Thomas Wolfe on the Relationship of an Author’s Life to His Art — a Central Aspect of the Shakespeare Authorship Question

When Thomas Wolfe wrote his towering first novel Look Homeward Angel, published in 1929, he made an important statement “to the reader” about the relationship of his life to his art; and of course this relationship is a key aspect of the case for Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare.”

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

Do the poems and plays reflect the author’s life?  To what extent are they “autobiographical”?  Wolfe used every bit of himself, hurling his life through the filter of his novelist’s voice.  If what he says may strike us as extreme, let it be so; we Oxfordians will take any piece of this golden letter, which follows here with my italics for highlighting:


“This is a first book, and in it the author has written of experience which is now far and lost, but which was once part of the fabric of his life.  If any reader, therefore, should say that the book is “autobiographical” the writer has no answer for him: it seems to him that all serious work in fiction is autobiographical — that, for instance, a more autobiographical work than Gulliver’s Travels cannot easily be imagined.

“This note, however, is addressed principally to those persons whom the writer may have known in the period covered by these pages. To these persons, he would say what he believes they understand already: that this book was written in innocence and nakedness of spirit, and that the writer’s main concern was to give fullness, life, and intensity to the actions and people in the book he was creating.  Now that it is to be published, he would insist that this book is a fiction, and that he meditated no man’s portrait here.

“But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives–all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it.  If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using.  Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.  Dr. Johnson remarked that a man would turn over half a library to make a single book: in the same way, a novelist may turn over half the people in a town to make a single figure in his novel.  This is not the whole method but the writer believes it illustrates the whole method in a book that is written from a middle distance and is without rancor or bitter intention.”

Well, I wouldn’t even think about adding to that.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood.”

    Me piace. I would add: “And disguised.”

    Picasso, concerning this disguise of life through Art, said: “Art is a lie.”

    • Yes. In acting class the teacher would use the phrase, “Lies like truth.”

      And Shakespeare writes in As You Like It: “No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning.”

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