“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.”

Thomas Wolfe

On October 3rd, 1900, Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children. His father ran a successful gravestone business, and his mother, Julia, ran a boarding house. Wolfe grew up in Asheville, spending much of his time at his mother’s boarding house on Spruce Street (now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial). 

At the age of 15, Wolfe went to study at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wolfe aspired to be a famous playwright, graduating from Chapel Hill in 1920 and going on to Harvard University. He graduated with his Master’s in 1922, and his father, W.O., died that summer. Wolfe stayed at Harvard another year to continue studying under playwright George Pierce Baker before moving to New York and becoming a teacher. 

Unable to sell his plays (primarily because of their length), Wolfe set out to Europe to write, switching his focus to fiction with the hopes that the medium could handle his prolific output. On his return voyage, he met Aline Bernstein, a scene designer twenty years his senior. Bernstein was married with two children. Wolfe and Bernstein began an affair that would last five years, with many more years in correspondence, significantly affecting his writing career. (More about Thomas and Aline here

Aline not only encouraged his writing – she funded it. His first published novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was dedicated to her. Wolfe’s manuscript, submitted to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, was 1,100 pages long (330,000 words). After Perkins applied heavy edits, it was published 11 days before the stock market crash of 1929. 

A First Edition Look Homeward, Angel on Biblio.com from Quintessential Rare Books, LLC

Wolfe is considered one of the first masters of autobiographical fiction. Although he renamed Asheville – Altamont and his mother’s boarding house ‘Dixieland” instead of “Old Kentucky Home,” his references were thinly veiled, and the town was unimpressed. Wolfe stayed away from Asheville for eight years because of the hostile response to his novel. 

He traveled Europe and settled in New York City, submitting a second novel – a multi-volume epic initially entitled The October Fair. Again Perkins edited down the work to a single volume. It was released as Of Time and the River in 1935. It was more commercially successful than his first, but still autobiographical, the character of Esther Jack based on Aline Bernstein. 

In 1938 he submitted over a million words of a manuscript to his new editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper & Brothers, then traveled around the American West. While in Seattle, he became ill with pneumonia and was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis. The disease spread to his brain, and he died just before his 38th birthday, on September 15th, 1938.

Southerner and Harvard historian David Herbert Donald’s biography of Wolfe, Look Homeward, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1988.

Lesson from Wolfe: 

He was loved and hated by writers and the public. He was held in high esteem in writing circles, then fell mostly out of favor and was all but forgotten. He was a big figure, using the top of a refrigerator to write, and the books he wrote were huge. And although he did allow some editing, which may have made his work more publishable and accessible to audiences, he did not change his style. 

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