No Household Name: Thomas Wolfe’s Newfound Celebrity

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

movie called Genius was at Downtown West early in the summer. I missed my shot at Genius, and not for the first time.

It got mixed reviews, in spite of its all-star cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney. It was startling to hear that Firth, the dreamboat, plays a guy with a desk job, resourceful Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins. I’m told he doesn’t even take off his shirt.

Even more remarkable was that another Englishman, Jude Law, who plays submarine captains, Russian counts, Victorian action heroes, London roués, and just every now and then, a pope, played Thomas Wolfe.

That name ring a bell? When Matt Lauer interviewed Law on the Today Show in June, he said, “Thomas Wolfe, not a household name…who is this guy?”

The novelist from Asheville was indeed a household name, almost a household god, 75 years ago, especially among literate young people.

In his autobiographical novels, Wolfe wanted only to capture life, urgently, before it was gone. For him it was gone quickly.

Not many followed in Wolfe’s footsteps. One was Jack Kerouac, who road-tested Wolfe’s approach to life. Twenty years after Wolfe died, he was a passionate writer who noticed everything, described everything, in a way that made life seem urgently important. He died young, too.

Another was James Agee, whose A Death in the Family, published earlier the same year as Kerouac’s On the Road, could have been written by a slightly quieter, more contemplative version of Wolfe. Even more so, Agee’s mammoth work of journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which Agee was working when Wolfe died, could be seen as Wolfean nonfiction.

Many years, later, another novelist, James Dickey, compared them: “To care as much as Thomas Wolfe did and James Agee did is to be seen as a form of self-destructiveness.” Caring, Dickey believed, drove them to drink. And of course, Agee died young, too.

It seems to me that was the end of the era of the hero novelist. There have been good novels written since then, but we no longer think of novelists as born geniuses, sacrificing their lives for a great book.

Novels became more a commodity after that. We go to school to learn how to write them, usually specific varieties of fantasy, or mystery, or based on trying to personalize historical figures, or topical or political novels written just for people who already like your politics.


Wolfe wasn’t like that. He wrote about ordinary life, but in a way so honest, describing everything, that it seems extreme. He wrote almost as if we might all die someday.

He remained iconic for 25 years after his death, inspiring high-school kids who read Look Homeward, Angel, almost as eagerly as pornography.

But that was a long time ago. It’s been decades since I’ve heard anybody, young or old, talking about reading Look Homeward, Angel for the first time.

Here’s where I talk about Wolfe’s connection to Knoxville. I don’t know that he had one, personally. He died at age 37, and had spent much of his adulthood in New York and Paris. If he ever gave a talk here, or even stepped off a train for a tamale and a Coca-Cola, I don’t know about it.

In my life I’ve met only one person who ever knew Thomas Wolfe, and that was the late Wilma Dykeman, whose posthumous book, Family of Earth, a narrative of her childhood and a paean to the natural world, came out just this week. She met Wolfe in 1937, the year before he died. She told me once about Wolfe’s enormous hands, so big that hers vanished in his handshake.

Asheville and Knoxville have one thing in common, and that’s the French Broad River. Her book about the French Broad is the best book ever written about that river, maybe the best book ever written about any river. She was well-known here, but she was, like Wolfe, an Asheville native.

Look Homeward, Angel, his first novel, came out in 1929. For 30 years or so, it was one of those books all readers knew. It was set in Asheville, called Altamont. By most accounts the only things fictional were the proper names. He didn’t make Asheville sound like a fun place to spend the weekend.

About 20 years ago, I spent a few days alone in Asheville, a town Wolfe preferred to leave. But as it was becoming nationally trendy, Asheville was demonstrating a genius for a sort of cultural jiu-jitsu, using its associations with literature, flattering and not, to its advantage. I thought Knoxville could learn from that.

Early in Look Homeward, Angel, he mentions an interesting adventure in Knoxville. Not his own, but his troubled big brother’s.

In the book, the character Steve Gant is said to be based on the writer’s older brother, Frank Wolfe. His parents, who run a boarding house in Asheville, don’t know what to do with him.

“Finally, he was told to go to work and support himself: he found desultory employment as a soda-jerker, or as a delivery boy for a morning paper,” Thomas Wolfe writes. “Once, with a crony, Gus Moody, son of a foundry-man, he had gone off to see the world. Grimy from vagabondage they had crawled off a freight train at Knoxville, Tenn., spent the little money they had on food, and in a brothel, and returned, two days later, coal-black but boastful of this exploit.”

‘I’ll vow,’ Eliza fretted. ‘I don’t know what’s to become of that boy.’”

I’m guessing, based on the context, that that would have been around 1905-10.

At the time, Knoxville did have a semi-legal red-light district of brothels, along Florida Street, and it was right by the train tracks leading to Asheville. Friendly Town, it was called, and it was in the middle of the Cripple Creek district, where there’s lately rumors of a baseball stadium in the perhaps distant future.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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