Asheville Archives: The deaths of Thomas Wolfe

WOLFE PACK: Unlike Thomas K. Wolfe, Asheville’s Thomas C. Wolfe did not quite reach the mature age of 88. Dead at 37, reports lamented his premature passing, a result of tubercular meningitis.

Pop quiz, dear reader. When did writer Thomas Wolfe die?

A. Sept. 15, 1938
B. May 14, 2018
C. Both of the above
D. Neither of the above

If you circled C, you are correct.

It’s not often that two men, unrelated, share both a name and a profession. But this was the case for Thomas Clayton Wolfe and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. The former, an Asheville native and author of such books as Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again was born Oct. 3, 1900, and died Sept. 15, 1938. The latter, of Richmond, Va., who wrote such works as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities, was born March 2, 1930, and died May 14, 2018.

Unlike Thomas K. Wolfe, Asheville’s Thomas C. Wolfe did not quite reach the mature age of 88. Dead at 37, reports lamented his premature passing, a result of tubercular meningitis. On Sept. 16, 1938, The Asheville Citizen announced the news. Along with its reporting, the newspaper also featured coverage from the Charlotte News, which declared:

“The death of Thomas Wolfe in Baltimore is a major blow to American letters and particularly to the south. Of all the young men who have been writing in Dixie in recent years and redeeming the reputation of the land as a place where novels were no more than dream stories about a dream south that was nearly indistinguishable from cloud-cuckoo country, he was by far the ablest.”

Headlines announcing Thomas C. Wolfe’s demise were featured in papers across the country, from the Tampa Morning Tribune to the San Bernardino Daily Sun. As many reports noted, Wolfe first fell ill in Vancouver, British Columbia, while touring the Northwest. The initial cold soon developed into pneumonia, leading Wolfe to seek treatment at a sanatorium in Seattle. Eventually, he was transported east to Baltimore, where he underwent two surgeries at Johns Hopkins in a failed effort to save his life.

Wolfe wrote his final letter while out West. Dated Aug. 12, 1938, the missive was addressed to his former editor Maxwell Perkins. In his brief letter, Wolfe wrote:

“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 a 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 wiser one — If I get on my feet and out of here, it will be months before I head back, but if I get on my feet, I’ll come back.”

Wolfe’s funeral services were held on Sept. 18, 1938, at the First Presbyterian Church in Asheville. He was buried later that day at Riverside Cemetery.

His works, largely autobiographical, were controversial among Asheville residents throughout his lifetime (see “Tuesday History: ‘We are born alone,’” Oct. 10, 2017, Xpress). In her 2007 biography, Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin? writer Joanne Marshall Mauldin addresses the divisive nature of his fiction.

But Mauldin also offers insight into the intrigue his writing held for those outside Asheville, including an excerpt from a letter written by Wolfe’s literary agent, Elizabeth Nowell. On Feb. 14, 1956, Nowell wrote: “At Johns Hopkins I didn’t know and couldn’t believe then that Tom would die, and I kept thinking how he’d love to hear just what the family did and said: it was like living in a still unwritten book.”

In an email exchange with Xpress, Tom Muir, site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial writes: “There is an old quote that says you die twice: once when you die, and the second time when your name isn’t spoken anymore. In an odd way the passing of author Thomas K. Wolfe has helped to keep the memory of Asheville’s Thomas C. Wolfe alive. Rest in peace Tom Wolfe, 1900-2018, we continue to speak your name, but we don’t have a white suit on exhibit.”

Editor’s notes: Thomas Calder leads occasional tours at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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One thought on “Asheville Archives: The deaths of Thomas Wolfe

  1. Phillip Williams

    Thomas Wolfe was still very much “with us” in Asheville right up to the 1990’s – there were still quite a few of the old timers downtown who remembered him well. There is still at least one of several angels sold by W.O. Wolfe that is fairly local – it is over the grave of Ms. Margaret E. Johnson, in the Oakdale Cemetery, midway between Hendersonville and Laurel Park, on Hwy 64. There is a historical marker right by the road, and the angel is visible from the Highway. A fence was erected around it some years back because people kept chipping off pieces for souvenirs…
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150641681404720&set=pb.501594719.-2207520000.1529006629.&type=3&theater

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