Thomas Wolfe (1900 – 1938)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Thomas Wolfe, born Asheville, North Carolina, on October 3, 1900, experienced a varied life while in North Carolina, Europe, and New York. One of seven children to Julia Westall and William Oliver Wolfe, Thomas’s childhood was often strained due to his father’s heavy drinking and his mother’s bitterness toward her husband.  However, William learned from his father the love of language whether it be the Appalachian mountain vernacular or the lofty poetry of the Elizabethan era.  Thomas’s somewhat troubled childhood and his parents’ domestic problems provided the material for his magnus opus, Look Homeward, Angel (1929).

Wolfe was an avid reader as well as an intelligent writer, and he was educated at the North State Fitting School, the University of North Carolina, and Harvard University. From 1905 to 1912, Thomas attended school in Asheville, and in 1916, when he was only fifteen years old he was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1918, Wolfe started to pen plays with Frederick Koch and the Carolina Playmakers. The Playmakers, along with Wolfe and Koch, would be the first important group to influenced North Carolina theater. In addition, the group’s first play was The Return of Buck Gavin, a play that Wolfe penned in only three hours. Wolfe would later attend Harvard University.  There he studied drama and wrote over 140 plays.

In 1924 after stints at several northern universities, Wolfe traveled to Europe where his time there influenced his novel, Of Time and the River. Wolfe returned to New York the year after and began a relationship with a wealthy, married woman named Alice Bernstein; their affair would last for several years, and she (Bernstein was seventeen years his senior) became the mother-mistress Wolfe had wanted since his childhood. Bernstein provided the inspiration for Wolfe to begin Look Homeward, Angel and he started writing the novel in July 1926 while traveling with his mistress.

Published in 1929, Look Homeward, Angel was in many ways the story of Wolfe’s own life, and it was connected to the region, family, and friends of his childhood in Asheville. Due to the distinct details and parallels in the novel and Wolfe’s childhood, many in Asheville were irate because of Wolfe’s sometimes harsh descriptions. Look Homeward was even banned from the Asheville public library, and Wolfe could not return to his hometown nearly seven years after the novel’s publication. The exile that Wolfe faced provided even more inspiration and his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), was influenced by the troubles Wolfe faced after Look Homeward. Wolfe returned in 1937, and he later wrote in his defense of his novel, entitled The Story of a Novel (1936), “that the people he described, whatever their faults, were magnificent.”

Even though Wolfe was famous for his epic Look Homeward, Angel, he was also known for his personal appearance and idiosyncrasies. A tall, robust man standing at six-feet-six-inches, Wolfe’s hands were too large for a conventional typewriter, so he would use the top of his refrigerator as a desk as he stood to write. In addition to his writing style, Wolfe dressed in meager clothes and he roamed the streets of Brooklyn very late at night. One witness remarked that Wolfe, as he walked the dark streets, proclaimed, “I wrote ten thousand words today! I wrote ten thousand words today!”

In 1938, Wolfe toured of the West and during his trip he became sick with pneumonia. Later that year as the disease worsened, Wolfe was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Despite surgery to correct brain trauma that Wolfe suffered from tuberculosis, Wolfe passed away on September 15, 1938. He was eighteen days shy of his thirty-eight birthday.

Highly regarded during his lifetime, Wolfe was driven to write and it is remarkable that he appealed to such a large audience and completed so many works in such a short period. Look Homeward, Angel established Wolfe as an accomplished author in the late 1920s, but he continued to write for magazines in New York which influenced numerous readers during the Depression. Although fellow authors of his time such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner were more popular during Wolfe’s lifetime, it is noteworthy that Wolfe completed so much in only a decade of writing. He would write numerous short stories, dramas, and other significant novels such as Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939), and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). William Faulkner, a prominent Modernist author, wrote about Wolfe in 1957: “My admiration for Wolfe is that he tried the best to get it all said; he was willing to throw away style, coherence, all the rules of preciseness to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of the pin.”

Although Look Homeward, Angel was banned from Asheville, Wolfe is now one of the city’s most famous citizens. In addition, Wolfe is considered the first North Carolinian author to appeal to a large reader base in the twentieth century.