Tuesday History: ‘We are born alone’

SELF-EXILE: Thomas Wolfe would not return to Asheville for eight years following the publication of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel.
SELF-EXILE: Thomas Wolfe would not return to Asheville for eight years following the publication of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

October was a significant month for writer Thomas Wolfe. The Asheville native was born Oct. 3, 1900. Nearly three decades later, his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was published on Oct. 18, 1929. The book tells the story of Eugene Gant, his family and the residents of the fictional town and state of Altamont, Catawba.

Upon its publication, local residents discovered landscapes and locations similar to Asheville’s own. (Chunns Cove, for example, is Lunns Cove in the novel.) They also read about characters reminiscent of individuals who once had, or in many cases still did, call the area home. (Mr. Goulderbilt, for example, is the millionaire resident in Look Homeward, Angel who built the extravagant Biltburn home.) Local responses were not favorable of Wolfe’s characterizations. The book was banned from Asheville’s library. Wolfe, who resided in New York City at the time of its publication, would later claim he received death threats in the mail.

On Oct. 20, 1929, Walter S. Adams of The Asheville Times reviewed the book. In it Adams wrote:

“An amazing new novel is just off the press which is of great and unique interest to Asheville. This community in fact, is going to be astounded by it. Some few well known residents may be shocked into chills. Others will probably be severely annoyed. Many others will snicker and laugh.”

Later on in the review, Adams continued:

“Most of the Asheville people who appear in the novel wear their most unpleasant guises. If there attaches to them any scandal which has enjoyed only a subterranean circulation, it is dragged forth into the light. If they have any weaknesses which more tolerant friends are considerate enough to overlook, these defects are faithfully described. In describing them, the author must often convey the impression to the unknowing that these weaknesses were the distinguishing characteristics of the persons.”

Adams went on to predict that Look Homeward, Angel would be well-received by literary critics. In Asheville, however, he suspected folks would read it not for its literary value but “because it is the story told with bitterness and without compassion, of many Asheville people.”

A second, more favorable review was offered that same day in The Asheville Citizen. In it, reporter Lola M. Love wrote:

“The book is a genius’ combination of reality, which will not shrink from even the most sordid details of everyday life, and of a child-like expression of the most delightful fantasy. Both realism and thought are clothed in a vibrant language which pulses with the joy which life’s ordinary happenings bring to the author. There is delight in reading words, which have been used by Mr. Wolfe to cram the book with meaning and with living people.”

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN: It wouldn't be until 1937 that Wolfe returned to Asheville. He sits with his mother, Julia, on the front porch of the Old Kentucky Home. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina
YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN: Thomas Wolfe returned to Asheville in 1937 after years in New York City. He sits with his mother, Julia, on the front porch of the Old Kentucky Home. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On Nov. 6, 1929, Wolfe wrote to his mother, Julia, who still resided in Asheville, where she continued to operate her boardinghouse, the Old Kentucky Home, which Wolfe reimagined as Dixieland in Look Homeward, Angel. The letter, written from his New York City apartment, lamented Asheville’s misinterpretation of his book:

“I have not lived in Asheville for ten years, but I have always believed that if I ever wrote a book I could expect at least as much kindness and fairness in the town of my birth as I would get from strangers. I am very grateful to all those people, like the people at the Citizen, who have judged my work fairly and generously, but I am not grateful to people who try to make of my book a diary of family and town history. In the introduction to the book I stated very plainly that it was made from human experience — as all serious fiction is — but that the book was fiction and represented the writer’s own picture of life — that he had taken experience and shaped it into a world of his own making. The Times reporter in his review accused me of evading the question ‘by clever twists of phrases’ — there is no evasion there or elsewhere: only a very simple and direct statement of what fiction is.

“In short, the characters and scenes in my book are of my own imagining and my own making — they have their roots in human experience, but what life and being they have, I gave to them. There is no scene in my book that is supposed to be literal, and I will not talk to damned fools who ask me if so-and-so in the book is meant to be such and such a person living in Asheville. What the book is about is stated on the very first page, in the opening paragraph: it says that we are born alone — all of us who ever lived or will live — that we live alone, and die alone, and that we are strangers to one another, and never come to know one another. That is not written about people in Asheville — it is written about people everywhere. North, South, East, and West.”

Editor’s note: Thomas Calder leads occasional weekend tours at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

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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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7 thoughts on “Tuesday History: ‘We are born alone’

  1. Phillip Williams

    There was a British-made film about Wolfe made last year – I have not seen it, though. The title is “Genius” and stars Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. I remember the late Mr. John Parris used to make many references to Wolfe in his columns, especially when October rolled around.

      • anna crown-severa

        i anna crown when in school at david miller the english dept invited thomas sister to talk on her brother’s writing i really how no idea
        what i was a part of/but for every i have been interst in his writing now i know have found that my mother sister frances arthur work at asheville paper and john parrish and has i sign copy of his first book what did i missed

    • Thomas Calder

      Hey Phillip,

      Yes, the film was released last year. Tom Muir, the site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial actually toured Jude Law around town prior to the film’s production. Some say Law overacted, but if you’ve read any of Wolfe’s letters, you get a sense of his large and mercurial personality. Thanks as always for the comments. And thanks as always for reading Asheville Archives and Xpress.

      • Big Al

        I have been led to believe that Wolfe was indeed as mercurial as Law portrayed him. I especially like the performances of Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway. And, yeah, Colin Firth was good, too (actually he was great).

  2. anna crown-severa

    thomas wolfe sister is MaBel Wheaton and i meet her 1955 david miller school during my english class

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