Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe v. the state of North Carolina, 1924

THE OLD KENTUCKY HOME: Thomas and his mother, Julia Wolfe, sit outside her rooming house in May 1937.
THE OLD KENTUCKY HOME: Thomas and his mother, Julia Wolfe, sit outside her rooming house in May 1937. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On April 21, 1924, Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter to his mother, Julia. He had just begun his teaching career at New York University.  At that time, he still considered himself a playwright rather than a novelist. It would be another five years before Look Homeward, Angel would be published. The book would propel Wolfe into the spotlight — as well as the hot seat with his former Asheville neighbors and friends.

This is an excerpt from his letter. He was only 23 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.

Thomas Wolfe writes his mother, Julia:

[I am] pained at the implication in your letter that I was ashamed of North Carolina — only what is N.C. willing to do for me? I don’t think there is a place there now for anyone who cares for anything besides Rotary and Lions and Boosters Clubs, real-estate speculation, “heap much” money, social fawning, good roads, new mills — what, in a word, they choose to call “Progress, Progress, Progress.” The only Progress is spiritual; the only lasting thing is Beauty — created by an artist. …

N.C. needs honest criticism — rather than the false, shallow “we-are-the-finest-state-and-greatest-people-in-the-country” kind of thing. An artist who refuses to accept fair criticism of his work will never go far. What of a state? …

N.C. will be ready to welcome me with trumpets if my plays are acted on Broadway — above all, if they make money, money. You know…that is quite true. Look around you in Asheville. Are the most prominent people there the finest — by education, personality, culture, and general character. By no means. After all, haven’t you all worshipped the big bank roll too much. Grove is a great man because he sells more pills than anyone else; Mrs. Vanderbilt is a great woman because of Biltmore House and twenty million.

Be honest: You know I have never been a snob. And it is because I respect my family so much, knowing you were as good as any, to see you bend a supple knee at any time to the Asheville Goulds and Astros. If any of them ever patronize me — telling you I am a “bright boy” — for God’s sake, don’t look grateful or humble.

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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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3 thoughts on “Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe v. the state of North Carolina, 1924

  1. Carol

    Looks to be the beginning of another great series! Thanks to Thomas Calder for sharing the history of this fascinating place we call home.

  2. boatrocker

    Ouch!
    “Real estate speculation, ‘heap much money’, social fawning”.
    Sound familiar?

    So many mistake Wolfe’s writings for some sort of ‘Ain’t it grand here? Hooray for the old ways’ as opposed to
    ‘Ick, I gotta get outta this provincial little town and see the world’.

    Awesome article, again.

  3. Ellen Brown

    This is a fabulous post! I’ve been saying for months now that we should try and honor Wolfe’s accomplishments as historian! I’m so pleased to read his comment suggesting we should do lees ancestor worship and, instead, describe real people, warts and all. I am so pleased to see this, and am eager to see more!

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