There is a great hush after him.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald on the death of Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald found it impossible to imagine Wolfe’s “great pulsing vital frame” quiet at last.
Throughout his literary career, Thomas Clayton Wolfe mined the early years of his life to extract every scrap of truth from his experiences, and to carve these truths into art. He seemed to take little pleasure in the finished work, but would feverishly turn to the next. During his brief but eventful life, Thomas Wolfe traveled the length and breadth of the United States, sailed to Europe on glamorous ships, conversed with literary giants and film stars, and loved a famous, successful woman.
His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, recounted the life of a young man born in western North Carolina, the son of a stonecutter and a woman who ran a boardinghouse. He once said the reason he wrote a book was to forget it. But he never did forget that he was born on October 3, 1900—to Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe, the ambitious wife of a tombstone cutter, William Oliver Wolfe—and grew up in a boardinghouse run by his mother in the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina.
1900-1916 — Carving the Foundation of Life
By the time Tom was born his father had begun to realize that his own artistic ambitions would never be fulfilled. His mother was 40 years old and her dream was that her last child would achieve greatness. She had experienced the death of her first child—the infant Leslie—fifteen years earlier, and Tom took his place as the youngest of seven children: Effie, Frank, Mabel, Ben, Grover, Fred, and Tom.
The boy’s life was one of constant travel and change. At the age of four he traveled to St. Louis where his mother had rented a house to accommodate visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. While there, Tom experienced his first loss of family when his brother, Grover, contracted typhoid and died. This event haunted Tom, and years later he would carve it into art.
Behind the little wasted shell that lay there he remembered suddenly the warm brown face, the soft eyes, that once had peered down at him… (1)
But Julia dealt with her loss in a very different way. She became first, last, and always a businesswoman.
In 1906 Julia Wolfe bought a large boardinghouse two blocks away from the home on Asheville’s Woodfin Street that she had shared with W. O. for 21 years. And when Julia moved into the cavernous old house, she took young Tom with her. The “Old Kentucky Home” afforded the boy a foreign and uncomfortable existence over the next ten years. It was a place where he never really felt at home, where he felt lost and neglected, and smothered by the constant nearness of his mother’s transient boarders. His brothers and sisters came and went at the boardinghouse, and Tom developed a special attachment to his older brother, Ben—in part because Ben took his own special interest in Tom. Ben defended his awkward little brother before the others in the large, rambunctious family; and he looked after Tom with small tokens of money and other gifts. Ben had time for Tom, and the boy never forgot it.
While Julia single-mindedly ran her business, her youngest child was left to fend for himself; and when Tom was accepted at the North State Fitting School in Asheville, his studies became the center of his life.
Against the bleak horror of Dixieland, against the dark road of pain and death down which the great limbs of Gant had already begun to slope, against all the loneliness and imprisonment of his own life which had gnawed him like hunger, these years at Leonard’s [school] bloomed like golden apples. (2)
W. O. had frequently recited the great monologues of Shakespeare and verses of epic poetry for the benefit of his family, and Tom’s love for classic literature grew. He devoured the writings of Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, and others. His instructor, Margaret Roberts—whom Tom would later acknowledge as “the Mother of my Spirit”—encouraged the boy, and the affection he felt for her was the first of several attachments he formed with older, influential people. Tom graduated in 1916 with the highest literary honors.
Although Julia toiled on with the boardinghouse and her real estate ventures, by 1916 many changes had taken place in the Wolfe household. Tom’s brothers and sisters had embarked on their own lives and W. O.—whose main residence was still the house on Woodfin Street—was ill with the cancer that would eventually claim his life. The world beyond Asheville’s mountains beckoned, and Tom was ready to leave.
1916-1929 — Carving the Foundation of Work
Tom was just fifteen when, in September 1916, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (his first choice had been the University of Virginia). Due to his unusual height (six feet, seven inches) and small-town innocence, Tom felt very much an outsider in his new surroundings. When assigned an essay titled “Who I Am,” he wrote unabashedly about his colorful family, and his classmates were certain it was fiction. This experiment with autobiographical writing, however, foreshadowed his later work—his life’s work.
