Today is the birthday (1900) of Thomas Clayton Wolfe renowned US novelist of the early 20th century. His contemporary, William Faulkner, said that Wolfe may have been the greatest talent of their generation for aiming higher than any other writer. Wolfe has a wide legacy, with influence on the likes of Jack Kerouac, He is certainly North Carolina’s most famous writer. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, whose succinct writing style and manly voice were in many ways the opposite of Wolfe’s lumbering and ruminating style, dismissed Wolfe as “the over bloated Li’l Abner of American letters.”
The above quote epitomizes why I don’t care for Wolfe nor the plaudits of “those who know.” Sure, the prose is entertaining, but the sentiment is not anywhere near as universal as Wolfe or others would have it. “All things on earth”? Seriously??? Late October in North Carolina is certainly homecoming time for churches, schools, and families. Homecoming at the local Baptist church in the town in the Tidewater where I lived for a year doing field research was a huge event with a massive Brunswick stew that took 3 days to make and was the talk of the region. But that’s North Carolina, not the whole world. Wolfe’s works are all autobiographical fiction and have a few generalizable themes and rich prose. But, as with Faulkner, you’re going to miss a lot if you don’t know the Old South. I’m not a huge fan of the Old South (which for some reason won’t die), so I don’t relate to Wolfe’s insufferably endless books. He is, of course, revered at UNC Chapel Hill where he was an undergraduate, and a major part of the library is a repository for his papers. I’m pretty sure he would have been both proud and derisive of the reverence.
The one thing I do admire unequivocally about Wolfe is his passion for and devotion to writing. He was a thinker, talker, and writer all rolled into one. That’s because the three go together (often – not always). I don’t have the disease to the same extent as Wolfe but I know the feeling. I shape my thoughts (about everything) by talking and writing.
Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children of William Oliver Wolfe (1851–1922) and Julia Elizabeth Westall (1860–1945). The Wolfes lived at 92 Woodfin Street, where Tom was born. His father, a successful stone carver, ran a gravestone business. His mother took in boarders and was active in acquiring real estate. In 1904, she opened a boarding house in St. Louis, for the World’s Fair. In 1906 Julia Wolfe bought a boarding house named “Old Kentucky Home” at nearby 48 Spruce Street in Asheville, taking up residence there with her youngest son while the rest of the family remained at the Woodfin Street residence. Wolfe lived in the boarding house on Spruce Street until he went to college in 1916. It is now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Wolfe was closest to his brother Ben, whose early death at age 26 is chronicled in Look Homeward, Angel. Julia Wolfe bought and sold many properties, eventually becoming a successful real estate speculator.
Wolfe began study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) when he was 15 years old. He predicted that his portrait would one day hang in New West near that of celebrated North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, which it does today. In 1919 Wolfe enrolled in a playwriting course. His one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed by the newly formed Carolina Playmakers, then composed of classmates in Frederick Koch’s playwriting class, with Wolfe acting the title role. He edited UNC’s student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel (still going strong as a daily), and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for an essay titled “The Crisis in Industry.” Another of his plays, The Third Night, was performed by the Playmakers in December 1919. Wolfe graduated from UNC with a B.A. in June 1920. In September of that year, he entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. Two versions of his play The Mountains were performed by Baker’s 47 Workshop in 1921.
In 1922, Wolfe received his master’s degree from Harvard. His father died in Asheville in June of that year, an event that would strongly influence his writing. Wolfe continued to study for another year with Baker in the 47 Workshop, which produced his ten-scene play Welcome to Our City in May 1923.
Wolfe visited New York City again in November 1923 and solicited funds for UNC, while trying to sell his plays to Broadway. In February 1924, he began teaching English as an instructor at New York University (NYU), a position he occupied periodically for almost seven years. Wolfe was unable to sell any of his plays after three years because of their great length. The Theatre Guild came close to producing Welcome to Our City before ultimately rejecting it, and Wolfe found his writing style more suited to fiction than the stage. He sailed to Europe in October 1924 to continue writing. From England he traveled to France, Italy and Switzerland.
On his return voyage in 1925, he met Aline Bernstein (1882–1955), a scene designer for the Theatre Guild. She was 18 years his senior and married to a successful stockbroker with whom she had two children. Their affair was turbulent and sometimes combative, but she exerted a powerful influence, encouraging and funding his writing. Wolfe returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing the first version of an autobiographical novel titled O Lost. The narrative, which evolved into Look Homeward, Angel, fictionalized his early experiences in Asheville, and chronicled family, friends, and the boarders at his mother’s establishment on Spruce Street. In the book, he renamed the town Altamont and called the boarding house “Dixieland.” His family’s surname became Gant, and Wolfe called himself Eugene, his father Oliver, and his mother Eliza. The original manuscript of O Lost was over 1100 pages (333,000 words) long, and considerably more experimental in style than the final version of Look Homeward, Angel. After numerous rejections it was accepted by Scribner’s, where the editing was done by Maxwell Perkins, the most prominent book editor of the time, who also worked with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He cut the book to focus more on the character of Eugene, a stand-in for Wolfe. Wolfe initially expressed gratitude to Perkins for his disciplined editing, but he had misgivings later. It has been said that Wolfe found a father figure in Perkins, and that Perkins, who had five daughters, found in Wolfe a sort of foster son. The movie, Genius, is a fair stab at analyzing the relationship, but I find the film as unwatchable as I find Wolfe’s books unreadable. That is, I watched the first 30 minutes, but couldn’t go on. Same with Gone With The Wind. What is it about Southern writers and me? I’m reminded of my wife’s dismissive parody line from Faulkner – “Ma could never forgive what Pa done to Sis the night the hogs ate Willie.” My wife was from Kentucky.
