image. But Wolfe's alter egos, Eugene Gant and George Webber, do not appear in "The Good Child's River." This is Esther's book. Wolfe forms Esther's series of meditations as a dark river of lost time bearing her toward a climax. But the book breaks off, still a series of largely first-draft fragments. The Wolfean voice that appears and reappears between these fragments has the lift and urgency of Walt Whitman's in his great lilac ode on the death of Lincoln and of the train bearing the dead president's body across the land, while some of Wolfe's best lines are taken almost bodily from Whitman's magnificent night poem, "The Sleepe rs." Rising ever and again against the darkness of death and time are Esther's luminous memories of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, her actor-father's ties with the theater, the joys of Central Park at dawn and of a spring day on that fabulous new structure, the Brooklyn Bridge: "And I saw all the faces of the people on the Bridge, and they were coming toward me and there was something strange and sad about it, and yet it was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen: the air was clean and sparkling like sapphires and out beyond this was the harbor and I knew that the sea was there. And I heard the hoofs of all the horses, and the bells of the street cars, and all those heavy trembling sounds as if the Bridge was all alive: it was like time, it was like the red brick houses tha t they have in Brooklyn, it was like being a kid in the early nineties, and I guess that was when it was. "The Bridge made music and a kind of magic in me, it bound the earth together like a cry; and all of the earth seemed young and tender, I saw the people moving in two streams back and forth across the Bridge, and it was just as if we all had just been born." Readers of this glowing passage (and much else in the novel), who know Bernstein's satiny style from her memoirs, may wonder where Bernstein's notes end and Wolfe's voice begins. I think we can say Wolfe shaped the drama of the passage, and added the bass notes at the end. Stutman tells us that Wolfe did much research for this book beyond Bernstein's notes and visited many of the places so vividly recaptured. And we delight in his sharp ear for the Bernstein family's more eccentric members recast as Esth er's family. This ear stretches magnificently, at one point, to record the sound of birds awakening in Central Park: suddenly he heard each sound the birdsong made. Like a flight of shot the sharp fast skarps of sound arose. With ... fast-fluttering skirrs of sound, the palmy honied birdcries came. Smooth drops and nuggets and bright gold they were. Now sang the birdtree filled with lutings in bright air: the thrum, the lark's wing, and the tongue-trilling chirrs arose now. The little brainless cries arose and fell with liquorous liquified lutings, with lirruping chirp, plumbellied smoothness,... the rapid kweet kweet kweet kweet of homely birds, and their pwee-pwee-pwee...." That's wonderfully daring. Wolfe's fearless excess floods us with the event itself. "The Good Child's River" is not minor Wolfe. Readers who come fresh to it, never before having read Wolfe, may well be stunned by his power, and may start questioning the skinny little sentences and squeaks of feeling in today's writers. The rest of us will be replenished and exhilarated. Nobody writes for full orchestra any more.
Donald Newlove is a freelance writer and author who lives in New York.