“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: Subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”
These words open the 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel, the first published work by acclaimed native son Thomas Wolfe.
The complex, frenetic author grew up in a time of rapidly changing social and economic realities that, in many ways, mirrored today’s Asheville: a real estate boom and a flourishing tourist trade that brought a steady stream of newbies to these mountains.
And Wolfe’s ambivalence about those trends produced thinly disguised and not always flattering portrayals of the city and its residents in such novels as Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River and You Can’t Go Home Again.
Asheville and environs have seen considerable change in the 77 years since Wolfe’s death, yet many of the aspects he wrote (and sometimes fumed) about seem uncannily familiar. And as current residents ponder the challenges the city faces today, a look at several of the celebrated author’s key themes might prove instructive.
Altered past recognition
“Asheville in 1900 was an expanding modern city, the third-largest in the state,” notes Tom Muir, historic site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. With thriving industrial and tourism sectors, what Wolfe said was formerly a “crossroads village” was now drawing a quarter-million visitors annually.
Before that, says longtime Asheville resident Bill Branyon, who’s explored Wolfe’s perspectives on the city in his own writing, “It was just this sleepy little town, like Andy and Mayberry.”
Between 1900 and 1920, though, Asheville’s population exploded, surging from less than 15,000 to more than 28,000. Wolfe wrote extensively about the transformation from the provincial backwater of his early childhood to a city “splendidly equipped to meet the demands of the great and steadily growing crowd of tourists.” This “mountain metropolis,” he noted, included “eight hotels of the highest quality” and “over 250 private hotels, boardinghouses and sanitariums, all catering to the needs of those who come on missions of business, pleasure or health.”
As he was leaving Asheville in 1920 to seek his fortune up north, the young author marveled at the “mixed and varied” crowd he observed on the train platform, with a “strong coloring of worldly smartness, the element of fashionable sophistication that one sometimes finds in a place where a native and alien population have come together.”
By the time he returned in 1925, however, “A wave of ruinous and destructive energy had welled up in them,” Wolfe wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again. “They had squandered fabulous sums in meaningless streets and bridges … flung away the earnings of a lifetime and mortgaged those of a generation to come.” The city of his birth, with its “quiet streets and the old houses … obscured below the leafy spread of trees” had been altered “past recognition, scarred with hard patches of bright concrete and raw dumps of new construction. It looked like a battlefield, cratered and shell torn with savage explosions of brick and concrete all over town.”
Muir confirms that view. “More than 65 buildings were erected in downtown Asheville during the 1920s,” he notes, and civic leaders were predicting continued dramatic population growth. In anticipation, Asheville issued bonds to fund infrastructure improvements: When the stock market crashed in 1929, Asheville had the highest per capita debt in the country. That fact haunted the city for the next 50 years, as it painstakingly labored to repay those loans.
Today, Asheville is once again experiencing a real estate boom. At least six hotels are being built or under development, and massive public works projects, such as revitalizing the River Arts District, are proceeding apace.
Meanwhile, with scores of transplants seeking to relocate to Asheville, the vacancy rate for apartments in the city stands at a minuscule 0.9 percent, census data show. And this year’s City Council race featured lively debates about affordable housing, new development and short-term rentals.
“When I wrote articles about Asheville’s growth in the 1990s, things were being built almost as fast,” says Branyon. But that marked a drastic change from his arrival here a decade earlier, when “downtown’s main businesses were the adult bookstore and the [porn movie theater].”
And while the local author sees many positives in the city’s rejuvenation, he believes the strain of rapid growth is beginning to show. “Being out near Biltmore Park on I-26 at rush hour is just bonkers. You just see it like a shock wave: You feel it, the development imprisoning us.”
The current debate over what proponents have dubbed “St. Lawrence Green,” says Branyon, reminds him of this description by Wolfe: “The fairest places in town were mutilated at a cost of millions of dollars.” Both situations, notes Branyon, reflect opposing ideologies endorsed by city decision-makers.
