With a major movie in the works and a whole month of activities scheduled for Thomas Wolfe’s 114th birthday, it’s time to discover (or rediscover) Asheville’s most famous author.
Locally, October has long been the month to celebrate Wolfe, who was born here on October 3, 1900, and whose first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was published in October 1929. This fall, a Wolfe renaissance takes off, powered by an upcoming Hollywood film about the author and his notorious Scribner’s editor, Maxwell “Max” Perkins.
“I think it’s simply time to read Thomas Wolfe, anything by Thomas Wolfe,” says poet and professor Laura Hope-Gill, who is overseeing the creation of the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies in Asheville. To celebrate the Center for Narrative’s opening, on Wolfe’s birthday, Black Mountain novelist David Madden, photographer/activist Andrea Clark, and Hope-Gill will read Wolfe’s visceral short story The Child by Tiger.
The author’s epic output can be daunting. Even after editing, Wolfe’s novels were huge: He once handed in a manuscript of more than a million words. The goal of the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative, says Hope-Gill, “is to encourage unbridled creativity and innovation in writing. The program embraces pushing our creative limits, rather than the cutting and destruction that goes on in the traditional workshop.”
The author of two architectural books about Asheville, Hope-Gill is president of the Advisory Board of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Local residents, she says, might be interested in reading Boom Town, which later became a chapter of Wolfe’s posthumously published novel You Can’t Go Home Again. The title refers to the scandal stirred up by Look Homeward, Angel, wherein Wolfe barely disguised the personalities and escapades of his family and neighbors in the southern-mountain town of Altamont, an alias for his native Asheville.
“Read him slowly,” Hope-Gill suggests. “I was talking with [Cold Mountain author] Charles Frazier, and he said it beautifully: ‘Read one paragraph and put the book down and let it move through you.'”
Her father, says Hope-Gill, “used to read Wolfe to me instead of storybooks. He’d say things like, ‘Hear how the language sounds like a train when he writes about a train?’ We moved a lot when I was a kid, and I remember seeing You Can’t Go Home Again in every house. Other books disappeared in moves, but never Wolfe.”
Hope-Gill will lead a Wolfe-centric architectural tour through the city, tracking the “Boom Town” development of the early 1900s, an interesting foreshadowing of the town’s second cultural boom some 100 years later.
“Wolfe told our story, and he keeps retelling it,” says Hope-Gill. In fact, she adds, there’s no understanding Asheville without first facing Wolfe: “He is Asheville DNA pure and unadulterated.”
Where is Thomas Wolfe Park?
Asheville could do even more to celebrate Wolfe, says Hope-Gill: naming a park in his honor, for instance. New York City has Walt Whitman Park; Lowell, Massachusetts, has a Jack Kerouac Park; and the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando offers residencies for writers — an enterprise Hope-Gill says could potentially happen at the cabin in Oteen where Wolfe spent three months writing a novella in the summer of 1937. (Beat icon Kerouac was a fervent Wolfe fan; ditto a more current personality, loquacious spoken-word artist Henry Rollins.)
The rustic-revival cabin is designated as a local landmark and owned by the city of Asheville, but it is in disrepair and not accessible for tours. Jack Thomson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, says the cabin has a failing roof with water intrusion. No original furnishings remain.
“We are very hopeful that the notoriety of the film … will encourage the city to be a more aggressive steward of the historic Wolfe cabin,” says Thomson.
Meanwhile, according to Tom Muir, site manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the NC legislature has appropriated $104,000 to repair the exterior of the Memorial’s centerpiece, the Victorian-era “Old Kentucky Home.” Owned by Wolfe’s mother, Julia, the boardinghouse was Wolfe’s boyhood home from age 6 to 16. In Look Homeward, Angel, he renamed it “Dixieland” and boldly characterized its transients and full-time boarders.
The Memorial had 17,000 paid visitors last year, reports Muir. “For a site of this size and budget, that’s very respectable,” he says.
And Hope-Gill says Asheville can expect an influx of literary tourism once the film is released — including those who may Google “Thomas Wolfe” for the first time after seeing the much-anticipated movie. Titled Genius, it stars A-list Brits Jude Law as Wolfe and Colin Firth as the prolific author’s industrious editor, Max Perkins.
