Here in Asheville, NC, where Thomas Wolfe and Biblio both have their roots, Wolfe’s novels have always been well known and touted throughout the small mountain town. Actually – that’s not true at all – Wolfe left Asheville when he was 15 and didn’t come back until right before his death at the young age of 37 – and his reception during his visit wasn’t the welcome homecoming he was hoping for. But Asheville was never far from his thoughts as he revisited the city in a large part of his writing.
Wolfe was extremely popular during his time, sharing the spotlight of that era with literary giants like Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. He is considered one of the early masters of autobiographical fiction and is known for influencing many later writers including Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, Hunter Thomson, and Pat Conroy.
Wolfe’s writing was descriptive and voluminous; very voluminous. Truman Capote described Wolfe’s work as “all that purple upchuck.” Yet Sinclair Lewis mentioned Wolfe in his Nobel Prize speech in 1930, stating “He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer… In fact, I don’t see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers.” Faulkner once called Wolfe the greatest writer of their generation (him being second), and in a later speech clarified that he thought Wolfe’s daring and experimentation, trying to put the whole of his being and experiences and observations into one book, made him a “Splendid Failure.”
Wolfe’s writing style later fell out of favor and his popularity waned. But a recent revitalization of interest, brought on by the 2016 movie Genius, featuring Jude Law as Wolfe, and a recent feature of the highly collectible and eye-catching first edition Look Homeward, Angel in the Netflix series Ozark.
Here’s a look at Homeward, and other Wolfe books to add to your collection:
Wolfe began this autobiographical novel in the summer of 1926. Set in the town of Altamont which was based on his hometown of Asheville, the novel tells the story of Eugene Gant and his family, which was based on Wolfe’s own family and his experiences growing up in his mother Julia’s boarding house. The original manuscript, of “O Lost” as it was originally called, was over 1100 pages, or 330,000 words (the average length of a novel is around 100,000, for comparison). Wolfe’s editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins (who also worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald), cut the book considerably. It was published 11 days before the stock market crash of 1929 and caused an uproar in Asheville, as many of the characters were obviously based on real people in the small mountain town, whose population at the beginning of the 20th century when Wolfe was growing up was less than 20,000 people.
After the success of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe continued to write, spending four years on a sequel which follows Eugene Gant’s life through his early twenties, including time at Harvard and teaching in New York City, along with travels overseas. The original manuscript, in true Wolfe style, was a behemoth, multi-volume epic in the fashion of Proust’s million-plus word In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past). Wolfe had titled his book The October Fair, but Perkins again edited it down to just one volume and renamed it Of Time and The River. It was released in 1935 to great commercial success, becoming Wolfe’s only American best-seller, and the last book published by Scribner’s during Wolfe’s lifetime, as the author switched to Harper & Brothers, perhaps prompted by Perkin’s heavy-handed editing.
This is Wolfe’s third book, and his first published collection of his short stories, including the popular “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Many people find Wolfe’s short fiction more accessible than his longer novels.
The Story of a Novel is the revised version of a lecture Wolfe gave at a writer’s conference in Boulder, Colorado.
The dust jacket of this book, released the year after Wolfe’s death, proclaims “This novel, completed before Thomas Wolfe’s untimely death, ranks with his best and truest works.” Wolfe was the first American writer to leave two unpublished manuscripts in the hands of his publisher at his death – this novel, and You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe had mentioned in The Story of a Novel that as a writer, his editor was the “rock” and he was the “web.”
When Wolfe died he left his editor, Edward Aswell, with a manuscript of over a million words that he wanted published as one work, The Web and the Rock. Contrary to Wolfe’s wishes, Aswell, under the direction of Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s previous editor and executor of his estate, published the manuscript as two separate books. The second of these book, You Can’t Go Home Again, derived its title from a conversation Wolfe had at a dinner party with American Communist Ella Winter, who after hearing Wolfe’s stories regarding his visit back to Asheville replied, “But don’t you know you can’t go home again?” This novel contains the novella “The Party At Jack’s,” a popular story of Wolfe’s that depicts a party and subsequent fire at a New York City Penthouse during the Depression era. Esther Jack, who is featured in this and other stories, was based on mistress, Aline Bernstein, who was married to a successful Wall Street broker.
Published the year after his death, The Face of A Nation is a collection of popular ‘poetical’ passages from Wolfe’s writings, illustrated by Edward Shenton.
The third and last book posthumously culled from the mountains of manuscripts left behind, The Hills Beyond includes short stories and ten chapters from a longer piece of fiction. Considered to be some of his best and most mature work, this volume also contained a “Note of Thomas Wolfe,” a famous essay by Edward C. Aswell, Wolfe’s last editor. Some Wolfe purists believe that the posthumous works are mostly the creation of Aswell and don’t consider them to be part of the Wolfe canon.
Wolfe’s ten-act play called was originally titled “Niggertown” when it was first performed at Harvard, which Wolfe attended for his Masters degree, in 1923. Welcome to Our City was performed with more than half of the cast in blackface, and features “Altamont” – Wolfe’s thinly veiled pseudonym for his hometown of Asheville, that he used in later books. Welcome to Our City centers around powerful and wealthy white business owners and real estate agents and their scheme to take over the centrally located black business district in town and evict all tenants in order build a white residential area. When the black citizens resist a race riot breaks out. The play was too long to be viable in the theatre and Wolfe gave up his dream of being a dramatist after his failure to shop it, but the theme of gentrification still resonates today (Asheville is the fastest gentrifying city in the nation today). The play was resurrected by Louisiana State University Press in 1983.
A short play offering a critique of the press. Wolfe was a paperboy during his youth, and also voiced his skepticism of journalism in Look Homeward, Angel.
A Civil War play about a great Southern mansion falling out of the hands of it’s original family. This piece was written while Wolfe was studying playwriting at Harvard with George Pierce Baker. This play is considered to be the sole work by Wolfe that does not contain autobiographical material.
Harvard historian David Herbert Donald’s biography of Wolfe, Look Homeward, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1988.
Complete list of works, compiled by The Thomas Wolfe Society:
Wolfe published numerous short stories and other works during his short lifetime, with many published after as well. For a very comprehensive list in chronological order, visit the Thomas Wolfe Society:
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.