Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe and his “queer talk,” 1938

UNCONVENTIONAL SOURCES: Authors' works, including letters written by Thomas Wolfe, featured, were used as source material for historian Travis Sutton Byrd. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On May 10, 1938, Thomas Wolfe wrote his sister, Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, what would be one of his last letters to her. Wolfe had returned to Asheville the previous year for his first visit home since the publication of Look Homeward Angel, in 1929. When he wrote Mabel, he was preparing for a journey out West. Mabel would later join her him in Seattle, Wash., after he fell ill. On Sept. 15, 1938 Wolfe would die at Johns Hopkins Hospital from tubercular meningitis. 

This is an excerpt from Wolfe’s letter. He was only 37 years old. Thanks, as always, to the Pack Memorial Library’s Special Collections, North Carolina Room for its assistance, as well as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

Wolfe writes his sister Mabel:

…we were never taught a whole lot of things we should have known and that might have been a great deal more useful to us than a great many things we were taught. We were never taught, for example, to question the life around us, which was the little world of Asheville, which in its turn is the whole world of America. If we questioned the essential and beautiful rightness of anything, we were labeled a “radical,” “queer,” a “freak” and all the rest of it. As a result, you are today in middle age, a baffled person, and I am having to begin my education all over again. …

Just to reassure you, and to let you know where I stand, I would like to say that I like people everywhere and my own country, America, much more than I ever did before. But I think that people everywhere have been generally misused and exploited, and I think that America, which is such a beautiful and wonderful country, has been taken away from the people to whom it should belong and given largely into the hands of a few of the exploiters.

I am afraid you will consider this “queer talk” or “radical talk” or “communistic talk,” and for that reason I have felt very sorry about you all. You have been chewed up by the existing order and system of things … and it never occurred to you to question or resent the thing that was chewing you up … you are not a radical or queer because you question and resent it and want to change it. Unless you do, I don’t think you can have much hope in the future. You will go on feeling more and more defeated, vainly pining for what is gone and will never come back again — Asheville during the boom, insane speculation, Grove Park, Biltmore Forest and all the rest of it — which was never much good in the beginning.

I think you are wise in wanting to get out of Asheville. I have known what happened to it for years, but I had a good chance to sum it all up when I went back last summer. It is a ruined and defeated town, and it is full of ruined and defeated people. If you think that I am happy about this, you do me an injustice. After all, it was my town, I was born there, and some of the people I care for most on earth still live there. But I found out last summer that you can’t go home again, and now I know why. …

The old world that you knew is largely gone — I mean Grove Park, stucco houses, boom-town speculation, Wall Street, 1929 — and all the rest of it. It’s not coming back, Mabel. Most of those poor defeated devils in Asheville hope that it is coming back. But it’s not. And most of them have nothing else to cling to, no other language to talk, because it is the only language they ever knew. I saw that last summer, and from the bottom of my heart I feel sincerely and compassionately sorry for them all.

But I don’t want you to be one of them: You’ve still got plenty of stuff in you, and enough to face the future. It’s always harder to go through the woods, remember, than to take the beaten path, but you sometimes get places going through the woods that you never see or know about if you stick to the beaten path. And the old beaten path, I am afraid, is no good any more: It doesn’t lead to anywhere: It’s like that great glittering tunnel through Beaucatcher Mountain that cost a million dollars. You get through, and there you are, just where you always were — in Chunn’s Cove. Except you find that Chunn’s Cove isn’t even there — it’s just something you used to think was there when you were a kid. I am going places — better places than Chunn’s Cove — and I invite you to come along. And let me know if I can help you. I am your friend.

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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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2 thoughts on “Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe and his “queer talk,” 1938

  1. boatrocker

    Again, I love these history type articles in the X.
    A welcome breath of fresh air.

    Wolfe’s outlook would nowadays earn him the titles of Democrakkk, liberal, progressive, taker, 47%er, etc.
    Isn’t it nice that one of Asheville’s own could get away with speaking truth to power before the anti-thinky nouveau -populist counter revolution of about 2008?

    I’d be curious as to what O. Henry’s thoughts were for living here as I never read any essays or letters from him apart from the short stories about combs and cutting hair for Xmas.

    I’m more familiar with Wolfe’s subtly stated critique of our fair town. Fitzgerald was a given for being down on snotty upper crust as most of us have read The Great Gatsby, which he researched by hanging out at the Grove Park Inn and watching people snap their fingers for another drink.

  2. Davyne Dial

    Interesting assessment of Asheville by Wolfe. It took 70 years to recover from the excess of the roaring twenties. Wolfe would be classified again as queer, or worse for being critical of the current over development spree.

    Wolfe says this about the hotels built in the 20’s ““There’s a good play in Asheville,” Wolfe wrote his oldest brother in 1921, “a play of a town which never had the ordinary, healthy, industrial life a town ought to have but instead dressed itself up in fine streets and stuck hotels in its hair in order to vamp the tourist populace. There’s a good play in the boy who lets the town vamp him, who sees the rich tourists and their mode of life and thinks he must live that way .”

    The more things change them more they stay the same.

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