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Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born at the family home, 92 Woodfin Street, in Asheville, North Carolina on October 3rd, 1900. He was the youngest of eight children to William Oliver Wolfe, a successful stone carver who ran a gravestone business and Julia Elizabeth Westall, who as well as taking in boarders to supplement the family income was later successful as a real estate speculator.
In 1906 Julia Wolfe bought a boarding house named "Old Kentucky Home" at nearby 48 Spruce Street in Asheville. Here she lived with Wolfe, taking in boarders, whilst the rest of the family remained at the Woodfin residence. Wolfe would live there until 1916.
Now, aged 15, Wolfe began his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and became a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity.
His thoughts on a career led him to all things literary and by 1919 playwriting in particular led him to enroll in a playwriting course. His one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed by the newly formed Carolina Playmakers (his classmates) in Frederick Koch's playwriting class and Wolfe acted the title role. Later that same year another of his plays, The Third Night, was performed by the Playmakers.
Determined to expand his skills he edited UNC's student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for an essay titled The Crisis in Industry.
Wolfe graduated in June 1920 and in September enrolled at the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Here he studied playwriting under the tutelage of George Pierce Baker. His play The Mountains were performed by Baker's 47 Workshop the following year.
In 1922 he received his master's degree from Harvard. Tragically it was also the year his father died in Asheville. Wolfe continued to study with Baker in the 47 Workshop, for another year and they produced his play Welcome to Our City in May 1923.
Wolfe now began the transition from studying to selling. He went to New York in November, 1923 trying to sell his plays to Broadway. Receiving little encouragement he began teaching English as an instructor at New York University from February 1924. He would continue this role, at various times, for the next 7 years.
The Theatre Guild came close to producing Welcome to Our City but in the end declined. Wolfe now believed his style of writing was more suited to fiction. Grasping the opportunity this afforded him he sailed to England in October 1924 to write and from there on to France, Italy and Switzerland.
Returning from Europe he met Aline Bernstein, a scene designer for the Theatre Guild. She was 18 years his senior, married to a successful stockbroker and already had two children. They began an affair and this would continue, turbulently at times, for five years. However she was a great support and encouraged and helped to fund his writing.
Wolfe returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing a novel, O Lost. This would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel. It was based on his years in Asheville, with his family, friends, and his mother’s boarders at Spruce Street. The original manuscript of O Lost was over 1100 pages and much of it was experimental in style. He submitted it to Scribner's. Maxwell Perkins, who worked there, was one of the great book editors and already worked with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perkins began to focus the book, cutting and re-shaping it to center on the character of Eugene, a stand-in for Wolfe. Wolfe at first was grateful to Perkins but would later waver on this. However it meant the book could now be published.
The novel, which he dedicated to Bernstein, was published just before the stock market crash of 1929. It caused problems for him in Asheville, where the dozens of thinly disguised local characters who appeared in the book objected to their literary portraits. Wisely Wolfe would not return there for 8 years. Instead he ended his affair with Bernstein and travelled to Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship. There he was greeted by the news that Look Homeward, Angel was a bestseller in both the United Kingdom and Germany.
Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930 said of Wolfe, "He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer.... In fact I don't see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers."
Wolfe now committed the next 4 years of life in Brooklyn to writing a multi-volume epic initially titled The October Fair. When Wolfe sent it to Scribner’s Perkins once more decided to edit its enormous length to that a single volume. It was now to be called Of Time and the River. It was even more successful than his first. It was hailed as the literary event of 1935 and cemented his reputation as one of America’s foremost novelists. Ironically, the citizens of Asheville were now upset that they hadn't been included.
Accounts now suggest that Wolfe was upset at the truncation of his works by Perkins and that this is what motivated him to sign with Harper & Brothers. It is more probable that Perkins was receiving too much of the limelight that Wolfe felt should shine on him. Either way Wolfe switched publishers.
Once more back in Europe he seemed to particularly enjoy both his time and the attention he received in Germany. However by 1936 politics there were beginning to become a dark stain on its people and its culture. He saw the mounting discrimination against the Jews and saw the reality of the political developments in the country. He returned to America and published a story, I Have a Thing to Tell You. The Nazi’s responded by banning his books and forbidding him to travel there.
In 1937 Wolfe published the short story Chickamauga, set during the US Civil War battle.
In 1938, after submitting his new opus, which ran to an incredible one million words, to his new editor, Edward Aswell, Wolfe left to tour the West, a part of the country he had never before visited. He travelled the next two weeks, wandering through 11 national parks, writing as he went.
Wolfe wrote to Aswell that his writing would now move focus from family to a wider, more global perspective.
In July, Wolfe became ill with pneumonia while visiting Seattle and spent three weeks in hospital there. Complications arose. The prognosis was serious. He was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis of the brain (this variant of tuberculosis can attack many organs of the body and was named after the tiny lesions which are a similar shape and size to millet seeds).
On September 6th, he was sent to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment by the most famous neurosurgeon in the country, Dr. Walter Dandy. The ensuing operation revealed that the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain.
Thomas Clayton Wolfe never regained consciousness and died shortly before his 38th birthday on September 15th, 1938.
Whilst in hospital Wolfe had written Perkins an extraordinary letter; he considered Perkins his closest friend and wanted to acknowledge that it was Perkins disciplined editing that had helped to realize his work and had made his further books possible.
Thomas Wolfe is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina, beside his parents and siblings.
The next day, The New York Times wrote: "His was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.... "
Time magazine contributed with: "The death last week of Thomas Clayton Wolfe shocked critics with the realization that, of all American novelists of his generation, he was the one from whom most had been expected."
During his short life Wolfe had less than half of his work published. He had left two complete, unpublished novels in the hands of his publisher at death. These, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, were edited Edward Aswell. Each was almost 700 pages in length.
Several works have been published since his death and the entire original manuscript of Look Homeward Angel, decades later, was re-constructed and published by its original title ‘O Lost’