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Thomas Wolfe  

Thomas Wolfe is best known for his autobiographical novels, "Look Homeward,Angel, "Of Time and the River," "The Web and the Rock", and "You Can't Go Home Again."
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Thomas Wolfe ( 1900-1938)

 

Maxwell Perkins

 

Thomas Wolfe and his mother, Julia Wolfe

 

Wolfe in Central City, Colorado, 1935

 

Brief Biography

Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina, a town in the western part of the state surrounded by tree covered mountains.  Wolfe was the youngest of 8 children.  His father was a stone carver and his mother owned a boarding house and was active in acquiring real estate.  Wolfe's parents were not happily married, and young Thomas lived with his mother in "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house owned by his mother.  Wolfe was a very bright child, who felt neglected by his mother.  He was very fond of his older brother Ben, who was protective of his younger brother and often gave him money and gifts.  Wolfe was heartbroken when Ben died of pneumonia while Wolfe was in college.   Wolfe enrolled in the University of North Carolina in 1916 when he was only 15.    He was well prepared for college by a gifted instructor, Margaret Roberts, who took the tall, shy boy under her wing.  He was probably the tallest person in his University class, if not the University, at 6 feet, 7 inches.  While he felt like an outsider, he did well in college, winning honors for his writing.  Some of his plays were produced at the University.  Wolfe began to see himself as a playwright.  After graduation, he convinced his mother to finance his studies at Harvard University, where he studied playwriting.  He earned his M.A. at Harvard and because he was not successful in getting his plays produced, began teaching English at New York University part-time.  Wolfe took advantage of his free time by sailing to Europe in 1924.  On the home trip back to New York, he met Aline Bernstein, a married, successful set and costume designer, 19 years older than Wolfe.  They entered into a stormy 5 year affair.  Bernstein helped Wolfe financially and loved him, but rejected his proposal of marriage, deciding to never divorce her husband.  Over these 5 years Wolfe wrote what would become "Look Homeward, Angel."   By 1928, he believed he finished his novel  ( which he entitled "O Lost.")   However he could not find a publisher.  Finally, after arriving home from yet another trip to Europe in 1929, he received news that Charles Scribner's Sons was interested in his very long manuscript.   Working closely with Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe cut out many pages of the manuscript and under Perkins's wise advice, concentrated on the story of the hero, Eugene Gant,  The title was changed to "Look Homeward, Angel"  ( from a poem by Milton).  Eugene Gant was Wolfe himself and many of the characters and events were centered in Asheville.  The novel appeared in published form on Wolfe's 29th birthday in 1929.   As Wolfe became known, he broke his relationship with Aline Bernstein and moved to Brooklyn, living alone and writing.   Elizabeth Nowell, a literary agent, edited and sold several of Wolfe's short stories.   Perkins suggested that Wolfe write a sequel to "Look Homeward, Angel"  After much work, the massive manuscript was complete in 1933.  Perkins and Wolfe worked together on the manuscript, cutting out thousands of words.   Wolfe then went to Europe and while he was away, Perkins cut even more.  In 1935, while Wolfe was in Europe, "Of Time and the River" was published.  The book was well received by the public and critics, but Wolfe was troubled by all the cuts Perkins made.  When he returned home from Europe, he cut his ties with Perkins and found a new editor , Edward Aswell, of Harper Brothers.

As with Perkins, Wolfe became friendly with Aswell and they worked together on another large manuscript.  The new book was to be called "The Web and the Rock."   Before it was published, Wolfe took a vacation to the western part of the United States.  While in Vancouver, he became ill.   His condition got worse and he was hospitalized in Washington State.   At first it seemed he would recover, but he did not and was sent to a hospital in Seattle. Tests showed that Wolfe had a tubercular lesion in his right lung.  Wolfe knew his health was deteriorating and he sent a heartfelt,very grateful  letter to his old friend, Maxwell Perkins.  It proved to be the last letter he would write.  In it he writes that he had a "hunch" he would not recover.   His condition did not improve.  Suffering terrible headaches and bouts of irrationality, he was sent to Johns Hopkins.  Perkins, Nowell and Aswell and some of Wolfe's family went to the hospital.   A skilled neurosurgeon relieved some of the pressure on Wolfe's brain but a second operation made it clear that the right side of Wolfe's brain was full of tubercles, the case was hopeless.  Wolfe never regained consciousness and died on September 15, 1938.   He was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

Edward Aswell took Wolfe's unfinished manuscripts and edited them into two novels, "The Web and the Rock," and "You Can't Go Home Again," as well as the novella "The Hills Beyond."  Many believe that had Wolfe lived, he would have written more novels and would have been able to discipline himself.  As it is, his novels and short stories are a permanent, valued  part of American literature.

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