Text of Letter to Benjamin Cone, July 27, 1929
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P.S. Wouldn't it be lovely if I made some money out of the book? Are you a praying man?
Ocean Point, Maine
Saturday, July 27, 1929
I can't tell you how happy and excited I was to get your letter. It is the first (perhaps the last) I have had about the story. I read it in front of the post office here, with the Atlantic Ocean rolling in fifty feet away. I have been staying and correcting proofs at this lonely but beautiful little place on the Maine coast for a few weeks. I am going to Canada for a week Tuesday, and I shall be back in New York for the rest of August, and, I suppose, for the winter too. N.Y.U. has given me another job -- and, of course, I want to see what happens to my book. I want to give you my address: I live at 27 West 15th Street, New York City, and my phone number is Watkins 3882. Mail also reaches me at The Harvard Club, 27 West 44th Street (very nice, but not at all swell) -- I hope you will look me up the next time you come to New York.
Now about the editor's note and the "small southern college" -- if you see anyone who has also read the note, for God's sake make plain what I think you understand already -- that I had nothing to do with it and didn't see it until it was published. I do not deny that I may be capable of several small offenses -- such as murder, arson, highway robbery, and so on -- but I do deny that I have that sort of snob-ism in me. Whoever wrote the note probably put in "small southern college" because he did not remember where I did go, or because, for certain reasons connected with the book, he thought it advisable not to be too explicit.And after all, Ben, back in the days when you and I were beardless striplings -- "forty or fifty years ago," as Eddie Greenlaw used to say -- the Hill was (praise God!) "a small southern college." I think we had almost 1000 students our Freshman year, and were beginning to groan about our size. So far from forgetting the blessed place, I think my picture of it grows clearer every year: it was as close to magic as I've ever been, and now I'm afraid to go back and see how it is changed. I haven't been back since our class graduated. Great God! how time has flown, but I am going back within a year (if they'll let me).
Your letter is the sort of kindly, spontaneous action I really associate your name with -- I have the warmest and most vivid memory of you, not only at Chapel Hill, but also several years ago in Paris. Tonight, when I got your letter, I thought of our trip to Chateau Thierry, our chartered automobile, and how we rode through the battlefields clutching a six foot loaf of French bread, a four pound Camembert cheese, and six or eight bottles of good red wine which we bought at a village epicerie. Frank Graham, of course, remained steadfast and true to the ideals of Mr. Volstead, but you and I and Mark Noble, I believe, did our duty like men. I remember also a magnificent meal (catch me forgetting food!) that you and your kinsmen set me up to at Prunier's, the great fish place. But most of all I remember how glad I was to see you and talk to you at that time -- my play and baggage had been stolen from me (you mention this) and I was not only unhappy about this -- I was a great deal more miserable than you suspected because I thought I was very much in love (one of the few times the noble passion has seized me). On second thought, I believe my romance started the day after I saw you last. I left you, I believe, New Year's Eve at the Café de la Paix, but the whole thing is all mixed together in my mind now. At any rate, I pursued a respectable Boston lady, six years my senior, around Paris for several weeks, fell sobbing on my knees before her in cafés, and did various other things that no doubt upset her. I was told at the time by friends (?) that it was not the real thing -- that it was my first time in Paris, I was only a young fellow, I merely thought I was in love, but that did very little good. It was like being told by a Christian Scientist that you only think you have a belly-ache or being assured by your lawyer, after you have been put in jail, that "they can't do this to you." I wandered around Europe for about a year after this, and what mistakes I failed to make in Paris, I managed to make in various other parts of the continent before I was through. I seem to have been born a Freshman -- and in many ways I'm afraid I'll continue to be one: I don't suppose you remember me very well my first year at Chapel Hill -- but I made history. It was I who made the speech of acceptance when elected to the Literary Society; I took the catalogue exam, went to Chapel Saturday and let a Sophomore lead me in prayer at noon. I made half the places on the Booloo Club that year, and those I didn't make, I made during that first trip abroad. Even as recently as last October I got into difficulty with some nice German people in Munich which ended in a broken nose, a head laid open by a beer stein, several days in hospital and convalescence in Oberammergau, where the fellow who plays Pilate in the Passion Play bound up my wound. It's a long story but a good one. I'll tell you about it some time. I got back to New York from Italy New Year's Eve, and the day after New Year's Scribners told me they would publish the book. It was like a dream you have in your childhood come true. I had worked on the thing for a year and a half, and after I got through I had no hope of anyone publishing it -- with my usual sense of proportion, my first book was a dainty little affair of 330 000 words (not 250,000 as the note said) -- about five times the length of the average novel. Scribners paid me some money to live on, and told me to get busy and "cut" 100,000 words from the ms. I got busy, and of course succeeded in adding 25000 more. The chief men at Scribners then stepped in and told me where to cut.
