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Fading Embers of Thomas Wolfe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Home was everything to Thomas Wolfe, his lifelong destination and torment. You can’t go home again, he warned, a lament that’s become not just an American proverb, but Wolfe’s terribly true self-prophecy. More than 60 years after his death, Thomas Wolfe has never been quite so homeless.

At Wolfe’s boyhood home here, workmen come and go, repairing the damage done last summer by an arsonist. But curators of the house, a popular museum and National Historic Landmark, say it will never be the same. In fact, its blackened skeleton now serves as a stark symbol of Wolfe’s reputation: A once proud monument, permanently damaged, for reasons that remain a mystery.

Much will be written about Wolfe in the year ahead, which will mark the centennial of his birth, Oct. 3, 1900. He was the master of the cantering sentence, the adjective-addicted author of four gargantuan books. By his 30th birthday he was a literary colossus, world famous for that quintessential Great American Novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” an unabashedly autobiographical family saga set mostly here, in the clapboard Victorian on Spruce Street.

Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, he towered over American letters in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he flourished under the tutelage of editor Maxwell Perkins and forged a prose style that mesmerized generations of writers to come. But unlike Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose recent centennials inspired revived readership and mostly warm reappraisals, Wolfe’s 100th birthday coincides with an all-time low in his literary fortunes.

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Literary fame can be as fickle as the Muse, coming and going without invitation or provocation. Remainder bins and library stacks are crammed full of once-coveted works. Each generation hails a “new voice,” and many new voices fade with their generations. It’s the rare writer, however, who reaches the dizzying heights of Wolfe, followed by such sad obscurity.

Each week, it seems, he falls off another syllabus. Two summers ago, none of his books made the Modern Library list of the century’s 100 greatest novels. Then, the same day the list was announced, his house went up in flames.

“If Thomas Wolfe were the Dow Jones industrial average,” says Matthew Bruccoli, a scholar of early 20th century American literature, “he’d be down about 2,000 points.”

Nowhere is the steep decline in Wolfe’s stock felt more deeply than here, in this cool, balsam-scented city in the southern Appalachians, the city where Wolfe was born and raised. Once, Wolfe was to Asheville what Joyce was to Dublin, what Chandler was to Los Angeles. Now, as in the rest of America, he seems the merest afterthought here. His name adorns interstate exits and the big auditorium downtown, but his spirit grows more faint by the hour. Time and the river of changing tastes have pushed him to the side, a fact that saddens some longtime residents and irritates local scholars.

Last fall, those residents and scholars gathered here, as they do each year. They came home again, to reread Wolfe, to celebrate his angelic genius, to visit his leaf-strewn grave. The occasion was the annual Thomas Wolfe Festival, a normally happy event that this time had the heavy feel of a last fling. Due to declining interest, organizers say, the festival was the last.

A Man of Great Stature

His frame was as outsized as his fame. After meeting Wolfe, people often remembered his flashing eyes, his rich North Carolina accent, his disheveled clothes. But they were most impressed by his height. Nearly 6 feet, 5 inches, he was too big for normal desks and chairs, so he wrote standing up, pages spread across the top of his refrigerator.

He was the eighth child of William Oliver Wolfe, a stonecutter responsible for many headstones in Asheville’s graveyard, and Julia, who disrupted the family when Wolfe was 5 by purchasing a local boardinghouse. Much of Wolfe’s boyhood was spent dodging the traveling salesmen, tubercular drifters and pitiful widows who rented rooms from his mother. He resented them all, and he evicted them from his mind the only way he knew how--by putting them up in his fiction.

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Of the boardinghouse, Wolfe wrote: “A big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms: it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance.”

The description, once apt, no longer fits.

Just after 2:30 a.m., July 24, 1998, someone climbed in through a downstairs window and made a roaring bonfire in the dining room, the room William Styron, in a loving 1984 essay, called “the heart of the house.”

Because of its “balloon” construction, with few horizontal beams to check the fire’s progress, the 116-year-old house acted as a chimney, funneling the fire into the dry virgin pine of its attic. Within minutes the roof was bubbling with flames.

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The first firefighters on the scene came quickly to two conclusions: Downtown Asheville’s proudest landmark, which once drew 30,000 visitors a year, was doomed. And, more alarming, someone in Asheville had deliberately set the fire.

