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Joseph M. Greer Collection of Thomas Wolfe: Biography

Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina on October 3, 1900. He was the youngest of eight children born to William Oliver and Julia Elizabeth Westall Wolfe. Julia Wolfe opened a boarding home named “Old Kentucky Home” at 48 Spruce Street in Asheville in 1906, and Thomas lived with her there while the rest of the family remained at 92 Woodfin Street. Wolfe began his playwright studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He was the editor of the UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and several of his plays were performed by the Carolina Playmakers. After graduating from UNC in 1920, Wolfe enrolled at the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. He studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker and graduated with a Master’s Degree in 1922.

Wolfe visited Europe several times, and he met Aline Bernstein on his way back to the U.S. in 1925. She was married to a successful stock broker and eight years Wolfe’s senior. They had a turbulent affair that lasted for five years, but Bernstein encouraged and even funded his writing during that time. Wolfe began writing his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, in 1926. Maxwell Perkins, a prominent book editor, edited the autobiographical novel and it was published in October 1929. Wolfe did not return to Asheville for eight years due to the local community’s anger regarding their thinly veiled portrayal in the novel. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was also edited by Perkins.

Wolfe continued his European travels, and he was especially fond of Germany. However, he began witnessing discrimination against the Jewish people in 1936 and was very much affected by the emerging situation in that country. On his return to the U.S., Wolfe published “I Have a Thing to Tell You” in The New Republic. It was a short story that described the actions taken against the Jewish people, and the German government banned his books and did not permit him to return to Germany in response.

In 1938, Wolfe traveled to the Western U..S to visit the national parks, but he contracted pneumonia in Seattle. He was soon diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis of the brain and was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on September 6, 1938. The disease had progressed too far for the operation to be successful, and Wolfe died on September 15, 1938.