1937 portrait by Carl Van Vechten
|Born||Thomas Clayton Wolfe|
October 3, 1900
|Died||September 15, 1938 (aged 37)|
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Wolfe wrote four lengthy novels as well as many short stories, dramatic works, and novellas. He is known for mixing highly original, poetic, rhapsodic, and impressionistic prose with autobiographical writing. His books, written and published from the 1920s to the 1940s, vividly reflect on American culture and the mores of that period, filtered through Wolfe's sensitive, sophisticated, and hyper-analytical perspective.
After Wolfe's death, contemporary author William Faulkner said that Wolfe may have been the greatest talent of their generation for aiming higher than any other writer. Wolfe's influence extends to the writings of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, and of authors Ray Bradbury and Philip Roth, among others. He remains an important writer in modern American literature, as one of the first masters of autobiographical fiction, and is considered North Carolina's most famous writer.
Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children of William Oliver Wolfe (1851-1922) and Julia Elizabeth Westall (1860-1945). His siblings were sister Leslie E. Wolfe (1885–1886), Effie Nelson Wolfe (1887–1950), Frank Cecil Wolfe (1888–1956), Mabel Elizabeth Wolfe (1890–1958), Grover Cleveland Wolfe (1892–1904), Benjamin Harrison Wolfe (1892–1918), and Frederick William Wolfe (1894–1980). Six of the children lived to adulthood.
The Wolfes lived at 92 Woodfin Street, where Tom was born. His father, a successful stone carver, ran a gravestone business.
W.O. Wolfe's business used an angel in the window to attract customers. Thomas Wolfe "described the angel in great detail" in a short story and in Look Homeward, Angel. The angel was sold and, while there was controversy over which one was the actual angel, the location of the "Thomas Wolfe angel" was determined in 1949 to be Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Wolfe's mother took in boarders and was active in acquiring real estate. In 1904, she opened a boarding house in St. Louis for the World's Fair. While the family was in St. Louis, 12-year-old Grover died of typhoid fever.
In 1906 Julia Wolfe bought a boarding house named "Old Kentucky Home" at nearby 48 Spruce Street in Asheville, taking up residence there with her youngest son while the rest of the family remained at the Woodfin Street residence. Wolfe lived in the boarding house on Spruce Street until he went to college in 1916. It is now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Wolfe was closest to his brother Ben, whose early death at age 26 is chronicled in Look Homeward, Angel. Julia Wolfe bought and sold many properties, eventually becoming a successful real estate speculator.
Wolfe began to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) when he was 15 years old. A member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, he predicted that his portrait would one day hang in New West near that of celebrated North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, which it does today. Aspiring to be a playwright, in 1919 Wolfe enrolled in a playwriting course. His one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed by the newly formed Carolina Playmakers, then composed of classmates in Frederick Koch's playwriting class, with Wolfe acting the title role. He edited UNC's student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for an essay titled The Crisis in Industry. Another of his plays, The Third Night, was performed by the Playmakers in December 1919. Wolfe was inducted into the Golden Fleece honor society.
Wolfe graduated from UNC with a B.A. in June 1920, and in September entered Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. Two versions of his play The Mountains were performed by Baker's 47 Workshop in 1921.
In 1922, Wolfe received his master's degree from Harvard. His father died in Asheville in June of that year. Wolfe studied another year with Baker, and the 47 Workshop produced his 10-scene play Welcome to Our City in May 1923.
Wolfe visited New York City again in November 1923 and solicited funds for UNC, while trying to sell his plays to Broadway. In February 1924, he began teaching English as an instructor at New York University (NYU), a position he occupied periodically for almost seven years.
Wolfe was unable to sell any of his plays after three years because of their great length. The Theatre Guild came close to producing Welcome to Our City before ultimately rejecting it, and Wolfe found his writing style more suited to fiction than the stage. He sailed to Europe in October 1924 to continue writing. From England he traveled to France, Italy and Switzerland.
On his return voyage in 1925, he met Aline Bernstein (1880-1955), a scene designer for the Theatre Guild. Twenty years his senior, she was married to a successful stockbroker with whom she had two children. In October 1925, she and Wolfe became lovers and remained so for five years. Their affair was turbulent and sometimes combative, but she exerted a powerful influence, encouraging and funding his writing.
Wolfe returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing the first version of an autobiographical novel titled O Lost. The narrative, which evolved into Look Homeward, Angel, fictionalized his early experiences in Asheville, and chronicled family, friends, and the boarders at his mother's establishment on Spruce Street. In the book, he renamed the town Altamont and called the boarding house "Dixieland". His family's surname became Gant, and Wolfe called himself Eugene, his father Oliver, and his mother Eliza. The original manuscript of O Lost was over 1,100 pages (333,000 words) long, and considerably more experimental in style than the final version of Look Homeward, Angel. It was submitted to Scribner's, where the editing was done by Maxwell Perkins, the most prominent book editor of the time, who also worked with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He cut the book to focus more on the character of Eugene, a stand-in for Wolfe. Wolfe initially expressed gratitude to Perkins for his disciplined editing, but he had misgivings later. It has been said that Wolfe found a father figure in Perkins, and that Perkins, who had five daughters, found in Wolfe a sort of foster son.
