New Appalachian Moments Blog Post by Scott Ballard
Born at the turn of the 20th century and prodigy as a child, young Thomas Wolfe enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill at age 15…impressive enough, but this kid had BRASS. During an induction ceremony for new members of the debate and literary society he proclaimed that one day his portrait would hang beside former governor Zebulon Vance…That debate didn’t last long, his prediction came true.
And you might think Harvard University is a long way from Asheville, North Carolina, and it is, but Wolfe somehow convinced his mother to pony up the money for his first year’s tuition…he soon finished with his master’s degree. The world was wide open for Mr. Thomas Wolfe, except that his passion was for writing long, ponderous plays that he couldn’t give away!
On a trip back from Europe aboard the Olympic…the sister ship to the Titanic, he met a woman 18 years his senior. And even though she was married with children, they carried on a five year affair. It was she who convinced Wolfe to quit writing those boring plays…which was leaving him impoverished. She said, you know what, you should write novels instead. The rest is North Carolina literary history.
His first, and arguably his finest work, was Look Homeward Angel, published when he was 29 years old.
Wolfe mined rich childhood experiences for that book. He had grown up in and around a boarding house, named “Dixieland,” that held as many as 19 renters and from those adventures and living a small town life, he crafted his novel…
And even though he changed everyone’s names…and called Asheville…Altamount…everyone in Asheville knew exactly who he was talking about in the book…often in a very unflattering light.
Another best-seller was You Can’t Go Home Again published in 1940 two years after his death from tuberculosis at age 38.
In keeping with this semi-autobiographical trend, that novel tells the story a fledgling author, much like himself at that time, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town. The book is a national success but the residents of the town, unhappy with what they view as the author’s distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats. And in that particular case it’s true that life imitates art just as art imitates life!
The title, You can’t go home again, is explained by the author that, you can’t go back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back to simplicity, back to the structure and safety which once seemed so everlasting, but which is changing all the time.
The truth is Wolfe did indeed finally go home again and stayed there…he is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville. Click below to hear the audio version and remember to like, comment and share this post so that more folks can see it—thanks!