Thomas Wolfe

Grave of Thomas Wolfe, Riverside Cemetery

After navigating the narrow side streets of Asheville, North Carolina, I was happy to see the iron gates of Riverside Cemetery. I paused at the entrance to read the plaque on the iron gate: “When he came to the gate of the cemetery he found it open…as he approached the family plot, his pulse quickened a little.” The plaque identified the grounds as being the resting place of Thomas Wolfe and the quote as coming from his novel Look Homeward, Angel.

With nobody behind me at the moment, I consulted the cemetery tour map I had printed in preparation of my visit. The map was not the best I’ve worked with, but I have worked with worse. After figuring out the direction I needed to go, I set out to navigate the narrow roadways of the cemetery. Note: The cemetery has some maps available at the information board immediately upon entering the grounds, but only one was available the day I was there, so printing off the map was definitely worth it.

I soon arrived at the first of the graves I wanted to visit within the borders of Riverside Cemetery.  As I parked at one of the widest spots I had encountered since passing through the gates of the cemetery, I could see an arrow pointing towards the grave of Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s stone just a couple yards off the roadway up a very small embankment.

The stone for Thomas Wolfe identifies his importance as an American author and the two quotes chiseled into the stone come from two of his novels Look Homeward, Angel and The Web and The Rock. The only other novel Wolfe wrote was Of Time and The River.

Look Homeward, Angel, which is viewed as being a fictional autobiography of Wolfe, is set in the town of Altamont, the fictionalized version of Asheville. The coming of age story follows the life of Eugene Gant from his birth until the age of nineteen. The angel in the title comes from a real stone angel that his father used as a porch advertisement at his stone cutting shop. Note: The angel Wolfe mentions in his novel still exists, marking a grave in Henderson, North Carolina.

Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina. His father was a stone cutter and his mother ran a boarding house. At the age of fifteen he enrolled at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. After graduating from UNC, he attended Harvard University to study play writing. He would write “Welcome To Our City,” that was rejected by publishers. The play would create the fictional town of Altamont and would have many of the characters in it that would reappear in Look Homeward, Angel. After graduating he began teaching English at New York University.

It was during this time that he began working on Look Homeward, Angel. Also at this point in his life, he began an affair with Aline Bernstein, a married woman almost twenty years his senior. Their relationship was troubled: the main point of contention was Aline was a successful theater set and costume designer, a status that escaped Thomas’ grasp. Aline supported Wolfe financially during their relationship and encouraged his writing.

Wolfe’s finished Look Homeward, Angel – which he had called O Lost – with a total of 330,000 words, much larger than the normal book length of the time. The manuscript he presented was described as rambling and having no direction. With Aline’s help he began to send it out to publishers with no success. In 1929 his manuscript was accepted by Scribner’s and by late that year, after much editing, the book was published. With this success, he broke off the affair with Adine.

While Thomas basked in the success of his writings, one thing that he could not cope with was criticism. Almost paranoid, Wolfe fought with Maxwell Perkins (his editor) claiming he was taking too many liberties with his works. Wolfe also hated having his story ideas rejected by the publisher and left Scribner’s. He would sign with Harper & Brothers and through them published The Web and The Rock.

In 1938, Wolfe set out to travel western America, spending two weeks visiting national parks. After being sick for almost a week with chills and fever, he was hospitalized in Seattle, Washington, with pneumonia. Eventually it was revealed that he had tuberculosis meningitis. In the time he was in the hospitals, Wolfe overlooked his past issues and resumed his friendship with Perkins.

In September he was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment. An operation revealed the disease had overrun his brain and he died eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday without regaining consciousness. His body was returned to Asheville and was buried in Riverside Cemetery in the family plot.

The sound of laughter brought me back to the present and looking around, I could see a group of high school-aged teens approaching. The group gathered around Wolfe’s grave as I walked back to the vehicle. I could hear one of the young ladies telling the story of Thomas Wolfe to the rest of the group. I stood there and listened to the speaker, taking in the excitement she was creating as she shared Wolfe’s life with the rest of the group.

As she finished up, she shared the last line of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel with the group “…he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he had left, yet does not say ‘The town is near,’ but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.” She had a valid point, I still had a long way to go and the mountains were calling out.

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