By his sophomore year at Chapel Hill, Tom began to achieve recognition as a writer. He edited the school newspaper, and a poem he wrote about World War I—then raging in Europe—appeared in Tar Heel Magazine. At the beginning of his junior year, however, as Tom was enjoying his academic endeavors at college, tragedy struck when his special brother, Ben, contracted a severe case of pneumonia. Torn and distraught, Tom was at home with Ben when he died at the age of 25 in an upstairs bedroom of the “Old Kentucky Home.” Ben’s untimely passing severed the boy’s closest tie with his family. Tom later confided to his sister, Mabel:
I think the Asheville I knew died for me when Ben died. I have never forgotten him and I never shall. I think that his death affected me more than any other event in my life … . Ben—he was one of those fine people who want the best and highest out of life, and who get nothing—who die unknown and unsuccessful. (3)
Back at school, Tom continued to win honors and recognition for his writing, but he also embarked on a literary byroad that would cause him great frustration. He began to write plays. “The Return of Buck Gavin” and “The Third Night” were produced by the Carolina Playmakers, and Tom began to dream of a career as a playwright. Upon his graduation from UNC-CH in 1920, however, W. O. felt that Tom had received all the education he needed; but Julia—after passionate pleas from her anxious son—finally agreed to finance a year at Harvard.
Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the Square were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges. (4)
By September, Tom was enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School to study playwriting under Professor George Pierce Baker—in the well-known 47 Workshop. He wrote another play, “The Mountains,” and revised it throughout the year. Tom had just completed his master’s degree when word arrived that his father was dying, but by the time he arrived home W. O. was already dead. Returning to Harvard for a third year, Tom worked on a play titled “Welcome To Our City.” Here he first used the name “Altamont” for Asheville, and created characters that would appear in Look Homeward, Angel. When “Welcome To Our City” was not accepted by any New York companies, however, the dejected author reluctantly accepted a teaching position at New York University. He would teach English in New York off and on for the next six years.
Gratifyingly, Tom’s teaching career did give him the opportunity to travel—an ambition for which had long burned within him. He sailed to England in October 1924, and went on to tour France and Italy. He kept a journal, part of which was later published in an Asheville newspaper. Tom sailed back to New York in August, and on the last night of the voyage he met the woman who would be the greatest love of his life.
He turned, and saw her then, and so finding her, was lost, and so losing self, was found, and so seeing her, saw for a fading moment only the pleasant image of the woman that perhaps she was, and that life saw. He never knew: he only knew that from that moment his spirit was impaled upon the knife of love. (5)
Aline Bernstein was 19 years older than Tom—and married. She had achieved success as a set and costume designer in the theatre—the very sought-for world that had rejected her struggling writer friend. For these reasons their relationship was almost always turbulent, but Aline had great faith in Tom’s talent and she supported him both spiritually and financially. With her help the author embarked on the work that would bring him his greatest success.
Tom was soon sharing a loft with Aline, and in June 1926, they sailed to Europe—on separate ships. It was after they arrived that Tom proposed marriage, but Aline would not consider divorcing her husband. Staying on in England after Aline sailed for home, Tom began writing:
By day I would write for hours in big ledgers which I had bought for the purpose; then at night, when I would try to sleep, I would lie in bed and fold my hands behind my head and think of what I had done that day and hear the solid, leather footbeat of the London bobby as he came by my window, and that utterly quiet London square, and wait until he had gone and remember that I was born in North Carolina and wonder why the hell I was now in London lying in the darkened bed, my hands beneath my head, and thinking about words I had that day put down on paper. (6)
He called his novel O Lost, and the theme he explored was “that all men are alone and strangers, and never come to know one another.” In November, Tom took a trip to Germany, and from the beginning he felt a kinship with this country and its people. It was, after all, the ancestral home of his father.
