Article abstract: Wolfe was a master of characterization who, particularly in his first two novels, created memorable characters drawn directly from his family. He was an effusive, gargantuan writer, often uncontrolled, often poetic, but always imbued with the sense of what it meant to be American; he sought to achieve in prose what Walt Whitman had achieved in poetry.
Thomas Clayton Wolfe, the son of William Oliver and Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe, was always larger than life. Six and a half feet tall, somewhat stooped, Wolfe had a roundish head that was covered by a mop of dark hair, often disheveled. His dark eyes were animated and kindly. His shirttail usually stuck out, and his clothing hung loosely from his oversized, raw-boned limbs.
Asheville, North Carolina, the town in which he was born, was a somewhat isolated mountain community of about fifteen thousand inhabitants in 1900. The town was a popular summer resort where people could escape from the heat and humidity of the piedmont and coastal South, and it was also gaining popularity as a winter resort.
Wolfe was the youngest of his parents’ eight children. Julia Wolfe, his mother, the elder Wolfe’s third wife, was interested in music and had taught school before her marriage. She also had a keen interest in real estate and was considered avaricious. In 1904, she packed up her family and left her husband, whose heavy drinking bothered her. She went to St. Louis, where she opened a boardinghouse to accommodate visitors to the World’s Fair. It was there that her son, the twin brother of Wolfe’s brother Ben, succumbed unexpectedly to typhoid fever.
Returning to Asheville, Julia, in 1906, opened a boardinghouse called The Old Kentucky Home (Dixieland in Look Homeward, Angel, 1929), which she ran until after Wolfe’s death in 1938. The elder Wolfe lived a few blocks away, and the children moved freely between the two houses. Thomas Wolfe always resented the lack of privacy that being brought up in a boardinghouse involved, but his youth was not an unhappy one.
He began his education in 1905, at the Orange Street Public School, which he attended until 1912. In that year, J. M. Roberts, former principal of the Orange Street Public School, and his wife, Margaret, persuaded Julia to allow her son to attend the North State Fitting School, a private establishment, which they had opened. In this school, Wolfe received a sound basic education, developing a great love of the classics and of reading. The school is depicted quite favorably in Look Homeward, Angel, as is Margaret Roberts, who becomes Margaret Leonard in the book.
In 1916, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then a school with about eleven hundred students. He had wanted to go to the University of Virginia, but his father vetoed that plan, as he did Wolfe’s attempt to transfer to Princeton University at the end of his freshman year. At Chapel Hill, Wolfe became editor of the school newspaper, the Tar Heel, and worked with Frederick H. Koch, director of the Carolina Playmakers, who had studied at Harvard in George Pierce Baker’s famed 47 Workshop.
In 1918, Wolfe was called home by the death of his favorite brother, Ben, whose death Wolfe chronicles in Look Homeward, Angel in an extended passage that represents some of Wolfe’s finest writing. By the time Wolfe was graduated from the University, his father was mortally ill with cancer, which finally killed him in 1922. In 1920, diploma in hand, Wolfe turned down several job offers and went to Harvard to study for the master’s degree in English and to participate in Baker’s 47 Workshop in drama. He remained at Harvard until 1923, a year after he had completed the A.M. degree in English, so that he could continue his involvement with the 47 Workshop.
In 1924, Wolfe went to New York City to teach at the Washington Square Campus of New York University, and he taught freshman composition there on and off until the publication of his first novel in 1929, making trips to Europe as often as he could during that period. On his return voyage from his first such trip in 1925, he met Aline Bernstein, a married woman eighteen years older than he, with whom he had a protracted affair and who is the model for Esther Jacks in The Web and the Rock (1939). Aline Bernstein helped Wolfe financially so that he could take time off from his teaching to write and travel.
It was not until 1926 that Wolfe turned from writing plays to writing novels. A number of the plays he wrote for the Carolina Playmakers and in the 47 Workshop were produced on campus; yet, despite Baker’s strong support, the Theater Guild rejected the drama he submitted to them, and he apparently believed that he would do better as a novelist and short-story writer, a conclusion that history has borne out.
With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel by...
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