In Wolfe’s day, proponents of a progressive New South agenda duked it out with the Vanderbilt Agrarians, a group of intellectuals who opposed industrialization and Northern influence. “These agrarians wanted Wolfe to become one of them,” and when he declined, “They started criticizing his writing, and Wolfe got pissed at them. They became sort of enemies,” notes Branyon.
In a letter to the critic Van Wyck Brooks, Wolfe called the agrarians “lily-handed intellectuals” interested in restoring “an aristocratic South.”
Branyon says he’s experienced similar tension with former friends over the question of Asheville’s growth and what to do about it. “Slow growth can be attained, but in my opinion, we want more of I-26 faster, and every roadway to be a four-lane,” he says. “What Asheville’s suffering from is what the whole earth is suffering from: development. That’s what [Council member Cecil] Bothwell’s trying to define it as: progressives in the ‘club of growth’ and others who think it needs to be slowed.”
Despite those challenges, though, Branyon still feels Asheville is “the best place in the world to live right now: The natural topography protects itself to an extent.”
Given the difficulty of regulating growth, however, he’s concerned about the city’s future. “This has been going on forever,” says Branyon. “You can’t comb Godzilla’s hair, and growth in Asheville is Godzilla.”
Riding the rails
Perhaps the biggest single factor in Asheville’s transformation from sleepy town to burgeoning economic hub was the arrival of the railroad.
Of Time and the River opens with travelers and residents gathered to await the “first interest in the lives of all Americans … the coming of the train.”
Railroad aficionado Ray Rapp, who teaches political science at Mars Hill University, says trains were “the way in and out of Asheville, bringing the world to the city.” Beginning in the 1880s, they carried mail, industrial materials and passengers (including the Vanderbilt and Pack families) to and from the mountains.
“The railroad promoted the region to tourists and land speculators, using the title of Christian Reid’s 1875 novel The Land of the Sky,” notes Rapp. And by the early 20th century, that massive influx of visitors had jump-started a booming hotel and lodging industry that included the Grove Park Inn as well as Wolfe’s mother’s boardinghouse (now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial). Religious conference centers sprang up along the rail lines; even today, places like Ridgecrest, Montreat and Lake Junaluska attract thousands of visitors annually.
But the environmental impact was devastating. “Once the timber barons arrived and had a mainline railroad for shipment, the hillsides were denuded by lumbermen who descended on the mountains like locusts,” notes Rapp. The widespread deforestation is considered partly responsible for the disastrous 1916 flood, which destroyed much low-lying property along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers and cost the city millions.
Several of Wolfe’s novels feature scenes aboard passenger trains carrying men of the world on their speculative missions. “I think immediately of Billy Edd Wheeler’s song, ‘Coming of the Roads,’” notes Rapp. Like those highways, he says, “The railroad brought modernity to the mountains, with all of its attractions, distractions and detractions.”
Tracks still bisect many of the region’s valleys like spokes, and the occasional freight train can be seen chugging east over the Swannanoa Gap or south from Tennessee through Madison County. But the railroad’s golden age in Asheville is long gone: Passenger service ended in 1975, and the old roundhouse, once a central transfer station for locomotives, was demolished last year.
Freight rail hasn’t fared much better, says Rapp. In the 1980s and ’90s, “The decline in coal shipments, combined with the loss of major industrial shippers such as DuPont, American Enka, General Electric and numerous furniture and textile plants” led Norfolk Southern to cut services to the region. Freight traffic, he reports, is down from 22 trains a day to three.
“Today, the railroad has been replaced by interstate highways, the Internet, television, trucks, personal autos and airplanes,” muses Rapp. And despite repeated efforts to restore passenger service, he says that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. “Amtrak reported it needs to see a passenger volume of 240,000 per year,” he notes, and two recent Wake Forest University studies project just 72,000 riders per year.
Hand in hand
Amid decades’ worth of change, however, one local commodity has remained fairly constant: alcohol.
In Wolfe’s day, says Lex 18 owner Georgia Malki, “One of the easiest businesses to set up was no different than what you see here today: a bar. They were all over the place.”
