For no American author does the term “literary giant” seem so literally accurate as for the six-foot, six-inch, 230-pound Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe, whose creative output was as gigantic as his stature, had one great subject: America, as seen though the lens of himself. Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, a city surrounded on all sides by the Blue Ridge Mountains. In order to journey to the very beginning of his career, one must come over the lip of those rolling peaks on a sunny day close to the turn of the century. In front of a house that no longer exists, at 92 Woodfin Street, a baby in a basket watches his sister Mabel go up the hill on her way to school. This was his first memory. “I have tried to make myself conscious of the whole of my life since first the baby in the basket became conscious of the warm sunlight on the porch,” Wolfe later wrote.
Wolfe’s father, W.O. Wolf, came to Asheville, North Carolina from Pennsylvania, by way of Raleigh. He opened a tombstone shop. He had been married once, and quickly divorced. In Raleigh, he’d ornamented his last name with an “e” (perhaps it looked finer on a tombstone) and gained a second bride. But when they moved to Asheville, he lost her to tuberculosis. He was a tall man for his time, standing six feet four. Asheville residents soon learned that he was larger than life in nearly every other way as well. His appetites—for food, for alcohol, for stimulation, for self-destruction and short-lived self-recrimination—were colossal. His voice was a rich booming instrument, which he was fond of employing on a repertoire of Shakespearean soliloquies.
One day, when the widower was lounging in his tombstone shop, Julia Penland Westall stepped into its dim interior. She was all business, a determined woman who had grown up in poverty and vowed never to be poor again. Julia was a distant relative of Davy Crockett and an excellent shot. She might have made a fine pioneer, except that she had no intention of leaving the town. What really got her all fired up was real estate. And Asheville was her Monopoly board. On the day she met W.O., she was going door-to-door selling books to supplement her meager income as a schoolteacher. But both occupations were really just means to make money so that she could buy property.
According to the biographer Ted Mitchell, the book she peddled that day was called Thorns in the Flesh. And would that the couple had only heeded the warning. But W.O. fell in love at first sight, and he rolled right over every objection that she put in his path. The two married; Julia took up residence at Woodfin Street; children followed, and then boarders. Julia was not satisfied with W.O.’s prospects. In Asheville, people “did not die fast enough” for her taste. Her husband’s business could have directly benefited from a higher mortality rate.
The Wolfe family carried on a hyperbolic existence in the vine-wreathed house. The dining table was a groaning board. When W.O. made a fire in the fireplace, it roared. W.O. didn’t just get drunk; he went on binges. Afterwards, his youngest daughter, Mabel, would feed him as if he were a baby. Sometimes W.O. would escape the city and plow across greater America, drinking and dissipating until he returned weak and exhausted. Once back in the “clustered warmth” of his brood, W.O. would hurl invective at Julia and her clannish family. She fended him off tartly but she was no match for his verbal ability. For Julia it was a constant strain. For the children, it became entertainment.
Thomas Wolfe was the youngest of the brood. We know much about his early years from his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. The 525-page book pretty much defined the term “thinlyveiled account,” so much so that the first names of some of the Wolfes remain the same in the fiction. W.O. Wolfe became W.O. Gant. Ben Wolfe became Ben Gant. Grover remained Grover. Julia became Eliza, and her side of the family became the Pentlands, a family of skinflints. And pent up they were in that mountain-encircled city of Asheville, reborn as Altamont in Look Homeward, Angel.
Thomas Wolfe became “Eugene,” a name which, according to Look Homeward, Angel, meant “well born.” It did not mean, he clarified sardonically, “well bred.” Much as he loved his parents, they caused him a great amount of anguish in Asheville, where they were prominent for all the wrong reasons. It is almost impossible, after reading a few chapters of Look Homeward, Angel, to make a distinction anymore between the fictional character of Eugene and Thomas Wolfe himself. The portrait is so deeply felt and so openly autobiographical, the story so clearly of the development of a man and of a writer.
