THE MAGICAL CAMPUS: UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA WRITINGS, 1917-1920, by Thomas Wolfe, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Aldo P. Magi, University of South Carolina Press, 160 pages, $22.50.
These two literary masterpieces, both published by the University of South Carolina Press, hopefully will lead the way for other publications of original works by legendary authors. Wolfe, while not universally popular, was a gifted short-fiction writer. But his editors, especially Maxwell Perkins, were famous for cutting them so drastically that the best of Wolfe often hit the cutting room floor.
Now two academic specialists in Wolfe's writings have come together to publish the long version of "The Four Lost Men" for the first time. It is a book about both personal and public memory. Specifically, the "Four Lost Men" are James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and Rutherford B. Hayes, the four Republican presidents and Civil War generals who followed Ulysses S. Grant into office. All were self-made men and none distinguished themselves in the office of the presidency.
The lack of leadership that they exhibited for such a long time worsened many public problems, most notably political corruption. But the stories told about them live on through this volume.
Wolfe was still a teenager when he wrote the book, and his father was dying. In an effort to understand these men through the opinions of his father, he redefines both his father and the presidents. He uses both his own gifts of storytelling and that of his father to do so.
An excerpt hints at Wolfe's lavish style: "Hearing my father's voice then on the porch, I thought: Had Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and Hayes been young? Or had they all been born with flowing whiskers, sideburns and wing collars, speaking gravely from the cradle of their mothers' arms the noble vacant sonorities of far-seeing statesmanship? It could not be. Had they not all been young men in the Thirties, the Forties, and the Fifties? Did they not as we, cry out at night along deserted roads into demented winds?"
Contrast these words with those Wolfe wrote during his college years in "The Magical Campus." In 1916, at the age of 15, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1916. His freshman year was noted for obscurity and loneliness. By the time he was a junior, he had become quite popular and was involved in campus life, including the editorship of several student publications.
His first published work is here the poem, "A Field in Flanders," from the November 1917 issue of the Magazine. It was a rather moving three-stanza poem "about a peasant in a Flanders field who ploughed up a skull, and then went on quietly about his work, while great guns blasted far away," as Wolfe once recalled in a speech.
"A Cullenden of Virginia" was his first entry into published fiction. And his folk plays, including "Deferred Payment," suggest his early desire to be a playwright. Although these writings were a long way from sophistication, they show how a talented writer worked out his problems on the written page, becoming better and better as he wrote.Together with the illustrations included in each of these books, the reader gets a feel for the work of a youthful writer barely on the cusp of future greatness. The editors have done a magnificent service in producing these two volumes.