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Why critics keep remembering to forget Thomas Wolfe, whose centenary is celebrated at UNC-Chapel Hill this month.

A buried life 

"The home of every one of us is the future," Thomas Wolfe once said. "There is no other way."

Asheville's literary giant, who stood 6-foot-5 in his stocking feet and who wrote manuscripts of such bulging proportions that his editors at Scribner's sent wooden crates in which to store them, Wolfe had staked his whole life on his future. In the writing of his autobiographical first book, Look Homeward, Angel, he so infuriated the citizens of his native city that his novel was banned there for seven years, and subsequent works were no less revealing about those close to him. No one was safe from his satiric wit and rampaging rhetoric--not his mother, nor his famous mistress Aline Bernstein (whom he once accused of smelling like goose grease), nor even, finally, his editor Maxwell Perkins. Wolfe absorbed everybody he knew, including himself, into his often painfully honest prose. Only strangers could escape him unscathed, and the future was full of them.

"I am inevitable," he wrote to his mother in 1923, before he had even published a single novel. "The only thing that can stop me is insanity, disease or death." The son of a stonecutter and a boardinghouse matron, Wolfe had survived his childhood as the youngest in a raucous family of eight, had graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill by the time he was 19, gone on to study with George Pierce Baker at Harvard, and by age 29, convinced one of the best editors of all time to take on his 330,000-word opus, then titled O Lost: The Story of a Buried Life.

One hundred years after his birth, the claim that Wolfe staked out for himself is in jeopardy. His literal sprawling Victorian home in Asheville was seriously damaged by an arsonist in 1998, and his figurative home, the future, has betrayed him by letting him slide slowly from the canon, book by book. His contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, are term-paper fodder for high school sophomores across the country, while Thomas Wolfe gets continually confused now with Tom Wolfe, the popular author of Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. The latter will give a lecture on Oct. 17 as part of Wolfe's ongoing centenary celebration at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Academia provides some of the last remaining asylum for the author who made famous the phrase "You can't go home again." The University of South Carolina has recently published the unabridged original O Lost, sans Perkins' edits. Handwritten in pencil on 17 clothbound ledgers, O Lost sat in Harvard University's Houghton Library until Matthew and Arlyn Bruccoli, believing it a superior book to Look Homeward, Angel, campaigned to bring it to light. The Bruccolis' edition clocks in at 736 pages, and its proponents claim that its 66,000 additional words paint a richer, funnier and bawdier picture of Wolfe than his puritanical editor would allow.

Understandably, the publication has caused controversy, especially coming on the heels of the uncut The Great Gatsby, to which Fitzgerald had originally ascribed the thoroughly forgettable title of Trimalchio, as well as new editions of Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Wright's Native Son. This fad is called "restoration," and O Lost a restored novel which, like Wolfe's scorched and smoke-stained house in Asheville, is earnestly being put back in its original order.

But the urge to restore a seminal work like Look Homeward, Angel has a wistful side to it, as if something must be done to make Wolfe important again, to make him matter as he once mattered to many, and still matters to some. Ironically, this is not a new battle. The Thomas Wolfe Society was founded by fans three decades ago, when the neglect of Wolfe was first being felt. And as early as April 1968, William Styron published a now well-known essay in Harper's that began with the declaration: "The shade of Thomas Wolfe must be acutely disturbed to find that his earthly stock has sunk so low."

Styron, who recently cancelled on giving a Wolfe lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall, went on in his essay to passionately defend and critique the writer he had loved at 18 and was later disappointed by. He argued that Wolfe's writing had immense vitality, an all-you-can-eat sensory extravagance, and that moments in his fiction are truly great. "He was the first prose writer to bring a sense of America as a glorious abstraction, a vast and brooding continent whose untold bounties were awaiting every young man's discovery," wrote Styron.

He also pointed out Wolfe's innumerable structural weaknesses and his repetitions, claiming that his creative process was akin "to the setting into motion of some marvelous mnemonic tape recorder deep within his cerebrum, from which he unspooled reel after reel of murmurous, living past." While Styron explained that it is worth sifting through the silt of the less-than-stellar writing to find the few shining nuggets, there is much in Wolfe's later work, he wrote, "that palls and irritates."

In a recent article, the Los Angeles Times' J.R. Moehringer resurrected Styron's three-decade old argument about the collapse of Wolfe's reputation. Why are we still wrangling about an author who critics keep claiming is already forgotten? Because Thomas Wolfe, despite his weaknesses, is not easy to dismiss, because he himself wanted fame so badly, and because his autobiographical fiction makes it impossible not to know him personally. Anyone who has ever plowed through Look Homeward, Angel can see how thinly masked his characters are: the misunderstood artist-hero Eugene Gant, the drunken, orating father, W.O. Gant whose name hardly changes from fact to fiction, and the lost brother Ben, a specter who hangs over the entire novel and haunted Wolfe's short life. For the same reason Wolfe was immensely popular in his day--because people knew him, could see him and their time reflected vividly in his books--he has now lost favor in the critical world, and modern readers have trouble getting through his four-pound novels. His unbridled ambition, his rangy, unstoppable prose, spoke to an America on the rise, to a late-'20s impulse to grow and grow.

