The party at jacks, p.1

The Party at Jack's, page 1


The Party at Jack's

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The Party at Jack's


  • • •


  • • •


  • • •

  Edited and with an introduction by


  The University of North Carolina Press

  • • •

  Chapel Hill & London

  © 1995 The University of

  North Carolina Press and Paul Gitlin, Administrator, C.T.A.,

  Estate of Thomas Wolfe.

  By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University

  Introduction by Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol, Jr.

  © 1995 The University of North Carolina Press

  All rights reserved

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

  Title page illustration by Ed Lindlof

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Wolfe, Thomas, 1900–1938.

  The party at Jack’s / by Thomas Wolfe; edited and with an introduction by

  Suzanne Stutman and John L. Idol, Jr.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 0-8078-2206-X

  1. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction.

  2. Apartment houses—New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. 3. Entertaining—New York

  (N.Y.)—Fiction. 4. Fires—New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Stutman, Suzanne.

  II. Idol, John L. III. Title.

  PS3545.O337P37 1995




  99 98 97 96 95 5 4 3 2 1



  keeper of the torch



  who made it all possible


  • • •


  Editorial Policy and Text


  THE PARTY AT JACK’S, by Thomas Wolfe


  Morning: Jack Asleep

  Morning: Jack Erect

  Morning: Jack Afloat

  Morning: Mrs. Jack Awake

  Morning: Mrs. Jack and the Maid

  Morning: Jack and His Wife

  Morning: The World That Jack Built

  The Great Building (April, 1930)

  The Elevator Men

  Before the Party

  Piggy Logan

  The Family

  The Party Beginning

  The Guests Arriving

  The Lover

  Mr. Hirsch Was Wounded Sorrowfully

  Piggy Logan’s Circus

  The Guests Departing: The Fire

  The Fire: The Outpouring of the Honeycomb

  The Fire: The Tunneled Rock

  After the Fire: These Two Together

  Love Is Enough?


  • • •


  At Oteen in the North Carolina mountains during the summer of 1937, where he was busily revising a piece for which he had made notebook entries in 1930, Thomas Wolfe started adding fresh material. Pleased with his efforts, despite numerous interruptions from kinfolk and literary lion hunters, Wolfe wrote to his literary agent, Elizabeth Nowell, to report how his work was going:

  I have completely rewritten it and rewoven it. It is a very difficult piece of work, but I think it is now a single thing, as much a single thing as anything I’ve ever written. I am not through with it yet. There is a great deal more revision to be done, but I am sending it to you anyway to let you see what I have done, and I think you will be able to see what it may be like when I’m finished with it. (Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe [New York: Scribner’s, 1956], 651)

  The piece was The Party at Jack’s, portions of which have seen print through the efforts of Elizabeth Nowell and Edward Aswell, Wolfe’s editor at Harper’s, who included portions of it in You Can’t Go Home Again.

  Just when he first wrote the parts he was now rewriting cannot be fixed precisely. Besides bits of dialogue done as early as 1930, the earliest definite outline of a chronological sequence for the events occurring on the day of the party appeared on a manila envelope dating to the fall of 1932. Here Wolfe scrawled


  I Jacobs-German background-Schoolboy scene

  II Jacobs Awake

  III Esther and the Maid

  IV Jacobs and Esther.

  Since Wolfe used such outlines both to show what he wanted to write and to list those pieces already done for some project he had in mind, it is impossible to claim that the present outline launched what he would in time call The Party at Jack’s.

