Issue 153, Winter 1999
Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, titled O Lost, as submitted to the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins of Charles Scribner's Sons in 1928, contained 294,000 words. Perkins—the genius-spotter who already had F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in his stable—was willing to gamble on its publication, but required Wolfe to make cuts, mainly for reasons of economy, but also to remove sideshows and bawdry. O Lost was not considered a selling title by Scribners, and Wolfe submitted Took Homeward, Angel, which was published in 1929With Wolfe unable to make the required excisions on his own, Perkins identified what he thought were the expendable passages; the final cuts were made by Wolfe, who then wrote the necessary bridging passages—which were sometimes longer than the deleted material. The published text of Look Homeward, Angel has 223,000 words—a reduction of 71,000 words (twenty-four-percent).
The first casualties of the editorial operation were the opening of O Lost describing the Battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of two Pennsylvania Dutch farmboys (one of whom, Oliver Gant, would father Eugene Gant) and a long account of Oliver’s pre-Altamont years. That opening was summarized in the fifth and sixth paragraphs of Look Homeward, Angel.
The Perkins-Wolfe editorial connection became one of the most painful and tempestuous in American letters. After Wolfe 's death, Perkins rationalized his editorial practices on the novel: We then began to work upon the book, and the first thing we did, to give it unity, was to cut out that wonderful scene it began with and the ninety-odd pages that followed, because it seemed to me, and he agreed, that the whole tale should be unfolded through the memories and senses of the boy, Eugene, who was born in Asheville (Altamont), We both thought that the story was compassed by that child’s realization; that it was life and the world as he came to realize them. When he had tried to go back into the life of his father before he arrived in Asheville, without the inherent memory of events, the reality and poignance were diminished—but for years it was on my conscience that I had persuaded Tom to cut out that first scene of the two little boys on the roadside with Gettysburg impending.
And then what happened? In Of Time and the River he brought the scene back to greater effect when old Gant was dying on the gallery of the hospital in Baltimore and in memory recalled his “olden days. ” (Harvard Library Bulletin, Autumn, 1947)
The amputated Gettysburg material is summarized—not salvaged—in less than 1,000 words in Of Time and the River (Book One, Section VI). Whether it is used there “to greater effect ” is doubtful. The original material about the Battle of Gettysburg from O Lost is printed here.
—Matthew J. Bruccoli