Eugene Gant gives early evidence of an extraordinary sensibility. As Wolfe described, “his sensory equipment was so complete that at the moment of perception of a single thing, the whole background of color, warmth, odor, sound, taste established itself, so that later, the breath of hot dandelion brought back the grass-warm banks of Spring, a day, a place, the rustling of young leaves, or the page of a book.” Apparently, though, Wolfe was not in a hurry to learn how to speak. His first word was “Moo”—not an auspicious start. Eventually, though, Eugene learns how to write. It happens one day as he watches a friend scrawl a school exercise in his notebook. He comprehends all at once the “beautiful developing structure of language” that he sees flowing from his friend’s pencil. He takes the pencil and copies that one word, and then another, and another. As Wolfe wrote, “Eugene thought of this event later; always he could feel the opening gates in him, the plunge of the tide, the escape.”
In 1906, Julia satisfied her desire to acquire real estate. She bought a boarding house. The previous owner had named it the “Old Kentucky Home,” in a tribute to his home state. In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe dubbed it “Dixieland.” The boarding house became the closest thing to home for Thomas Wolfe for the rest of his years in Asheville.
He might have stayed at Woodfin Street with the other Wolfes. But Julia took him with her when she moved in to the Old Kentucky Home, away from the tirades of W.O. Two years before, she had lost Grover, who was the apple of her eye, to typhoid. Following that tragedy, for which she blamed herself (he’d contracted it at the St. Louis World’s Fair where she’d taken them to earn some extra money), she focused her hopes on her youngest son. But her maternal devotion was compromised by what Wolfe called stingy practicality. He was shuffled from room to room depending on vacancies. Sometimes he had to share the bed with her. If they were fully booked, he had to wait outside until the boarders were done before he could eat.
Thus Thomas Wolfe/Eugene Gant began the second phase of his existence—a sort of exile. He went back and forth between the boarding house and Woodfin Street, where his sister Mabel now presided. He had “no clear idea where the day’s food, shelter, lodging was to come from, although he was reasonably sure it would be given: he ate wherever he happened to hang his hat.” Living with his mother meant privation and shame. When traveling, she’d make him “scrootch up” to get the lower train fare and feed him the butter and rolls and leftovers she had taken from her restaurant meals. No matter how much property his mother amassed, she never ceased to cry poverty.
Internally, the boy was ablaze with indignation. But he lacked the ability yet to express himself. Later he would say that the “threat of the poorhouse, the lurid references to the pauper’s grave, belonged to the insensate mythology of hoarding.” But as a youth he was credulous, and felt shame about costing his parents money. His father, by the way, was similarly tight-fisted. He invented a whole series of heart-wrenching stories about a legless little orphan named “Little Jimmy” to get his son to renounce things he coveted.
Wolfe’s mother let herself in for criticism that would have withered a weaker individual on account of the kinds of boarders she allowed. There were the “semi-public, clandestine prostitutes of a tourist town”—or “chippies,” for short—that populated the faded yellow house. And there were the consumptive boarders (tuberculosis sufferers) whose afflictions she turned a blind eye to despite the health risk they represented. She was, as Wolfe put it, “proudly oblivious to any disagreeable circumstance which brought her in money.” A few decent folk stayed there, too. A lot of them seemed to be the wives of traveling salesmen; smooth-talking, mostly absent sorts, out there adding to the raucous voice of the America outside Asheville.
Pack Square has been the beating heart of Asheville since 1797. Since early on, it has had a fountain, a feature of the European square that local patron Mr. Pack had in mind to elevate the town. An obelisk—a monument to local hero and Civil War governor Zebulon Baird Vance—stands at the other end of the square. In Thomas Wolfe’s childhood, the buildings that surrounded Pack Square were of differing heights. Trolleys ran up and down. Folks gathered. Across the square was the drugstore, whose cool depths contained an onyx soda fountain and various gustatory delights. On one corner stood the singleturreted Pack Library—a former bank building turned castle of books—where Thomas spent much of his time reading.