  Whatever came first, manuscript drafts of the story as he conceived it or the outline recounting what he had done, papers in the Wisdom Collection in the Houghton Library reveal that he set to work to create accounts of Frederick and Esther Jacobs and one of Esther’s maids, Katy Fogarty. Frederick (Fritz), a German Jew, dreams about his schoolboy days and his return to the Rhineland after becoming fabulously rich in America. He awakens to luxuriate in his princely Park Avenue apartment (bMS Am 1883 [932]). Esther awakens in the tastefully furnished Jacobs household to enjoy her awareness of her body and to chastise Katy for becoming a victim of strong drink. This episode ends with Esther musing further on what she’s made of her life and the wonder she feels about her lot as a beautiful, talented, admired woman (bMS Am 1883 [933]). Following their separate awakenings, Fritz and Esther come together. He proudly reads reviews of her stage designs for an otherwise undistinguished play. Together, they revel in her success. On his way to his office, he thinks about the lies, thefts, and chicanery of his driver, dismissing his behavior as typical of servants. Upon reaching his office, he meets a fellow broker, Rosenthal, who is a bona fide crackpot. Tales of Rosenthal’s crazy behavior are told by his Irish secretary (bMS Am 1883 [934]).

  As arranged in the Wisdom Collection, the next manuscript indicates further development of the story.


  1. Before sunrise

  2. Morning [Jacob’s Dream

  [Character of Jacobs The Day

  [Jacobs getting up

  Mrs. Esther Jacobs

  Esther with Jacobs

  Esther’s morning-canceled

  Esther with Alma, Edith, Freddy

  Esther’s morning

  3. Noon

  4. Afternoon

  5. Evening

  The chronological scheme set down here would hold throughout Wolfe’s many revisions and provide a classic touch to his use of time, less than twenty-four hours from the awakening scenes to George Webber’s farewell words to Esther Jack. In outline form as Wolfe looked forward to embodying this material in his chronicle of his new protagonist’s (George Webber’s) life, that scheme appears in the William Wisdom Collection of Wolfe manuscripts at the Houghton Library under the index bMS Am 1883 (1336).

  Part IV

  You Can’t Go Home Again



  The Party at Jack’s (1930)



  Morning: Jack Asleep

  Morning: Jack Erect

  Morning: Jack Afloat

  Morning: Mrs. Jack Awake

  Morning: Mrs. Jack And The Maid

  Morning: Jack And His Wife

  Morning: The World That Jack Built

  The Great Building (April, 1930)

  The Elevator Men

The Party (Mrs. Jack And The Maids)

  Piggy Logan

  The Family (Mrs. Jack, Alma, etc.)

  The Party Beginning

  The Guests Arriving

  The Lover

  Mr. Hirsch Was Wounded Sorrowfully

  Piggy Logan’s Circus

  The Guests Departing: The Fire

  The Fire: The Outpouring of the Honeycomb

  The Fire: The Tunneled Rock

  After The Fire: These Two Together

  This outline probably reflects the story as Wolfe had shaped it before leaving New York for a speaking engagement at Purdue University in 1938. (It is the basis of our reconstruction of The Party at Jack’s.)

  Exactly how Wolfe arrived at this scheme cannot be precisely traced in surviving versions of the story. The central event, a party and fire at the Park Avenue apartment of Aline Bernstein, his mistress and patron, occurred on 3 January 1930 and was to be included as part of Eugene Gant’s story. But over a period of years, Wolfe added actions and characters, finally reshaping the story to show shifts in characterization, symbolic import, and values (more about these later). Although he had settled on a time scheme, he remained uncertain about whether his fictional surrogate would attend the party and witness the fire. One draft (bMS Am 1883 [985]) follows the storyline from preparation for the party through Piggy Logan’s circus on to the fire and its aftermath. In this version, Esther telephones her lover to report on the party and to tell him about the unexpected fire. With George Webber not on the scene, Stephen Hook figures more prominently here than in the version where Esther’s lover makes a belated appearance at the party. As he filled out the action, Wolfe faced decisions about what his surrogate would do once Wolfe had decided to have him appear. How would he show his resentment that Esther had insisted that he be there? With whom would he converse? How much would he eat and drink? How would he respond to Piggy Logan and his wire circus act? What would he do during the fire and its aftermath? How would he reveal his decision to break with Esther? In one episode involving Esther’s lover—not called George or Eugene—Esther, seeing her lover and Lily Mandell talking together, comes to them, calls them her best friends, and wishes they could know each other better. She senses the raw sexual attraction between Lily and her lover and leads them off to a bedroom, where they become the two-backed animal. This episode (bMS Am 1883 [938]) complicates Esther’s character considerably. Interpreted charitably, it reveals her as someone capable of rising above sexual possessiveness in order to foster friendship. Read uncharitably, it reduces her to a panderer, a wily spider spinning a web of iniquity, showing her to be no better morally than the decadent, privileged crowd she has invited to her party.

