Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe Biography

Thomas Wolfe’s writing was marked by a poetic, decidedly nontraditional use of language. Following the breakout success of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe embarked upon an even more ambitious project, an epic essay that was to be titled “The October Fair.” Wolfe’s vision for the story was to have it span several installments. Unfortunately, Wolfe had artistic differences with his publisher and editor. As a result, the book was never published, and because the manuscript was divided among several people, a posthumous reconstruction has proven impossible. Nevertheless, Look Homeward, Angel and Wolfe’s other surviving works have established him as a writer of great promise who uniquely combined prose and poetry.

Facts and Trivia

  • Wolfe’s first love was the theater, and he received his Master’s degree in playwriting from Harvard University.
  • Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel was initially a much longer, less structured work. The famous editor Maxwell Perkins helped hone the manuscript into its current form.
  • Among Wolfe’s contemporaries, William Faulkner was one of his most ardent supporters.
  • Wolfe hailed from Asheville, North Carolina. When he died, he was buried in his hometown next to none other than fellow author O. Henry.
  • Wolfe’s life was cut short by illness. Following a bout of pneumonia, he developed tuberculosis in the brain. The illness progressed quickly, and Wolfe succumbed to it a few days shy of his thirty-eighth birthday.

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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.

Early Life

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...

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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.

Life’s Work

With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel by Scribner’s in October, 1929, Wolfe gained immediate celebrity. By March of the next year, he had been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which enabled him to give up his teaching and to make his fifth trip to Europe. Look Homeward, Angel, an often inchoate, overwritten manuscript, fortuitously had fallen into the hands of Maxwell Perkins, who was able to impose an order upon it that was not inherent in the original work.

In Europe, F. Scott Fitzgerald sought out Wolfe. He was also mentioned favorably in Sinclair Lewis’ acceptance speech when, in 1930, Lewis became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Look Homeward, Angel was badly received in Asheville because Wolfe had not taken great pains to disguise the people about whom he had written in it. Several lodged lawsuits against him.

Look Homeward, Angel is a romantic, autobiographical outpouring, huge both in its conception and in its execution. In the novel, Eugene Gant, the narrator based on Wolfe himself, is taken from birth to his graduation from college. The final version of the book ran to 200,000 words. From 1929 until 1934, Wolfe worked steadily on his new book, another autobiographical novel, in which Eugene would go from his native North Carolina to Harvard University, then to New York and to Europe, and would end with meeting Esther Jacks.

From another inchoate manuscript filled with extremely skillful writing but interspersed with flagrantly bad writing, Perkins sought to create a second Thomas Wolfe novel. He reduced the 400,000-word manuscript to something manageable, although still considerably longer than the typical novel, and Scribner’s published it under the title Of Time and the River (1935). In this book, Wolfe had tried to control his romanticism and to be more realistic. His gargantuan effusiveness and essential enthusiasm, however, made it difficult for him to achieve the objective realism to which he aspired. Of Time and the River, which the reading public received enthusiastically, was the last Wolfe novel to be published during his lifetime.

When he was in New York, Wolfe worked almost daily with Perkins, and the two had considerable differences of opinion about crucial artistic matters relating to Wolfe’s work. The relationship, as necessary as it was to Wolfe, became strained to the point that, in September of 1937, Wolfe bolted from Scribner’s and, on the last day of that year, signed a contract allowing Harper and Brothers to publish his subsequent books.

Between Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, Scribner’s had published From Death to Morning (1935), a collection of Wolfe’s short stories, followed by The Story of a Novel (1936), a long, detailed lecture he had delivered the year before at the Colorado Writers’ Conference.

Wolfe was now working on another large manuscript, essentially a retelling of his first two novels, which were to appear posthumously as The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). In May, 1938, he lectured at Purdue University, after which he left by automobile on a trip through the national parks of the West. In Seattle, he fell ill and then recovered. In September, however, he entered The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he underwent brain surgery on September 12. He was found to have an incurable miliary tuberculosis of the brain, and he died on September 15, less than a month short of his thirty-eighth birthday.

Aside from the two novels that were published after his death, The Face of a Nation (1939), The Hills Beyond (1941), A Stone, a Leaf, a Door (1945), Mannerhouse (1948), and his unrevised A Western Journal (first published shortly after his death as “A Western Journey”; published in book form in 1951) have been published, as well as editions of some of his plays and collections of his letters, short novels, and selected works. The Face of a Nation reproduces poetic passages from Wolfe’s work; The Hills Beyond is a collection of his stories that had previously been published in periodicals; A Stone, a Leaf, a Door is a collection of his poetry; Mannerhouse is a play that Wolfe wrote in the 47 Workshop; and A Western Journal is the unrevised notes he made on his final trip in 1938.

Summary

In retrospect, it is surprising that Look Homeward, Angel and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) were both the literary sensations of 1929. No two major American authors could have been more different in their approach to their art than Wolfe and Hemingway. Hemingway was the meticulous reviser who turned out a thousand words on a particularly good day; Wolfe was the effusive giant, the “hungry Gulliver,” as Pamela Hansford Johnson dubbed him, who in two or three years filled enough ledgers with his writing that the accumulated pile reached to the top of his refrigerator.

Wolfe was trying to define the American experience in much the way that Whitman had tried to do a generation earlier. For Wolfe, defining the American experience was synonymous with defining himself. Consequently, many of his weaknesses—his subjectivity, his effervescent if naïve enthusiasm, his lack of real invention of plot—become his strengths and his hallmarks.

It is impossible to say in what direction Wolfe might have developed literarily had he lived longer. His last two novels leave one with the feeling that he was repeating himself like a broken record. Nevertheless, some of America’s finest writing is to be found in his work, and his writing has held much of its popular appeal through the years.

Bibliography

Field, Leslie A., ed. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: New York University Press, 1968. This overview of Wolfe criticism is organized into discussions of major themes, style, specific novels, and short stories. It presents a checklist of Wolfe criticism and includes an important essay by Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s.

Holman, C. Hugh. The Loneliness at the Core: Studies in Thomas Wolfe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975. Holman provides valuable insights into the catalytic effect that Europe had on Wolfe’s writing and thinking. Discusses intelligently Wolfe’s problems with point of view.

McElderry, Bruce R., Jr. Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964. A straightforward critical biography with a particularly useful annotated bibliography of secondary sources. Contains a brief but helpful consideration of Wolfe’s plays and of his short stories.

Magi, Aldo P., and Richard Walser, eds. Thomas Wolfe Interviewed: 1929-1938. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. A valuable primary resource which reproduces twenty-six newspaper interviews that Wolfe gave between the publication of Look Homeward, Angel and his death.

Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1960. This carefully researched biography is based upon Nowell’s 1956 edition of Wolfe’s letters and is authoritative though dated.

Reeves, Paschal, ed. Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception. New York: David Lewis, 1974. Reeves presents, in chronological order, reproductions of significant reviews of Wolfe’s books as well as assessments published immediately after his death in 1938.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955. Rubin considers the question of autobiography as a fictional form. He also writes of the effect that Wolfe’s premonitions of death had on his art.

Walser, Richard. Thomas Wolfe: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1961. This brief book follows a chronological order and gives a solid basic understanding of Wolfe to readers not otherwise familiar with him. The illustrations are worthwhile.

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