north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     Thomas Wolfe, enigmatic and prodigious writer from Asheville, was born on October 3, 1900, to W. O. and Julia Westall Wolfe. His childhood in Asheville was not ideal. His father, who died when Tom was twenty-two, was an often depressed and abusive alcoholic. Young Wolfe spent his formative years living in his mother’s boardinghouse with the rest of his family. Reflections on his youth formed the basis of the thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel.

     Thomas Wolfe attended public schools in Asheville from 1905 until 1912, when he transferred to a private college preparatory school, the North State Fitting School. It was there that he met Margaret Roberts, a teacher who influenced Wolfe’s educational and personal development. He later called Roberts “the mother of my spirit.” Three weeks before turning sixteen, Wolfe reported to the University of North Carolina. He began to write stories and article for college publications and in 1918 joined Frederick Koch’s newly-formed Carolina Playmakers. One of the group’s first productions was Wolfe’s The Return of Buck Gavin, a play that he had written in three hours. After graduation, he entered Harvard University to study drama with George Pierce Baker. At Harvard Wolfe wrote over 140 partial or complete plays.

     Wolfe continued studying with Baker for a year after completing a master’s degree. In 1924 he began teaching at New York University’s Washington Square College in order to pay his bills. Unable to teach and devote adequate time to writing, in October of that year, he took a leave of absence to travel to Europe and write. Ten months later, during his return voyage he met the love of his life, Aline Bernstein, a married woman nineteen years his senior. Bernstein, a successful theater stage and costumer designer, supported Wolfe while he wrote "O Lost", which would become Look Homeward, Angel. He wrote the book, as he wrote everything, in large accounting ledgers. At over six feet six inches in height, Wolfe’s hands were too large to comfortably use the typewriters of the day. He often wrote standing up, using the top of his refrigerator as his desk.

      Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929 and Ashevillians easily began to recognize themselves in the text. Condemned throughout the city, Wolfe received letters from irate readers who felt wrongly portrayed in the book. It was 1937 before he would return to his childhood home, having published many short stories and a second novel, Of Time and the River, in the meantime. Although he planned to spend the summer writing in a rented cabin in Oteen, Wolfe worked little, being constantly disturbed by visitors and having disruptive family altercations. He began to ponder the many implications of the phrase “You can’t go home again” and thought that it would make a great book title. He turned in a massive rough draft of a novel, along with an outline, to his publisher in May 1938.

     During an automobile tour of the West later that year, Wolfe contracted pneumonia. That illness reopened a tubercular lesion in his lung, dormant since 1920, and the cells travelled through his bloodstream, infecting his brain. He was taken to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he died on September 15, 1938. Wolfe was buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His mother’s former boardinghouse known as the “Old Kentucky Home,” made famous as “Dixieland” in his first novel, is now a State Historic Site. His manuscript, approximately ten times the length of a standard novel, was posthumously published as two separate novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), and a collection of stories and fragments called The Hills Beyond (1941).


References:
David Herbert Donald, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987)
Ted Mitchell, Thomas Wolfe: A Writer’s Life (1999)
Howard Covington and Marion Ellis, eds., North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Thomas Wolfe , CCIX, (2001)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 254-255—sketch by C. Hugh Holman
Thomas Wolfe State Historic Site website: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/wolfe/wolfe.htm
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