Biography of Thomas Wolfe

Julia and Thomas, 1910

Throughout his literary career, Thomas Clayton Wolfe mined the early years of his life to extract every scrap of truth from his experiences, and to carve these truths into art. He seemed to take little pleasure in the finished work, but would feverishly turn to the next. During his brief but eventful life, Thomas Wolfe traveled the length and breadth of the United States, sailed to Europe on glamorous ships, conversed with literary giants and film stars, and loved a famous, successful woman.

His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, recounted the life of a young man born in western North Carolina, the son of a stonecutter and a woman who ran a boardinghouse. He once said the reason he wrote a book was to forget it. But he never did forget his experiences of growing up in the boardinghouse his mother ran in the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina.

Tom's Life

At age five, while too young to attend, Thomas Wolfe followed his sister Effie to the nearby Orange Street School and the teacher allowed him to stay. Completing eighth grade in 1912, Tom was invited to attend the North State Fitting School, a new private preparatory school. The school was operated by John and Margaret Roberts. Margaret Roberts immediately noticed his interest in reading and encouraged studies in poetry and classic literature. Wolfe thrived under her attention and encouragement. He later inscribed a copy of his book Look Homeward, Angel to Margaret Roberts “the mother of my spirit.”"To Margaret Roberts, who was the mother of my spirit, I present this copy of my first book, with hope and with devotion. Thomas Wolfe Oct 15, 1929." Photocopy courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

"Against the bleak horror of Dixieland, against the dark road of pain and death down which the great limbs of Gant had already begun to slope, against all the loneliness and imprisonment of his own life which had gnawed him like hunger, these years at Leonard's [school] bloomed like golden apples." - Look Homeward, Angel 

At the age of fifteen, upon completing his studies at the North State Fitting School, Thomas Wolfe enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tom soon became active in a number of campus organizations including the Dialectic Literary Society and the campus newspaper. During the induction of new members to the Dialectic Literary Society, Wolfe gave a solemn speech predicting that his portrait would one day hang in the Old West Hall next to that of Governor Zebulon Vance. His prediction was accurate. His portrait can be found hanging in the “Di” hall among the great leaders of the State. Wolfe was one of the original members of the Carolina Playmakers, a course in playwriting taught by Frederick Koch. Tom played the starring role in his first written drama, The Return of Buck Gavin, one of the earliest productions staged by the group. Wolfe was also a member of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. In 1919 he was inducted into the Golden Fleece Honor society. The biographical sketch under his picture in the senior yearbook proclaimed, “He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us do all day, and it is no wonder that he is classed as a genius.”

Despite his family’s desire for him to return home and take a job as a teacher, Tom wished to continue his studies in graduate school at Harvard University. After convincing his mother to pay for his first year’s tuition, he enrolled in 1920. Thomas Wolfe was awarded his Master degree in 1922. For three years, he attended the prestigious 47 Workshop, a playwriting class taught by George Pierce Baker. The 47 Workshop staged two of Wolfe’s plays, The Mountains and Welcome To Our City. Many of the themes Wolfe employed in these plays would later become inspiration for parts of his novels. Upon leaving Harvard, unable to sell his plays, Tom took a job teaching English at Washington Square College in New York City.Thomas Wolfe as "Buck Gavin," UNC-Chapel Hill, 1919.

In 1924, Wolfe took his first trip to Europe. During the return voyage home aboard the steamer Olympic, he met Aline Bernstein, a theatrical set and costume designer from New York. In spite of the fact that she was nearly twenty years his senior, and married with a family, they were immediately interest in one another. The result was a long-term relationship. Bernstein encouraged Tom to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. She supported his continuing travels in Europe to allow him the time and seclusion he needed to write. She convinced Wolfe to put aside playwriting and focus on writing a novel. Rejected by several publishing houses, Wolfe’s first manuscript, O Lost, found its way to the desk of publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons and their respected senior editor, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins soon realized the value of Wolfe’s work. He also counselled Wolfe that it would require a good deal of rewriting before it was ready for publication. The final result, Look Homeward, Angel, was published in October 1929. Tom dedicated his first book to “A. B.” Aline Bernstein.

"He turned, and saw her then, and so finding her, was lost, and so losing self, was found, and so seeing her, saw for a fading moment only the pleasant image of the woman that perhaps she was, and that life saw. He never knew: he only knew that from that moment his spirit was impaled upon the knife of love." - Of Time and the River

Before its publication, concerned about the autobiographical nature of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe felt a strong need to return home to Asheville and see his family. In the book’s note “To the Reader” Wolfe he wrote that he “meditated no man’s portrait here.” The truth was that over two hundred characters were based upon living people, many living citizens of Asheville, including his family. Their personal flaws and failures were exposed for the world to see. Asheville was shocked, as was his family. The violent reaction in his hometown to his work resulted in a self-imposed exile from Asheville for the next eight years.

Outside Asheville Look Homeward, Angel met with both critical and commercial success. For the next several years Wolfe divided his time between Europe and New York. In 1935, Scribner’s published his second novel, Of Time and the River, and a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning. His second book was more commercially successful than his first, and soon Tom embarked on a plan for a series of novels, each presenting an aspect of the history of America from 1790 to 1935.

In 1937, Thomas Wolfe finally returned to Asheville to a warm reception. Unable to work on his writing, after spending time with his family and friends, he returned to New York. The following year, struggling with his manuscripts and feeling the need for a vacation, he travelled west. Tom spent the summer touring the West and visiting National Parks.

Thomas Wolfe sitting on the rim of Crater Lake feeding a chipmunk, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1938

Exhausted and suffering from a fever and headaches, he checked into a Seattle sanatorium for rest and then a hospital. Suspecting a brain abscess or tumor doctors urged that he be sent immediately by train to Johns Hopkins Hospital at Baltimore. Exploratory surgery revealed tubercular meningitis of the brain. Sadly the disease had advanced too far for treatment. Thomas Wolfe died a few days later on September 15, 1938. He was only thirty-seven years old. The funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Asheville. Following the service Thomas Wolfe was interred in the family plot at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery.

Wolfe’s editor since late 1937, Edward Aswell at Harper and Brothers inherited Wolfe’s unfinished manuscript. It led to the printing of three posthumous publications; The Web and the Rock (1939), You Can’t go Home Again (1940), and a collection of short stories, The Hills Beyond (1941).