The author's boom-time nature is well-illustrated by a scene remembered after his death by Nancy Hale, one of the Perkins' neighbors: Awakened at four in the morning by a loud rumble, she looked out her window to see Wolfe striding up and down the lane, chanting "I wrote 10,000 words today! I wrote 10,000 words today!" Joseph Flora, English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the Thomas Wolfe Society, says that students now have trouble with that kind of authorial attitude and scope. "Wolfe's rhetorical style is perhaps too poetic for those honed on minimalist fiction," he says, citing Hemingway for changing much of the way people read and write fiction in the year 2000. "You also have to ask: To what extent is Wolfe speaking to the issues of the day?"

As Oct. 3 passed to mark Wolfe's 100th birthday, celebrations in his native Asheville and at his alma mater were in full swing. While they may not restore his original grandeur, they should serve to remind us of his lasting impact on the state. Along with an exhibit at the North Carolina Collection about Wolfe's years as a Tar Heel student (A Kind of Magic Door: Thomas Wolfe at the University of North Carolina, 1916-1920, Oct. 2-Feb. 14), a marathon reading of Look Homeward, Angel, Tom Wolfe's lecture and a weekend seminar (Oct. 20-21), two local theater companies, PlayMakers and StreetSigns, plan their own Wolfe productions.

Despite his declining reputation elsewhere, Thomas Wolfe has mattered greatly to UNC-Chapel Hill--his first play was produced at PlayMakers, he edited The Daily Tar Heel and was a lively debater--and the academic camaraderie of his fellow classmates mattered greatly to him. "My husband thought he was a wonderful, wonderful person," says Chapel Hill resident Gladys Coates, 98, whose late husband Albert Coates knew Wolfe in college. "You could see even then that he had great talents," she adds.

Originally, Wolfe had really wanted to go to the University of Virginia, but he acquiesced to his father's fervent wish that his son would one day be governor and should therefore attend his state's university. Wolfe arrived at college at the age of 15, a gangly 130-pound giant dressed in a homespun Biltmore suit. Although painfully self-conscious, he was a joiner and began to take part in the Dialectic Literary Society, the student council, the campus Y and other activities. He was always broke, often late to class and often neglected his laundry and hygiene for more intellectual pursuits.

Apocryphal stories of Wolfe's humor abound. Once, when assigned by one of his favorite professors, Edwin Greenlaw, to write a short autobiography, Wolfe walked in late as usual and slunk to the back row. Called on to share his life history, the young author stood up and pulled out a roll of toilet paper, upon which he had written his story. According to Wolfe's classmate, Benjamin Cone, the quick-witted Greenlaw waited until he had finished and then said "Thomas, the quality of your story as you read it to us reflects very much the type of paper that it's written on."

While Wolfe became a prankster at school, he was sombered by his visits home, particularly by a trip to his brother Ben's deathbed in October 1918. In a scene that would later become one of the most evocative of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe hovered by his brother's bedside as pneumonia overtook him and drained his life away. Ben's death signified Wolfe's final parting with Asheville. Even though he would go back many times in his life, his childhood was over. He returned to Chapel Hill soon after and threw himself into more activities, writing one of Carolina PlayMakers' first productions, The Return of Buck Gavin, in which he acted the leading role.

By the end of his tenure at UNC, Wolfe got to be so busy he slept barely more than five hours a night. His social and intellectual diligence earned him the yearbook quote: "He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us do all day, and it is no wonder he is classed a genius." And although he went on to succeed wildly in his authorial life, it was UNC-Chapel Hill where he last belonged--his childhood behind him, his future not yet realized. "It was as close to magic as I've ever been," he once confessed.

Wolfe's trademark was potential--what he might become--and like many writers who die young, his vitality comes from that unrealized possibility. In the end he has been loved, lauded and villified now by seven decades of critics because his books are pure promise, the unsophisticated sweetness of sap not yet brewed down to syrup. Or, to use his own imagery, they are "a stone, a leaf, a door," the very process of transformation itself--life into art--but not the fully transformed.

Like his time, like the days before Hitler and World War II when the country gorged on its own success, Wolfe resided firmly in transformation, in the fear and exuberance of a still young country. His childhood was a peaceful interlude between the Civil War and World War I, at the dawn of the automobile, which suddenly made the country's "untold bounties" available to anyone with wheels. In 1916, when he left for school, Wolfe's remote Asheville was being discovered by more tourists every summer, and in his second year at UNC, many of his classmates had become soldiers and were going off to make history, one by one.

Although the Great Depression's legions of poor and displaced had begun to change his optimistic mindset by the mid-'30s, Wolfe succumbed to tubercular meningitis at the age of 38. He died before even his family could reach his bedside, with two books unfinished and a recent road trip out West fresh in his mind. No one knows to what future, what home, his genius would have taken him. EndBlock

  • Why critics keep remembering to forget Thomas Wolfe, whose centenary is celebrated at UNC-Chapel Hill this month.

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