Last reviewed: June 2017
October 3, 1900
Asheville, North Carolina
September 15, 1938
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
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.