Thomas Wolfe (1900 – 1938)

 Thomas Wolfe photo
1937 portrait by Carl Van Vechten

Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville, NC on October 3, 1900.

His mother, Julia Westall Wolfe, owned a boarding house down the street from their family home, and Wolfe spent a lot of his childhood there. When he was 15 Wolfe left Asheville to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating from Chapel Hill he attended Harvard University to study theatre with the intention of becoming a dramatist. While at Harvard Wolfe put on two productions, the first one in 1921 called The Mountains, and in 1923 a ten-act play, originally titled Niggertown (published later as Welcome to Our City).

After graduating from Harvard, Wolfe went to teach at New York University, a position he held for 7 years. In 1924 he began what would become his first published book and the one he is best known for today, Look Homeward, Angel. The manuscript, originally titled O, Lost, was a fictionalized exploration of Wolfe’s childhood in Asheville, renamed Altamont. When the book was published in 1929, 11 days before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, many people in Asheville were upset with the thinly veiled characterizations Wolfe made, and because of this he didn’t return to his home town until 1937, making one last visit before his death.

Following the success of Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe published a sequel, Of Time and The River (1935), his most commercially successful novel. His third book, and first published collection of Short Stories, From Death To Morning was published the same year. The last book Wolfe saw published during his lifetime was The Story Of a Novel (1936), a revised version of a lecture he gave at a writer’s conference in Boulder, Colorado.

In the summer of 1938, after turning in a million word manuscript to his editor at Harper & Brothers, Wolfe became ill while traveling. Complications from pneumonia led to a diagnosis of military tuberculosis which had spread to his brain, and Wolfe died just 18 days before his 38th birthday.

Wolfe is know for his dramatic prose and sweeping descriptions. All of his works were heavily edited, first by Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, then posthumously by his second editor, Edward Aswell at Harper & Brothers. Aswell, along with Perkins, who was named executor of his estate after Wolfe’s death, turned the thousands of pages of writing Wolfe left behind into multiple published works, including The Web and The Rock (1939), You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), and The Hills Beyond (1941), all written in the style of autobiographical fiction that Wolfe was known for.

Other posthumous works include, The Face Of a Nation (1939), a collection of popular 'poetical' passages from Wolfe's writings, illustrated by Edward Shenton, published the year after his death, Gentleman of the Press (1942), a short play offering a critique of the press, and Mannerhouse (1948), a Civil War play considered to be the sole work by Wolfe that does not contain autobiographical material.

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 description 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. There has been a recent revitalization of interest in Wolfe in popular culture, such as the 2016 movie Genius, featuring Jude Law as Wolfe, and a recent feature of the highly collectable and eye-catching first edition Look Homeward, Angel in the Netflix series Ozark.
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Books by Thomas Wolfe