Thomas Wolfe’s Tales of Homecoming and Exodus

 

Haw Creek Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway. Via Flickr.

The everlasting stillness of the earth now met the intimate, toiling slowness of the train as it climbed up round the sinuous curves, and he had an instant sense of strange, and so familiar—and it seemed to him that he had never left the hills, and all that had passed in the years between was like a dream. —You Can’t Go Home Again

Like many Appalachians who leave home, Thomas Wolfe reflected on his home in the mountains, his upbringing throughout his life. Wolfe wrote with a commanding voice about nostalgia of place and much of his writing, though fiction, feels like his personal reckoning with reality. His novels, especially You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel, were often reflective of his own life experience, great narrations of personal trials and adventures.

Thomas Wolfe journal seen at local bookstore in Asheville.

Wolfe was born in 1900 and raised in Asheville, North Carolina but traveled extensively in Europe and lived much of his later life in New York City. He wrote most of his novels in the 1920s and 1930s. He attended the University of North Carolina and Harvard. Many of the novels draw on his fictional towns based on real places in western North Carolina. He was well- known in literary circles for his long, vividly descriptive novels and outspokenness. (Wolfe is not to be confused with the other Tom Wolfe, another writer who was a pioneer of the “new journalism” style, born in Richmond, Virginia).

His writings are reflections of reality in Appalachia and the feeling of leaving it. Mountains are a natural central point of nostalgia for most who leave the region. The Appalachian mountains loom across Wolfe’s writing. In Look Homeward, Angel, he wrote, “The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”

View of Thomas Wolfe Memorial “Old Kentucky Home” tucked into downtown Asheville.

The Appalachian mountains of North Carolina beautifully outline the city where Wolfe grew up a century ago. He never forgot the mountains—and Asheville sure hasn’t forgotten him. His presence is kept alive in the city through memorialization. Located in north Asheville, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a preserved house with furniture, drawings, and pictures devoted to the town’s most famous writer.

 

In addition to the memorial, Wolfe’s legacy is vibrant in Asheville’s downtown. The major theater, US Cellular Center, where many artists and theater acts play retains his name. There is a walking tour, “From Cradle to Grave: Walking in Thomas Wolfe’s Shoes” that guides interested tourists to discover old Asheville through his lens. The walk features many staples of downtown Asheville such as Church Street, Pack Square, and the Old Kentucky Home and Playhouse. Since 1976, the Asheville Track Club has held the “Thomas Wolfe 8k,” the oldest run in the city.

There is a reason he’s memorialized so strongly in Asheville: Wolfe stands among some of America’s greatest writers. He was once remembered among the classic writers like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner but has faded from view in recent years. The only popular exception was in 2016, when the movie Genius explored the relationship and publishing trials between Wolfe and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. A critic wrote in 1979:

No other novelist of his generation wrote so poignantly about the land, the cities, the people of America before it became a chaos of shopping centers and urban blight (a development Wolfe foresaw in You Can’t Go Home Again, where he railed against the real‐estate speculators who were despoiling his hometown of Asheville, NC).

Wolfe witnessed the boom of Asheville, a town that has steadily grown in population since its inception in the late 1700s. The town and surrounding area, is still growing and struggles to keep up with infrastructure and housing for residents. An eerie resentment for expansion and influx of newcomers, often greedy real estate investors, in the area included in Wolfe’s writing is echoed by longtime Ashevillians. The city is coming to terms with trouble in gentrification and racial equity which have been longtime issues. Wolfe was a very early critic of racial inequality in the area—which he wrote about often but still fell short of modern sensibilities.

Downtown Asheville Looking West by Melinda Young. Via Flickr.

There is no doubt that Asheville is weaved into nearly all of Thomas Wolfe’s writings and later life. He had a severe case of Appalachia haunting even after he left. A critic compared James Joyce’s writing on Dublin, Ireland to Thomas Wolfe’s writing on Asheville.

Thomas Wolfe – Look Homeward, Angel, Signet 1948. Via Flickr.

Wolfe’s brutal honesty about his hometown did not always win him allies back home. For a brief period, Wolfe was hated in Asheville and the local paper ran a story noting that he wrote with “bitterness and without compassion.” He often grappled with troubling experiences within dysfunctional families and community issues as a youth. In “Look Homeward, Angel” Wolfe writes,

By God, I shall spend the rest of my life getting my heart back, healing and forgetting every scar you put upon me when I was a child. The first move I ever made, after the cradle, was to crawl for the door, and every move I have made since has been an effort to escape.

That’s just what Wolfe did: escape. He left his home and lived in Boston, New York, and Seattle, then traveled in Europe, primarily in Germany. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1930, which helped fund Look Homeward, Angel. His books were bestsellers in the United Kingdom and Germany. However, his books were banned in Nazi Germany after his criticism of the treatment of the Jews there.

Thomas Wolfe’s grave at Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, NC. Via Flickr.

Even in his travels, he carried home like a chip on his shoulder in his memory and writing. A few years after the release of Look Homeward, Angel, his hometown mostly forgave him and he became a local celebrity. Though, by the time he returned to Asheville later in life, he felt like an outsider. Then on a trip to the western United States, Wolfe died at 37 years old due to military tuberculosis and was buried in Asheville. But his memory lives on in Asheville in bookstores and memorials.

 

That strong feeling of push and pull toward home perfectly describes sentiments of many expatalachians, those folks from Appalachia but since left (and sometimes return). For many who leave, home is a simultaneous place of pride and pain. This. an often contradicting, feeling of nostalgia and alienation from home is what Wolfe manages to capture with cutting accuracy.

Bent Creek Experimental Forest, near West Asheville.

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Alena Klimas is a writer and cofounder of expatalachians. She also manages the weekly newsletter, The Patch. Klimas recently moved to Asheville, NC to work on regional development projects with a small consulting firm. She enjoys the vibrant outdoors and beer culture in her new home.