Look homeward, Asheville

Asheville will have a unique opportunity next year to show the world why our town is special. Will we stand up and seize this chance or let the gift pass us by?

Production on Genius, a movie about prodigal son Thomas Wolfe, is slated to start production in 2014. The film is said to be based on the 1978 book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Perkins, who discovered and edited such 20th century literary lights as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, was also Wolfe’s editor and best friend.

Wolfe, a 6-foot-6 Asheville native born in 1900, is known for his sprawling, exuberant autobiographical novels, most notably Look Homeward, Angel. After exposing his hometown's deep-rooted hypocrisies as well as its flamboyant eccentricity and beauty, the author spent years living in exile.

Long before we were Beer City USA, Wolfe helped put Asheville on the map. And when the biopic is released, our city should experience an influx of literary tourists anxious to view the landscape that inspired those writings. Asheville needs to be ready.

True, Wolfe’s star has faded in recent years, even as contemporaries Hemingway and Fitzgerald get more attention. His baroque, deeply emotional writing isn't always a good fit with 140-character Twitter culture. But Wolfe, the first international literary superstar from Asheville, was once headline news.

And his writing remains controversial. It's hard for us to imagine the time and place he came from. Institutional racism and sexism were rampant, and it took Wolfe many years to comprehend the folly of his own upbringing. Yet this tall man from a little Southern town emerged as a towering literary figure, and now is the time to start thinking about how Asheville ought to remember and honor him.

The archery effect

A toxophilite is someone who loves archery. For the rest of us, however, the sport would crop up in the Olympics every four years and then quickly disappear again. But when The Hunger Games became a smash hit last year, excited fans of both the book and film flocked to Transylvania County's DuPont State Forest, where a number of the action sequences were filmed. Many were eager to pose for photos, wielding bow and arrow,  in front of Triple Falls, just like heroine Katniss Everdeen.

Asheville may experience a similar spike in interest when Genius is released. Based on early reports, it looks to be a high-quality film that will spark renewed interest in both Wolfe and his hometown.

And when tourists with a camera in one hand and You Can’t Go Home Again in the other want directions or your opinion about our famous author, what will you say?

It’s our choice. We can show why USA Today voted Asheville one of the top 10 literary destinations in America. We can show the world we embrace our past and our author of genius — or we can be apathetic. It's up to us.

— Asheville resident Jim MacKenzie works in broadcasting and gives away free books in his spare time. He can be reached at eyenonothing@gmail.com, or join the Facebook conversation at "Asheville's Literary Mystery – The Thomas Wolfe Home Arson."

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2 thoughts on “Look homeward, Asheville

  1. Aint Haint (Am Too!)

    I’m posting my comment here because I hate Facebook, which sucks. What we have here is a spritely, well-written article that packs a punch. And Wolfe still roars! Hemingway & company can kiss my grits! “A stone, a leaf, and a door…oh, Ghost, come back again!” THAT came from a North Carolina boy. Here’s my Hemingway imitation: “It was hot.” I hope all ye who are ambulatory will turn out for Wolfe. “Beer City”! Bah Humbug!

  2. Literature Watcher

    Mr. MacKenzie writes of Thomas Wolfe, “now is the time to start thinking about how Asheville ought to remember and honor him.” The Thomas Wolfe Memorial and the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (complete with portrait of Wolfe) are longtime fixtures of Asheville. The Thomas Wolfe Collection at Pack Library is one of the most extensive collections outside of Harvard’s Wisdom Collection. And UNCA sponsored a major Thomas Wolfe celebration in 1975 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary Wolfe’s birth, with national scholars speaking and press coverage in The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. That gathering of Wolfe scholars and Wolfe aficionados resulted in the creation of the Thomas Wolfe Society, founded by Aldo P. Magi. Mr. MacKenzie might want to consult the clippings about that occasion in Pack Library. The movie “Genius” appears not to be so much about Wolfe as about his “editor of genius,” Maxwell Perkins. The book on which it is based only mentions Asheville 17 times in some 500 pages.
    Something Mr. MacKenzie might want to spearhead is having plaques or markers placed on Asheville locations, similar to the Urban Trail, which feature in “Look Homeward, Angel,” with appropriate quotes from the book.

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