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Thomas Wolfe

October 3, 1900, is the birthday of Thomas Wolfe, author of several autobiographical novels, including his first, Look Homeward Angel (1929), published only nine years before his death.  It's a fictionalized look at the author's hometown and the people in it.  He cast himself as Eugene Gant, a kid who grew up reading history and adventure books.

Wolfe--not to be confused with contemporary author/journalist Tom Wolfe--was raised in Asheville, North Carolina, a middle class, respectable mountain resort community booming with real estate speculation.  His mother, Julia, jumped on the bandwagon by becoming a real estate agent, something that her husband, Oliver, a tombstone maker, resented.  Oliver felt that he made a good enough living so that his wife could stay home to raise the children, and young Thomas secretly felt the same. 

The youngest of eight children, Wolfe was among six who survived to adulthood. Throughout childhood, his closest friend was his brother, Benjamin, who served as one of the characters in Look Homeward, Angel.  Wolfe painted him as a loner who is sarcastic in his denial of his love for his youngest brother.  Ben's cardboard character reflects Wolfe's own need to break out of Asheville and see the world as a successful writer.  His emotionally charged portrayal of Ben's death is a high point in American  literature.

When Wolfe was graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at 20 years of age, he entered Harvard to study playwriting 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 Workshop.  He later satirized the pretentiousness of Harvard life and the 47 Workshop in particular in Of Time and the River. 

Although Wolfe had a good eye for scene, character, and drama, his literary style and overall passion weren't particularly suited to the theater.  After failing to get his plays produced, he took a job as an English instructor at New York University in 1924 where he taught sporadically until 1930.

On his return from a brief trip to Europe in August 1925, Wolfe met Aline Bernstein, a successful set and costume designer in the New York theater.  Although she was married and 20 years older than he, they began a passionate and turbulent love affair.  They shared several artistic goals, even though their lives were markedly different.  She was the mother of two grown children and the wife of a Jewish gentleman whose successful business provided her with the security she needed.  She lived her life as a liberal and an artist.  She traveled frequently. 

Despite the turbulence in their affair, Wolfe showed his love and admiration for her by portraying her as Esther Jack in one of his posthumously published novels.  She wrote about their love affair in Three Blue Suits and The Journey Down.

In March 1930, feeling emotionally constrained by his relationship with Bernstein, Wolfe accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled abroad for a year.  When he returned, he rented a Brooklyn apartment, where he continued to struggle with his second novel.  He replaced Bernstein's support of his work with that of Maxwell Perkins, his new editor who also edited authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  Perkins and Wolfe became close friends.  Perkins, the father of five daughters, looked upon Wolfe as the son he never had.  It was, perhaps, his parental feelings toward Wolfe and their close emotional bond that eventually caused even Wolfe to feel that he was too dependent on his mentor.

Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River, was finally published in 1935 and was followed by a short story anthology, 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 his short stories published in numerous magazines, make up the complete collection of works published during his lifetime.

In 1937, despite his friendship with Perkins, Wolfe broke away from Scribners and signed a contract with Harpers.  His new editor was young Edward Aswell, a great admirer of Wolfe's work.  While on a trip out West, Wolfe came down with pneumonia.  Doctors were puzzled by his failure to respond to conventional treatment, and in September of 1938, Wolfe checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where Dr. Walter Dandy, the foremost brain surgeon in the country at the time, believed that 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 covered with tubercles.  There was nothing that could be done to save him, and on September 15, 1938, never having regained consciousness, Thomas Wolfe died.  He was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.  The author's rush through life to see all, do all, and record all in writing had proved to be chillingly correct.

Although his life was short, his literary accomplishments remain legendary.  His words explode from the pages in a cacophony of adjectives and adverbs.  His immense vocabulary, endless eloquence, and robust rhetoric are unique to modern literature.  He communicates his experiences through the human senses and leaves the reader with the impression that the writer is the master of the world and not the other way around.

Some of Wolfe's finest works were published posthumously--The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond.  Material for them was taken from the huge crate of manuscripts Wolfe left behind.  All of his remaining work is housed at Houghton Library, Harvard University, where Wolfe scholars regularly scour them to produce new works, such as the complete edition of The Party at Jack's, published in 1995.

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