STEPHEN SMITH: James Boyd Maintained Friendship
More than 70 years ago, novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson typed an undated letter to James Boyd in which he detailed his trip south from Virginia and his attempts to contact North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe in New Orleans.
"Wolfe has just been here evidently being made much a hero and social lion," Anderson wrote, sarcastically. "Wish I had seen himall my friends say, he is evidently troubled, rather distraught and upset."
Although the exact date of Anderson's letter is unknown, the month and year are obvious to any well-read Wolfe aficionado -- January 1937.
Anderson had met Wolfe a few years earlier in New York when they were introduced by Scribners' Maxwell Perkins, the editor who published Boyd, Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Apparently, Perkins saw some value in promoting friendships among the writers he edited. But with the possible exception of Boyd and Anderson, he had little lasting success.
Hemingway was critical of Anderson, Wolfe, and Fitzgerald -- and in very personal terms. During his visit with the Boyds in the spring of 1935, Fitzgerald wrote a pejorative note in his journal suggesting that Boyd and Anderson had been speaking ill of Hemingway.
A few years earlier, Anderson had described Wolfe as being a "big baby." Wolfe maintained a general dislike for most writers -- Boyd was the exception -- and found them as insufferable as they found him.
"You keep thinking," Anderson wrote in his letter, "of the other fellow as going on, eating, drinking, perpetually working and happy. I have been having a grand time thinking of Wolfe in that way, a kind of roll river man and now to find that he also gets upset, perhaps even discouraged it's disillusioning."
Anderson is alluding to the grim literary reality in which he and Boyd found themselves in '37. Both men had long since written their best work, and they were quickly slipping from the country's literary consciousness. Anderson, who lived in Troutdale, Va., and owned newspapers, spent little time on his fiction. Boyd's later novels had been financial failures, and he had begun to write rhymed poetry as a creative outlet.
Anderson laments in his letter that "A man becomes, outwardly, stolid, middle aged and remains a colt inside. If you do see Wolfe and if I have suggested anything at all to you by these words, talk it over with him."
Wolfe did indeed arrive in North Carolina.
On Jan. 21, 1937, Boyd wrote from his Southern Pines home to Maxwell Perkins in New York:
"Tom Wolfe just left last night after a 3 day visit. He arrived Mon (at 4.47 a.m.) totally whipped down by New Orleans & Atlanta cheer & in his state was disposed to take the roles of Prometheus Bound &, having refreshed himself, Ajax defying the Literary Agents. But after two long sleeps the Great Bear emerged ruddy & benign & altogether in the best form I've seen him in."
Whether Anderson's letter reached Boyd before Wolfe's arrival in Southern Pines is unclear, but Boyd wrote to Anderson from Nassau on Jan. 24: "Wolfe came by 3 days and mostly slept, rousing himself at first only to look upon himself & curse his fate and then to breathe defiance. But the dragons that beset him are only a couple of literary agents. Ostensibly. He uses them I suspect as whipping boys to revenge himself on his star."
The surviving Boyd letters can be found in the Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill, the Firestone Library at Princeton, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. They provide the literary voyeur an uncurtained window on many of the pivotal moments in 20th century American literary history.
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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