*** bios: Thomas Wolfe

Figure 1.--Tom's mother insisted on ringlet curls, which he wore even after starting school. He was teased quite a bit about it. Here we see a portatit with his curls. We do not have a good ciooy of the image showing the sailor suit, but you can click on the image to see a small image. Finally an uncle took Tom to have his curls cut.

Biographies: Thomas Wolfe (1900-38)

Thomas Wolfe was an enormously popular American novelist during the middle of the 20th Century. He left an indelible mark on American letters. His opulent language and unique literary style have elevated his life to legendary status through his four autobiographical novels. Thomas Wolfe was perhaps the most autobiographical of America's major novelists. His boyhood memories provided some interesing insights into boys clothing and hair styles in the first decade of the 20th Century. He particularly remembers the long ringlet curls he had to wear, even after he had started school.


Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born in 1900. He grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. During his youth, Asheville was a middle class mountain resort town dazzled by real estate speculation.

Wolfe's Mother, Julia E. Wolfe, was a woman of the mountain. She was ahead of her time as a successful female real estate speculator. Wolfe felt her interest was a disease that interfered with her duties as a wife and mother.

William Oliver Wolfe, his father, was a stonecutter from Pennsylvania. He made his living as a tombstone maker. He had a great vigor for living and a constant need to hurl himself against the prison bars of his dreary provincial life. While he provided well for his large family, he delighted in all the robust sensual aspects of life. He drankheavily and when in this state often verbally stormed at his family with great torrents of rhetoric and much quoting from Shakespeare. Wolfe portrays both of his parents with great spirit and good humored satire.

Wolfe was the youngest of eight children, six of whom survived toadulthood. The unusually close attention given him by hismother greatly affected his later life and character.

The Wolfe family life began to deteriorate when Julia Wolfe bought the boarding house in 1906--her husband, W. O. Wolfe, refused to become involved in the enterprise, and remained at the family's former residence on Woodfin Street. The children shuttled back and forth between the houses. The conflict between their parents remained irreconcilable and kept the family in a constant state of turmoil. Wolfe continued to live an emotionally and physically turbulent life for all of his years.

During his childhood the family member closest to him was his brother, Benjamin Wolfe. In Look Homeward, Angel Ben is portrayed as a loner who hides his love for his youngest brother behind a mask of short temperedness and sarcastic denial. It is perhaps through Ben's feelings of bitter regret for his own lost opportunities that Thomas Wolfe acquired his drive to escape his provincial life so he could go out into the world to achieve his dream of being a writer. The profoundly eloquent description of Ben's death in Look Homeward, Angel is emotionally gripping.

His mother's boarding house in Asheville, NorthCarolina, now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, has become one of literature's most famous landmarks. In his epic autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe immortalized the rambling Victorianstructure--originally called "Old Kentucky Home"--as "Dixieland". The boarding house is maintained to this day. One can tour the 28-room Victorian boardinghouse run by his mother. The memorial and its original furnishings preserve the flavor of an early 20th-century house where Wolfe grew up and developed his characters.


The American author, Thomas Wolfe, described his long sausage curls which his mother insisted that he wear even after starting school. The family was not wealthy. While his mother kept a boarding house, Tom pitched in by selling papers--while still in curls. His curls did not endear him to his fellow paper boys or school mates. He seems to mention being teased by other boys selling papers more than at school.

Wolfe also mentions the torment of having his hair curled every night.He writes in the strongly autobiographical Look Homeward Angel "Eliza had allowed his hair to grow long; she wound it around her finger every morning into fat Fauntleroy curls: the agony andhumiliation it caused him was horrible, but she was unable or unwilling to understand it, andmouth-pursingly thoughtful and stubborn to all solicitation to cut it."

As it was becoming increasingly rare for boys to be educated at home, most mothers found it more and more difficult to dress boys in fanciful styles. Some particularly steel-willed mother's, like Tom's, were oblivious to what others thought and to entrities fro her son. He continued wearing curls until he was 7/8 years old. Finally an uncle had mercey on him and without mother's permission, took him to get his hair cut.


