“Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major
writer,” said one biographer of the ill-fated American novelist
who died at thirty-seven, leaving four major novels for his
readers to slog through. From the opening lines of Wolfe’s
first novel, Look Homeward, Angel:
. . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door;
of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all
the forgotten faces.
Naked and alone we came into
exile. In her dark womb we did
not know our mother's face;
from the prison of her flesh have
we come into the unspeakable and
incommunicable prison of this
well, you know you’re in for a rocky ride.
The book reflects Wolfe’s prophetic fear of tuberculosis, to
which he was unwittingly exposed as a child at his mother’s
boarding house. Born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North
Carolina, Wolfe was the youngest of eight children of a
gravestone carver and his entrepreneurial wife.When Tom
was six, his mother opened a 29-room boarding house called
the Old Kentucky Home in Asheville, and the boy went to live
with her for a decade, leaving the rest of the family at their
other home. Owing to the climate and altitude of Asheville,
it was a major center for the treatment of tuberculosis, the
world’s most dreaded disease at the time. Many of the patients
seeking treatment stayed at Mrs. Wolfe’s boarding house,
thereby infecting Tom with the bacteria that would cause his
death years later.
Wolfe graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1920, having excelled in his studies, edited the college paper, acted in plays, and won essay and playwriting contests. He went on to earn an M. A. at Harvard, where he studied playwriting with the legendary George Pierce Baker. Unable to sell his plays to Broadway producers, who found them too long and wordy, he took a job teaching English at New York University, where remained off and on for seven years.
In 1925, following a trip to Europe, he met the scene designer Aline Bernstein, a married woman eighteen years older. They began a torrid affair, which lasted five years. Bernstein’s influence helped Wolfe secure publication of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, by the prestigious Scribner’s publishing house, where his editor was Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, who also edited the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, made major changes in Wolfe’s lengthy, impressionistic, autobiographical epic. The result, although it was a best-selling novel, made Wolfe uneasy that his work had been so thoroughly revised.
The book created a furor in Asheville, where many of Wolfe’s neighbors were outraged to recognize themselves. (Ironically, when Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River, was published many Ashevilleans were even more incensed that they had not been included!) As originally submitted to Scribner’s, Of Time and the River, was a multi-volume work, which Perkins slashed down to a single volume. Although it was even more successful than his first novel, Wolfe decided to leave Scribner’s and Perkins and he signed a new deal with Harper’s.
In May of 1938 Wolfe submitted a manuscript of more than one million words to his new editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper’s, and embarked on a vacation tour of the American West. On July 6, in Seattle, Wolfe came down with cough, fever, and congestion, thought to be pneumonia. He was examined by Dr. Edward Ruge, a friend’s doctor, and admitted to a private sanitarium, where he was treated with diathermy, cough suppressants, and rest. A corpulent man—he had a gargantuan appetite for both food and alcohol—Wolfe at first showed improvement, but his cough lingered and by early August he was experiencing severe headaches. He was transferred to Seattle’s Providence Hospital, where an x-ray disclosed abnormalities in his lung that suggested tuberculosis—the disease that Wolfe had feared all his life.
Under the care of Dr. Charles Watts, a lung specialist, Wolfe got no better and his headaches intensified. On September 4 Wolfe was found to be disoriented, and Dr. Watts suspected the a metastatic tubercular lesion in his brain. A neurosurgeon, Dr. George Swift, examined Wolfe and diagnosed a “brain abscess,” which was possibly tubercular in origin. The Seattle doctors urged Wolfe to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and seek the services of Dr. Walter Dandy, regarded as the nation’s leading brain surgeon.
Accompanied by his sister Mabel and a nurse, Wolfe was transported on a five-day train journey and arrived in Baltimore September 10. Dr. Dandy found him “desperately ill,” and concluded he was suffering from acute pulmonary tuberculosis complicated by metastatic malignancies. He performed a trepanning operation to relieve the pressure on Wolfe’s brain, and fluid shot three feet into the air. On September 23 a cerebellar exploratory operation was performed, and Dr. Dandy discovered “myriads of tubercles” through the meninges. He concluded that nothing could be done to save the patient.
Wolfe never regained consciousness and died September 15, 1938, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday. The official cause of death was miliary tuberculosis, a form of the disease characterized by a distinctive pattern of tiny lesions that spread throughout the body’s organs and resemble millet seeds, from which the term “miliary” is derived.
The body was taken back to Asheville for a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church. As mourners gathered, a Methodist minister who was passing by observed that Wolfe “was not entitled to a Christian burial.” Even the officiant at the ceremony, the Rev. Robert Campbell, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was unsure of Wolfe’s religious status. He observed:
“I wish I had something definite to say about his religious life. As there was a restlessness and lack of definite form in his intellectual and emotional processes, it is natural to assume the same was true of his religious beliefs and aspirations….As Tom’s friend and pastor, I shall always cherish the hope and the belief that in the yearning desire of his restless heart to find his rest, his home, his peace in the heavenly Father’s presence, that there was the pith and substance of the Christian faith.”
Mourners, including playwrights Paul Green and Clifford Odets, and Wolfe’s onetime editor, Maxwell Perkins, witnessed the burial service at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His new editor, Edward Aswell, boiled down the million-plus words Wolfe had left into two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress