Look Homeward: Wiley Cash on popular misconceptions of the hillbilly stereotype

FAMILY AFFAIR: Author Wiley Cash poses outside the Old Kentucky Home in downtown Asheville. He is joined by his daughters, Early, left, and Juniper. Photo by Thomas Calder

Welcome back to the latest round of “Look Homeward,” a recurring feature exploring the life and work of local author Thomas Wolfe.

In our previous article, we spoke with Kayla Seay, site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. The property, located in downtown Asheville, includes the boardinghouse that Wolfe’s mother, Julia, operated in the first half of the 20th century. The home and its many visitors influenced Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

In this month’s column, we speak with New York Times bestselling author, Wiley Cash, whose 2012 book, A Land More Kind Than Home, owes its title to a line from Wolfe’s final novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, posthumously published in 1940.

Xpress: What is the one Wolfe sentence that you think best represents the author and why? 

Cash: This might be strange, but my favorite lines from Wolfe are from his final letter to [his editor] Max Perkins. I’ve included the full transcript, but the lines that I particularly love are from the closing paragraph. [Editor’s note: The letter was written a month before Wolfe’s death, while a patient at Providence Hospital in Seattle. With Wolfe’s symptoms worsening, his doctors recommended he be taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital. While in Baltimore, exploratory surgery revealed tubercular meningitis of the brain. He died on Sept. 15, 1938.]

“August 12, 1938

Dear Max:

I’m sneaking this against orders — but ‘I’ve got a hunch’ — and I wanted to write these words to you.

I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close; and I don’t think I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality still clings to me — I wanted most desperately to live and still do, and I thought about you all 1000 times, and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do — and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before — and if I come through this, I hope to God I am a better man, and in some strange way I can’t explain I know I am a deeper and a wiser one — If I get on my feet and get out of here, it will be months before I head back, but if I get on my feet, I’ll come back.

— Whatever happens — I had this ‘hunch’ and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that 4th of July day 3 yrs. ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below —

Yours always,

What is it about the letter’s closing line that speaks to you as a writer and a fan? 

I think it resonates with me because of the close bond that Wolfe and Perkins had. It’s something I always wanted in an editor, and I was lucky to get it. My former editor, David Highfill, is from North Carolina, and we really grew close over the past decade. I know his family, he knows mine. I have a particular memory of spending most a day walking around Manhattan with him, just talking, and it made me recall these lines that Wolfe wrote about his most memorable day with Perkins.

As a writer, what is your response to the criticism that Wolfe’s success as a writer was deeply indebted to Perkins’ editorial suggestions?

I think Perkins’ hand in Wolfe’s original manuscripts has been greatly and gratuitously oversold. There is a skill in rearranging and editing a novel, but there is an art to authoring it, and there’s no doubt that Thomas Wolfe was the artist at work. I think much of this opinion of Perkins’ guiding hand is due to Wolfe’s identity as a rough-and-tumble Southerner who couldn’t tie his own shoes.

We have to think about literary tastes and cultural awareness in the years between World War I and World War II. Most of the work being read at the time was being written in and about cities in the Northeast, and suddenly this writer comes from Appalachia, who’s actually writing about an urban Appalachia that conflicts with popular misconceptions of the hillbilly stereotype, and it’s eloquent and bold and more like James Joyce than Mark Twain. Surely, this man could not have accomplished this work without the guiding hand of a well-heeled Northern intellectual, right? Wrong.

Criticism like this misses the role that editors play in the evolution of a manuscript. They encourage us to slow down, to rethink, to rely on talents we might not have employed at particular moments. They also help us foresee potential issues — whether it be with writing the book or the marketing of it — down the road. Wolfe loved Perkins, perhaps largely because he stepped into a paternal role when Wolfe needed it — but he also loved him because he was particularly good at filling the roles I mentioned above.

In your opinion, when did that collective view of Southern writers begin to shift away from the stereotypes you mentioned?

Oh, lord. I don’t know if we’ve ever shifted away from it. When my first novel came out, my publicist at HarperCollins hosted my marketing lunch — the event where the publisher introduces you to the media — at Justin Timberlake’s restaurant Southern Hospitality in Manhattan. Of all the restaurants in New York City, that was the one they chose.

One topic that’s come up in the series with both Terry Roberts and Kayla Seay involves Wolfe’s shrinking audience. What’s your take on why Wolfe isn’t as widely read today as some of his contemporaries? 

I think one reason is due to the fact that he’s fallen off syllabi requirements in colleges and universities. The academy is largely responsible for keeping literature alive, and most of what Wolfe wrote is very long and not easily digestible in one or two class meetings. For the sake of brevity, if professors are teaching American writers between the wars, they’re more likely to reach for poets and short story writers, of which there are plenty to choose. But I’ve taught Wolfe — Look Homeward, Angel and a few stories and plays — on several occasions.

Which leads me to my penultimate question. For the Wolfe curious, what story or novel would you recommend they start with and why? 

I’ve always loved The Lost Boy, especially the version published in 1994 by UNC Press. I think it shows the full breadth of what Wolfe can do: rich characterizations, beautiful language, fully rendered settings. It’s tightly written and never loses its emotional momentum. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.

Lastly, if you could go back to 1937 and meet with Wolfe while he was staying in Asheville, where would you go with him, and what questions would you ask him? 

I think it would be really cool to walk the landscape of Look Homeward, Angel with the knowledge of what contemporary Asheville looks like. I might ask him about the landmarks of his youth and compare them to the landmarks of my youth in Asheville — Vincent’s Ear, Bean Streets, Be Here Now.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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