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.

Unquestionably the two most dramatic structures in Asheville are the Grove Park Inn and Biltmore, the estate built by George W. Vanderbilt in the 1890s. Wolfe would have known both these places. The inn, finished in 1913, was the product of the imaginations of a wealthy laxative manufacturer in St. Louis named Edwin Wiley Grove and his son-in-law, Fred Seely. When no architect could give Grove what he wanted, he turned to Seely and asked him to design the hotel, although he had no training whatsoever. The result is a colossus, all immense rough-granite blocks and red roofing tiles. One writer described it as “almost ugly, were it not so interesting.”

Despite renovations in the 1980s, the inn has remained virtually untouched, and the survival of many of its original furnishings has made it the largest repository of Mission furniture in the nation. It is still Asheville’s premier hotel and boasts an impressive list of guests over the years: Will Rogers, Béla Bartók, William Jennings Bryan, “Black Jack” Pershing, Henry Ford, and assorted Presidents and other dignitaries.

What would surprise Wolfe much more than anything at the inn are the changes that have taken place at Biltmore. The largest private house in the United States, George Vanderbilt’s version of Xanadu was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted. Those two titans created for their patron an imposing château set amid 125,000 acres that Vanderbilt bought in 1890. Patterned after the châteaux at Blois and Chambord and crammed with art and furniture that the erudite Vanderbilt had brought back from his many trips abroad, the house has thirty-four bedrooms and in its heyday required more than eighty servants. It is a rabbit warren of a place, and all but the best rooms have been closed off. Among its many marvels the house contains a bowling alley and a (now-empty) indoor swimming pool. Biltmore began to fall into disrepair after World War II, and the family stopped using it in the 1950s. Since then it has been restored, and it is now run by Vanderbilt’s grandson as a private business. Once more one of the largest employers in the area, Biltmore attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who come to admire its fine collections, tour its beautiful gardens, and sample wine in its vineyard.

So accurately had Thomas Wolfe framed his novel against Asheville’s backdrop that the townsfolk threatened to tar and feather him.

Another important house in the area, although on a slightly less grand scale, is Richmond Hill. Built in 1889, this Victorian mansion was the private residence of Richmond Pearson, a former congressman and diplomat whose father had been chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Pearson was a good friend of Theodore Roosevelt and was appointed American minister to both Persia and Greece. When TR left the White House, Pearson retired to private life, and he lived in the house until his death, in 1923. The house fell on hard times after the death of his son’s wife in 1972 but now has been restored and serves as a charming inn.

There is more to Asheville than its architecture, and the city attracted writers for reasons other than the quality of its mental hospitals. Carl Sandburg settled near here toward the end of his life. The Vanderbilts frequently had Henry James and Edith Wharton as houseguests. But the most important gathering of artists and intellectuals here occurred at Black Mountain College. Founded by rebellious faculty members from Rollins College in Florida, Black Mountain presented itself as a revolutionary experiment in liberal arts education. The college flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s, establishing a reputation for the excellence and diversity of its faculty, which included over the years Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Josef Albers.

The presence of so many egos led to conflict, and as the better members of the faculty began to go elsewhere, the college eventually disintegrated. It closed in 1956, but the name it made for itself still serves to attract, like Butmore, visitors from all over the world.

Those who come to see the natural beauty of Asheville and the grandeur of the local architecture will not be disappointed. Those coming to see the little stone angel that was the inspiration for Wolfe’s first novel, however, do so in vain. Sadly, she no longer exists.

—Charles S. Dubow TO PLAN A TRIP