Thomas Wolfe Memorial

An article appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch several weeks ago on the reopening of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the house that UNC graduate Thomas Wolfe was raised in. The house has had other names at various times, My Old Kentucky Home in 1906 when Thomas Wolfe's mother bought the house and operated it as a boarding house and "Dixie" in the novel "Look Homeward, Angel, written in 1929. In fact, the house played such a prominent role in "Look Homeward, Angel" that some have referred to it as one of the characters in the book.

Reading the article brought back some pleasant memories for me because during the period I was at UNC, and shortly thereafter, I became very interested in Thomas Wolfe and spent a lot of time reading his works and studying the man.

I visited the house in the late 50's and was fortunate enough to meet and talk at length with Mabel Wheaton who was Helen in Look Homeward, Angel. She happened to be at the house on the day I visited, and apparently took a liking to me. She took me up in the attic and showed me many items that were not on the display to the public. I remember vividly seeing the sailor suit that Wolfe wore as a child, and I could relate to it more than most people since my mother had made me a sailor suit when I was small and paraded me around to show it and me off. That was fashionable then and, may be, to some extent, today. It is much more organized now with the pageants, and to my knowledge, is restricted to little girls. There was no such distinction between boys and girls in the 30's. I never heard of a contest for little boys in sailor suits.

The house, as I remember it, was not in particularly good shape when I visited it, and I am delighted in its total restoration since a fire 6 years ago nearly destroyed it. An arson fire did destroy approximately 25 % of the house and its contents, but the community of Asheville and others have financed a 2.4 million dollar restoration which isn't bad for a house that Eliza, Wolfe's mother paid $6500 for in 1906. It has 29 rooms, 13 fireplaces, and a coat of light yellow paint to match the original color of the house. Until the restoration, the house was painted white, but the restorers wanted the house to look as much like the original as possible, so the yellow paint was put back on the wooden structure.

I also remember setting up an appointment with Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer at the time, to discuss Thomas Wolfe since Mr. Daniels was at UNC during the time Wolfe was and knew him well. Daniels was President Roosevelt's press secretary and a writer in his own right. It's fuzzy now what was said it that interview, but it was thrill to talk to someone who actually knew Thomas Wolfe.

I also remember going to the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville where I learned an astonishing fact. Buried almost within a stone's throw of Wolfe's final resting place is/was O'Henry's burial site. He was from Greensboro, and I think I can remember his real name without conducting research on the matter. If I am wrong, I'm sure someone will be nice enough to call it to my attention. It was William Porter and his work that stands out most for me is "The Last Rose" which has been portrayed on television at least once. The plot is that a very sick woman fixates on a group of roses outside her window as she is dying and somehow relates the living roses as being connected with her life. As long as they lived, she thought she would live, but her caretaker ( I can't remember if it was her husband or not ) picked up on this and knew the the last of the roses would finally fall, so he painted a rose on the wall of the next door building which was close to the roses in an attempt to keep her alive. I embarrassed to say, I can't remember how the story ended, or if a realistic scenario played out to the end in Porter's work or not. Obviously, the eternal life of the painted rose could not be transferred to the dying woman, but Porter may have chosen not to take the plot of the story to its ultimate conclusion.

One other thing I remember about Wolfe. I remember seeing many of his personal possessions in the old rare book room of the library at UNC. Back then, it was called just the library, but I think today it is called the Wilson Library. A UNC student told me recently that there are now 12 libraries on the campus, so the use of the term library is meaningless until an adjective is added to identify which library the speaker is referring to. Back to the items. The librarian opened the locked enclosure and let me examine up close the Wolfe items on display. I distinctly remember a large pencil, the kind that Wolfe always used when writing. He would stand while writing at a large shipping crate standing on its end, and simply throw the pages on the floor when he ran out of writing space. It was the typist's job to arrange the pages in the proper order.

The Wolfe home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973 and since 1975 it has been operated as a State Historic Site. It is open to the public, and there is a web site for those who want additional information. The address is www.wolfememorial.com

At this time of the year, I can't help but try to imagine what it was like at Christmas in the old house. I bet it was something. Lots of people and food on the dining room table throughout the Christmas season covered by a tablecloth for visitors to peek under, and then help themselves to whatever they saw that they liked. Funny how little thing stand out with you as you try to recall things from many years ago. You young readers haven't had this experience yet, but give it time. It's both amusing and baffling. The one thing that I remember most from reading Look Homeward, Angel several times is the Wolfe children and children of neighbors chanting "Old Man Gant is Drunk Again" when Wolfe's father would come by on Saturdays to visit the family. The Wolfe family was named Gant in Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe's father spent more time living away from the family than he did with them. He even worked for a while on the construction of Central Prison in Raleigh since he was a stone man by trade, but, like many people of the times, took whatever work they could get, often out of town. Least that's what Look Homeward, Angel said.

Hope you had a Merry Christmas

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

" The university early excited expectations which were unfortunately too sanguine and premature to be realized. Though the attainment of knowledge may be rendered comparatively easy, it is chimerical to propose that it shall be universally, or totally, without expense."

Joseph Caldwell, Presiding Professor and
President of the Univ. of North Carolina, 1803