The novel, which had been dedicated to Bernstein, was published 11 days before the stock market crash of 1929. Soon afterward, Wolfe returned to Europe and ended his affair with her. The novel caused a stir in Asheville, with its over 200 thinly disguised local characters. Wolfe chose to stay away from Asheville for eight years due to the uproar; he traveled to Europe for a year on a Guggenheim fellowship. Look Homeward, Angel was a bestseller in the United Kingdom and Germany. After four more years writing in Brooklyn, the second novel Wolfe submitted to Scribner’s was The October Fair, a multi-volume epic roughly the length of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. After considering the commercial possibilities of publishing the book in full, Perkins opted to cut it significantly and create a single volume titled Of Time and the River. It was more commercially successful than Look Homeward, Angel. In an ironic twist, the citizens of Asheville were more upset this time because they hadn’t been included.
Wolfe was persuaded by his agent to leave Scribner’s and sign with Harper & Brothers. By some accounts, Perkins’ severe editing of Wolfe’s work is what prompted him to leave. Others describe his growing resentment that some people attributed his success to Perkins’ work as editor. In 1936, Bernard DeVoto, reviewing The Story of a Novel for Saturday Review, wrote that Look Homeward, Angel was “hacked and shaped and compressed into something resembling a novel by Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribners.”
In 1938, after submitting over one million words of manuscript to his new editor, Edward Aswell, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the West. On the way, he stopped at Purdue University and gave a lecture, “Writing and Living,” and then spent two weeks traveling through 11 national parks in the West, the only part of the country he had never visited. Wolfe wrote to Aswell that while he had focused on his family in his previous writing, he would now take a more global perspective. In July, Wolfe became ill with pneumonia while visiting Seattle, spending three weeks in the hospital there. His sister Mabel closed her boarding house in Washington, D.C. and went to Seattle to care for him. Complications arose, and Wolfe was eventually diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis. On September 6, he was sent to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment by the most famous neurosurgeon in the country, Dr. Walter Dandy, but an operation revealed that the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain. Without regaining consciousness, he died 18 days before his 38th birthday. His last writings, a journal of his two-week trip through the national parks, was found among his belongings hours after his death. A great deal of his work was published posthumously, including, in recent years, reconstructions of the originals of his much-edited novels.
I’ve given a fair raft of down home Southern cooking in these pages, so you can take your pick. North Carolina boarding houses were and are rightly famous for their cooking, and I am sure Wolfe’s mother and sister were strong practitioners. My taste for (some) Southern dishes comes from my year living in a boarding house in the Tidewater. Here’s an old favorite, strawberry sonker, which is reminiscent of cobbler. You can make it with just about any fruit you like, but strawberry is the classic. My landlady made this in the spring, rolling out the pastry and breaking it into irregular shapes for the top. You can make a lattice crust of the pastry, spread it evenly, or do as my landlady did. Like Wolfe’s writing, this dessert is too much for me to take in anything but the smallest quantities.
North Carolina Strawberry Sonker
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 large egg
2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
2 tbsp butter, melted
3 tbsp sugar
1 cup sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup water
½ cup butter, melted
8 cup fresh strawberries, halved
½ cup sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
3 cups whole milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
For the pastry: Mix together the flour and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Work in the shortening with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Turn out on to a wooden surface.
Whisk together the egg and vinegar in a small bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, pour in the egg mixture, and stir with a fork, pulling in the dry ingredients from the sides, to form a soft dough making sure that all the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Divide into 2 uneven balls of ⅓ and ⅔ of the dough.
Flatten the balls to disks about 1 inch thick, wrap well, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or up to overnight.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9×13” baking pan.
For the filling: Whisk together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Whisk in the water and butter until smooth. Gently stir in the strawberries.
To assemble: Using lightly floured fingertips, press the larger disk of dough evenly across the bottom and up the sides of the prepared pan. Bake until the pastry is dry to the touch, but not browned, about 10 minutes. Pour in the strawberry mixture.
Roll out the remaining dough and prepare the top in the way you wish: lattice top, regular pie crust, or irregular scraps scattered over the top. Brush the pastry with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake until the pastry is deep golden brown and the filling bubbles, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before serving. Meanwhile, make the dip.
For the dip: Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the milk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a heatproof spatula until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spatula, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
To serve, scoop warm sonker into serving bowls. Ladle a little warm dip over the top and serve at once.