Authors: Thomas Wolfe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

October 3, 1900

Asheville, North Carolina

September 15, 1938

Baltimore, Maryland

Biography

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 became one of the most popular and outstanding figures on the campus. Encouraged by Professor Frederick H. Koch of the Playmakers, Wolfe decided to do graduate work at Harvard University in George Pierce Baker’s 47 Dramatic Workshop and to make playwriting his career.

Thomas Wolfe

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(Library of Congress)

He remained three years at Harvard, two of them as a student, taking his MA degree in 1922 and hoping to have one of his plays produced on Broadway. During his years at Harvard, his father died, and Wolfe accepted a teaching appointment as instructor in English at New York University. He began teaching in February 1924.

In September 1925 Wolfe met Aline Bernstein and found the direction he needed for his career. Nineteen years Wolfe’s senior, she was a married woman and the mother of two grown children. A set designer with some knowledge of the theater, she quickly realized that Wolfe’s talent did not lie in playwriting but in the novel. As their friendship developed into a love affair, she invited him to join her in Manchester, England, where she was working on a play. Freed from his teaching duties and encouraged by Bernstein, Wolfe completed an outline for his first novel in two weeks.

In August, Bernstein went home to America, but she generously agreed to finance Wolfe’s stay in England through the remainder of the year. When he returned to New York City in December of 1926, he moved into an apartment that Bernstein had rented for him. He continued to work on his book until July, when he and Bernstein went again to Europe. After they returned, Wolfe resumed his teaching, but Bernstein still helped him financially and continued to do so until after he had completed Look Homeward, Angel in March 1928. The novel was placed by Madeline Boyd with Maxwell Perkins, managing editor of Scribner’s, and published in 1929.

The book was generally well received; only at home in North Carolina were the reactions antagonistic. The turmoil occasioned by Look Homeward, Angel in his hometown hurt Wolfe; he was naïvely surprised that his novel should be so patently recognized for what it was—a very thinly disguised autobiography—and he avoided a return to Asheville until the year before his death.

Recognition came somewhat slowly for Wolfe. In 1930, Sinclair Lewis, in his address of acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature, paid Wolfe tribute on the basis of his only book, Look Homeward, Angel, and prophesied a great future for the younger novelist. In the meantime, Wolfe was working on a second novel, a continuation of the story of Eugene Gant that was published in 1935 as Of Time and the River. Although equally autobiographical, Of Time and the River stirred no animosities in Asheville; the scenes of the book were removed to Boston, New York, and Europe. In the summer of 1935, Wolfe was invited to speak at a writers’ conference at Boulder, Colorado, where he delivered a series of lectures. An account of the writer’s craft, they were published the following year as The Story of a Novel.

By 1937, Wolfe, smarting from criticism suggesting too much dependence on his editor Maxwell Perkins, had decided to change publishers. He signed a contract with Harper and Brothers and began delivering his work in progress, an account of the life of a young man very much like Thomas Wolfe and Eugene Gant of Look Homeward, Angel. This year also marked a triumphant return to Asheville, where he was forgiven and hailed as a favorite son.

In the spring of 1938, Wolfe was invited to lecture at Purdue University. From there he started on a trip to the West, stopping at Denver and making a great sweep through the national park country. In Seattle, he was ill with a cold, locally diagnosed as pneumonia; he was moved to a hospital, and his brother Fred was called West to attend him. When his condition grew worse, Fred Wolfe was joined by his sister, Mabel Wheaton. Consulting physicians suspected a brain tumor and believed that an operation was indicated. The family conference determined that any operation should be done at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, and there Wolfe was brought in August. The operation revealed multiple tuberculosis of the brain. Wolfe never came out of the coma that followed the operation, and he died in Baltimore on September 15, 1938, less than a month before his thirty-eighth birthday. His body was taken to Asheville for burial; only in death could the wanderer “go home again.”

Wolfe’s third and fourth novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, were readied for posthumous publication by Edward C. Aswell, Wolfe’s editor and personal friend at Harper. The novels added to Wolfe’s stature and brought his fictional work to a reasonable conclusion. In 1941 The Hills Beyond appeared (another series of short stories and sketches), as did “The Hills Beyond,” a fragmentary and incomplete novel introducing some of the Gant-Webber family members of an earlier time in the Carolina mountains. Mannerhouse, a play first written by Wolfe during his stay at Harvard, appeared in published form in 1948.

Even before his death, Thomas Wolfe was becoming a legend. Everything about him seemed larger than life—not only his physical appearance but also his compulsion to record every detail of his personal quest for identity. His capacity for recalling and rendering all of life’s experiences almost obviated the need for a biographer. More important, Wolfe’s attempt to understand and define his own isolation led to more understanding of the human condition.

