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 I figured out the direction I needed to go, I set out to navigate the narrow roadways of the cemetery.

I soon arrived at the first of the graves I wanted to visit within the borders of Riverside Cemetery. I parked along the narrow road, staying as far to one side as I could in case another vehicle needed to pass. The spot was one of the widest I’d encountered since entering the cemetery grounds, and the spot was not very wide at all. Riverside Cemetery does have arrows pointing to the graves of the famous buried in their grounds and getting out of the vehicle, I could see the arrow pointing toward the grave of Thomas Wolfe, which was located just a couple yards off the roadway up a very small embankment.

The stone for Thomas Wolfe identifies his importance as an American author with two quotes chiseled into the stone from two of his novels: Look Homeward, Angel and The Web and The Rock.

Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe was the youngest of eight children to William and Julia Wolfe. William was a stone cutter who was known for his tombstones and Julia ran a boarding house. At the age of fifteen Thomas enrolled at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. After graduating from the umniversity, Wolfe attended Harvard University to study play writing. He would write Welcome To Our City, which was rejected by publishers. The play would create the fictional town of Altamont and would feature many characters which would reappear in Look Homeward, Angel. After graduating from Harvard, Wolfe began teaching English at New York University.

It was during this time that he began working on Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe also began an affair with Aline Bernstein, a married woman almost twenty years his senior. Their relationship was troubled from the start. The main point of contention was not the fact she was married and having an affair – it was due to Aline being a successful theater set and costume designer, a status which escaped Wolfe’s grasp. Despite the issues in their affair, Aline continued to support 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 longer than the normal book length of the time. With Aline’s help Wolfe began sending drafts 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 Aline.

Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, was not well received in his hometown of Asheville. Though set in the fictional town of Altamont, many of the residents of Asheville recognized the poorly disguised people and places in his novel. The angel in the title comes from a real stone angel which Wolfe’s 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.

While Thomas basked in the success of his writings, one thing that he could not cope with was criticism. Almost paranoid, Wolfe fought with his editor Maxwell Perkins constantly, claiming Perkins was taking too many liberties with his writings. Wolfe despised having his story ideas rejected by the publisher, so he left Scribner’s and would sign with Harper & Brothers. Soon after signing with them, Wolfe would publish The Web and The Rock.

In 1938, Wolfe set out to travel western America, spending two weeks visiting national parks. During the trip he became sick with chills and a fever and would be hospitalized in Seattle, Washington, with pneumonia. It was discovered that Wolfe was suffering from tuberculosis meningitis. Knowing his time was limited, Wolfe overlooked his past issues and resumed his friendship with Perkins.

In September 1938, Wolfe 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 from the surgery. Wolfe’s body was returned to Asheville and buried in the family plot in Riverside Cemetery.

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 paused to listen to the lady who shared the story of Thomas Wolfe with the rest of the group.

As she finished up, the speaker 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 to me.

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