Thomas Wolfe Biography

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201298-Wolfe_Th.jpg Thomas Wolfe Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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...

(The entire section is 2064 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Thomas Clayton Wolfe was the youngest child of Julia Elizabeth Westall and William Oliver Wolfe, a Pennsylvania mason and stonecutter who went south to find work. One of Wolfe’s brothers, Benjamin Harrison Wolfe, died at age eighteen, as does the brother in Look Homeward, Angel. Although Wolfe’s mother did run a tourist home, The Old Kentucky Home, it is important to remember that his family was very prosperous; one scholar estimates that they were financially in the upper two percent of the town’s population. Although this fact does not mean that an affluent adolescent cannot suffer the torments of the damned, it nevertheless somewhat negates the concept of Thomas Wolfe as the poor, suffering, and morbidly sensitive child, which was fashioned by the early members of his literary cult. The Wolfes were German, an unusual ethnic origin in that part of Carolina, where most of the people were Scotch-Irish or English, and they lived in the western, mountain end of North Carolina, which had more in common with East Tennessee, Appalachian Ohio, and mountain Pennsylvania than with eastern North Carolina, the Tidewater of Virginia, or even northern Mississippi (the setting of Faulkner’s stories). Both ethnic background and geographic environment are reflected strongly in Wolfe’s works.

Wolfe was enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; at that time it was the university’s only campus and was restricted to males during his first two years. He majored in the classics and in English literature, and he began his writing career as a playwright with the Carolina Playmakers. By college age, Wolfe had achieved his full growth (he was six feet, six inches tall and later, as a slightly older man, weighed two hundred and fifty pounds) and in appearance was a man of epic proportions as well as epic ambitions. Wolfe went to Harvard University...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, Thomas Clayton Wolfe was the youngest of the seven surviving children of Julia Elizabeth Westall and William Oliver Wolfe. Of Pennsylvania Dutch-German stock, Wolfe’s father had intense vitality. He was a stonecutter who instilled in Wolfe a love of language, whether it be the high rhetoric of Elizabethan poetry or the low vernacular of the mountain people surrounding Asheville. Wolfe’s mother was more attuned to the values of commerce than her husband (she was forever speculating in real estate). In fact, one biographer has termed the match an “epic misalliance.” Domestic relations in the Wolfe household were often strained; young Wolfe grew up a witness to his father’s drunken rampages and his mother’s ensuing resentment. From this family cauldron came much of the autobiographical material Wolfe poured forth in Look Homeward, Angel.

In September of 1912, Wolfe entered the North State Fitting School, where he came under the influence of his teacher, Margaret Roberts (Margaret Leonard in Look Homeward, Angel). Roberts encouraged Wolfe’s voracious appetite for reading by introducing him to the best of English literature. In 1916, at the precocious age of fifteen, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Six feet tall and still growing (he would eventually reach six feet six inches), Wolfe was a skinny, long-legged youth, sensitive to the criticism of his older classmates. Wolfe’s first year at Chapel Hill was unremarkable, but he eventually made a name for himself as an excellent student and a campus literary figure. In March of 1919, The Return of Buck Garvin, a play Wolfe had written in a dramatic writing course, was performed by the Carolina Playmakers, with Wolfe...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the preface to his first of four great sprawling novels, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe writes, “All serious work in fiction is autobiographical.” This belief, together with Wolfe’s self-appreciation, which bordered on megalomania, gave a focus to much of his relatively short life and even briefer stint as chronicler, in fiction, of his own life.

The precocious Wolfe, who was graduated from the University of North Carolina before he was twenty and obtained his master’s degree from Harvard University two years later, at first considered himself to be a playwright. He even spent an additional year at Harvard to participate in Professor George Pierce Baker’s famous workshop in 1923. Some of his...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina. He was the youngest child in the family. His father, W. O. Wolfe, was a stonecutter who had been born in central Pennsylvania and who went south to live soon after the Civil War. His mother was Julia Westall, of Asheville. Wolfe was educated in public schools until he was twelve, when he was entered at the North State School. Attending school there until graduation in 1916, he then entered the University of North Carolina, which he attended from 1916 to 1920.

Wolfe’s stay at Chapel Hill was maturing and exciting; he stood well in his classes, became interested in the Carolina Playmakers, and wrote plays of his own in which he acted. He...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because so much of his writing was based upon his own background and upbringing, critics and biographers have often interpreted the novels of Thomas Wolfe by reference to the author’s personal life. Although occasionally his fictional vision diverged from the realities of Wolfe’s life, often the correspondence between literary narration and actual events was so close that the sources of his works could easily be traced to his own experiences.

The last of eight children, Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, on October 3, 1900. His parents, Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe and William Oliver Wolfe, were of widely contrasting temperaments. While his father, a stonecutter, was an ingratiating sort...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Wolfe’s ability to present personal experiences and memories in a manner that has inspired many readers to identify with the fictional characterizations of the author has contributed much to the appeal of his major works. Although to some his approach has appeared overly centered on the self, indeed narcissistic, he was able to transform impressions and ideas into forms of expression that are broadly representative of the American ethos, both during his own day and for later generations. The continuing attraction of his writings has been derived partly from his powers of description and characterization, but perhaps more than that from the extent to which the personal and the specific were made to appear universal in his great...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Novels for Students)

Born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe was the youngest of eight children, two of whom died when they were very...

(The entire section is 381 words.)

Thomas Wolfe Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, a resort community. Wolfe was a good student at the local elementary...

(The entire section is 461 words.)