The famous first version of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Wolfe’s titanic debut novel that had been whipped into publishable shape by Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins.
At least that’s the standard version—now challenged by the Bruccolis, who have “established” this “new” text (published to commemorate Wolfe’s centenary) and restored 60,00 words Perkins cut from the original manuscript. It’s a commonplace that anyone who encounters Wolfe’s soaring, rhapsodic autobiographical tale in adolescence can’t possibly reread it in adulthood. Well, yes and no. The story of authorial surrogate Eugene Gant’s struggle to emerge from the inhibiting shadows of his grandiose alcoholic father and puritanical mother, as well as from the roughhewn provincialism of his North Carolina origins, should still strike responsive chords even in readers understandably put off by Wolfe’s efforts to elevate even his characters’ pettiness and bawdry to heroic, if not mythic, proportions. As Matthew Bruccoli’s (slightly defensive) introduction justly observes, the more generous expanse of O Lost offers richly detailed background information that makes Eugene’s “artistic” temperament more credible, and its comparative sexual frankness goes a long way toward explaining the Gants’ luridly heightened passions. This most Wordsworthian of all American novels is a very literary book as well, and the restoration of Wolfe’s numerous allusions and imitations (to and of Eliot, Conrad, and Joyce, among others) is at best a mixed blessing. Perkins was neither butcher nor prude: perhaps it’s fair to say he saw Wolfe as a brilliant regional autobiographical writer, not as a cosmopolitan intellectual attempting a truly encyclopedic “novel of inclusion.” This unabridged version is lumbering and ungainly. It’s also filled with gorgeous incidental visionary writing (“Spring was coming on again across the earth like a light sparkle of water spray: all the men who had died were making their strange and lovely return in blossom and flower”).
Perhaps you can go home again. A strange and lovely return indeed, for which much thanks to the enterprising Bruccolis.