On Thomas Wolfe’s birthday, we recall not only the writer himself, but also those who’ve been inspired by him. Here’s one story of those who interpreted Wolfe’s words through art.
In early 1945 the Limited Editions Club, a New York publisher, held a contest to find illustrators for about 45 literary classics, including Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Artists were asked to submit a portfolio of prospective illustrations for works on the list. The contest garnered more than 300 entries, with five illustrators awarded first prize and seven granted honorable mention. The list of 12 finalists did not include the name of Harvey Harris, a 30-year-old artist living in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. But not long after the contest results were announced, Harris, who had submitted 55 watercolor and ink drawings of scenes from Wolfe’s seminal work, received a letter from George Macy, the publisher of the Limited Editions Club. Macy expressed interest in possibly publishing Harris’s illustrations with Wolfe’s text. He told the aspiring illustrator that he would seek permission from Wolfe’s publisher, Scribner’s. But Macy’s plans were foiled and Harris’s hopes dashed when Scribner’s declined the request to use Wolfe’s text. Whitney Darrow of Scribner’s told Macy that the publishing house was considering publication of its own illustrated edition of Look Homeward, Angel. And then added comment on Harris’s drawings, “Of course, judgment of art is individual and personal and others might like these tremendously, but they do not appeal to us as being proper illustrations for the book by Thomas Wolfe.”
Two years later, Scribner’s followed through on its plans, publishing Wolfe’s book with illustrations by Douglas Gorsline, who, coincidentally, was the son-in-law of Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s longtime editor. Gorsline’s illustrations lived on and their creator enjoyed a successful career as a book illustrator and artist. Harris abandoned his ambitions as an illustrator and turned toward a career teaching art. His drawings for Look Homeward, Angel were boxed up and put away, shared little until their acquisition by the North Carolina Collection in 2004.
Harris’s works were never published until earlier this year when the North Carolina Collection, in collaboration with the Thomas Wolfe Society, published The Look Homeward, Angel Illustrations of Harvey Harris, edited, with an introduction by Janice McCullagh. The illustrations above are Harvey Harris’s representations of W.O. Gant’s ritual and the train to Altamont. The illustration below is by Douglas Gorsline. Perhaps Mr. Darrow was wrong in his appraisal of Harris. Some of us certainly think so.