Workers, she explains, “received their day’s earnings on the spot. Naturally, prior to going home, it was traditional for many of these men to stop off in a saloon.” Lex 18 occupies the very space that housed John O’Donnell’s Eureka Saloon back then; the family still owns the building.
Then as now, continues Malki, who’s researched local history extensively in connection with her business, bars served as social centers where people could escape the drudgery of home life and the demands of family. “This is not a town with big boulevards and tons of people-watching space,” she points out. “It’s really inside the saloons and bars where the socializing happens.”
Alcohol looms large in Wolfe’s autobiographical novels, too. “Wolfe’s father was a raging alcoholic,” says Malki, adding that the family dynamics surrounding his addiction were typical of the period.
The author recounts an argument in Look Homeward, Angel between his mother and the fictionalized character Tim O’Doyle, based off of O’Donnell, in which the former threatens to have the saloonkeeper “put […] in the penitentiary” if he served Wolfe’s father any alcohol.
Malki says that the property owners of Lex 18, descendants of O’Donnell, have confirmed the tale is accurate. “[Julia Wolfe] went to 14 establishments that she knew W.O. Wolfe frequented. That’s just for one guy!” Nor, Malki adds, would it be the last time Julia would go to such lengths to discourage the elder Wolfe’s drinking.
By 1907, the temperance movement, led by local women and religious leaders, had managed to get alcohol banned in the city. “They rallied politicians, businesses and ministers of every faith to push this elaborate campaign for prohibition,” says Malki. “We’re talking about speeches, marches — the whole town was galvanized.”
A year later North Carolina followed suit, and in 1920, the 18th Amendment took effect, outlawing booze nationwide. But rather than discouraging people from drinking, Prohibition made the alcohol business much more lucrative. “If anything, there were probably more speakeasies and outlets for drinking once the 1907 ban had passed,” Malki reports.
It’s impossible to quantify the number of bars operating in Asheville during Prohibition, but Malki says contemporary evidence shows that owners were making a hefty profit. “We see $220 days in the books of O’Donnell, when his expenses don’t amount to more than $5-$10.”
Today, “Beer City USA” is home to some 16 breweries, with others on the way and many more in the surrounding area. There are also several distilleries and wineries, and countless bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Last year, visitors to Asheville spent an estimated $449 million on food and beverages, according to an economic impact report commissioned by the Tourism Development Authority; that figure will most likely rise with the opening of New Belgium Brewing Co.’s East Coast facility next year and the possible addition of Deschutes Brewery.
Besides being relatively easy to start and operate, says Malki, alcohol-related businesses are vital to a tourism-based economy. “Anytime you offer nightlife, a reason for people to be on the streets after dark, you create foot traffic. And when you create foot traffic, you create a real estate interest in developing housing there,” she notes. “A bar is a visual, visceral entertainment opportunity: You get to consume a drug, listen to music. It’s a vital part of town.”
But many of the same issues that led to Prohibition a century ago lurk in the blurry shadows of the city’s current bar scene. “Asheville is like any other town: It’s always had prostitution,” says Malki. “The boardinghouse that Wolfe’s mother ran was for the most part a boardinghouse, but women of questionable reputation would utilize it.”
And these days, she continues, “There’s literally a rotation of six to 10 hookers out on South French Broad Avenue. Whenever you have that combination of publicly sold alcohol and thriving business and nightlife, you have prostitution.”
And while Malki freely admits to benefiting from Asheville’s thriving bar scene, marketing the city as a destination for drinking, she maintains, means “we’re also clearly saying, without actually saying it, that you’ll find other drugs and prostitution available. No matter what, the two go hand in hand.”
In this sense, the Wolfe family’s struggles with an alcoholic father can serve as a cautionary tale. “Wolfe had a pretty tragic childhood, witnessing his father’s radical mood swings. Back in 1907, they thought getting rid of alcohol would fix the problem,” says Malki. “Well, the problem wasn’t alcohol: The problem was the systemic disease of alcoholism.
“And as more bars continue to come to Asheville,” she adds, “I think we need to be very attentive and look at this holistically — at the cultural, musical and social opportunities — and balance that with us, as community members, being very sensitive to ensuring no one’s harmed.”