Today, the obelisk remains. The fountain has been upgraded many times. The latest design unveiled in 2008 is a magnet for controversy. Many of the buildings, including that wonderful library, are gone. A sleek I.M. Pei building flanks one side of the square.
W.O. Wolfe’s shop, which was at 22 South Pack Square, is gone. On that corner, in Wolfe’s day, the square “dipped sharply” towards the black section of town, “as if it had been bent at the edge.” Out in front of the shop stood a marble angel:
It was now brown and fly-specked. But it had come from Carrara in Italy, and it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore a smile of soft stone idiocy.
Angels had a powerful effect on W.O. Seeing an angel at a marble shop in Baltimore inspired him to become a stonecutter, though to carve an angel was a skill that W.O. never mastered. The stone angel lent an air of grandeur to the shop that went along with W.O.’s lofty manner of speaking. Sometimes he used her as a stand-in for his wife and lashed her with insults. When he was drunk, he would sometimes call her “Cynthia,” kneel before her and ask for forgiveness, to the amusement of the people on Pack Square.
The angel worked on Wolfe as well. From an early age he was an avid reader and dreamer, “whose eyes were filled with the shadows of great ships and cities.” The gawky boy with the unhappy home life believed that beyond the hills of Asheville, the land “bayed out” into exotic scene after scene. The marble angel was a link to fine art and the great world beyond. In her smile, one reader has said, was “the unverifiable promise of salvation—at once the marker of death and the covenant of life.” The symbolism of the angel for Wolfe lay “not with the marbles of the father’s failed art and life, but with the transformation of all the beauty and passion of that failure into art.”
In Look Homeward, Angel, W.O. Gant sells the angel to a local madam, to mark the grave of a young prostitute who died. The real angel that stood outside the Wolfe shop was sold to the respectable Johnson family. She stands, a cool marble white, just down the road in nearby Hendersonville, in a large cemetery that surmounts a hill. Her hand is still raised in graceful benediction. If she was brown and fly-specked she is no longer. She smiles her noncommittal smile to this day.
Caught Up In “The Monstrous Fumbling of All Life”
In 1911, a husband-and-wife team held a student writing contest in Asheville, to try to identify future students for the private school they were founding. Thomas Wolfe was one of the essayists. When Margaret Roberts read his piece, she told her husband, “This boy, Tom Wolfe, is a genius! And I want him for our school.” Thence followed a series of negotiations with the parsimonious parents, who finally agreed to let Wolfe attend the school for a reduced tuition.
Wolfe flourished, especially under Margaret Roberts’ tutelage (he was not as kind to her husband in Look Homeward, Angel). Her love for literature was palpable, and from her he learned discernment, and a respect for erudition. As he wrote to her later, with his customary ardor, “I was…groping like a blind seathing with no eyes and a thousand feelers toward light, toward life, toward beauty and order, out of that hell of chaos, greed, and cheap ugliness—and then found you, when else I should have died, you mother of my spirit who fed me with light.”
Around the same time, he took a paper route. He was already familiar with selling papers. His older brother, the stuttering Luke Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, was the salesman of the family, a real go-getter in the grand American tradition. He sold the Saturday Evening Post to everyone he could buttonhole in town, and then expanded his reach to the tuberculosis sanitariums in the nearby hills, often taking his younger brother with him. But it was brother Ben who got Wolfe the job delivering the Asheville newspaper. He landed the most difficult route in the city. But he went at it every morning at the crack of dawn, the heavy bag biting into his thin shoulders, walking the hills with a “curiously scissored” look before Asheville woke up.
Both the school and the paper route served to bring Wolfe out of himself and draw him into the world. His sensitive exterior began to harden. He became “a sharp blade.” He learned cynicism.