Author Works Long Fiction: Look Homeward, Angel, 1929 Of Time and the River, 1935 The Web and the Rock, 1939 You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940 The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe, 1961 (C. Hugh Holman, editor) Short Fiction: From Death to Morning, 1935 The Hills Beyond, 1941 The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, 1987 Drama: Welcome to Our City, pr. 1923 (pb. only in Germany as Willkommen in Altamont, 1962) The Mountains, pb. 1940 Mannerhouse, pb. 1948 Poetry: The Face of a Nation: Poetical Passages from the Writings of Thomas Wolfe, 1939 A Stone, a Leaf, a Door: Poems by Thomas Wolfe, 1945 Nonfiction: The Story of a Novel, 1936 Thomas Wolfe’s Letters to His Mother, 1943 (John Skally Terry, editor) The Portable Thomas Wolfe, 1946 (Maxwell Geisman, editor) The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, 1956 (Elizabeth Nowell, editor) The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe, 1970 (Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves, editors) The Thomas Wolfe Reader, 1982 (Cottugh Holman, editor) Beyond Love and Loyalty: The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Elizabeth Nowell, 1983 (Kennedy, editor) My Other Loneliness: Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein, 1983 (Suzanne Stutman, editor) To Loot My Life Clean: The Thomas Wolfe-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence, 2000 (Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker, editors) Bibliography Bassett, John Earl. Thomas Wolfe: An Annotated Critical Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. A helpful tool for the student of Wolfe. Indexed. Bentz, Joseph. “The Influence of Modernist Structure in the Short Fiction of Thomas Wolfe.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 149–162. Argues that while Wolfe’s novels owed much to the nineteenth century novel tradition, his short stories were heavily influenced by the modernism of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Discusses the nonlinear, open-ended nature of such stories as “No Cure for It” and “The Lost Boy.” Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Chelsea House, 2000. A compendium of critical essays on Wolfe’s oeuvre. Introduction, chronology, and bibliography. Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. 1987. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Donald’s fine late biography stresses Wolfe’s accomplishment as a social historian and his novels as “a barometer of American culture.” Like others, Donald admits the presence of much bad writing but confesses to responding enthusiastically to the good. Makes full use of Wolfe’s letters to his mistress, Aline Bernstein. Evans, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Provides an excellent shorter introduction to Wolfe for both the beginning and the advanced student. Economical and accurate, it is keyed clearly to Wolfe scholarship and is rich in unpretentious literary allusion. Though Evans is cautious in her admiration of Wolfe’s fiction, she is appreciative of it as well. Contains a chronology and a good short bibliography. Field, Leslie A., ed. Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: New York University Press, 1968. This collection contains landmark essays by many of the most important critics in the field of Wolfe criticism; revealed are the central issues and the range of critical response provoked by Wolfe’s work, from its first publication through the mid-1960s. Holman, C. Hugh. The World of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. An older text, an example of the “controlled research” concept popular in the 1960s, this book is specifically designed for high school and college students. A good cross section of Wolfe criticism is offered, with practical information for further study. Topics for library research and term papers are suggested. Idol, John Lane, Jr. A Thomas Wolfe Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. An expression of the resurgence of interest in Wolfe by an unabashed devotee, this handy book is a potpourri of Wolfeana with glossaries of characters and places, genealogical charts of Wolfe’s fictional families, a descriptive and “analytic” bibliography of primary works, and an annotated bibliography of secondary materials. Also contains information on the various collections of Wolfe material, The Thomas Wolfe Society, The Thomas Wolfe Review, and even times and prices of tours of the holy sites. Johnston, Carol Ingalls. Of Time and the Artist: Thomas Wolfe, His Novels, and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996. Looks at Wolfe’s autobiographical fiction and the critical response to it. Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. Remains indispensable to the study of Wolfe; objective, scholarly, and analytic, it melds the work and the man into an artistic synthesis. Particularly valuable as a study of the creative process. McElderry, Bruce R. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Twayne, 1964. An excellent basic introduction to Wolfe’s life and work, McElderry’s study provides lucid analysis well supported by standard critical opinion, including a chapter on the shorter fiction. Contains a useful chronology and annotated select bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Phillipson, John S., ed. Critical Essays on Thomas Wolfe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. Contains twenty-three essays, most formerly published, written between 1970 and the early 1980s. Arranged by genre, the book contains seven essays on Wolfe’s short fiction. Rubin, Louis D., Jr., ed. Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. A collection, with an introduction by Rubin, of a dozen stimulating essays by a variety of critics, scholars, and writers ranging from the impressionistic—a mode Wolfe inevitably inspires—to the scholarly. Contains the notorious Bernard De Voto review (1936) of The Story of a Novel entitled “Genius Is Not Enough.”

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