Ultimately, firefighters were wrong about the fate of the house. Thanks to their own quick work, much of the structure was saved. But they were dead right about the cause. Someone, arson investigators have since concluded, wanted to watch Wolfe’s house burn. Investigators even think they know who--they just don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest.

“This was no accident,” says Steve Hill, manager of the house, standing just off the dining room, staring into the crater where the fire started. “This was someone mean as hell.” Rebuilding the house will cost $2.2 million. Some will come from insurance, some from grants, some from the state. What can’t be restored is the thrilling sense of stepping into a place that looked and felt as if Wolfe had just left by a side door.

“I’ll always say, ‘I remember when it was original,’ ” Hill grumbles, stepping up the burnt stairs to the burnt second-floor bedroom where Wolfe’s brother, Ben, died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

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Ben’s death scene, one of the most dramatic passages in “Look Homeward, Angel,” is what many fans of the book remember best, years after reading it. “I still have people come up to me,” Hill says, “and they ask, ‘How did Ben’s room come through the fire?’ ”

Not well, he tells them. The roof caved in on Ben’s deathbed. Smoke all but destroyed Ben’s furniture. When the house became a museum in 1949, Wolfe’s family took care that the room would look precisely as it did the night Ben died, including a padded rocking chair where Julia sat during her son’s final moments. The chair is now stained black as the Appalachian night.

Most of the things in Ben’s room can be salvaged, along with 85% of the items in the house. When feeling optimistic, Hill predicts the house will reopen in time for the 102nd anniversary of Wolfe’s birth. Then again, no one knows. “There are times,” he says, “it feels hopeless.”

Beyond its purely sentimental value, Wolfe’s house is an unusual literary artifact. Unlike the Carl Sandburg house nearby or Faulkner’s House in Oxford, Miss., or most of the historic literary sites throughout the South, Wolfe’s house wasn’t just where the writer lived. It was where he mined the raw material of his art. Strolling through its halls was like being inside his chapters.

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“Almost every time you turn the page in ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ ” Hill says, “you see some element of the house. The house is a character in that book.”

Last summer, a local repertory company performed the 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Wolfe’s novel. In the third act, the character based on Wolfe’s father goes on a rant, threatening to set the place ablaze. “Some day I’m going to burn up this house,” Hill says, quoting the monologue, his voice bouncing off the walls of Ben’s empty room. “Just pile in all the logs that old grate’ll hold, and all the furniture--till this old barn takes off like a giant cinder blazing through the sky!”

He laughs bitterly.

His Popularity Came Late

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Had the house caught fire in 1929, when “Look Homeward, Angel” was first published, thousands of residents would have been potential suspects. Half of Asheville hated Wolfe back then.

Though he called it fiction, Wolfe had penned a true-to-life picture of his hometown, its narrow streets and narrow minds. He thought the portrait loving and honest, but it struck a nerve here. Many felt ridiculed, exposed and betrayed, especially in Wolfe’s family. They called him obscene and threatened violence if he ever came home again. (By then he was living in New York.)

Years later, after the shock wore off, Asheville celebrated Wolfe’s novel for putting the town on the map.

Today, not many in Asheville feel one way or another about the book. Few have even read it. It still sells 100 copies each year at Malaprop’s Bookstore Cafe, but, according to the manager, most buyers are tourists.

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“This is sad,” says Diane Heath, a claims examiner for a downtown insurance company, “but I don’t even know where [Wolfe’s] house is.”

As she spoke, she stood about 400 yards from the charred front door.

At Pack Memorial Library, Ann Wright experiences the dwindling interest in Wolfe each day. As special collections librarian, she sits at the Thomas Wolfe Desk, guarding the library’s many first editions, fielding questions about the man, questions that come at the less-than-blistering rate of one per week. Often, the questioner is hopelessly confused. “We had a young woman over here the other day,” Wright says, “looking for ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.’ I had to explain that that was Tom Wolfe, not Thomas.”

Some scholars blame Wolfe’s decline on larger cultural forces. A century after Wolfe was born, people read less, and when they do, they have less patience for the kind of four-pound book he produced.

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Wolfe’s “books are all long, and even his short stories sometimes are short novels,” says Richard Kennedy, a retired professor at Temple University and a member of the Thomas Wolfe Society, a national organization that promotes Wolfe’s work. “Really, in our time, books like Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ are the kinds of works that a reader is more likely to spend time with.”

