When I was a young reader, in high school and college, Thomas Wolfe was my favorite author. I found Look Homeward, Angel an exciting and mysterious book, especially the penultimate chapter where Eugene Gant talks with his dead brother Ben. I was entranced by the Wolfe legend, of the young writer from North Carolina, brimming with words and a compulsion to tell his story, who is discovered by a New York editor and whose first book becomes a best seller and an American classic. I read everything by Wolfe, and everything I could find about him. I’m an older reader now, perhaps we should say, an old reader. I don’t read Wolfe now and find him difficult to stomach when I try. But as a writer who was once important to me, he holds a special place in my memory.
I found the film Genius (dir. Michael Grandage, 2016), about the relationship of Thomas Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins, jarring and inauthentic. The image of Wolfe it presents—of a boorish, overbearing, narcissistic, hayseed young writer so fixated on publishing his work that he tramples on everyone around him—seemed to me entirely wrong. Not that the basic outlines are wrong. They’re just not right. What we have in Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe is a caricature, a parody, including the fake Southern accent. Law is actually good in the role. He even manages to resemble Wolfe in a certain way (though Wolfe was actually a foot or so taller). It’s the role itself that is flawed. The film buys into the mythology of Wolfe, writing on the top of his refrigerator, drinking wildly, unable to curb and to bring into coherent form the outpouring of words he produces. The film almost portrays Wolfe as a psychological case study—a writer who can produce torrents of words without being able to control them.
The film to me seems unaware of what it means to be a writer, of how a writer works, of the editing process itself. It romanticizes, simplifies, obfuscates. And it seems uncertain what to make of the figure of Wolfe—was he a great writer helped by Perkins to bring his work to print, or was he a writer who needed an editor like Perkins to order and unify his inchoate (a word I associate with Wolfe) outpourings?
Colin Firth makes Maxwell Perkins out to be an automaton. He never quite divests himself of his British accent. He makes Perkins a kind of cipher—attractive in ways, indifferent in others.
I didn’t care for this hyperbolic film. But maybe I‘ll try to read Look Homeward, Angel again.