The novel, which had been dedicated to Bernstein, was published 11 days before the stock market crash of 1929. Soon afterward, Wolfe returned to Europe and ended his affair with Bernstein. The novel caused a stir in Asheville, with its over 200 thinly disguised local characters. Wolfe chose to stay away from Asheville for eight years because of the uproar; he traveled to Europe for a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship.Look Homeward, Angel was a bestseller in the United Kingdom and Germany. Some members of Wolfe's family were upset with their portrayal in the book, but his sister Mabel wrote to him that she was sure he had the best of intentions.
After four more years writing in Brooklyn, the second novel Wolfe submitted to Scribner's was The October Fair, a multi-volume epic roughly the length of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. After considering the commercial possibilities of publishing the book in full, Perkins opted to cut it significantly and create a single volume. Titled Of Time and the River, it was more commercially successful than Look Homeward, Angel. In an ironic twist, the citizens of Asheville were more upset this time because they hadn't been included. The character of Esther Jack was based on Bernstein. In 1934, Maxim Lieber served as his literary agent.
Wolfe was persuaded by Edward Aswell to leave Scribner's and sign with Harper & Brothers. By some accounts, Perkins' severe editing of Wolfe's work is what prompted him to leave. Others describe his growing resentment that some people attributed his success to Perkins' work as editor. In 1936, Bernard DeVoto, reviewing The Story of a Novel for Saturday Review, wrote that Look Homeward, Angel was "hacked and shaped and compressed into something resembling a novel by Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribners".
Wolfe spent much time in Europe and was especially popular and at ease in Germany, where he made many friends. However, in 1936 he witnessed incidents of discrimination against Jews, which upset him and changed his mind about the political developments in the country. He returned to America and published a story based on his observations ("I Have a Thing to Tell You") in The New Republic. Following its publication, Wolfe's books were banned by the German government, and he was prohibited from traveling there.
In 1937, Chickamauga, his short story set during the American Civil War battle of the same name, was published. Wolfe returned to Asheville in early 1937 for the first time since publication of his first book.
In 1938, after submitting over one million words of manuscript to his new editor, Edward Aswell, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the Western United States. On the way, he stopped at Purdue University and gave a lecture, "Writing and Living", and then spent two weeks traveling through 11 national parks in the West, the only part of the country he had never visited. Wolfe wrote to Aswell that while he had focused on his family in his previous writing, he would now take a more global perspective. In July, Wolfe became ill with pneumonia while visiting Seattle, spending three weeks in the hospital there. His sister Mabel closed her boarding house in Washington, D.C., and went to Seattle to care for him. Complications arose, and Wolfe was eventually diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis.
On September 6, he was sent to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment by the most famous neurosurgeon in the country, Walter Dandy, but an operation revealed that the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain. Without regaining consciousness, he died 18 days before his 38th birthday.
On his deathbed and shortly before lapsing into a coma Wolfe wrote a letter to Perkins: He acknowledged that Perkins had helped to realize his work and had made his labors possible. In closing he wrote:
I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.
Wolfe was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, beside his parents and siblings.
After Wolfe's death, The New York Times wrote: "His was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.... There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression which might have carried him to the heights and might equally have torn him down."Time wrote: "The death last week of Thomas Clayton Wolfe shocked critics with the realization that, of all American novelists of his generation, he was the one from whom most had been expected."
Wolfe saw less than half of his work published in his lifetime, there being much unpublished material remaining after his death. He was the first American writer to leave two complete, unpublished novels in the hands of his publisher at death. Two Wolfe novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, were edited posthumously by Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers. The novels were "two of the longest one-volume novels ever written" (nearly 700 pages each). In these novels, Wolfe changed the name of his autobiographical character from Eugene Gant to George Webber.
O Lost, the original "author's cut" of Look Homeward, Angel, was reconstructed by F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli and published in 2000 on the centennial of Wolfe's birth. Bruccoli said that while Perkins was a talented editor, Look Homeward, Angel is inferior to the complete work of O Lost and that the publication of the complete novel "marks nothing less than the restoration of a masterpiece to the literary canon".
Upon publication of Look Homeward, Angel, most reviewers responded favorably, including John Chamberlain, Carl Van Doren, and Stringfellow Barr. Margaret Wallace wrote sneeringly in The New York Times Book Review that Wolfe had produced "as interesting and powerful a book as has ever been made out of the drab circumstances of provincial American life". An anonymous review published in Scribner's magazine compared Wolfe to Walt Whitman, and many other reviewers and scholars have found similarities in their works since.
When published in the UK in July 1930, the book received similar reviews. Richard Aldington wrote that the novel was "the product of an immense exuberance, organic in its form, kinetic, and drenched with the love of life... I rejoice over Mr. Wolfe". Both in his 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech and original press conference announcement, Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, said of Wolfe, "He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer.... In fact I don't see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers."