  Having opted to include Esther’s lover at the party, Wolfe makes him largely a guest among many, many guests until the outbreak of the fire and the hurried departure of most of the other partygoers. Those partygoers and their interactions would come to constitute the central portions of his novel. Their numbers could swell or shrink as Wolfe’s needs and purposes changed. (They could also dwindle—and did—when Elizabeth Nowell and Edward Aswell shaped the material for its appearance in Scribners Magazine and You Cant Go Home Again.) Prominent among those added is Roy Farley, a homosexual, whose mincing ways create laughter and applause. Like Saul Levinson and his wife and a sculptor named Krock, Farley would not survive as a partygoer when Nowell and Aswell edited Wolfe’s various drafts for publication. Cut from the guest list, with some of his traits then assigned to his father, was Freddie Jack, his removal being made with Wolfe’s consent as Nowell began to condense the story for periodical publication. (She later suggested to Aswell that Freddie be restored in order to correct some inconsistencies in Fritz Jack’s character, a suggestion Aswell chose to ignore.)

  Wolfe’s potential list of partygoers originated in the guests gathered at Aline Bernstein’s home to enjoy a performance of Alexander Calder’s celebrated wire circus. Excepting such respected persons as Thomas Beer and his sister, Wolfe cast a satiric eye at most of Bernstein’s guests, largely an assemblage of New York’s financial and artistic elite. True to his longtime practice, he sometimes used real names in early drafts, a factor that forced Aswell later to check with Bernstein to learn who could possibly bring a libel suit against Harper’s. Aswell’s concern probably stemmed from conversations with Nowell. She had earlier told Maxwell Perkins that the longer version of the story “may be libelous since it tells the dirt on the private lives of practically every person at the party” (personal letter from Nowell to Perkins, Dec. 1938). However long or short the final list, Wolfe obviously meant to present Esther Jack’s guests, in the main, as privileged, corrupt, decadent, hypocritical, and hostile to the true artist.

  A further stage of development, the introduction of working-class characters, first involved two elevator men, one young, the other elderly. The older man, John Enborg (the surname finally chosen), grateful to have a job, defends his privileged employers. His reasons to speak for them are challenged by a third representative of the working class, Hank, who apparently emerged as the voice of organized labor when Wolfe reworked his material at Oteen. In the handwritten pages dating from Oteen and in typed pages done in New York after Wolfe’s return to the city, these working-class men are both individualized and, except for Hank, made more sympathetic. If Wolfe were to have his surrogate cast his lot with the working class, proletarian traits and ideas needed to be understood. To make the proletarian pill less easy to swallow, Wolfe coated Hank with more than a little sourness. If he were to show that old loyalties to the upper classes were no longer fitting in a greedy, corrupt age, he needed someone to provide tough arguments against John Enborg’s nostalgic attachment to such wealthy people as the Jacks.

  Wolfe came to see, as Richard S. Kennedy convincingly argued, that the building in which the workers served the wealthy could be presented as a symbol of the American economic system. Efficient, strong, durable, and secure as it seemed to be, the building was honeycombed with shafts and situated on tunnels connecting it, by rail, to the rest of the nation. Problems in the shafts or tunnels could weaken or undermine it. Without the workers, the building could not operate effectively. The more he became socially and economically aware, the more Wolfe believed he must fashion a story capable of addressing some of the nation’s ills. Thus as The Party at Jack’s evolved from its first drafts through those portions written at Oteen and later in New York, Wolfe was not content to have his surrogate reject Esther’s world because it was artistically decadent and, at bottom, hostile to the creative spirit: Now he would warn his fellow citizens about the callousness, greed, and hypocrisy of the privileged.