They have been magnificent. I am very happy about the whole thing. They are a fine and dignified firm, and they believe in my book and in me -- they think it is a fine book, and that it will be successful. Also, no matter what happens to this one, they are ready to publish the next -- I am already at work on it. For God's sake don't speak of this to anyone -- I know you well understand that I am not boasty, I am simply very happy at length to get started. The most I allow myself to dream of is that this one will have a modest success -- enough to give me leisure for a year or so while I do a new one -- but, of course, many hundreds of books are published, and only a very few succeed. My head is full of books --I have at least six -- enough to keep me busy for years -- that I want to do. I think I shall always regard this first one with affection and pride, but I hope to do ten times better before I finish.
I hope you read the book when it comes out, Ben. Even after cutting, it is still very long -- it will make 600 or 700 pages -- but I hope you manage to stick it to the end. I think you will like parts of it -- I hope you will like it all, but some parts, I believe, will amuse and interest you. Perhaps you will regret that I have written some things in it -- there may be parts of it that seem to you to be painful and ugly -- but the whole effect, I hope, will not be ugly and will (excuse my solemn air!) have beauty in it. You will understand what I mean when you read it. When I wrote it it certainly never occurred to me that anything it would give offense to anyone -- as a matter of fact, I was absorbed by the writing of it, I wanted to give fullness of expression to everything, and if one of my characters robbed his dying grandmother of the money she had saved to get buried with, I never thought of him either as a saint or a scoundrel but as an interesting and vital character. Now that the book is being prepared for publication I am somewhat worried at the effect it may have. To put it as briefly as possible the book has pain, ugliness, beauty, cruelty, tenderness, lust, love, and many other things in it -- but so have human experience -- and my total effort has been to mimic the whole with (I hope) beauty. I think you understand my point -- certainly it would distress me very much to think what I had written would cause pain to any one I had known. Of course, this doesn't apply to you. You simply may not like certain things in the book. I don't know whether it will seem to be "Victorian" or "modern" to the reader -- possibly it will seem "modern" to some people, and such people are very suspicious of the word. But remember I did not try to be either one or the other. I simply made a work of fiction as all fiction must be made, not out of thin air but out of the materials of human experience. Everything that could be done to make the outlines less harsh has been done -- i.e. Scribners has carefully deleted all my good Anglo-Saxon words for the sexual act, urine, and human manure. I do not see how it can shock anyone, but it may.
I have written you a very long and, I'm afraid, a very dull letter, Ben but I have done it in order to explain a very simple thing which could be explained in one short sentence if I could find the words, but I can't, the simple things being the hardest. And now I'm afraid I haven't made myself clear at all. But this is perhaps the longest letter I shall write to anyone concerning my book, and I do it for this reason: you stand as a symbol of that happy and wonderful life I knew during 1916-1920 (don't think from this that my present life is wretched -- on the contrary, now that I am really beginning to do the work I love, it is fuller and richer than it's ever been) But I shall never forget the great days at Chapel Hill, and my friends there. Such a time will come no more. I have kept silence for years. I have lived apart from most of those friends, probably most of them have forgotten me. But I think you will believe me when I tell you most earnestly that I value the respect and friendship of some of those people as much as I value anything -- with two exceptions, one of which is my work. So, no matter what you think of my book, continue to remember the person who wrote it as you always have. In writing you this letter I somehow feel that I am speaking to all of them, although this is, of course, a personal letter, and I trust you to treat its contents with discretion.
Now please forgive me, Ben, for this long-winded letter. Excuse its solemn tone in places, and let me hear from you when you can. It is such good news to hear that you are still single, with no hope (?) of a change. I get so depressed when I hear that another one of the boys has been folded away with the moth-balls. Look me up when you come to New York -- I am thinking of wearing false whiskers and smoked glasses after the book comes out, but if I know you are coming, I will wear a red carnation in my buttonhole -- ever Faithfully Yours,
Tom WolfeP.S. I am indecently fat (don't take this too literally) but as you know I used to be a candidate for the Living Skeleton job. Now I have the beginnings of a small balloon tire around my belly -- I've got to do something about it, and I'm willing to do anything for it -- except exercise. I'll probably lose it all when I write the next book -- which is really, compared to the first, no more than a short story of two or three hundred thousand words.