I do not yet have details on what clothes Tom wore as a boy. I do know that he wore sailor suits.


Thomas Wolfe began school at age 6. A charming photo graph exists of him at age 7, the year after he started public school. He wears a sailor suit and long ringlet curls. In public school he began to carefully observe the life around him. He stored away in his mind the ten thousands of impressions later to be used in themost impressive books ever written by a North Carolinian. After age 11 Wolfe attended a private school in Asheville where he received personal attention and encouragement.

Tom was not satisfied with life in Ashville. He was already lookingout beyond the hills which he said "hemmed" him in. At 15 he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1916 and, before his graduation, became one of the most important figures on thecampus. Besides majoring in English, he worked for the college publications. At the Uiveristy, he wrote for school magazines and newspapers, and became the editor of the Tar Heel, the college newspaper. His early ideas about a career leaned toward the theater, because of his work with the Carolina Playmakers under Professor Frederick Koch ("Proff" Koch). Wolfe graduated at age 20 in 1920.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, he attended Harvard, where he studied playwriting. He was determined on a career as a professional dramatist. He stayed at Harvard for 3 years. He completed his Master of Arts Degree in Literature in 2 years, but he remained an extra year to gain more experience in the 47 Workshop under Professor George Pierce Baker. Wolfe later satirized the pretentiousness of Harvard life, and the 47 Workshop in particular, in Of Time and the River.


Thomas Wolfe was an enormously popular novelist during the middle of this century. His highly literary and sentimental style has dated him somewhat, and he is not as often read now as he wasduring his own time. His intensely introspective works were highly valued by the generation that came of age in middle decades of the century, and it was Thomas Wolfe's books that inspired a new generation of American writers. Wolfe insired a young Jack Kerouac, for example, to become an author. Kerouac's emulation of Wolfe's style is especiallyobvious in Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City.

Though Wolfe had a good eye for scene, character, and drama hisoverall writing style and personal temperament were not well suited to the theater. Unable to get his plays produced, Wolfe took a job as an English instuctor at New York University in 1924. He taught off and on at the Washington Square campus from 1924 until 1930.

His first plays, like his novels, were about the life and people he knew in North Carolina. In 1929 he wrote the famous novel Look Homeward, Angel, in which Eugene Gant of Altamont stands in forThomas Wolfe of Asheville. Wolfe continued Eugene Gant's story in Of Time And The River (1935), and invented a new alter ego, George Webber, for a later novel, You Can't Go Home Again, which was published posthumously after Wolfe contracted tuberculosis and died suddenly during surgery. The central theme of his tetralogy is the search of an idealistic young man for enduing values in a society whose coruption does not destroy his poetic faith in the esentail goodness of the American people and the greatness of their land.


When his plays were not accepted immediately by Broadway producers, began teaching English at New York University. On a trip abroad he suddenly started writing out the vivid recollections of hisboyhood in Asheville, which he called Atlamont. The result was Look Homeward, Angel (1929), a novel that is one of the high marks of American fiction, one later made into a successfull Broadwayplay. It tells of the experiences of a sensitive lad in a mountain town and later in college at Pulpit Hill (Chapel Hill). Look Homeward, Angel was quite successful on publication; so Wolfe, with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship, gave up his teaching post and went off to Europe to write.


Like many American authors, Wolfe felt the need to experience Europe. When his first course of teaching was finished, he took his savings andmoney his mother was willing to give him and sailed for Europe, where hecontinued his writing.