Upon publication of his second novel, Of Time and the River, most reviewers and the public remained supportive, though some critics found shortcomings while still hailing it for moments or aspects of greatness. The book was well received by the public and became his only American bestseller. The publication was viewed as "the literary event of 1935"; by comparison, the earlier attention given to Look Homeward, Angel was modest. Both The New York Times and New York Herald Tribune published enthusiastic front-page reviews.Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker that while he wasn't sure what he thought of the book, "for decades we have not had eloquence like his in American writing". Malcolm Cowley of The New Republic thought the book would be twice as good if half as long, but stated Wolfe was "the only contemporary writer who can be mentioned in the same breath as Dickens and Dostoevsky".Robert Penn Warren thought Wolfe produced some brilliant fragments from which "several fine novels might be written". He went on to say: "And meanwhile it may be well to recollect that Shakespeare merely wrote Hamlet; he was not Hamlet." Warren also praised Wolfe in the same review, though, as did John Donald Wade in a separate review.
While acclaimed during his lifetime as one of the most important American writers, comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner, Wolfe's reputation has been "all but destroyed" since his death, although The New York Times wrote in 2003 that Wolfe's reputation and related scholarship appeared to be on an "upswing". He is often left out of college courses and anthologies devoted to great writers. Faulkner and W. J. Cash listed Wolfe as the ablest writer of their generation, although Faulkner later qualified his praise. Despite his early admiration of Wolfe's work, Faulkner later decided that his novels were "like an elephant trying to do the hoochie-coochie". Ernest Hemingway's verdict was that Wolfe was "the over-bloated Li'l Abner of literature".
Southerner and Harvard historian David Herbert Donald's biography of Wolfe, Look Homeward, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1988.
Wolfe inspired the works of many other authors, including Betty Smith with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, and Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, who has said, "My writing career began the instant I finished Look Homeward, Angel."Jack Kerouac idolized Wolfe.Ray Bradbury was influenced by Wolfe, and included him as a character in his books.Earl Hamner, Jr., who went on to create the popular television series The Waltons, idolized Wolfe in his youth.
Two universities hold the primary archival collections of Thomas Wolfe materials in the United States: the Thomas Clayton Wolfe Papers at Harvard University's Houghton Library, which includes all of Wolfe's manuscripts, and the Thomas Wolfe Collections in the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Each October, at the time of Wolfe's birthday, UNC-Chapel Hill presents the annual Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture to a contemporary writer, with past recipients including Roy Blount, Jr., Robert Morgan, and Pat Conroy.
Return of an Angel, a play by Sandra Mason, explores the reactions of Wolfe's family and the citizens of his hometown of Asheville to the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. The play was staged several times near the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, in the month of October, to commemorate his birthday. Pack Memorial Library in Asheville hosts the Thomas Wolfe Collection which "honors Asheville's favorite son". The Western North Carolina Historical Association has presented the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award yearly since 1955 for a literary achievement of the previous year. The Thomas Wolfe Society celebrates Wolfe's writings and publishes an annual review about Wolfe's work. The United States Postal Service honored Wolfe with a postage stamp on the occasion of what would have been Wolfe's 100th birthday in 2000.
The "Old Kentucky Home" was donated by Wolfe's family as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and has been open to visitors since the 1950s, owned by the state of North Carolina since 1976 and designated as a National Historic Landmark. Wolfe called it "Dixieland" in Look homeward, Angel. In 1998, 200 of the house's 800 original artifacts and the house's dining room were destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist during the Bele Chere street festival. The perpetrator remains unknown. After a $2.4 million restoration, the house was re-opened in 2003.
A cabin built by Wolfe's friend Max Whitson in 1924 near Azalea Road was designated as a historic landmark by the Asheville City Council in 1982. Thomas Wolfe Cabin, as it is called, was where Wolfe spent the summer of 1937 in his last visit to the city. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfe said, "I am going into the woods. I am going to try to do the best, the most important piece of work I have ever done", referring to October Fair, which became The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. He also wrote "The Party at Jack's" while at the cabin in the Oteen community. The city bought the property, including a larger house, from John Moyer in 2001. As of 2017, renovation is being considered and work has been done on the cabin.
The Thomas Wolfe Society, established in the late 1970s, issues an annual publication of Wolfe-related materials, and its journal, The Thomas Wolfe Review features scholarly articles, belles lettres, and reviews. The Society also awards prizes for literary scholarship on Wolfe.
In 1958, Ketti Frings adapted Look Homeward, Angel into a play of the same name. It ran on Broadway for 564 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, received six Tony Award nominations, and won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Frings was named "Woman of the Year" by The Los Angeles Times in the same year. In 1972, it was presented as a television drama, as was Of Time and the River in a one-hour version.
Wolfe's play Welcome to Our City was performed twice at Harvard during his graduate school years, in Zurich in German during the 1950s, and by the Mint Theater in New York City in 2000 in celebration of Wolfe's 100th birthday.
Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River were published in Armed Services Editions during World War II.