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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937)

Thomas Wolfe published three novels before his untimely death in 1937. Image courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Thomas Wolfe published three novels before his untimely death in 1937. Image courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.


An Asheville native, Thomas Wolfe emerged as one of the early-twentieth century’s most controversial writers.  His meandering writing style irritated many editors, who nevertheless recognized a diamond in the rough and published his work.  His first novel, Look Homeward Angel, angered many of his former mountain neighbors; his novel was autobiographical, and he did little to mask the characters’ identities.

Thomas Wolfe’s youth undoubtedly influenced his literary career.  The youngest of seven children, Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900.  W. O. Wolfe and Julia Wolfe were his parents, and although they had seven children, their relationship was not ideal.  W.O., for instance, was an alcoholic, and Julia was a teetotaler.  The deaths of  a sibling added tension to a relationship filled with personal problems.  In time, Wolfe’s mother started a boardinghouse approximately 300 yards away from the family home.  This move disturbed young Thomas, who felt homeless after splitting time between the two houses.  While the young Ashevillian witnessed and experienced familial disputes, his father fostered an appreciation for the literary classics such as William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott.  His mother influenced his literary career in other ways.   She opened a boarding house and constantly looked for ways to make money.  His childhood experiences and any economic and social changes occurring in the New South are included in Look Homeward Angel, when he criticizes progress and profit making at the expense of family.  According to some, the boarding house represents progress and the old house represents stability.  

At fifteen years old, Wolfe enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  There he served as editor of the Tar Heel Magazine and became an award-winning playwright.  He later pursued advanced studies at Harvard University, where he studied under famous playwrights.  

Wolfe’s literary career was short.  He published only three novels, Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River, and The Web and The Rock, before his untimely death on September 15, 1937.  While writing, he frequently traveled to Europe and across the United States.  Although he enjoyed traveling and visiting with friends, and maintaining his relationship with a married woman, nineteen years his senior, Wolfe lived many days alone.  He died with “myriads of tubercles” on his brain.  


Sources:

Joe A. Mobley, ed., The Way We Lived in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2003) and North Carolina Historic Sites, “Thomas Wolfe Memorial: The Biography of Thomas Wolfe”  http://www.nchistoricsites.org/wolfe/bio.htm   (accessed November 16, 2009).


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Related Categories: Sports and Entertainment, Places
Timeline: 1866-1915 , 1916-1945
Region: Statewide

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