  His story now had the three unities: a single setting at the Jacks’ Park Avenue apartment, a party interrupted by a fire and its aftermath, and time running from the Jacks’ awakening until their retiring to bed. Until the material could take its place in some work in progress, the narrative of Eugene Gant’s and George Webber’s discoveries and deeds, Wolfe frequently listed episodes and tallied his word count, giving variously 18,000, 35,000, and 60,000, the last a reckoning taken as he recorded pieces completed after 1935 and 1936. The variations perhaps resulted from additions made to the story over the years or possibly, for the lowest number, the maximum that Nowell considered marketable to a periodical. In her effort to help him place the story before he went to Oteen, Nowell trimmed it to 25,000 words. (She later submitted a 26,000-word version to Redbook and after its rejection there slashed more than 10,000 more words to make it acceptable to Scribner’s, where it appeared in May 1939.)

  Although Wolfe had participated in trimming the version sent to Redbook, he was by no means ready to put the story aside. Settled in at Oteen, he turned to it once more, restoring text that he and Nowell had sliced for Redbook and adding to it, thinking as he did so that it would be “very long, difficult and closely woven.” He went on to tell Hamilton Basso,

  I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but if I succeed
with it, it ought to be good. It is one of the most curious and difficult problems I have been faced with in a long time and maybe I shall learn something from it. It is a story that in its essence and without trying or intending to be, has got to be somewhat Proustian—that is to say its life depends upon the most thorough and comprehensive investigation of character—or characters, for there are more than thirty characters in it. In addition, however, there is a tremendous amount of submerged action which involves the lives of all these people and which includes not only the life of a great apartment house but also a fire and the death of two people. I suppose really a whole book could be made out of it but I am trying to do it in a story. (Letters of Thomas Wolfe, 631)

  A few days later (29 July 1937) he told Nowell much the same thing and then, sometime in late August, that he was sending the story to her, adding that he now considered it “a single thing” but still in need of revision. Back in New York, he resumed work on it, eventually producing a typescript from which Aswell shaped the portion of You Cant Go Home Again that he called “The World That Jack Built.” From the various drafts in the Wisdom Collection, we have attempted to restore to Wolfe and American literature the “single thing” that Wolfe named The Party at Jack’s.

  Themes and Characters

  Many filaments in Wolfe’s complex web of themes—those that he spins out time after time—coalesce to make this work one of his richest. Here he spreads before readers a table so groaning with food that both Bacchus and Brueghel would surely rush to pay compliments to Esther and her cook and maids. Here he gives such meticulous attention to clothing, furnishings, and wall hangings that the swankiness of the Jacks’ Park Avenue apartment becomes palpably real, the fullness of Wolfe’s description rivaling his detailing of the Pierces’ luxurious Hudson River mansion. This attention to how well, how sumptuously, and how far above the struggles and worries of the working class the Jacks live affords Wolfe another chance to chronicle life among the privileged class. His account stretches from the dream of wealth, power, and fame of Frederick Jack in Germany through Frederick’s and Esther’s awakening voluptuously in quarters where his dream has become a proud reality. In relation to Wolfe’s thematic interests in the present work and elsewhere in his canon, Frederick’s rise from the status of an immigrant German Jew to his position as a lord of wealth and sophistication invites contrastive and comparative looks at the yearnings of another provincial, George Webber. Comfortable and secure though the Jacks appear in their Park Avenue surroundings, Wolfe provides hints of coming trouble by having trains send tremors through their building. Unlike trains in other passages in his canon, where Wolfe tends to be lyrical about their size and might, trains in this work are associated with the potential collapse of structures that could be taken as symbolic of the nation’s capitalistic economy. More than that, the tracks carrying them beneath the proud towers of Manhattan come to represent here the ties existing between the rich, the poor, and those in between. In a sense, the tracks parallel Herman Melville’s monkeyrope as a symbol of men’s interconnections.

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