Wilma Dykeman, an Asheville writer who knew Wolfe well, thinks he’s been the victim of Eastern snobbery, scorned by critics who consider him a hillbilly. Bruccoli speculates that Wolfe didn’t help himself with those critics because he was a lout, publicly cruel to his mistress. He was also virulently anti-Semitic.

Others, however, blame Wolfe’s decline squarely on his prose. He wasn’t all that good, they say.

“I have ‘Of Time and the River’ on my shelf,” says Vera Kutzinski, a professor of English and American studies at Yale. “I just reread part of the first chapter, to reassure myself that he was as mediocre as I thought he was.”

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She was more than reassured. “It’s tedious,” she says. “And that’s putting it mildly.”

Kutzinski has never so much as considered including Wolfe in her survey course on American literature. And her colleague at Yale, Harold Bloom, the ferocious guardian of the literary canon, considers Wolfe so “mediocre” that he flatly refuses to discuss him.

Even Wolfe’s most ardent admirers acknowledge his shortcomings, “the grave unevenness of the work itself,” as Styron wrote, “torrentially powerful, nervously alive and radiant, at its best; at its worst, sophomoric, hyperinflated and tediously repetitive.”

How, then, could such a deeply flawed writer become so immensely popular? And after achieving such popularity, how could he become so obscure?

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American readers are funny that way, Kutzinski argues: “The half-life of any given novel--and we won’t even discuss poetry--is much shorter here than elsewhere.”

There are some similar cases. William Carlos Williams, for one. Hailed as a supreme American poet, his books today are hard to find, Kutzinski says, and some are dropping out of print. (Then there’s the opposite case, Dawn Powell. A contemporary of Wolfe’s, and one of Perkins’ other writers, she was ignored in life, while in death her novels have been reissued and widely acclaimed.) But if literature is “news that stays news,” in Ezra Pound’s phrase, few writers in history have grown so old--so fast--as Wolfe.

Gwen Ashburn, an assistant professor of literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, theorizes that Wolfe’s expanding sentences overwhelm the modern student’s shrinking attention span.

“It’s rather daunting,” she says. “We’re used to quick sentences and pithy phrases and e-mail structure. To have to actually face Wolfe and immerse yourself in him takes more effort than the modern reader is willing” to give.

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But immersion is the whole point, cry Wolfe fans. Only immersion can bring the full rapture of Wolfe, whose five senses were always heightened when he approached his writing refrigerator. He could describe a headstone and make you feel the cold marble slab, an October afternoon in the mountains and make you smell the moldering leaves. He could set an imaginary meal before you--"stacked batter-cakes, rum-colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat juicy bacon, jam"--and make your mouth water.

“ ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ was published 70 years ago,” says Ted Mitchell, a Wolfe biographer and die-hard defender. “It’s still in print. It’s never gone out of print. Somebody must be reading it.”

Wolfe’s family recently offered Mitchell the chance to be buried in the plot alongside his literary icon. Mitchell decided that would be carrying his love of literature a bit far. Instead, he and others poured their energies into lobbying the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Thomas Wolfe stamp.

Their efforts paid off. Postal officials announced that this fall, Wolfe will join Fitzgerald, Hemingway and a select group of American writers who have their own commemorative stamps.

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Also this fall, the University of South Carolina Press will publish a new edition of “Look Homeward, Angel.” Bruccoli, who edited the book, says Wolfe’s novel will be restored to its original version, before Perkins cut it by a fourth. And Wolfe’s original title, “O Lost,” will be restored.

“He was the most abundantly gifted of all American novelists,” Bruccoli says. “Publishing ‘O Lost’ on Wolfe’s birthday is the best, most appropriate way to celebrate Thomas Wolfe.”

The challenge will be getting people to read it. Even in his hometown, reading Wolfe is sometimes the furthest thing from people’s minds.

Case in point: When Asheville resident Julia Gorman locked her keys in her car not long ago, she phoned the auto club and asked them to send a mechanic. “I’m right outside the Thomas Wolfe house,” she told the dispatcher. “You know, Thomas Wolfe . . . Wolfe! The writer!”

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Finally, when she’d made the dispatcher understand, Gorman hung up the phone and looked around. She peered up and down the street, past the Thomas Wolfe house, past the visitor center, past the gift shop, stocked with copies of all his novels.

O lost! O locked out! She couldn’t go home again--at least not for another hour.

“I wish,” she said to no one in particular, “I had a good book to read.”

*

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Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.


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