He began to have girlfriends. In Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene falls head over heels in love with Laura, one of the boarders. She is not a beautiful girl but has a “clean, lovely ugliness,” and a virginal quality that is “crisp like celery.” By this point, W.O. occasionally terrorizes the boarders. Laura, however, is sympathetic, not repulsed. However, she is 21 and Eugene only 16.
“Oh, you child!” she cries when she learns that her lanky suitor is five years her junior. Eugene asks her to wait for him. Laura agrees. She announces she must first return to her family. Before she goes, there is one bittersweet picnic up in the mountains high above Altamont. The adolescent Eugene looks down at the town that, but for a few trips outside, has been his whole life:
On the highest ground, he saw the solid masonry of the Square, blocked cleanly out in light and shadow, and a crawling toy that was a car, and men no bigger than sparrows. And about the Square was the treeless brick jungle of business—cheap, ragged, and ugly, and beyond all this, in indefinite patches, the houses where all the people lived, with little bright raw ulcers of suburbia farther off, and the healing and concealing grace of fair massed trees….The town was thrown up on the plateau like an encampment: there was nothing below him that could resist time….Below him, in a cup, he felt that all life was held.
That cup doesn’t hold Laura again. Bereft, Eugene leaves Altamont and lives by himself for the first time. He moves to Richmond and finds a job, hoping to see Laura but never seeking her out. Like his father did so many times, he eventually returns to Altamont.
In real life, the Laura that Wolfe fell in love with was already engaged. She married weeks after leaving the boarding house, bore two children, and died shortly after of influenza.
There was, in fact, more than one angel in Look Homeward, Angel. In addition to the marble one outside W.O.’s shop, there was an angel that hovered over Eugene’s brother Ben, the one he would look up to every time he made a sardonic comment. “Oh, my God,” he would say, addressing it, “Listen to that, won’t you?” Despite the presence of his angel, Ben was withdrawn, unhappy. As Wolfe wrote, “he bore encysted in him the evidence of their [his parents’] tragic fault.”
It was Ben who pushed Wolfe to take his parents’ money to go to school and make something of himself. Ben had never managed much in the way of higher education, though he did take correspondence courses. Their parents never spent a dime on any of the other kids, he would tell his younger brother, though they had the money to spend. Wolfe should take advantage.
Thomas Wolfe did as his brother urged. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, though he had fought to be sent to Princeton instead. And then, in 1918, when he was halfway through the program, Ben fell ill with influenza that he had gotten from his visiting sister. Wolfe rushed home to where Ben lay on his deathbed in the boarding house. To his last breath, Ben wouldn’t let his mother into his room.
“The Asheville I knew died for me when Ben died,” Wolfe later wrote in a letter. And after that, he was rarely to return.
Wolfe went on from UNC to Harvard, seeking to be a playwright. He did some teaching and took his first trip to Europe. In New York, he met Aline Bernstein, married, 19 years older than he, and rich. She encouraged him to write a novel about his childhood instead. Written by hand in huge account ledgers, it developed into the massive and unwieldy manuscript that he called, “O Lost.” The manuscript caught the eye of a woman named Madeleine Boyd who, like Margaret Roberts before her, was certain after reading him that she had found “genius.” The enormous stack of pages found its way to Scribner’s.
“The first time I heard of Thomas Wolfe I had a sense of foreboding. I who love the man say this,” wrote the great Maxwell Perkins, who edited Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, J.P. Marquand, Erskine Caldwell and a host of others. But he was persuaded by Ms. Boyd to give the manuscript a look. Perkins tried to read the novel that became Look Homeward, Angel, and put it aside after 90 pages. He handed it off to a colleague, who eventually persuaded him to read it again, showing him a scene that occurs later in the book. This second time around, Perkins was convinced. He took on the massive project. However, “when we were working together,” Perkins recounted, “I suddenly saw that it was often almost literally autobiographical—that these people in it were his people. I am sure my face took on a look of alarm, and Tom saw it and said, ‘But Mr. Perkins, you don’t understand. I think these people are great people and that they should be told about.’”