Upon his return to New York, the driven author wrote full-time while an indulgent Aline Bernstein supported him. The fledgling novel chronicled his life up to the age of 20, but much of it still lacked form. After an unhappy trip to Europe together, Tom’s relationship with Aline underwent a subtle change. They continued to share living quarters, but Tom paid his share of the expenses. He exhausted himself writing, revising, and teaching; and by March 1928, Tom felt that his novel was finally complete.
For several months he, with Aline’s help, tried to find a publisher. There were difficulties with this, however, because many editors were put off by the book’s volume and lack of form. The sprawling manuscript’s length—some 330,000 words—was roughly three times the length of the average novel. Moreover, O Lost did not fit neatly into any concrete literary category.
Frustrated with his lack of success in finding a publisher, Tom sailed for Europe and began to move frantically from city to city—O lost, indeed. He arrived in Munich in time for Oktoberfest, and somehow became involved in a bloody brawl. Beaten senseless, Tom spent his 28th birthday in a hospital with a broken nose, cuts, and bruises. This frightening event marked the end of the downward spiral he had been on since the first rejection of his manuscript. For years after this incident, he worked on a book titled The October Fair.
Two weeks later, Tom received the heartening news that Charles Scribner’s Sons, a respected New York publishing firm, was interested in his manuscript. His literary agent, Madeleine Boyd, had managed to pique the interest of Scribner’s senior editor. Tom promptly sailed to New York, and on January 2, 1929, he met the man with whom he would work for the next eight years: the famous Maxwell E. Perkins. Perkins, by now senior editor and a legend at Scribner’s, had discovered the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The pair soon forged a strong bond of friendship—a closeness that would ultimately triumph over later hard feelings and resentment on Tom’s part. When all was said and done, Thomas Wolfe would rank as the third great literary discovery of Maxwell Perkins’s career.
Max’s first suggestion regarding Tom’s massive manuscript was to portray everything in the novel as seen through the eyes of the young hero. The tall, awkward Eugene Gant, Perkins realized, was obviously the reincarnation of the young Thomas Wolfe. He also helped Tom detach a section from the manuscript which was published as a short story titled “An Angel On The Porch.” The cuts and revisions that Perkins suggested changed the structure of the novel drastically; and although each alteration understandably troubled Wolfe at first, his respect and trust for Perkins continued to grow. Tom, after all, had queried Max when first peddling his manuscript to Scribner’s: “If it is not publishable, can it be made so? … . I need a little honest help. If you are interested enough to finish the book, won’t you give it to me?” Perkins indeed gave the book his full attention, and their working relationship was a productive one. Together, they decided on a new title for the work: Look Homeward, Angel, from a poem by Milton.
The autobiographical nature of the novel—often forthright and brutally frank—caused Perkins some concern; and when it dawned on Tom that his book might not be well received in his home town, he journeyed to Asheville with a preemptive warning for his family. Each parent, brother, and sister was a vivid character in the story, as were numerous citizens of Asheville, and their lives—under the thin guise of fiction—were about to be offered for the general perusal of the world.
Sept. 14, 1929
Dear Mr. Perkins: I have had a very remarkable visit down here—the town is full of kindness and good will and rooting and boosting for the book. My family knows what it’s all about, and I think is pleased about it—and also a little apprehensive. We get one another crazy—I’ve been here a week and I’m about ready for a padded cell. But no one’s to blame. It’s a strange situation, and God knows what will happen. I’ll be glad when it’s over. Hope to see you next week in New York. (7)
On his 29th birthday (October 3, 1929), Tom received the first copy of his first published novel. His premonitions of Asheville’s reactions were correct, but he was completely unprepared for the transformation of his own life.
