Thomas Wolfe Additional 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.)


(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.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201298-Wolfe_Th.jpg Thomas Wolfe Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 plays have been published—for example, The Return of Buck Gavin: The Tragedy of the Mountain Outlaw (1924) and The Mountains: A Play in One Act (1940)—and have been produced in various venues, but they are considered unmemorable on the whole. This was not so with several of Wolfe’s short stories. For example, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and “Death the Proud Brother” have often been anthologized. Wolfe is best remembered, however, for his novels.

In addition to his hometown, his mother’s boarding house, his family and friends, and growing-up pains, other experiences that found their way into Wolfe’s writings were the death of his brother Benjamin Harrison and his tempestuous five-year love affair with Aline Bernstein, a wealthy set designer married to a New York stockbroker. She financed his early writing efforts, making it possible for the English instructor to relinquish his position at New York University. Bernstein was also influential in making Wolfe shift his focus from drama, his first love, to novel writing, which was indeed better suited to his sweeping style.

Wolfe’s seven trips to Europe and his consequent nostalgia for and wonderment at America were also part of his experience and thus his fiction. It was Wolfe’s life and imagination that allowed him “to try to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin”—to quote another Southern novelist, William Faulkner.

Despite two operations, the physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital were unable to save Wolfe from the acute recurrence of a tubercular brain condition. The six-foot-six giant died at thirty-eight, nine years after making his first big splash on the literary scene.


(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.)


(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.)


(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 novels.


(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.)


(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.)