Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900 in the expanding resort town of Asheville, North Carolina. He was the youngest of eight children, his father was a stone carver and his mother regularly took in boarders. He grew up at 48 Spruce Street with his mother, while the rest of his family lived at 92 Woodfin Street, where he had been born. In 1916, he left home for college, beginning his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Much of his early life in Asheville, from his mother’s boarding house to the death of Ben Wolfe, his older brother, became the inspiration for his novel Look Homeward, Angel.

It was during his time at UNC that he began taking playwriting classes, writing a handful of plays performed by local actors. He graduated in 1920 and moved on to Harvard University, where he continued to study as a playwright. Wolfe initially did not have much success as a writer,as his plays were considered too lengthy. To make ends meet he took a job as a professor at New York University, and traveled Europe to explore his potential as a writer of fiction.

In 1925 Wolfe met Aline Bernstein, a scene designer with connections to the literary scene. The two became lovers, and she encouraged his writing throughout their five-year relationship. The year after they met he began his most famous work: Look Homeward, Angel. The novel was based heavily upon his hometown of Asheville, so much so that he avoided his hometown for eight years after the novel was published due to annoyed locals who recognized themselves in the work; some of whom sent Wolfe death threats for his portrayal of them. The novel also estranged him from close friends and family. His older brother once said he was "ready to commit murder" if Thomas Wolfe came home.

His second novel, which was not set in Asheville, was an even greater success. Strangely the residents of Asheville were insulted because this time they were not included in the novel. Wolfe moved between New York and Europe, with a special affection for Germany. Yet his feelings for the country soured when he began to see the discrimination targeted at Jewish people, and when he published criticism of the German government it caused his books to be banned.

In 1937, Wolfe returned to Asheville. Upon his return he was invited by the Asheville Citizen Times to respond to their criticism, a few years shy of a decade later. Wolfe expressed a gratefulness for Asheville, and though he had long dreamed of speaking his peace, he had outgrown the frustration he had once felt over their reaction to his most famous work. The essay, coupled with the passage of time, cleared many of the sour feelings that lingered between Wolfe and his hometown. He left North Carolina on a positive note, having inspired other up-and-coming North Carolina authors such as Wilma Dykeman.

The next year Wolfe was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis, which had spread throughout the right side of his brain. He died September 15th in Baltimore, Maryland, and was buried in Asheville. His death shocked the literary community, which had expected much more from Wolfe.

On this tour you will walk through Thomas Wolfe’s life in Asheville, and catch a glimpse of the city as Wolfe remembered it in his most famous work.