1929-1938 — The Joining of Life and Work
Up to this time I had been a young man who wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and who had created his first book in the great blaze of illusion, hope, and wild desire which a young writer must feel when he has no evidence except his hope and wild desire to drive him on. Now, in a certain measure this had changed. The hope had, to a small degree, been realized. The wild desire had, in a certain way, been attained. In brief, I had been a writer in hope and in desire before and now I was a writer in fact. (8)
With an advance against future royalties and the money from a Guggenheim fellowship, Thomas Wolfe, for the first time in his life, was financially independent. He attempted romantic independence as well, but was unable to break with Aline Bernstein before sailing to Europe in May. While he traveled he continued to write, developing ideas for three new books. Tom could see that Europe was feeling the effects of the growing economic depression, and when he returned to the United States it became clear that things were no better at home. The boom of the 1920s was over in Asheville, and Julia Wolfe had been hard hit by falling real estate values. Ironically, Tom’s rise to success began just as the economic well-being of the country embarked on its downward spiral into the Great Depression.
As Look Homeward, Angel began to make waves, Tom managed to make a final break with Aline, and decided to move to Brooklyn to avoid the New York social scene. He was concentrating exclusively on his writing and would frequently work all night. “I can certainly understand your desire to be alone,” he had confided to his sister, Mabel, earlier that year. “For me, it’s a necessity. Yet in my heart I like people and must have them . … I think I live alone more than any person I have ever known. I know many fine people in New York—some of them I see very often, but I spend a large part of my day alone. I hate crowds and public meetings. You could not live the way I do: you must be with people, talk with them, join with them. But this is the only life I can lead.”
There was also the insistent, gnawing consciousness of work itself, the necessity of turning toward the future and the completion of a new book. He was feeling, now as never before, the inexorable pressure of time. (9)
To this end he received little encouragement from Max Perkins, who rejected several of Tom’s ideas for a second novel. Finally, Perkins suggested that the author write a sequel to Look Homeward, Angel. With this in mind, Tom settled into a productive work schedule, writing eight hours a day. Perkins then introduced him to Elizabeth Nowell, who successfully edited and sold Tom’s short stories. These stories helped keep the public’s interest while readers waited for Wolfe’s next big novel.
Then, in December 1933, Perkins announced to Tom that his manuscript was complete—and took it from him. It consisted of one million words and in January they sat down to fashion it into a novel. Perkins discarded the second half of the manuscript because it recounted Tom’s relationship with Aline Bernstein, and Perkins was afraid of libel. This section was Tom’s book, The October Fair, and Perkins promised it could be published later. For weeks the two men would meet in the evening and work on the manuscript. Naturally, Max’s radical—though ultimately agreed-to—revisions began to depress the author, who sought to suppress his troubles through travel. While Tom was away Perkins continued to carefully cut and revise the mammoth manuscript. For this reason, his second novel, Of Time and the River, was very different from the book Thomas Wolfe had initially conceptualized. To escape his frustration he embarked yet again for the continent of Europe.
Thomas Wolfe, with one
of three crates containing
the sprawling manuscripts for
Of Time and the River.
Tom arrived in Paris on March 8, 1935—the day Of Time and the River was published. The book was well received, and most critics compared Tom to the greatest of writers: Dickens, Joyce, and Proust. The author’s spirits lifted, and even criticisms of his lack of form did not much concern him. In Germany, Tom found he was a hero: Look Homeward, Angel had been published there in 1933. It was a great success in Europe, but Tom could sense all was not well in Germany since Adolf Hitler had risen to power.
After sailing home, Tom enjoyed a degree of celebrity thanks to Of Time and the River. He had money, friends, and fame. At a writer’s conference in Boulder, Colorado, he presented a lecture titled “The Making of a Book,” in which he attempted to explain his craft. From Boulder Tom continued west and visited Hollywood, California, where he mingled with film legends Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
The happiness of fame, however, was short-lived. Of Time and the River began to receive political criticism. It was attacked for being anti-Semitic and lacking social significance. Traditional Southern writers added their disdain for its formlessness and lack of restraint. And Tom, always naive about finances, found himself in several lawsuits involving royalties. He was quarreling with Perkins—who in many ways was a father figure to Tom—and he was beginning to resent the liberties Max had taken with his manuscripts, and also the number of projects he had rejected.
