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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,120

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This is the grave of Thomas Wolfe.

Born in 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina, Wolfe grew up in the middle class of his home town. His father was a good stone carver and most of his work was in gravestones, appropriately enough for this series. Wolfe was the youngest of the family’s eight children, but it seems they did alright economically. The family was looking for economic opportunities of a number of sorts. His mother bought a bunch of property and the family moved to St. Louis for awhile while she boarded visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. His mother evidently had some differences with his father. By 1906, the whole family was back in Asheville, but Thomas and his mother lived in a boarding house she ran while the rest of the family lived together in their original house. He lived in that boarding house for the rest of his childhood.

At the age of 15, Wolfe started his studies at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. Although young, he was popular and already a skilled writer who focused mostly on playwriting while he was there. He graduated in 1920, after editing the school newspaper. That fall, he started graduate work at Harvard in playwriting. He stayed there through 1923, gaining a master’s degree and then starting work toward a PhD before leaving to focus on his writing.

Wolfe moved to New York, where any playwright would want to go. He tried to sell his work for years, but like most playwrights, no one was interested. He supported himself teaching writing at NYU though, so he wasn’t too desperate. In fact, he had enough money to spend his summers in Europe. He also began to realize that maybe he would have better luck as a novelist. Good call. In 1926, while back in Europe on vacation, he started writing a novel about his childhood. This became Look Homeward, Angel. Originally a sprawling 1,100 page manuscript, Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, cut it way, way down and made it into a solid 544 page manuscript. When it was published in 1929, it was a huge sensation. Also, the people in Asheville hated it. Wolfe had not even bothered to disguise the characters from his home town. People were furious. He did not even visit his home town again until 1937 because he did not want to deal with the backlash. The decision to edit Look Homeward, Angel down by half has been controversial ever since. Wolfe has always divided critics. Some feel he wrote these really long books that are undisciplined. Others believed the editors were too sharp and he should have had more power to write what he wanted. In fact, the original version of the book was published in 2000 for those who need it. Wolfe himself became more bitter about this over time, especially as the story of the edited manuscript was well-known and he felt people gave Perkins as much credit as they gave him.

Wolfe wrote a lot but he didn’t often publish much of it. He submitted another enormous manuscript and Perkins again slashed what the author intended to be a multi-volume tome into a single book. Of Time and the River was published in 1935. Another autobiographical work, it followed a Wolfe-like character through his 20s, learning to write, teaching at Harvard, his long-running affair with the designer Aline Bernstein, etc. Because Wolfe was now a big deal, the book sold much better than his first, even if it today is less famous.

Wolfe was based out of Brooklyn during these years, but spent as much time as he could in Europe. If anything, he was more popular there than in the U.S. This included Germany and he had lots of personal friends there. This initially made him blind to the threat of the Nazis, as many were. But while there in 1936, Wolfe witnessed anti-Semitism and he was horrified. Upon his return to the United States, he became a leading critic of the evils of Nazism and wrote a long piece in The New Republic on what he saw this. For this, the Nazis banned Wolfe’s books and barred him from the country.

Wolfe wrote and wrote and wrote. He could not write a short manuscript. His next book was over one million words(!!!) in its original manuscript. After he submitted it to his new editors in 1938, having broken with Perkins, he decided to travel some more. He had never been to the West and wanted to check out the national parks. So he did. But then he got sick in Seattle. At first, people thought it was pneumonia. But then he was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis, which is not good and can spread rapidly. That’s what happened to Wolfe. His condition worsened. He was rushed back east to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. But by this time, his brain was turning to mush. He died in 1938, at the age of 37.

Wolfe’s death was seen as a tragedy in the literary world. Again, he did divide critics. Some saw him as brilliant, others totally undisciplined. They were both right. But all agreed that it was assumed he would become as important a writer as Faulkner or other leading authors of his generation. That did not happen and the existing work really doesn’t quite stand up to the greats of the era. Two more gigantic manuscripts were published posthumously, both edited down to around 700 pages to give them some level of coherence and a belief you will eventually finish the thing. The Web and the Rock came out in 1939, was another autobiographical piece, and also has been criticized for being over-edited, even at that length. Then You Can’t Go Home Again was published in 1940, again out of a crazy long manuscript. This was about Wolfe’s reception in Asheville after Look Homeward, Angel. The original manuscript for this was so long that it also provided the material for The Hills Beyond, the last of the major Wolfe posthumous publications, in 1941.

While there’s no question that Wolfe’s death silenced a major voice, at the very least Look Homeward, Angel is still seen as a classic and has been adapted for the theater on several occasions.

Thomas Wolfe is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to feature other leading authors of the 1930s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Steinbeck is in Salinas, California and Pearl Buck is in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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