Looking Homeward

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Altamont had been settled soon after the Revolutionary war…. And, for several decades before the Civil War, it had enjoyed the summer patronage of fashionable people from Charleston and the plantations of the hot South.” Thus did Thomas Wolfe describe his hometown, Asheville, North Carolina, in his first, largely autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel . Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and blessed with cool breezes and an abundance of natural beauty at a high altitude, Asheville still attracts summer guests. Yet if Thomas Wolfe were to return to Asheville today, he would find it much changed from the bustling little town he had observed from the front porch of his mother’s boardinghouse, The Old Kentucky Home.

That house, now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Historical Site, is the last house left on what was once quiet, tree-shaded Spruce Street. It looks as out of place now as Auntie Em’s cabin did when the twister set it down in the Land of Oz. The fine three-story frame house is dwarfed by a towering steel-and-glass Radisson Hotel across the street and abutted by a parking lot and an abandoned warehouse.

On Woodfin Street, just up what was once the block, a large, modern YMCA stands on the site of Wolfe’s father’s house. It was in W. O. Wolfe’s home that Thomas and his brothers and sisters lived through their childhoods. His mother, Julia, acquired the boardinghouse in 1906, anticipating the day when her children would be grown, and the Wolfes agreed to live apart but within shouting distance. In W.O.’s final years he moved back with his wife.

For Wolfe’s fans, a visit is like a walk through the pages of Look Homeward, Angel . “I have people come here for the first time and they already know their way around the house just from reading the book,” says the site manager, Steve Hill. The most interesting room is one on the second floor that, although it did not exist as such in real life, is now made up to look like the author’s study. All the furniture in the room was taken from his last residence, the Chelsea Hotel, in New York City. There on the table rests his typewriter; at the foot of the chair is a stack of books; casually flung across the bed is one of Wolfe’s enormous jackets. One has the feeling that the gigantic writer had only just stepped out.

After he turned sixteen and matriculated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wolfe returned only sporadically to Asheville. There are few individual pieces of furniture that one can look at for certain and say, “That was Wolfe’s chair,” but one need only glance around the house to see the number of books that seem to lie everywhere and feel that Wolfe read them. “It’s safe to say that Tom read all the books in the house,” Hill says. “In fact, in later life he even used to claim that he had read all the books in the Asheville library.”

One of the reasons Wolfe returned so seldom to Asheville was the success of Look Homeward, Angel . So well had he framed his novel against the town’s backdrop, capturing the foibles of his neighbors and holding them up to the scrutiny of the world, that the townsfolk threatened to tar and feather him in the city square if he showed his face. Wolfe stayed away and, stung, wrote You Can’t Go Home Again .

He did ultimately go back—but just for a brief visit in the summer of 1937. By that time, as the fame of Look Homeward, Angel had grown, people had had a change of heart. Now the writer was a favorite son. The only people still sore at him were the ones who had been left out.

Thomas Wolfe was not the only famous author to spend time in Asheville. In 1935 F. Scott Fitzgerald brought his wife, Zelda, for treatment at the city’s mental institution, Highland Hospital. Fitzgerald had met Wolfe when they both were living in Paris several years earlier, and one night in Asheville, after an evening of drinking, he decided he wanted to visit the house that had been immortalized in Look Homeward, Angel and showed up at Spruce Street pretending he wanted to rent a room. Mrs. Wolfe was not amused. “I don’t rent to drunks,” she said and slammed the door in Fitzgerald’s face.

If Wolfe could walk around modern Asheville, he would undoubtedly visit Pack Square, the city’s center, which his father’s yard once backed up against. To get there, he would have to pass through a nearly deserted downtown area that, as in so many small cities these days, has lost business to suburban shopping malls. But in the square itself he would find much that is the same, including the stone monument to Zebulon B. Vance, North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War. On the site of W. O. Wolfe’s woodcarving shop now stands the thirteen-story Neo-Gothic Jackson Building; at the time of its construction in the 1920s, this was the tallest structure in the region. Dotted elsewhere around Asheville are other little architectural treasures that speak now of a more prosperous past, including the impressive Art Deco city hall at the east end of the square.