Thomas Clayton Wolfe


Thomas Wolfe is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His opulent language and unique literary style have elevated his life to legendary status through his four autobiographical novels. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929, only nine years before his death. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935. This was followed by a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning, published that same year. An autobiographical essay on writing, The Story of a Novel, was published in 1936. These books, along with many short stories published in magazines, completes the works that appeared during his lifetime. There were three posthumous works--The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond--that were gleaned from the huge manuscript Wolfe left behind.

Wolfe grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. During his youth, this was a middle class mountain resort town dazzled by real estate speculation. Wolfe's Mother, Julia E. Wolfe, was ahead of her time as a successful female real estate speculator. Wolfe felt her interest was a disease that interfered with her duties as a wife and mother. William Oliver Wolfe, his father, was a tombstone maker with a great vigor for living and a constant need to hurl himself against the prison bars of his dreary provincial life. While he provided well for his large family, he delighted in all the robust sensual aspects of life. He drank heavily and when in this state often verbally stormed at his family with great torrents of rhetoric and much quoting from Shakespeare. Wolfe portrays both of his parents with great spirit and good humored satire.

Wolfe was the youngest of eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. During his childhood the family member closest to him was his brother, Benjamin Wolfe.  The profoundly eloquent description of Ben's death in Look Homeward, Angel is emotionally gripping.

After age eleven Wolfe attended a private school in Asheville where he received personal attention and encouragement. Shortly before he was sixteen, Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the university, he wrote for school magazines and newspapers, and became the editor of the Tar Heel, the college newspaper. His early ideas about a career leaned toward the theater, because of his work with the Carolina Playmakers under Professor Frederick Koch.

When Wolfe graduated, at age twenty, he went to Harvard to study playwrighting further under Professor George Pierce Baker, in his renowned 47 Workshop. He stayed at Harvard for three years. He completed his Master of Arts Degree in Literature in two years, but he remained an extra year to gain more experience in the 47 Workshop. Wolfe later satirized the pretentiousness of Harvard life, and the 47 Workshop in particular, in Of Time and the River.

Though Wolfe had a good eye for scene, character, and drama his overall writing style and personal temperament were not well suited to the theater. Unable to get his plays produced, Wolfe took a job as an English instructor at New York University in 1924. He taught off and on at the Washington Square campus from 1924 until 1930.

When his first course of teaching was finished, he took his savings and money his mother was willing to give him and sailed for Europe, where he continued his writing. On his return voyage home in August 1925 he met Aline Bernstein, a successful set and costume designer in the New York theater, and they began a passionate and turbulent love affair. Though they had much in common in artistic temperament, their lives were really a contrast of opposites. She was almost twenty years older than Wolfe, married, and the mother of two grown children. She had a Jewish heritage and had been born and raised in New York City. Her husband was a successful New York businessman who gave her a secure life of wealth and privilege. However, far from being a socialite, Mrs. Bernstein lived her life as an artist and a worker. In spite of their differences and the turbulent problems of their love affair, Wolfe showed his admiration for the beautiful qualities of her character that attracted him to her, when he portrays her as the Esther Jack of his posthumous novels. Aline Bernstein recounts their love affair in Three Blue Suits and The Journey Down.

In June of 1926, while on vacation in England with Mrs. Bernstein, Wolfe began to write what would become Look Homeward, Angel. With the aid of Mrs. Bernstein, he was able to continue his writing in New York. It was this artistic, emotional, and financial support Wolfe wanted to recognize when he dedicated the book to her upon its publication by Scribners, in October of 1929.

However, their affair had reached a breaking point. Wolfe felt trapped both by Mrs. Bernstein's love for him and his own emotional response to the many problems of their affair. In March of 1930 Wolfe was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed him to travel to Europe for almost a year. It provided the opportunity to finally end his relationship with Mrs. Bernstein. When he returned to New York in February 1931 he rented an apartment in Brooklyn. In these new surroundings he continued to wrestle with his second book.

Wolfe found he could replace the emotional support he had lost when he left Mrs. Bernstein with his editor, the famous Maxwell Perkins. He also edited such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Perkins became very close to Wolfe, being the father of five daughters, Wolfe became the son he never had. Though there has been much debate about Perkins influence over the construction of Of Time and the River, there can be no doubt of his great belief in Wolfe's talent and ability. It was, perhaps, his parental feeling toward Wolfe and their close emotional bond that eventually caused even Wolfe to feel he was too dependent on Perkins.

In 1937, Wolfe broke with Scribners and signed a contract with Harpers. The young Edward Aswell, a great Wolfe admirer, became his editor. While on a trip out West, Wolfe came down with pneumonia. Doctors were perplexed by unusual complications that developed, so in September of 1938 Wolfe was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Walter Dandy, the foremost brain surgeon in the country at the time, believed Wolfe had tuberculosis of the brain. On September 12 he operated, in a last ditch effort to save Wolfe's life. He found the entire right side of Wolfe's brain was covered with tubercles. There was nothing that could be done. On September 15, 1938, never having regained consciousness, Thomas Wolfe died. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe's frantic rush to do all, see all, and write it all down had proved tragically correct.

Though his life was short, his literary achievements were, indeed, large. His words are torrential explosions of adjectives and adverbs, but through the magic of his words, he breathed life into his vision of the world around him. The lyrical quality of his writing, his robust rhetoric, his vast vocabulary, and his expansive eloquence are found no where else in American literature. He communicates his experiences through the shapes, sounds, colors, odors, and textures of life, and he proclaims his impressions of the world with total mastery.