“Tom, you have in you ten thousand devils and an archangel.”
— Maxwell Perkins to Thomas Wolfe
Tom again sought escape from his difficulties, and for the seventh and last time he booked passage aboard a steamship bound for Europe. He went immediately to Berlin, which was then festive with the 1936 Olympic Games. The author enjoyed his celebrity status, and was invited to watch the Olympic track events in the American ambassador’s box—where he irritated an indignant Adolf Hitler by cheering loudly for the American star Jesse Owens. Tom found the atmosphere in Germany even more oppressive and ominous than on his last visit:
So the weeks, the months, the summer passed, and everywhere about him George saw the evidences of this dissolution, this shipwreck of a great spirit. The poisonous emanations of suppression, persecution, and fear permeated the air like miasmic and pestilential vapors, tainting, sickening and blighting the lives of everyone he met. (10)
He resolved to write a story about the Nazi regime, “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” and realized he had bade farewell to Germany forever. And when the frustrated writer arrived home he rashly severed his business ties with Scribner’s and Maxwell Perkins.
Unable to cope with criticism and the quarrels with his editor, Thomas Wolfe had cut himself loose from the firm with which he had achieved his greatest success. Full of hope in spite of the break, the author entertained brilliant visions of increased success in the future—with a new publisher—but fate would intervene to snuff them out.
Soon after returning from his final voyage to Europe, Tom journeyed south to reacquaint himself with his family. On the way he stopped at York Springs, Pennsylvania, where his father’s family was buried; and upon reaching North Carolina he visited Burnsville, the home of his mother’s family. He arrived in Asheville on May 3, 1937, to a warm and boisterous welcome. The phone never stopped ringing at the “Old Kentucky Home,” and Tom sought refuge from the chaos in a remote cabin in Oteen, several miles from Asheville.
While stung by the words of various literary critics, Tom found it difficlut to fathom what he perceived as similar treatment from his fellow writer friends. When he received a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald that both praised and condemned his writing (with grand literary references to Gustave Flaubert, and extolling the virtues of less rather than more), Wolfe fired off a lengthy and blistering response. “Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outter but also a putter-inner,” he retorted from his cabin in Oteen, “and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers—and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out … . Go for me with the gloves off if you think I need it. But don’t De Voto me. If you do I’ll call your bluff.”
The critic Bernard De Voto had been less than appreciative of Wolfe’s work, and had recently penned several scathing reviews. “This stuff is worthy of the great minds that review books nowadays—the [Clifton] Fadimans and De Votos,” he barked at Fitzgerald, “but not of you.” After a harried three-month stay in Oteen, in which little work was accomplished, Thomas Wolfe left the environs of his youth for the last time. He would never return to Asheville.
Back in New York, settled at the Chelsea Hotel, and with a ten-thousand-dollar advance from his new publishing company (Harper & Brothers), Tom began working regularly. He struck up an immediate friendship with his new editor, Edward Aswell, and when Tom was invited to speak at Purdue University in May 1938, he sent his latest manuscript to Aswell. The new work was called The Web and the Rock, which would cover the years between 1793 and 1937. This book, however, was essentially the continuation of his own life story. The characters were the same, but the names were different. The speech Tom presented at Purdue was to be the book’s concluding section. It was titled “You Can’t Go Home Again.” It was a notion that gripped Thomas Wolfe like a vise, and he tried to explain it to sister Mabel:
I think you are wise in wanting to get out of Asheville. I have known what happened to it for years, but I had a good chance to sum it all up when I went back last summer. It is a ruined and defeated town, and it is full of ruined and defeated people. If you think that I am happy about this, you do me an injustice. After all, it was my town, I was born there, and some of the people I care for most on earth still live there. But I found out last summer that you can’t go home again, and now I know why … . I am going better places, and I invite you to come along … . Did you ever read a story of mine that came out about a year ago called “I Have a Thing to Tell You?” Well, I have a thing to tell you now: that is you can’t go home again, but there are other places you can go. So why not try to find them? (11)
Tom’s appetite for travel was insatiable. In search of inspiration, he journeyed to the western United States in the summer of 1938. “I’m going to hit for the wide open spaces,” he gushed at Mabel, “and look at geysers and big trees and mountains and such like. I’ll only have two or three weeks for it, but it’s going to be a swell trip and do me a lot of good.” He joined a travel writer on a hurried jaunt across thousands of miles and 11 national parks in the west. The trip invigorated the author (he took copious notes for an article about the journey), but it also exhausted him. “It has been a wonderful trip,” he told Edward Aswell, “and at last I feel I know something about my country.” The material Tom collected would soon be published as an article titled “A Western Journey” (Virginia Quarterly Review) in 1939, and later in book form as A Western Journal.
