It’s funny to live in a city whose geography and culture are so entwined with a classic novel — and even funnier when that classic isn’t read half as much as it used to be.
Asheville haunted Thomas Wolfe, and now he returns the favor by haunting Asheville. Or Altamont, as Wolfe named the city in Look Homeward, Angel.
So we traipse by the Altamont Hotel downtown and are jarred by billboards that read “Thomas Wolfe — I Buy Ugly Houses” (from a particularly ambitious local realtor), and find a heightened meaning in graveyard stone angels. And when friends come in from out of town, we dutifully point out “that’s where Thomas Wolfe lived.”
But how many of us have actually read the book? The first one, the one that put Wolfe (and Altamont/Asheville) on the literary map?
Yeah, I’m looking at you.
Once upon a time, Look Homeward, Angel shocked Asheville by airing the city’s dirty laundry for all to see. Now many of us do Wolfe the shocking disservice of pointing out his house, while skipping his words. We know our city is haunted by Wolfe, but having not read his masterpiece, we can’t understand the exact nature of the ghost.
If you haven’t yet read the novel, here’s some helpful Wolfe-arcana from which to crib and fake your way through next month’s cocktail parties and barstool conversations.
• Here’s one thing local publicists rarely mention: Thomas Wolfe hated the Thomas Wolfe House.
His mother bought the Old Kentucky Home as a boarding house — it’s called “Dixieland” in Look Homeward, Angel — when he was 12 or so. She and young Wolfe moved in, while his father stayed in the family’s old home a few streets away with the rest of Wolfe’s brothers and sisters.
The house represented a fissure in the family. In Look Homeward, Angel, the father rants at the mother: “It was a bitter day for us all when your gloating eyes first fell upon this damnable, this awful, this murderous and bloody Barn.” Wolfe’s stand-in, Eugene, refers to the house as a “chilly tomb.”
The lesson here: Just because you can go home again doesn’t mean you’ll like it.
• Wolfe’s unwieldy manuscript was reined in by Scribner’s famed editor, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins was an undisputedly brilliant editor, working with such literary lights as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But many Wolfe fans feel Perkins did Look Homeward a disservice. Wolfe’s intention for the book was to recreate a microcosmos of his universe (starting in the knot of his family, then rippling outward to the city, then still further outward to encompass the South). Under Perkins’ direction, the novel became more of a traditional bildungsroman focusing on the coming of age of Eugene.
With O Lost, published in 2000 by the University of South Carolina Press, editors Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli have labored to restore Wolfe’s original text, along with his original title for the opus.
• It may also be used as a doorstop.
I doubt if the words “I couldn’t put it down!” were ever uttered about Look Homeward, Angel, even in its heyday. It’s a big book, and you have to put it down at times, just to rest your wrists. And, of course, it’s simply not a page-turner. I love the novel, and still must confess it’s a bit of a slog at times. It’s an Everest of a book, and you have to pace yourself as you would climbing any mountain.
Yet if you haven’t cracked open Look Homeward, now might be a good time. It’s well worth it, for lots of reasons, including understanding and appreciating the full extent to which Wolfe still haunts us. And how back in the day, this city haunted him.
But Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock? Now that one you can skip.
[Carrie A.A. Frye is a writer living in Asheville. Some of the material here first appeared on the literary Web site www.maudnewton.com.]