The novel contains over 200 characters. There are two incredible sections in which the town of Asheville/Altamont is revealed. In the first, W.O. the wanderer comes back after one of his transcontinental debauches and takes a trolley around town and learns who has been born and who has died. In the second, it is Eugene and his friend who walk around town. Those sections were joined in “O Lost.” It was Perkins who separated them. The effect is such that by the time one gets to the second trip through Altamont, the city is illuminated to a degree that very few American novels, save perhaps Faulkner’s, have ever accomplished. The café scenes possess the beauty and the undertones of Edward Hopper’s best works. The dialogue achieves the depth of feeling and momentum worthy of a great playwright. Altamont comes vividly to life.
Living in New York, Wolfe wore out the sidewalks walking, often deep into the night. He wrote, as always, prolifically. Perkins told the story of how, at two or three in the morning, a fellow New Yorker heard a commotion outside. She looked out the window to find the towering Mr. Wolfe, dressed in a black overcoat and chanting: “I wrote ten thousand words today—I wrote ten thousand words today.”
The next book about the Gants was called Of Time and the River, and Perkins was again full of forebodings when he saw the dedication, to himself, “in most extravagant terms.” Wolfe broke with Perkins soon after that. Critics had made the accusation that without Perkins’ guiding hand, Wolfe would be nothing. Perkins forgave Wolfe for leaving him, for he felt that the writer believed he needed the chance to prove this wrong. When he moved to another publisher, Eugene Gant became, in later books, George Webber. But he was always Wolfe. “He had one book to write,” Perkins said, “about a vast, sprawling, turbulent land—America—as perceived by Eugene Gant.”
Wolfe made enduring impressions on many writers: among them, William Faulkner, who rated him the most significant living novelist. “We all fail,” Faulkner stated, “but Wolfe made the best failure because he tried the hardest to say the most.” It is said that F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose wife Zelda was undergoing treatment at a sanitarium in Asheville (where she died at the age of 48 in a tragic fire), donated the first Wolfe novels to the Pack Library, which had been operating under a ban on carrying any works by its not-so-favorite son. He reportedly threw the books down on the counter and insisted they be catalogued.
Wolfe almost went back to Asheville in 1936, but due to a misunderstanding with his brother, he never got off the train. He finally made his return in 1937, and told the reporter for the Asheville Citizen that he hoped to be able to write another book that would please Asheville more. He never had that chance. In 1939, on a marathon tour of 11 of the National Parks of the western United States, he fell ill with a frightening brain ailment. He was taken back to Baltimore to be operated on. A doctor named Dandy opened him up, took one look and sewed him back up again. Thomas Wolfe had tuberculosis of the brain. Dandy theorized that he’d had TB at some point in his youth and had beaten it, but that his lungs had somehow enveloped the tubercles that were released to his brain decades later. It is seems somehow fitting that one of his pet words in Look Homeward, Angel was “encysted,” for there is probably no better descriptive term for how those tubercles had been preserved. “Each day we pass the spot where some day we must die,” Wolfe wrote halfway through the book. In the pages of Look Homeward, Angel, with its looming presence of tuberculosis, and all his talk of encysting, we are, in a sense, given a premonition of Thomas Wolfe’s end every few pages.
In his introduction, Maxwell Perkins quoted a passage from War and Peace that Wolfe loved: “Prince Andrei looked up at the stars and sighed; everything was so different from what he thought it was going to be.” This was a theme for the young Thomas Wolfe, who came to earth trailing clouds of glory, who retained them in his mind but was batted back and forth between Pentland and Gant, a perpetual vagabond. The line about Prince Andrei would seem a fitting epitaph for Wolfe were it not for the success he achieved in his books. At the end of Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene Gant meets his brother Ben again, temporarily resurrected, leaning against the porch of his father’s shop on the Square and smoking as usual. What happens next is that the marble angels outside W.O.’s shop come alive. What Wolfe achieved in his best writing is no less of a feat.