1938 — A Turbulent Spirit Passes
Returning from his western tour, Tom settled at the New Washington Hotel in Seattle, where he hoped to “loaf and rest a few days” before typing up his notes recently compiled during the journey. Unable to remain idle for long, however, he made plans to spend the Fourth of July in Canada. It would be his final journey as a well man—a man looking keenly toward the future with a bright hope of great and continued success.
It was while on this trip to Victoria and Vancouver that fate tipped the scale against Thomas Wolfe. At some point during the outing the author shared a pint of whiskey with a “poor, shivering wretch” who probably had influenza. Tom sailed from Victoria to Vancouver aboard the Princess Kathleen on July 6, and by that afternoon he was desperately ill with high fever, pains in his lungs, and protracted chills. Instead of going immediately to a hospital, however, the stubborn Wolfe foolishly returned by rail to Seattle, where he remained—seriously ill—for the next five days.
It was not until July 11, 1938, that Tom was examined by Dr. E. C. Ruge, who determined that the author had contracted pneumonia. Wolfe was hospitalized immediately in Bothell, Washington. By July 15, it looked as though Tom had passed the crisis of his illness, and he wired Edward Aswell with hopes that he was out of danger. But it was not to be. As the month of July drew to a close, Tom’s condition took a turn for the worse. He suffered bouts of recurring fever and began to exhibit other disquieting symptoms.
Wolfe was transferred to Providence Hospital in Seattle, where X-rays of his lungs could be made. At Providence, doctors found an unresolved condition of the upper lobe of the author’s right lung, and Dr. Ruge diagnosed the anomaly as an old tubercular lesion.
As news of Tom’s illness spread, it came to the attention of Maxwell Perkins—Wolfe’s friend and erstwhile editor at Scribner’s. Worried over Tom’s condition, Max sent a barrage of letters to both the author and his brother, Fred. Was Tom going to be all right? Seeking to cheer him up, Max filled the author in on some of the latest gossip in New York, and assured Tom that all his friends were “mighty concerned” about him. Perkins even encouraged Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to drop a line to the old “lone Wolfe.”
Thomas Wolfe—with health deteriorating rapidly—was touched by the concern displayed by Maxwell Perkins. The friendship between the two men was strong enough to outlast Tom’s earlier resentment toward his one-time editor. On August 12, as he experienced his first intimations of death, Thomas Wolfe reached out to his old friend for the last time:
August 12, 1938
I’m sneaking this against orders, but “I’ve got a hunch”—and I wanted to write these words to you.
I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close; and I don’t think I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality still clings to me—I wanted most desperately to live and still do, and I thought about you all a thousand times, and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do—and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before—and if I come through this, I hope to God I am a better man, and in some strange way I can’t explain, I know I am a deeper and a wiser one. If I get on my feet and out of here, it will be months before I head back, but if I get on my feet, I’ll come back.
Whatever happens—I had this “hunch” and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.
By September 6, Wolfe was suffering from violent headaches and moments of irrationality, and he needed medical attention of a sort unavailable at Providence Hospital. It was apparent that Tom was suffering from some sort of brain disease. Fred and Mabel—the siblings to whom Tom was closest after Ben’s death—arrived to attend to his needs, and soon arranged for the stricken writer to travel by rail to Baltimore, Maryland, where he could be examined at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Julia Wolfe joined her children in Chicago, and together they finished the journey east.
