Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900 in Asheville, North
Carolina, a resort town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
His father was a tombstone cutter from Pennsylvania, his
mother a native of the mountain area. Much like Eugene
Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe spent his youth
going back and forth between 92 Woodfin Street, where
his father and his sister lived, and The Old Kentucky
Home, which was the Dixieland boarding house in Look
Homeward, Angel. In 1912, Wolfe became a student at
the North State School, a private school, and in 1916 he
entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After rejecting the offers of various newspaper positions,
in 1920 Wolfe entered Harvard Graduate School, from
which he received his MA in English. He completed an
extra year at Harvard, studying playwriting, but he never
had any luck selling his plays in New York.
He became an instructor in English at New York University
in 1924, serving intermittently until 1930, writing and
traveling extensively in Europe and the Americas. In 1925,
while sailing for New York, he met a woman who was to
be his constant companion for the next five years, Mrs.
Aline Bernstein, who was married and some eighteen
years older than Wolfe. In 1927, Mrs. Bernstein persuaded
Wolfe to work solely on his novel, rather than to return to
his teaching job. She rented a garret for him over a tailor's
shop in a run-down building where he wrote his first
novel, Look Homeward, Angel. After several publishers
rejected it, it was finally accepted by Maxwell Perkins at
Scribner. In 1929 Look Homeward, Angel was published.
Much has been written about the fact that Thomas Wolfe's
Look Homeward, Angel is autobiographical, and its
publication met with violent reaction in Asheville. The
community was furious that its secrets had been laid
bare by one of its own sons. Only later was the literary
merit of the book appreciated.
In 1931, Wolfe moved to Brooklyn where he spent the
next four years living in poorly furnished apartments
with cigarette-burned tables, straight chairs, and
dry-goods boxes where he placed his completed pages.
He wrote the hard way -- in fits and turns, without
chronology, moving from one unconnected episode to
another, often revising, often rewriting entirely.
His next book, Of Time and the River was published in 1935.
The book was a triumph, and in an effort to capitalize on
its popularity, Scribner rushed through a book of Wolfe's
short stories, From Death to Morning. Wolfe was now
widely known, and it was during this time that he "was
set upon by every kind of parasite," as he wrote, "every
kind of harpy, every kind of vulture, every kind of female
egoistthat had a string to pull." Though he wanted merely
to be left alone, a number of provoking incidents plagued
him: lawsuits, blackmail letters, and a grave quarrel with
Scribner. Eventually, his publishing relationship with
Scribner was severed when Perkins and Wolfe became
divided on ideological issues (the last four chapters of You
Can't Go Home Again), Perkins protesting when Wolfe
wished to replace his lyrical prose with political and
Wolfe began a publishing relationship with Harpers which
published The Web and the Rock in 1939 and his last novel,
You Can't Go Home Again, in 1940.
In early July of 1938, Wolfe, on a trip to British Columbia,
contracted pneumonia. When a fever persisted during
convalescence, the doctor ordered an X ray which revealed a
tubercular lesion on the upper lobe of his right lung. In
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, an operation showed
that Wolfe's brain was infected by tubercular germs
released during the siege with pneumonia. Thomas Wolfe
died on September 15, 1938, eighteen days short of his
When Perkins learned of Wolfe's death, he thought of the
lines from William Shakespeare's King Lear:
He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.
"For," wrote Perkins, "he was on the rack almost always,
and almost always would have been, and for one reason.
He was wrestling as no artist in Europe would have to do,
with the material of literature -- a great country not yet
revealed to its own people."
OTHER WORKS BY THOMAS WOLFE:
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