Childhood & Early Life
Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, to William Oliver Wolfe and Julia Elizabeth Westall-Wolfe. His father was a stone carver, while his mother owned a boarding house and dealt in real estate.
Wolfe was youngest of the eight siblings in the family. The first-born child of his parents, Leslie, died in infancy. His other siblings were Eddie Nelson, Frank Cecil, Mabel Elizabeth, twins Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, and Frederick William. In 1904, during the ‘World Fair,’ he accompanied his family to St. Louis, where his mother ran a boarding house. One of his brothers, Grover, died of typhoid in St. Louis.
In 1905, Wolfe joined Asheville’s public school. In 1912, he began studying at Mr. & Mrs. Roberts’ private school.
Wolfe’s mother bought a boarding house named the ‘Old Kentucky Home’ on 48, Spruce Street of Asheville, where she moved in with Thomas. Though it was situated close to the family home on 92 Woodfin Street, where Thomas often went to meet his siblings, he mostly spent a lonely childhood. His older brother, Ben, died in 1918. This left a deep emotional impact on Wolfe, as he was quite close to Ben.
In 1916, Wolfe joined the ‘University of North Carolina,’ where he was the editor of the student newspaper ‘The Tar Heel.’ His essay ‘The Crisis in Industry’ won him the ‘Worth Prize for Philosophy.’ He was a member of the ‘Dialectic Society’ and the ‘Pi Kappa Phi’ fraternity. He was an inductee of the ‘Golden Fleece’ honor society.
Wolfe volunteered as a civilian war worker in Norfolk during the summer of 1918. Later, he joined Prof. Frederick Koch’s playwriting course at the university. In March 1919, the university’s theater company, ‘Carolina Playmakers,’ performed his one-act play, ‘The Return of Buck Gavin.’ The play witnessed Wolfe playing the title role. The group also staged his ‘The Third Night’ in December 1919.
In June 1920, Wolfe graduated with a BA degree. He joined the ‘Graduate School for Arts and Sciences’ at ‘Harvard University’ in September 1920. He studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker at his ‘47 Workshop.’ In 1921, two versions of Wolfe’s play ‘The Mountains’ were performed by the ‘47 Workshop.’ In 1922, he obtained his MA degree from ‘Harvard.’
In June 1922, Wolfe’s father passed away in Asheville. He studied for one more year under Baker. In May 1923, his 10-scene play, ‘Welcome to Our City,’ was staged by ‘47 Workshop.’
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In November 1923, Wolfe went to New York City to raise funds for the ‘University of North Carolina’ and with an aim to see his plays on ‘Broadway.’ However, even after 3 years, he did not succeed, as the plays were lengthy and unsuitable for stage. In 1924, he joined the ‘Washington Square College’ of ‘New York University’ as an instructor for English. He continued to teach from time to time, until January 1930.
Wolfe went to Europe for the first time in October 1924. There, he visited France, Italy, and Switzerland. While returning in 1925, he met Mrs. Aline Bernstein, wife of a stockbroker and a mother of two. She was a scene designer for ‘Theater Guild.’ In October 1925, he got romantically involved with Aline, who was 18 years his senior. The two had an intense, stormy affair for the next 5 years. She proved to be a powerful influence and muse of his life.
On his second European trip in 1926, Wolfe commenced work on his first novel, initially titled, ‘O Lost.’ After 20 months of writing, he completed it in March 1928 and submitted the manuscript to ‘Scribner’s,’ who showed immense interest in it. The lengthy manuscript was edited by well-known editor Maxwell Perkins. The two had a long and close association.
Perkins edited the long autobiographical fiction to a manageable proportion. It was named ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’ The novel was about the protagonist ‘Eugene Gant,’ Wolfe’s alter ego, who lived in the town of ‘Altamont,’ which stood for Asheville. It was published on October 8, 1929, and was well-received. Wolfe was considered one of the most promising American novelists of the time. However, his family and the residents of Asheville, who could easily recognize their references in the novel, did not take it well. Wolfe stayed away from the town for nearly 8 years. Soon after, he ended his relationship with Bernstein.
in 1930, Wolfe went to Europe for a year on a ‘Guggenheim Fellowship.’ Later, he stayed in Brooklyn and continued to write. He withdrew his second novel, ‘K-19,’ after submitting it for publication. He published the short novels ‘A Portrait of Bascom Hawk’ and ‘Web of Earth.’ The former co-won the ‘Scribner’s Short Novel Prize.’
By 1935, Wolfe had completed a short novel named ‘No Door’ and a collection of three more novellas. On Perkins’s suggestion, in 1933, he began his second lengthy autobiographical novel, ‘Of Time and the River.’ Wolfe had reservations about the final edited product, though it sold better than his first novel.
Not too happy with Perkins’s severe editing, Wolfe signed with ‘Harper & Brothers.’ He made a speech at the 1935 ‘Writer’s Conference,’ Colorado, (later published as ‘The Story of a Novel’), stating his struggle with his second novel. A collection of short stories and novels, ‘From Death to Morning,’ was published in November 1935.
Wolfe’s writing was popular in Europe, especially in Germany. On his last two visits, he witnessed the treatment given to Jews in Germany, which culminated in his short novel ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You.’ After it was published, he was prohibited from entering that country.
In 1936–1937, Wolfe released his short writings through several publications. In 1937, he visited Asheville after nearly 8 years.
In 1938, he submitted a volume of his writings to Edward Aswell of ‘Harper & Brothers.’ He then began a tour of Western United States. He delivered a guest lecture at the ‘Purdue University’ and then visited 11 national parks. While in Seattle, he fell sick with pneumonia, which later developed in tuberculosis that spread to his brain. He was sent to the ‘John Hopkins Hospital,’ Baltimore, but died on September 15, 1938.
His two long novels, ‘The Web and the Rock’ (1939) and ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ (1940); his collection of short stories, ‘The Hills Beyond’ (1941); and many of his other writings were edited and published posthumously.