She sees the film as an opportunity. “In Thomas Wolfe, Asheville has limitless untapped cultural capital. We’re a dream town for culture and the arts. Artistic and literary innovations are great teachers to all other kinds of innovation. And if anyone was a creative innovator, it’s Wolfe. He created a genre that only now is in fashion.”
She means Creative Nonfiction, including memoir and novelized autobiography. Perhaps, as Hope-Gill says NC novelist Robert Morgan, a native of Hendersonville, has pointed out, “We are at the start of a Wolfean revival.”
The Talented Mr. Law
Jude Law slipped into town over a June weekend this summer to research his important upcoming role in Genius — the first time Thomas Wolfe has ever been portrayed in a movie. The film, scheduled for release next year, is based on the book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, and concentrates on three legendary authors who worked with Perkins: Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.
Law has been nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor in The Talented Mr. Ripley; he was also recently nominated for theater’s Olivier Award for his title role in Henry V. With her 11-year-old daughter, Andaluna, and Muir, Hope-Gill gave Law a walking tour of Wolfe’s paper route, dined with him at Lex 18, and explored the exhibits at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. “[Law] had read Look Homeward, Angel so closely that he would recognize things [from the book]. He looked at each item really closely,” she says.
At Lex 18, Hope-Gill says she and Muir regaled the actor with stories of moonshine and old Asheville. “Then we took him to the library, where we looked at collections of Wolfe’s family photographs.”
Nicole Kidman has joined the cast as Wolfe’s love, Aline Bernstein (she was Law’s co-star in another WNC-inspired film, Cold Mountain). Laura Linney will play Perkins’ wife, Louise Saunders. The production does not plan to shoot in North Carolina, says Muir.
Wolfe would die young of tuberculosis of the brain on September 15, 1938, two weeks before his 38th birthday. The last letter he wrote was to Perkins.
Anyone who has stood by the bronzed dress shoes of Thomas Wolfe outside the Old Kentucky Home knows Thomas Wolfe was a large man: 6-feet-6-inches tall. According to Berg’s biography, Wolfe “filled the doorway” of Perkins’ office at Scribner’s.
Hope-Gill reveals the remarkable way she saw Law transform throughout his brief stay in the mountains, ending at the Oteen cabin.
“Jude morphed over the course of that weekend,” she says. “Between that first ‘selfie’ [taken at the Memorial] and the last one at the cabin, he had changed the shape of his mouth. Wolfe had pursed heavy lips, so Jack [Thomson] at the Preservation Society would say, ‘Oh, he’s getting the Thomas Wolfe mouth.'”
That Angel: A Legacy in Hendersonville
On October 4 and 11, staff of the Memorial will conduct cemetery tours based on the real people who became characters in Wolfe’s works. (Along with his parents, Wolfe is interred in Montford’s Riverside Cemetery.)
Thomas Wolfe’s father, William Oliver Wolfe, had a monument and tombstone shop on Pack Square in Asheville. “Thomas Wolfe wrote of how his father was a frustrated artist who wanted to carve the face of an angel and had not developed the skill to do so,” Muir says. “He imported angels from Italy, and he sold a number of them.” The angels ended up in cemeteries around Western North Carolina, including the most famous, in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville.
“The Oakdale angel is the one that experts over many years have come to believe is the one that Wolfe describes,” Muir says. It was sold in 1906 to a Hendersonville family, but Wolfe in his writing remembered it in intricate detail some two decades later. The second paragraph of Look Homeward, Angel illustrates Wolfe’s concept of time. He wrote, “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”
“One of the incredible things about Thomas Wolfe is that his childhood memories, and the details, came flowing back to him later in life,” muses Muir. “As a small child, he must have seen that angel on his father’s porch. But there were many others.”
Events at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (52 N. Market St. in Asheville) on October 3 include free tours for NC residents (9am-5pm) and a celebration announcing the launch of the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative (6pm). See wolfememorial.com for happenings throughout October.