Literary Asheville: Thomas Wolfe

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This is a photograph of Thomas Wolfe’s grave, which is in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, where I happen to find myself today.  Turns out that North Carolina is a state with an amazing literary heritage, claiming authors as diverse as Wolfe, Carl Sandburg (more on him later), O Henry, and tons of others. 

But Thomas Wolfe grew up in town, and wrote about it in Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again.  His work was all autobiographical and people familiar with Look Homeward, Angel, will recall the boarding house in the novel.  It was based on the house he grew up in.  (Do I have any photos of it?  No, of course not, because I forgot to take any.  I still can’t get used to having my camera with me.)  But you can see the website here.

Its a pretty snazzy spot, complete with visitor’s center that has exhibits and a movie and lots of books you can buy.  The only way you can get into the house is to take a guided tour, but at $1 it won’t break you.  However, the annoying tour guide might.    Could we have a little bit of humor, people?  And not be quite so certain that the miscreants you have to guide about the house are going to touch the precious Wolfe artifacts?

Anyway, Tom was 6’4" and when he first wrote about Asheville everyone hated him and was royally pissed.  But then, eight years later, he returned and because he was famous everyone fawned over him.  He was quite a handsome man, but he never married because he was in love with an older married woman, Aline Bernstein.  And alas, our Tom died young, at age 38 from brain tuberculosis.  He was actually on a tour of the west and spent time in Portland before falling quite ill in Seattle.  And then–get this–he had to be taken back home via train, a journey which took 4 days, much of which he spent unconscious or delirious.  He died a short time later in Baltimore.

I am really fascinated with Tom’s mother, Julia, who ran the boarding house he grew up in.  Because Asheville was a resort town, the boarding house was really more like the B and B’s of today.

Julia was quite the business woman, and because she grew up poor, once she got a taste of making money, she just wanted to earn more.  She sort of turned her back on poor Tom, the last of her brood, because she was busy waiting on her clients and plotting ways to make more money.  She added on rooms to the house willy-nilly in order to have more to rent out and worked the boarding house until her death in 1945, eight years after Tom.

Today the house is surrounded by downtown Asheville, with a Renaissance hotel looming in front of it and some sort of huge building under construction to the north.  It reminds me of a short story I once wrote in which an artist starts adding on rooms to her house because she believes the carpenter she hires is magical and makes good things happen in her life.  Many years in the future, the house is a tourist attraction along the lines of the Winchester Mystery House and the entire city has grown up around it.

The other place we visited was Carl Sandburg’s house, but I’m too tired to write about it tonight.  Oh, and the cemetery where Wolfe is buried is very close to the grounds of the Highland Hospital, where Zelda Fitzgerald lived while F. Scott was out in California, writing screen plays.  She died there in the fire that destroyed the hospital.  The way they identified her body was by the single slipper of hers that remained under the bed. 

And on that cheery note I will end this post. 

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3 Comments on "Literary Asheville: Thomas Wolfe"

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Jen
Guest

I’m in Asheville with my grandmother right now!! We’re leaving momentarily, but we’ve had a wonderful visit. I’m sorry that we didn’t get to see Thomas Wolfe’s grave, but we did really enjoy downtown and the Biltmore House. Now I have a good reason to come back!

David
Guest

What an interesting place. I will have to go down there and visit. Seems like I remember something about it being very nice in the fall. And I won’t forget my camera. After awhile it becomes part of you. It would be easier to forget my wife. And I’m not going to do that either!

Charlotte
Guest

Jen, that is so funny that you were in Asheville, too. I didn’t go to the Biltmore this time, but I did on a quick visit last fall and loved it. I also really enjoyed downtown–so many great places to eat and great people-watching.

David, I imagine Asheville would be stunning when the leaves have changed. I’m sure your wife would enjoy it, too, if you remember to take her.

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