Mrs. Bernstein

On his return voyage home in August 1925 he met AlineBernstein, a successful set and costume designer in the New York theater, and they began a passionate and turbulent love affair. Though they had much in common in artistic temperament, their lives were really a contrast of opposites. She was almost 20 years older than Wolfe, married, and the mother of two grown children. She had a Jewish heritage and had been born and raised in New York City. Her husband was a successful New York businessman who gave her a secure life of wealth and privilege. However, far from being a socialite, Mrs. Bernstein lived her life as an artist and a worker. In spite of their differences and the turbulent problems of their love affair, Wolfe showed his admiration for the beautiful qualities of her character that attracted him to her, when he protrays her as the Esther Jack of his posthumous novels. Aline Bernstein recounts their love affair in Three Blue Suits and The Journey Down.

In June of 1926, while on vacation in England with Mrs. Bernstein,Wolfe began to write what would become Look Homeward, Angel. With theaid of Mrs. Bernstein, he was able to continue his writing in New York. It was this artistic, emotional, and financial support Wolfe wanted to recognize when he dedicated the book to her upon its publication by Scribners, in October of 1929.

However, their affair had reached a breaking point. Wolfe felt trapped both by Mrs. Bernstein's love for him and his own emotional response to the many problems of their affair. In March of 1930 Wolfe was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed him to travel to Europe for almost a year. It provided the opportunity to finally end his relationship with Mrs. Bernstein.

Max Perkins

When he returned to New York in Feburary 1931 he rented an apartment in Brooklyn. In these new surroundings he continued to wrestle with his second book. Wolfe found he could replace the emotional support he had lost when he left Mrs. Bernstein with his editor, the famous Maxwell Perkins. He also edited such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Perkins became very close to Wolfe, being the father of five daughters, Wolfe became the son he never had. Though there has been much debate about Perkins influence over the construction of Of Time and the River, there can be no doubt of his great belief in Wolfe's talent and ability. It was, perhaps, his parental feeling toward Wolfe and their close emotional bond that eventually caused even Wolfe to feel he was too dependent on Perkins.


Wolfe broke with Scribners in 1937 and signed a contract withHarpers. The young Edward Aswell, a great Wolfe admirer, became hiseditor. While on a trip out West, Wolfe came down with pneumonia. Doctors were perplexed by unusual complications that developed, so in September 1938 Wolfe was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Walter Dandy, the foremost brain surgeon in the country at the time, believed Wolfe had tuberculosis of the brain. On September 12 he operated, in a last ditch effort to save Wolfe's life. He found the entire right side of Wolfe's brain was covered with tubercles. There was nothing that could be done. On September 15, 1938, never having regained consciousness, Thomas Wolfe died. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe's frantic rush to do all, see all, and write it all down had proved tragically correct.

His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929, only 9 years before his death. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935. This was followed by a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning, published that same year. An autobiographical essay on writing, The Story of a Novel,was published in 1936. These books, along with many short stories published in magazines, completes the works that appeared during his lifetime. There were three posthumous works--The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond--that were gleaned from the huge manuscript Wolfe left behind.

Though his life was short, his literary achievements were, indeed, large. Despite his early death after contracting tuberculosis, Wolfe's achievements had become a landmark in American Literature. His words are torrential explosions of adjectives and adverbs, but through the magic of his words, he breathed life into his vision of the world around him. The lyrical quality of his writing, his robust rhetoric, his vast vocabulary, and his expansive eloquence are found no where else in American literature. He communicates his experiences through the shapes, sounds, colors, odors, and textures of life, and he proclaimes his impressions of the world with total mastery.

Body of Work

Other long novels pursuing their career of the autobiographical hero are Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939), and You Can't Go Home Again (1940). There are numerous books of short stories, plays, essays, poetic passages, and letters.

Personal Life

Wolfe lived for the most part in New York. He was never married. Particularly he wished to see all of the America he wrote about. It was during one of his many trips that he contarcted tuburculosis.


One important source is Levi Asher's Looking Homeward. The book chronicles the Wolfe's life in hundreds of photographic portraits and snapshots of the author, his friends and family, and the places he visited. Looking Homeward is a fascinating pictorial guide into the life of one of America's literary giants.


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Created: May 3, 1999
Last updated: 9:30 PM 7/5/2023