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The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe

The Web and the Rock (original 1937; edition 1973)

by Thomas Wolfe

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396338,582 (3.78)3
Title:The Web and the Rock
Authors:Thomas Wolfe
Info:HarperCollins Publishers (1973), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe (1937)



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The protagonist in The Web and the Rock, George Weber, writes a novel deemed unpublishable due to its extreme length—lazy editors send him insulting rejection letters without bothering to read the manuscript, alcoholic writers give it backhanded praise after admitting to having only read “a page or two, a line here and there” (even Weber’s lover, who believes him a genius, counsels him to cut a few hundred pages). The critical establishment is portrayed as populated by unsuccessful authors who bitterly attack the great writers of the day and explain their own failures by saying that literature isn’t possible in an age (how little has changed!) when “the real poetry is written by advertising men.” These rejections drive Weber into bitterness and paranoia, and ultimately he rejects his lover.

Wolfe himself was a man at war with the attitudes of the critics, with time itself, with his own body, and most of all with the publishing world’s idea of the appropriate length for a novel. His first, “Look Homeward Angel” had faced less the editor’s red pen than the paper shredder, losing countless pages he thought necessary to the story. Outraged, he left his publishing house and sought a contract that allowed no editor to tamper with his works. Wolfe handed off five thousand pages to his new editor, Edward Aswell. This was not a completed manuscript but parts of a large, almost hubristically ambitious project called “Of Time and the River” the basic architecture of which Wolfe hoped to familiarize Aswell with. Unfortunately Wolfe died shortly thereafter, leaving his publisher with a “mess.” Conspiring with Wolfe’s literary executor, Aswell used a loophole in the contract to chop the huge manuscript into three separate books. The story of George Weber was told in “The Web and the Rock” and “You Can’t Go Home Again” with some of the hundreds of pages about Weber’s lineage forming “The Hills Beyond,” published last of the three. But Aswell did not merely make a trilogy of the work—as John Halberstadt writes, “Aswell would take a few pages from a chapter or variant version of a chapter, a few pages from a second, write a line himself, then mix in third and even fourth sources until he had the hybrid he desired.” He also merged characters into composites. This is comparable to the relatively recent editing of Ralph Ellison’s massive incomplete manuscript into a book called “Juneteenth” for posthumous publication, except that in that book’s case the editors were upfront about their process, while Aswell wrote a disingenuous essay claiming that his task had been mainly to polish a nearly complete work. It is almost certain that in both cases the intrusive editing brought the works to a larger readership than they would have found in their behemoth states.

But knowing all this, how does a critic approach “The Web and the Rock”? This, after all, was nothing like Ezra Pound blowing “The Wasteland” to bits and resembling it with TS Eliot’s consent, but nor was it like a ghostwriter inflating a scribble in the notebook of Robert Ludlum or VC Andrews into a complete novel. A literature professor who had been teaching the book for years vowed to stop doing so after dis- covering that it brought up issues of authorial intention more likely to spark smiles on the faces of his more post-modern oriented colleagues. Wolfe criticism was upended by the revelation and as Halberstadt writes, “We may need to study Aswell's biography for clues to Wolfe's psyche.”

The real question then is: did Aswell do a good job in assembling these novels? Richard S. Kennedy believes so, writing, “Wolfe's manuscript was unpublishable in the state he left it, but it contained magnificent material and an over-all design that was generally clear. Aswell fulfilled Wolfe's intentions, as well as he could discern them, and two generations of readers have been grateful.”

As a reader who knew nothing about the book’s editing until I’d read half of its 700 pages, I didn’t notice any odd transitions or shifts in tone. Of course after learning the book’s history I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened in-between each scene. While Wolfe can be fairly windy and overly focused on transcendence (this was a man who would hold his breath on the subway in an effort to “break through” into something or other) many of his extended pieces are magnificent, from the evocation of a lynching early in the novel to the scene where a multiple murderer kneels by a river rather than run from the mob chasing him. The book’s first half follows George Weber’s boyhood in the south while the back half treats his adult life in New York City and follows him to Germany. Weber’s love affair with a married woman (Edith) dominates this second half, and the conversations between the lovers, especially as Weber descends into suspicion and begins acting erratically, have remarkable power.

That this material would have likely remained unpublished or put out a state that only scholars would have bothered attempting to navigate had Aswell not intervened argues for the editorial position he took—coherence over completeness.
3 vote nossis | Mar 14, 2007 |
At one time in my life Thomas Wolfe was my favorite writer. Now he seems to me a writer of prodigious talent, who lacked the self-discipline or a strong editor to pare down his overwriting (although I have read that his longer novels were indeed cut down considerably). At any rate, this was perhaps my favorite of his, being about a struggling young writer, George Webber, and his youth in a Southern town, college days, teaching trip abroad, affair with an older, wealthy woman... it seems autobiographical, and may be. A fine and compelling book by a genius who died before he could reach his maturity as a writer. ( )
1 vote burnit99 | Feb 26, 2007 |
Kazin, "[This] is at once the best and the worst of Thomas Wolfe's novels." ??
  hermannstone | Dec 27, 2006 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas Wolfeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gorey, EdwardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Could I make tongue say more than tongue could utter!
Could I make brain grasp more than brain could think!
Could I weave into immortal denseness some small brede of 
words, pluck out of sunken depths the roots of living, some
hundred thousand magic words that were as great as all my
hunger, and hurl the sum of all my living out upon three 
hundred pages -- then death could take my life, for I had
lived it ere he took it: I had slain hunger, beaten death!
First words
Up to the time George Webber's father died, there were some unforgiving souls in the town of Libya Hill who spoke of him as a man who not only had deserted his wife and child, but had consummated his iniquity by going off to live with another woman.
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"The Web and the Root features the three initial sections of the The Web and the Rock, widely considered to be the book's strongest material. A prequel to You Can't Go Home Again, it is the story of George Webber's momentous journey from Libya Falls, North Carolina, to the Golden City of the North--offering vivid, sometimes cutting depictions of rural pleasures and small-town clannishness while exploring boundless urban possibility and the complex, violent undercurrents of the metropolis"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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