By September 10, Wolfe was resting at Johns Hopkins, and was at times alert enough to understand what was happening to him. That afternoon, Dr. Walter Dandy—an imminent neurosurgeon—performed exploratory surgery on Tom’s head in an effort to determine the cause of his illness. His skull was trephined to relieve the pressure on the brain, and Tom’s severe headache subsided. The doctor, however, quickly determined that the author was suffering from tubercular meningitis. Tom’s bout with pneumonia had aggravated the old tubercular lesion on his lung, and the disease had traveled through his bloodstream to the brain. The only hope, reasoned Dr. Dandy, was that instead of many tubercles, there might be just one, which could be removed in a second operation.
Maxwell Perkins, Elizabeth Nowell, and Edward Aswell all traveled to Baltimore to be at Tom’s bedside. Aline Bernstein wanted to come also, but was told her presence would be upsetting (Julia had a strong dislike for Ms. Bernstein). Wolfe was so heavily sedated that Perkins could not bear to look at him. He made no effort to let Tom know he was there, but instead sat quietly with the family, anxiously awaiting news from Dr. Dandy.
On September 12, Dandy broke the sad news that Tom’s brain was infested with “myriads” of tubercles. There was nothing more that could be done for him. The stoic Julia took the news gracefully, while the rest of the family went to pieces. Dr. Dandy explained that Tom might live another month—with perhaps a measure of mental lucidity—and that all they could do was try to make his last days comfortable, as free of pain and the fear of death as possible.
Thomas Wolfe never regained consciousness after the surgery and died on September 15, 1938—18 days short of his 38th birthday. After a wake at the Old Kentucky Home, funeral services were held at the First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The church was packed with townspeople paying homage to Asheville’s famous son, and men lining the streets to the cemetery doffed their hats as the hearse drove by. Maxwell Perkins was an honorary pallbearer for Wolfe’s burial at Riverside Cemetery.
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—
—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow. (13)
1938-1941 — Unfinished Legacy
Edward Aswell took Tom’s unfinished manuscript and carved it into his own creation. The last of Thomas Wolfe’s novels (The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and the novella The Hills Beyond), probably reflected little of his original plan for the one and one-half million word manuscript. Had he lived to see the completion of this manuscript, we might have known Thomas Wolfe as a very different writer.
It is tempting to wonder how the posthumous novels would have turned out if Maxwell Perkins had pieced them together. As executor of Wolfe’s literary estate, Perkins cataloged every scrap of the author’s remaining manuscripts. This undertaking allowed Edward Aswell to make better sense of the sprawling stories, and put the novels together as best he could.
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again …
Given 20 years and perhaps as many volumes, Maxwell Perkins thought that Wolfe might have achieved a proper form. But just as “he had to fit his body to the doorways, vehicles, and furniture of smaller men, so he had to fit his expression to the conventional requirements of a space and time that were as surely too small for his nature as they were for his subject.”
“There is a great hush after him.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald on the death of Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald found it impossible to imagine Wolfe’s “great pulsing vital frame” quiet at last.
Adapted and compiled by Mark A. Moore from an audiovisual script by Roxane Clement, and other material from The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Elizabeth Nowell (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).
Quotations from works by Thomas Wolfe:
Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929.
Look Homeward, Angel.
Thomas Wolfe to Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, May 1929, in Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956.
Look Homeward, Angel.
Of Time and the River. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.
“The Story of a Novel,” The Saturday Review of Literature. December 14, 21, 28, 1935. (An expanded version of this essay was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, April 21, 1936).
Thomas Wolfe to Maxwell Perkins, September 14, 1929, in Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956.
“The Story of a Novel.”
You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940 (posthumously).
You Can’t Go Home Again.
Thomas Wolfe to Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, May 10, 1938, in Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956.
Thomas Wolfe to Maxwell Perkins, August 12, 1938, in Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956.
You Can’t Go Home Again.